Thursday, May 22, 2008

Falcons band together under I-5 Bridge

Under the watchful eye of the mother bird, WSDOT biologist, Michael MacDonald and Martin Muller from the Falcon Research Group successfully banded three 3-week-old peregrine falcon chicks on the I-5 Ship Canal Bridge – and I was there.

I must admit, I was a little afraid to tag along. It wasn’t the fear of heights that got me nervous; it was the fear of momma bird defending her young. Last year she was pretty aggressive towards our falcon banding crew. At one point she even sunk her talons through three layers of Michael’s clothing in attempt to ward him off her nest.

This year, much to Michael’s surprise, momma bird yelled at him, but didn’t strike. In fact, she didn’t try to take a whack at any of us. What’s more, when Michael and Martin were banding the chicks, momma bird had laid down in the nesting box! A most unusual posture for an adult peregrine that’s not incubating eggs. (photo by Martin Muller, above)

It makes for nice calm working conditions though (photo, right).
Another oddity about this year’s banding was that there were only three chicks in the nest instead of four. Martin tells me that female falcons usually reproduce four chicks a year for an average of six years. “Because this is her sixth year laying eggs,” said Martin, “laying only three eggs could indicate her energy level is down. In theory this could be her last nesting season, but we won’t know for sure until next year.”

It takes a lot of energy and persistence to be a fledgling peregrine falcon (photo by Martin Muller, right). Only half of all chicks survive their first winter, they usually don’t breed until they are two years old and they only live an average of eight years in the wild.

These bird-eating raptors help out the WSDOT bridge maintenance crew by hunting starlings and pigeons, the main source of bird droppings which corrode the bridge paint. The faster the bridge paint corrodes, the more often bridge maintenance crews must work on the bridge. I guess you could say that providing a nesting box for the peregrine falcons helps save taxpayer dollars.

But we didn’t always have their winged help.

In the 1970s, the chemical dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) nearly drove Washington state’s peregrine falcon population to extinction. DDT found its way up the food chain and accumulated in the peregrines, causing their eggs to become too weak to even support the weight of the mother incubating her eggs. The eggs shattered before fledglings could hatch. DDT was finally banned in 1972.

Ten years later the population started showing signs of a comeback and the Falcon Research Group began banding and tracking peregrine falcons to see where they go and what they do in the wild. Today, there are over 120 documented nesting pairs in Washington.

This is me, (photo, below right) Broch Bender, holding a peregrine chick.

Friday, May 16, 2008

How is the rising cost of fuel affecting your driving habits?

Earlier this year, Washington state and the rest of the country began to see rapid fuel price increases. No ... actually, it was March of last year that prices spiked. Wait! Wasn't it in September 2005, on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, that people considered hording gasoline?

Basically, gas costs more than it ever has. You know it, and I know it. So, it is no surprise that transit organizations throughout Washington are reporting strong growth in ridership. The question for WSDOT is how the fuel prices are affecting travel behavior on our state highways.

A quick look at some WSDOT data from the central Puget Sound region shows that motorists there seem to be driving a little less.

A sampling of traffic counts at several locations in the central Puget Sound region show that the average daily traffic was flat or slightly down in March 2008, compared to March 2007. But before we start to envision empty highways, remember that population is increasing. And, even with year-to-year traffic levels holding steady, the region traffic has still increased from 4 to 11 percent since 2003.

We have posted information on our web site, We anticipate updating that page periodically as more data from the most recent few months becomes available.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Unveiling a new homepage, let us know what you think...

We are always looking for ways to improve the information we provide via the Web. In this spirit, we have been doing lot of research based on the usage of our Web site and what a few of you have taken the time to tell us.

For example, here is what we have found are the top 10 things users do on our site in a typical month of May:

  1. Get Seattle area traffic information
  2. Find statewide traveler information
  3. Get ferry information
  4. Find job openings
  5. Get mountain pass information
  6. Find project information
  7. Get ferry schedules
  8. Find travel alerts and slowdowns
  9. Do business with WSDOT
  10. Contact WSDOT

(Honorable mentions go to finding Good to Go and environmental information.)

We also found out that you weren't clicking on most of the links in the center of our homepage. The result of this research is that we are making changes, which we are unveiling today. This is the first step in a direction to improve and simplify access on our Web site.

