Thursday, March 22, 2007

Ready for the first pitch?

This week (March 25) WSDOT held a media event in Seattle for a "first pitch" of spring of a different sort. Our engineers were pitching what could potentially be the biggest story of the summer. Traffic headaches.

Thanks in large part to the 2003 and 2005 legislative funding packages, WSDOT has nearly 400 projects under construction this summer throughout the greater Puget Sound Region. This will be the summer of orange. Cones, barrels, paving equipment, earth movers. It's a veritable summer-long "Bob the Builder" festival.

We are working hard with contractors to do this work with the least amount of disruption to drivers. But the fact is that 400 projects scattered throughout the Puget Sound region will disrupt traffic.

We have some tools to help you navigate the chaos. You can check out our traffic conditions on-line. You can call 5-1-1 while on the road for real-time traffic updates. We even have a new "small" site for those who like to browse with their mobile devices.

This summer we'll ask for your patience. We'll ask for your help choosing different routes or deferring trips. We'll ask that you slow down and hang up the cell phone when driving through work zones.

In return, we'll wrap up work ask quick as we can. And, we'll open projects that improve traffic flow and make the roads safer.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Crews Spot Snow Doughnut

When I first got these pictures from our maintenance crews on the North Cascades Pass (SR 2o), I assumed they had used Photoshop and were pulling my chain. I called to verify the validity of the pictures. The crews promised that these were indeed real, and that snow doughnuts are a naturally occurring phenomenon. I had never seen this type of thing before, so I asked around the office and it appears no one else has either. I decided to send the pictures to the media, who also thought we used Photoshop.

According to Mike Stanford from our WSDOT avalanche team, snow doughnuts are a natural occurrence in nature. We do not build them. They form when there is a hard layer in the snow and is then covered by several inches of dense snow. Then you add a steep slope and a trigger, such as a clump of snow falling out of a tree or off of a rock face, and voila you have snow doughnuts.

As gravity pulls the clump down, the snow rolls down the hill, and 99.9% of the time the center of the rolling snowball collapses in on itself and creates what we call a "pinwheel". If it doesn’t roll down the
hill, then it will just slide, which is actually one of the mechanisms of a loose snow avalanche. But,
if the snow is the perfect density and temperature, it rolls around onto itself leaving the hole in the center, creating the doughnut-looking shape.

Stanford says he’s rarely seen it happen. The temperatures and snow conditions have to be just right. In 30-plus years of playing and working in the snow, this was the second time he had ever seen them. Snow doughnuts seemingly could grow very big if conditions permitted. The one seen in the photograph is about 24" in diameter.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Incident Response Saves the Day

A friend of mine recently bought a new car - one he spotted on the Internet and one he had to drive to Bothel to pick up. Even though his wife had bugged him for miles about stopping for gas, my friend's brand new car ran out of gas in the middle of I-5 on a rainy downtown Tacoma afternoon.

His two little girls started crying. His wife fumed in the passenger seat. My friend was truly stranded. While he raced through options trying to figure out what to do, a WSDOT incident response truck pulled up behind the stalled car. A five-gallon can of gas, and the day was saved.

That's the kind of good news story we love to hear. People really need help on the highways, and WSDOT's incident response fleet is doing what it can. Over the past five years, I've read stories of how our incident response staff have time and again shown up at exactly the right moment.

In addition to helping Washington State Patrol manage traffic during blocking incidents, incident response units routinely help provide fuel, change flat tires, provide minor vehicle repairs, push vehicles out of the road and clear road debris.

The latest WSDOT Gray Notebook (page 75) examines in more detail how the Incident Response Program is attempting to identify and remove traffic incidents as quickly as possible. The program's incident response units made 14,786 responses to incidents from October to December 2006, up roughly 13 percent from the same time period in 2004. That's up more than 50 percent from the same time period in 2002 when the program was expanded to include roving incident response units.

For more on the often strange ways that the incident response units are helping save the day, check out the WSDOT weekly report and its regular "Incident of the Week" feature.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

What are you doing to plan ahead for intense I-5 lane closures this August?

On February 21 we announced a 24/7 closure of several lanes of northbound I-5 from Aug. 10 to Aug. 29. During these closures crews will replace failing bridge expansion joints and repave the freeway from Spokane Street to I-90 just south of downtown Seattle. And on top of that we'll periodically close ramps in the project area, including the on-ramp from Spokane Street and the exit to I-90.

As you know, this is one of the busiest section of I-5 in the state and the closures could create monstrous backups. While we are working with local communities, businesses and transit agencies to help keep traffic moving during construction, we expect lengthy backups and significant delays.

We can only do so much to keep traffic moving. The math is pretty simple. During the first half of the 19-days we expect to close two of five lanes, cutting freeway capacity by 40 percent. In the second half we'll close three of five lanes, shrinking capacity by 6o percent. We need a corresponding amount of drivers to divert off I-5 just to get to normal traffic conditions. Throw in an collision or two or a stalled vehicle during the morning rush hour and that equation goes out the window. And don't forget the city streets and other alternate routes. They could be jammed as well.

The bottom line is, we're in this together and we need your help to get through these 19 days in August. We announced these closures six months in advance so drivers, transit users, businesses and other organizations have time to prepare for what's coming.

Below we've listed some of the steps drivers can start taking today to ease your commute and help other drivers. If you're a driver, what ideas work for you?

  • Plan a vacation between Aug. 10-29
  • Consider arrangements to carpool or vanpool
  • Practice taking the bus or train
  • Make arrangements to work from home or alternate worksite
  • Discuss altering your work schedule to come in earlier or later than normal
  • Try alternate routes
  • Keep up to date on the project by subscribing to WSDOT’s I-5 Seattle E-mail Alerts and by bookmarking WSDOT’s project Web page

Employer and organizations who rely on workers starting on time or can't afford packages and shipments showing up late also need to get ready. Think about what steps you can take and let us know what you're going to do.

We'll keep this blog alive through construction. We'll post regular updates, answer your questions and listen to your suggestions. We'll also be updating the project Web page regularly. For example, we just posted a Frequently Asked Questions page. There you will learn more about why this work is necessary, why a 19 -day closure is the smart choice and much, much more.