Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Holiday travel planning...

For those of you who already have all of your food shopping done, a menu prepared and the china and silver dusted off, we have got something just for you.

Or, for those of you who prefer to do your grocery shopping at the last minute, or maybe even just buy a pre-made meal, it will work for you too.

If you fit into either of these categories and are planning to travel for your holiday weekend be sure to check out our "best times to travel" guide for I-90 North Bend to Cle Elum, I-5 south of Olympia, and SR 16 Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

Check it out: www.wsdot.wa.gov/Congestion/ThanksgivingDay/.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Chuckanut Drive fossils reveal tropical past

It may seem hard to fathom now, as we trudge through our typical cold, wet fall days, but 55 million years ago, the Pacific Northwest was a warm-weather paradise. The fossils revealed by last week’s rockslide on Chuckanut Drive (SR 11) in Bellingham are proof.


In the Eocene epoch (pronounced ee-oh-scene ee-pock), the Chuckanut Drive area looked dramatically different than the steep cliffs and rugged sandstone rock outcroppings we see today. More than 55 million years ago, the area was a lush floodplain filled with winding rivers and side channels. Large, palm-like trees, ferns and other warm-weather vegetation filled the floodplain and riverbanks.

Over time, river sediments accumulated, trapping various plant leaves and tree roots, and turned to rock. The area gradually cooled for several million years, ushering in the Pleistocene ice ages. Today, finding fossils of ferns, roots and tree leaves is a pretty common occurrence for maintenance crews cleaning up rockslides along the road.

If you’ve driven along Chuckanut Drive, you may have also noticed the various stripes and layers in the rock. Typical layers found in the Chuckanut area include sandstone, siltstone, shale, conglomerates and coal. Many of these layers are tilted and folded – an indication that the area was susceptible to tectonic activity from several faults in the area.

The makeup of the rock formations along Chuckanut Drive is also one of the main reasons we have so many rockslides during the fall and spring. Sandstone, siltstone and shale are porous, brittle rocks. Over time, when water seeps into cracks in the rock, it can dissolve and remove material holding the rock together. During the fall and spring, this is a regular occurrence along the rock outcroppings that border the highway. When enough material washes away, the rocks become unstable and can slide onto the road.

Our maintenance crews have years of experience dealing with the rocks along Chuckanut Drive. In fact, they lovingly refer to the hillside as rotten rock because of how brittle some of the rock is. You can break it apart with your fingers. As you might imagine, this presents a challenge when it comes to trying to stabilize the hillside. We’ve stabilized the slope many times during the past 20 years, and will likely continue to do so in the coming years.

The Chuckanut area is a fascinating example of the environmental forces that helped shape Puget Sound. So the next time you’re winding your way along Chuckanut Drive, try and imagine that nice, warm, tropical atmosphere from 55 million years ago.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Maintenance supervisor spots rockslide before it happens

It’s one of the biggest rockslides to happen on Chuckanut Drive (SR 11) in the last decade. Fortunately no one was injured or hurt when several hundred yards of rock crashed onto the roadway Monday, Nov. 10. Some of the rocks were as big as small cars.

Chuckanut rockslide - Nov. 10, 2008; P1070011

The fact that nobody was hurt had a lot to do with the decision of Area 1 maintenance supervisor Ric Willand and his team to close road and prevent drivers and crews from passing beneath the unstable hillside.

Willand was on his way to inspect an earlier slide when he found a few rocks in the road at milepost 13.3. While it’s not uncommon to find rocks all along Chuckanut Drive, it is uncommon to spot a rockslide before it happens.

While Willand was stopped at the spot, several more rocks fell onto the road. None of them were big enough to close the road. But when Willand looked more closely at the hillside, he noticed that cracks were starting to form in some of the larger rocks and that the hillside appeared to be moving.

By the next day, Willand and his team had decided to close the road. Shortly after the road was closed, guess what happened? The hillside belched and rocks spilled across the road, blocking all lanes.

Chuckanut rockslide - Nov. 10, 2008; P1070018

As they say, hindsight is 20/20, and in this case, the decision to close the road was right on. The decision may have saved someone from serious injuries or death.

For more pictures of the slide, visit our Flickr picture account.