This is just one project in a long list that we hope will make it easier to access the vast amount of information we have to offer, and make that information more usable. Other projects in the works are a redesign of traffic and travel information (putting incidents and cameras on the same map), making it easier to find a job in your area, and attempting to make the project index easier to use (did you know we are reporting on over 350 projects?).

Check out our new homepage and let us know what you think by taking our poll or just leave us a comment.

Thank you in advance for taking the time to provide your feedback.

HOT lanes usage summary...

As promised, we are providing a view of the numbers to review how the HOT Lanes pilot project is working. Early numbers show the highest toll paid northbound hasn't exceeded $2.25 and southbound hasn't been higher than $2. Very interesting to note the differences in travel time.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The cost of the numbers

Keeping state highways clear of snow and ice during the winter is an expensive job - a $35 million job, to be exact. And that’s if we have a “normal” amount of precipitation.

This winter, during a three week spell (last week in January and first two weeks of February), we had 13 feet of snow fall in the mountains. 13 feet. It wasn't the most snow we have ever had on record, but that amount of snow in a three week period created a mess that required one of the most significant avalanche control seasons ever.

That heavy snowfall combined with cold temperatures we had this winter pushed us more than $8 million over budget for snow and ice removal – and we haven’t even factored in the cost of clearing up the spring snow. Here’s a look at the cost breakdown through March:

Avalanche Control

  • 97 missions
  • 221 detonations
  • 99 recoilless rifle rounds (hadn't been used since 2002)
  • 8,560 pounds of explosives


  • Cost: $150 per ton
  • Planned use: 55,000 tons
  • Currently used: 85,000 tons
  • Difference: 30,000 tons at an extra cost of $4.5 million


  • $2.2 million extra in regular time
  • $1.6 million extra in overtime

Total over budget: $8.3 million

The 2008 Legislature provided an extra $5.25 million to help balance the costs of winter cleanup efforts, but we anticipate carrying at least a $3 million deficit into next winter. If the 2008-09 winter is milder, we may recoup some of our costs.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Tacoma boy mesmerized by WSDOT traffic cams...

Recently we were able to make a 10-year-old Tacoma boy’s dream come true.

Drake Thomas spent some time April 28 at the Olympic Region Traffic Management Center (TMC), where he fulfilled his desire to learn about traffic cameras.

“This is the most special day of my life,” Drake said to his parents. Drake got little sleep the two nights prior to his TMC visit.

“He was counting down the hours,” said Drake’s mom Janice.

Drake’s infatuation with the traffic cameras was ignited by the soothing background music that plays during TV Tacoma 12’s “Traffic Watch” program – which flashes live images from our traffic cameras focused at I-5, SR 16 and SR 512.

Drake watches the program so intently that he’s memorized the order in which the various camera images are shown. When a particular camera view doesn’t appear, Drake knows there’s a camera not operating and he asks his parents to call TV Tacoma or WSDOT.

A KOMO4 TV crew loved the story and joined Drake at the TMC to document his visit. A feature is scheduled to air this weekend, May 3-4.

What viewers will see is radio operator Rich Langlois showing Drake how to operate the cameras, adjust the angles and zoom in and out. With the Narrows Bridge camera, Drake searched for his grandmother’s house, but it was obscured by trees.

Drake is supremely focused on the task at hand and clearly captivated by the experience. He also posted a message on the dynamic messaging sign at 84th Street. He zoomed in with the camera to confirm the “test” message was active.

“He got all excited when that thing popped on,” said TMC supervisor Ron Collier.

At home, Drake has his own traffic cameras he fashioned from toothpicks, straws and clay. His parents bought him a flip-camera, but it didn’t meet Drake’s specifications because it doesn’t “spin like a traffic camera.”

While the day was incredibly special for Drake, it was also a memorable experience for the WSDOT workers who got to hang out with Drake for an hour or so and witness his wonderment.

“This is the best part of my job,” said WSDOT public information officer Kelly Stowe, who arranged Drake’s visit.

Are you interested in being a transportation engineer? Check out our entry level engineering program.

Writing credits go to Jamie Swift of the Olympic Region Communications office.