Monday, April 28, 2008

Work zone memorial...

Work Zone Memorial
Originally uploaded by wsdot.

We had a day of remembrance last Friday and took the time to honor those workers who were killed or injured in work zones. Each cone in this photo represents a worker who was killed in a workzone.

As the weather gets and nicer the construction season picks up, please take the time to slow down when you drive through workzones, and Give 'em a Brake.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Will the HOT lanes work to speed up your commute?

The comments have been pouring in about HOT lanes. Bloggers want to know whether or not drivers will pay a toll to use them, if they will acutally work and basically how we plan to report our results. You asked, we listened. Soon you will be able to track the progress and results of the HOT lanes Pilot Project on the Web.

Noel Brady, WSDOT HOT lanes web master tells me he plans to post running tallies on toll-prices, average driver speeds, and the number of vehicles using the HOT lanes to the HOT Lanes site on a regular basis. Progress reports will begin as soon as the HOT lanes are open to drivers later this month.

The progress and results will be measured primarily with traffic data available through both the HOT lanes system and our existing roadway monitoring computer system.

We are particularly interested in finding out whether or not HOT lanes can maintain travel time reliability for buses and carpools while offering a reliable trip choice for toll-paying solo drivers. Traffic engineers will also collect collision data on SR 167 to see if shifting more traffic to HOT lanes reduces collisions in the general purpose lanes.

A few co-workers and I are already making bets about how much time drivers will save by cruising the SR 167 HOT lanes. I guess we’ll have to keep checking the Web site to find out.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

TV reporters and WSDOT crew lay down the line

Imagine a road on a moonless, dark and rainy night without the striped lines to guide you. Imagine yourself on a four lane highway without the lane lines to separate the fast cars from the slow. Those driving scenarios sound downright scary to me. In some ways, my family’s traveling safety rests on the shoulders of the WSDOT striping crew. Our stripers keep drivers on the straight and narrow and help us arrive safely at our destinations.

Striping a straight line is a lot like playing a video game. It requires hand-eye coordination, patience and heaps of concentration. But don’t take our word for it, just ask local morning traffic reporters Jenni Hogan (KOMO 4) and Adam Gehrke (KCPQ 13).

On April 16th, Jenni and Adam helped kick-off the start of
striping season by testing their road-striping skills. Under the watchful eye of striping operator, Tarik Albershushi, they climbed into a WSDOT striping truck and used a live video feed of the road to gauge where to point the paint gun and lay down the stripe. The morning news reporters came away with a brand new appreciation for the exacting skill required to paint a straight line.

Luckily, our seasoned striping crew have mastered line-striping. In fact, I overheard the leader of the striping crew, Lyle Martinez, say his 20 years of striping our highways has given him a sixth sense – he can hear if something is wrong with the paint gun before the paint hits the pavement.

The Seattle-based crews will re-stripe more than 4,500 miles of highways from the Pierce/King county line to the U.S./Canadian border this summer. Our striping crews east of the Cascades don’t have the challenges of changing weather patterns like we do here in the northwest, so their striping window is a lot wider. Eastern Washington striping crews have told me that because the weather in their neck of the woods consistently remains warm and dry for nearly half the year, and they don’t have to work around heavy traffic sprawls, they can stripe pretty much whenever they want to. Not so in the unpredictable weather and notorious congestion of the greater Puget Sound area.

Since striping caravans move slower than traffic, remember to give them plenty of room and watch for the “wet paint” signs on our highways. Driving over fresh stripes or changing lanes when following a striping crew removes the reflectivity of the stripe and can splatter paint onto vehicles.

You can view photos from the striping season kick-off event and learn more about striping season at our
2008 striping season Web site, or respond here with your striping season questions.

Friday, April 11, 2008

HOT Lanes: Getting the most out of our highways

We are always looking for innovative ways to improve traffic flow and ease congestion. One of the ideas that we are starting very soon to make the most of our existing lanes without creating more congested roadways is HOT lanes. HOT lanes can help make our roads more efficient by using our existing Good To Go! electronic tolling technology and making better use of unused space in the carpool lane.

