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).


Fizal said...

Is there a technological possibility of building structures one time and keeping the highway snow free and open year round , rather than spending money to open it every year ?

Jeremy Bertrand said...

Snowsheds work. At the same time, they are expensive and once built, require regular maintenance (they take a beating!) and, like a bridge, they have to be replaced every 30 to 50 years. That being said, the North Cascades Highway has the distinction of having more active avalanche chutes within it's 34 mile winter closure zone than any other state highway in the country. There are sections, such as Cutthroat Ridge to Liberty Bell where you would have nearly 3 consecutive miles of show shed. We can launch spring clearing efforts for many years for a fraction of the cost of snow sheds. One must also consider whether snow sheds would be the best investment of limited gas tax funds. The North Cascades Highway's average daily traffic count between Rainy and Washington passes, when it's open, is less than 700 vehicles per day. Snoqualmie, on the other hand (which is getting one multi million dollar 1,200-foot snow shed to replace the current 1/2 shed), averages 25 to 30,000.

The Geezer said...

Jeff Adamson is a breath of fresh air in that smoke infested org that we call WSDOT. He is open, honest and responsive, and is a heck of a "plain-talking" writer.

When I started reading this, I recognized his work, and he should get attribution at the top, not at the bottom.

That said, sound like the boyz from Twisp know what they are doing, are making great progress, engaging local professionals to help them out (just like BC where all highway maintenance is contracted) and is informative in that he tells us that they charge by the hour for equipment, and he boldly goes on to say it beats going to the legislature hat in hand looking for replacement equipment.

Heck, I even offered to rent a luxury motorcoach to pick WSDOT folks up, and carry them down to their poor cousin's place, WSF, to explain how to have a reserve for worn out equipment.

Unfortunately, both folks I was in contact with mumbled about it being 5:30 on Friday, and they didn't wanna git on da bus.

The Geezer

The Geezer said...

Oh, and I almost forgot.

Next year can I order up the snow donuts like last years?\\

This years crop is wussy, compared to last years.

Oh, and a glass of milk to wash them down with too.

Geezer OUT!!

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