Read our news release for more details about the slide and how long it will take to stabilize the hillside.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Chasing Water - today at WSDOT

At WSDOT, the maintenance crews call what they are doing today "chasing water." The regional maintenance teams will be out checking drainage in flood-prone areas. They look in our roadside culverts to make sure the water is flowing and clear any spots that may need some help.

I have a feeling that's what a number of the news reporters will be doing today, too. At least that's what they were showing last night and this morning. Weather is always a big story and if the forecasts are correct, we may see quite a bit before tomorrow morning.

Here are some tips for drivers - slow down, believe those road signs and don't drive through standing water. Check our website. It will have the latest information on what areas to watch. Our law enforcement partners are out - helping slow traffic. We have also turned on the highway signs and Highway Advisory Radio.

And those living in flood-prone areas, it's a good idea for you to check the drains on your property.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Chuckanut Drive rockslide

Crews from Granite Construction worked through the weekend near milepost 11 to clear the roadway and stabilize the hillside after a rockslide Friday, Nov. 7. Crews are working today to remove unstable rocks and trees from the hillside. Work is expected to be complete Monday evening

Crews pulled approximately 100 yards of loose rock and debris off the hillside. A couple of the rocks that came down were so big that they had to be broken into five or six pieces before they could be hauled away. (For perspective, a dump truck can haul approximately 10-12 yards of material.)

Crews initially hoped to clear the area and reopen the road Friday, but the rockslide became too dangerous when more rock fell from the hillside while crews were working in the area.

Crews were worried about a second slide, at milepost 13.7. The concern was warrented as it dumped 300-400 yards of rock on the roadway. No more concern but a new spot to cleanup! Good thing they had the road closed already.

So you want to drive on the shoulder? Well, OK.

Judging from the steady stream of e-mails we receive, a great number of people have theories on how to relieve congestion.

Many of the suggestions make sense, but most aren't feasible for one reason or another. In a lot of cases, there simply isn't funding.

Other times, the ideas are a bit off the wall. WSDOT traffic engineer Steve Bennett remembers a call from a psychologist who pitched an idea to improve traffic flow on the 1950 Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

“He said we should paint the bridge orange, because orange is a color that puts people at ease,” Steve said.

Despite the psychologist’s analysis and urging, Steve held firm to his own theory that the bridge had too few lanes to support the growing traffic volume.

Traffic flow across the Narrows is much better now – ever since we added a second GREEN bridge in 2007.

But a few miles west of the Narrows on SR 16, at the SR 302 ramp to Purdy, backups develop during peak commutes that cause vehicles to weave and jockey for position as they enter and exit SR 16.

Sally McCannon of Belfair e-mailed us in July, wondering “when is something going to be done?” Sally’s e-mail came not only with a problem, but a suggested solution: “If you would have two lanes onto the Purdy exit for a little ways, it would help the backup. Seems like that would be an easy fix,” she wrote.

Our traffic engineers agreed (in fact, they were already considering the idea). In September, crews restriped the SR 302 off-ramp from westbound SR 16 to allow shoulder driving on weekdays between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.

“We were well on our way” to adding the shoulder lane before receiving Sally’s e-mail, said Steve, offering a revelation that steals some of the fun from this blog post.

It took drivers a few days to get accustomed to using the shoulder, but as time goes by the extra afternoon lane seems to work better and better. It doesn’t solve congestion in the area. That will require millions of dollars. But with a little paint and few signs, the level of safety is improved.

“I think it has helped a lot,” Sally said when contacted by phone. “I can definitely tell it’s better. It was a good fix,” … and a good idea.

Thank you Sally and everyone who takes the time to offer their transportation suggestions. We always read them – and sometimes we even use them.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Flood watch, day 2...

The National Weather service is still reporting a flood warning and watch in effect for much of Northwest Washington. Looks like another 6 inches of rain is expected to fall in the Olympics.

Several of us in the communications office were on call last night and were relieved to have a relatively quiet night until the morning commute. The roadways have been rough this morning in the Seattle area. There was also a gas line rupture in Gorst affecting SR 16 and a couple of different road closures in Thurston county. You can keep up with these events as they happen by checking out our Travel Alerts page or even calling 511.

Passes look ok right now. It's warm enough that only rain is falling but watch out for standing water. That being said, mountain passes are still mountain passes and you just never know what to expect when driving over them, so be prepared if you plan to travel that way this weekend.