State Route 167 was chosen as the site for the HOT lanes pilot project because the freeway has heavy congestion in the regular lanes and space available for more vehicles in the HOV lanes, and we know we can rely on Good To Go! to eliminate waiting in line at toll booths. The pilot project is located along the nine-mile area between Renton and Auburn.

Here’s how it works: Solo drivers can choose to pay a toll and drive in the HOT lane to avoid congestion when there is space in the lane for more vehicles. With variable tolling, the toll price will adjust automatically to ensure that drivers in the HOT lanes can travel quickly and reliably whenever they chose to use them.

Carpools, vanpools and transit will enjoy free-flowing travel in the HOT lanes virtually all the time.

Variable tolling will keep traffic in the HOT lane moving quickly at all times.
Variable tolling, also called dynamic pricing, is a high-tech way to manage the number of vehicles entering a HOT lane to keep traffic moving quickly, even when the other lanes are congested.

Traffic counters in the pavement detect how many vehicles are in the HOT lane and the speed at which they’re traveling. This data is sent to computers at a Traffic Management Center in Shoreline.

Using this real-time traffic data, the computer automatically adjusts the price on the toll rate signs to manage the number of vehicles entering the HOT lanes.

As more vehicles enter, space in the HOT lanes becomes limited, and the price goes up. When the HOT lanes have lots of space available; the price drops. The computer allows traffic volumes to be as high as possible, without allowing the HOT lane to become congested. And it's all done instantaneously. That is how express travel is maintained for drivers in the HOT lane.

While we expect speeds of 50-55 mph, the computer is set to maintain speeds of at least 45 mph 90 percent of the time during rush hour in the HOT lanes. As more cars move into the HOT lane, more space is created in the regular lanes, so more vehicles can travel on SR 167, using all lanes more efficiently.

Most Washingtonians are just now learning about HOT lanes so we want to hear from you. What do you think of HOT lanes? How will HOT lanes affect your commute?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Copper wire theft...

Wire theft is a nationwide, billion-dollar problem. As an agency we have lost more than $400,000 due to these thefts. Thieves steal anything they can sell to scrap metal dealers for a profit (even air conditioners, see story from Vancouver, WA). Law enforcement believes these thieves are drug addicts, desperate to get any amount of money they can to support their habit.

The wire used to light our state roadways is made of copper. The demand for copper has grown in countries such as China, Indian and Brazil. The price that thieves get from scrap metal dealers for copper has grown from 80 cents to more than $3 a pound.

The amount of money thieves receive for stolen wire pales in comparison to the cost in replacement material and labor.

Besides the fact that the additional lighting is there to provide a larger sight distance, which improves safety, the costs to replace this wire impacts everyone. As taxpayers, this theft hits everyone where it counts most … in the pocket book. WSDOT is self-insured. No insurance claims are made if thieves steal the wire or equipment. Instead, the money is taken out of an existing budget – the same budget that pays for removing snow and ice and clearing the roadway when collisions occur.

These same funds go toward repairing and replacing guardrail, maintaining highways, bridges, signs and signals.

WSDOT is working hard to come up with solutions to make junction boxes harder for thieves to break into and Washington State Patrol are training troopers what to look for.

These thieves will steal wire in broad daylight. They have staged work zones, setting cones and wearing reflective vests.

Our Traffic Management Center cameras recently honed in on a thief who had shimmied up a wooden light pole alongside I-5 in Tacoma. The thief, who had no idea he was being watched, was greeted by a WSP Trooper and arrested. His car was full of wire.

It’s hard to know whether someone who looks official alongside the roadway is a legitimate worker. A “real” WSDOT work zone will be properly signed, vehicles within the work zone will clearly be identified with WSDOT’s “Flying T” or the contractor log, and if at night, there will be portable lighting so workers can see.

We also list all construction and maintenance activities each week on the Web. When in doubt, it’s best to call 9-1-1. The few seconds it takes for a signal tech or construction worker to stop what they are doing to show proper identification to law enforcement is worth it if it prevents theft.

Related news releases: Tacoma's News Tribune, Wire theft in Oregon, Oregon DOT, Seattle Times.
Update: As we were planning this story, several locations were hit on SR 16 (in Pierce County) requiring some of the electronic signs to be powered by gas generators until the wiring can be replaced.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Costs of opening the North Cascades pass...

While everyone seems to enjoy the photos and stories that document the week to week progress to reopen the North Cascades Highway every spring - there are questions about the costs that come up every year. This year is no different so I'm sharing some of the details and the rationale and we welcome your comments.

Here's an example - we have three pieces of equipment with operators coming to work to help us for the next couple of weeks to clear the tall snow accumulations at the foot of the avalanche chutes from Cutthroat Ridge to the "Big 4" at Liberty Bell Mountain, just below Washington Pass. We have a giant Bombardier Snow Cat , a D-6 and a D-8 Caterpillar that we contracted with Lloyd Logging of Twisp to provide. We budget for it every spring, because it's cheaper than buying Caterpillars to use for 2 weeks a year. We got bids from 3 contractors, this year, and Lloyd's was lowest. That was fine with us, since they've gotten the contract before and have experienced operators.

At the same time that I'm answering questions about why we're spending gas tax money, renting equipment to reopen the North Cascades quickly, I'm answering questions about why we're not investing more resources into reopening SR 542, the Mount Baker Highway to Artist's Point or SR 504, the Mount Saint Helens Highway to the Coldwater Visitor Center.

Here's the answer: WSDOT does indeed have to do a cost benefit determination on our work to reopen highways to places that aren't "connectors". In the case, for instance, of the North Cascades -it connects the Skagit and Methow Valleys and (SR 410) Chinook Pass connects Enumclaw, Mt. Rainier and the Yakima Valley. The economic impact of those highway openings easily justifies the effort and surprisingly low costs to do the work. Reopening the highway to Artist's Point and the St. Helens Visitor Center is certainly a priority, but putting a Kodiak from Stevens Pass (if it's even available when they'd need it) onto a low boy and trucking it to Bellingham or Toledo for a couple days work is an expensive proposition, when using the equipment they've already got just means it's going to take a couple more days to get it open. Two or three days versus several thousand dollars may not pencil out well and we are required to be good stewards of the gas tax money we all pay.

In a related note, there's an assumption that use of WSDOT equipment is somehow "free". Here's the real story: Because we have to replace every vehicle when it wears out - part of each shed's maintenance budget (every day) goes to an Equipment Fund. HQ charges, by the hour, for each plow truck, loader, grader, excavator, snow blower, pickup or car whenever it's in use. When we surplus and sell a vehicle that has hit it's predetermined "useful life" - there's money in that account to buy the replacement. (This system beats the doors off the old program where we had to go to the legislature every two years and pray they would replace the used-up vehicles - which sometimes, they didn't - and we'd be stuck with junk that could no longer do the job.)

Is this how you'd do it?

Note: I want to make sure writing credits go to Jeff Adamson who handles the weekly progress updates via the Web site and via e-mail update (look for the mailing list link on the North Cascades page to sign up).

Friday, April 4, 2008

North Cascades Pass - Re-opening efforts...

One of the most documented and watched springtime events for us is the opening of the North Cascades pass. This pass closes every year, due to snow and avalanche danger, and opens every year in the spring (see previous years closing and opening dates).

These opening efforts rely on so many different variables to go right. So many things can go wrong ; new snow, warming (increasing avalanche danger), equipment problems, too deep of snow, and avalanches earlier in the winter full of rocks and trees . Each one of these presents a unique challenge to overcome to get the highway back open.

Follow along with us as we keep you informed with the weekly progress updates.