We were very excited this morning to find out that more than 100,000 of you visited our Web site yesterday: wsdot.wa.gov. What was most exciting to us was that the site didn't go down, and we didn't hear of any pages running slowly when trying to access content. Please let us know if it was slow for you. We spent a lot of time this summer trying to make it run more efficiently and yesterday was one of the first tests, so far so good.

Have a safe weekend, hope you can stay dry.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Watches, warnings and forecasts...

I looked at the mountain pass cameras this morning and finally got a glimpse of some snow. Hope you all made it through the passes okay. The snow was what I would call the "pretty stuff" - the big, warm flakes that look really pretty coming down, but don't really stick to the roads all that much. Since the snow has mostly fallen in overnight hours, this was my first glimpse. It should warm up soon and this will turn to rain.

Yup, here comes the rain....This was in my inbox this morning, "New information is strongly suggesting a stalled storm centered over the north to central Cascades trailing back across the Olympics to well offshore to the SW. Several inches of rainfall from this event could easily get rung out in the mountain areas as well as adjacent lowlands. Right now, the target zones for the most rain and runoff extend from Whatcom to King County westward through northern Grays Harbor to south of Forks."

PIERCE...THURSTON." Sorry about the all caps, that's just the format they send it in.

The first is part of the report from WSDOT's weather forecasting service, the second is straight from the National Weather Service. We use this service, along with the National Weather Service, to decide how we are going to get ready for the upcoming storms. For the past few days, we've been out clearing off drains, see photos, and sucking out leaves and other debris. They do this in a number of ways...by hand, with rakes, other tools, and with a big, vacuum-like truck. The truck's pretty cool....but most importantly, it really helps keep the water from pooling on the roads.

We are watching the river levels closely. One thing we are concerned about is some possible slides and our crews will be keeping a very close eye on areas along US 101. We'll be out talking to the media types to get you the latest. You should also keep an eye on our Travel Alerts pages if you live or travel out in those area.

So far, the forecasts say this rain should pass us Saturday - but stay tuned.

Clearing Drains

Scooping Debris From Basin
Originally uploaded by wsdot.

Crews were out yesterday clearing drains to prepare for the rain.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Weather roller coaster...

First came the snow, next comes the rain. The National Weather Service sent out an alert for possible flooding on Thursday - mostly in the Northwest part of the state and in the Olympic Peninsula. The NWS says this "strong weather system" could bring five to eight inches in some areas.

You can find more info on our weather forecast portion of our site. It's not often you see a flash flood watch.

Update 12:30 pm: Looks like the "flash flood" watch was just dropped, however flood watch still in affect for Northwest WA: http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/sew/

Monday, November 3, 2008

Snow in the forecast tonight

The first of what we would call a significant snowfall of the season could hit the mountain pass highways tonight.The National Weather Service says expect six to 10 inches - with the heavier amounts above 4,000 feet. The snow level could drop to 2,500 feet for a few hours overnight. I-90 Snoqualmie is about 3,000 feet while US 2 Stevens is higher at 4,000 feet and US 12 White reaches about 4,500 feet. For those travelling into the higher elevations - expect it to come down much heavier and last longer.

Our crews are keeping a very close eye on the National Weather Service and receive updates all day from the weather forecasting service we contract with. Having access to both services gives us an idea of where and when to schedule our crews.

Even with both these tools, we need your help. We have all seen the drivers out there who just don't have a clue. Please don't be one of those...get your car ready, get yourself ready and when you see ice or snow, take it slow.

We have it all here www.wsdot.wa.gov/winter - take a look and be ready.

The forecast says the weather should warm up by later tomorrow morning so if you aren't ready to drive in the snow, I would wait until it clears up.

Flickr site surpasses 2 million views...

This weekend we surpassed 2 million views for our photos on the photo sharing site Flickr. An amazing amount of use for the short time we have been using this photo sharing tool. We started using this site shortly before the Tacoma Narrows Bridge opening event in July of 2007 and have continued to upload photos to it ever since. I have to admit, mother nature gave us a little help, there were a few pretty amazing events that happened over the last year or so that have really created use for us. Let's hope she isn't so helpful this year.

Here are the top five most viewed photos so far:

I-5 at Chehalis

Avalanche on Stevens Pass

Mudslide on SR 6 near Pe Ell

I-5 at Chehalis

I-90 Avalanche control work

See this list and more in ranked order, or you could also just check out our favorite photos. Hope you enjoying seeing these as much as we do.