Thursday, January 26, 2012

How has your commute changed since tolling began?

by guest blogger Victoria Tobin

It’s been nearly a month since we began tolling the SR 520 bridge. And every day since then we’ve kept a keen eye on traffic patterns. Not just on SR 520 and I-90, but the entire region – I-5, I-405, and even that Mercer Weave across the Ship Canal Bridge. We’re watching it all. The common denominator is, it’s all changing nearly every day.

This is the biggest traffic change we’ve had in Puget Sound in decades. Drivers are still figuring it out. While it’s too early to draw conclusions with firm percentages, we are obviously seeing more congestion on I-90 and less congestion on SR 520. But that’s what we expected. Here’s another fact - we had more people cross SR 520 on Wednesday, Jan. 25, than any other day since tolling began. You can see how the numbers are still in flux and people are making their way back to SR 520.

While we’d like to be able to say that after a month of tolling we’re finally starting to see the beginning of the “new normal” in terms of traffic patterns, we just can’t yet. The reality is, we’ve only been able to collect about 12 reliable days of traffic data in the last month. There have been too many unpredictable variables (collisions on SR 520 and a stalled semi-tanker on I-90, just to name a few) that have altered the traffic data we’re collecting.

Since tolling started we’ve had three separate holidays, a week-long snow and ice storm and we are still cleaning up after heavy winds – there were numerous collisions, construction work and the post-holiday traffic rush – all variables that have changed and affected traffic all over the region and have had a significant impact on what we’d typically call “normal traffic patterns.” As a result, traffic volumes were way down across the region, not just on the floating bridges.

This is the first week since tolling began where traffic volumes are getting back to more “normal” levels. You (the twitterverse) see it too, and you’ve been tweeting and facebooking us, wanting to know what’s going on. We believe traffic will keep changing, across I-90, across SR 520, on I-5 and even on your local buses for the next few days, weeks and months. We expect people will continue to tweak  their routes and times to find something that works for their schedule, like they’ve done since tolling started.

It’s still too soon to make any changes and draw big conclusions. One thing we know is that traffic throughout the greater Puget Sound region is all interconnected. A change in one place causes a ripple effect across the region and not always where you might expect. It’s probably going to take upwards of six months before commutes really start to settle out and we finally reach that new normal.

That all said, it would be interesting to hear and know what your commute has been like since tolling started. Have you tried different routes? Changed your commute times? Tried taking the bus or carpooling? Are you working from home? What has or hasn’t seemed to work for you?

Your comments will be factored in as we work through this change. Thanks!

If you have questions or concerns regarding a toll bill, civil penalty or Good To Go! account please call 1-866-936-8246 or email

Snow fighting: an insider’s look

by guest blogger Jamie Holter

I love snow storms in Puget Sound.
Food Supply in the EOC
I love being in the stinky Emergency Operations Center in Shoreline with a flat of Costco muffins, Pirate Booty and satsumas.
Charlies Angels radio in the EOC
I love watching four news channels over different parts of the snow storm. Our maintenance crews planning their attack on snowy and icy roads, overheard on the
world’s oldest Charlie’s Angels two-way radio.  I love taking calls from staff reporting for duty who say, “When do you need me, just let me know.” 

Monitoring television coverage

Our Emergency Operations Center had been active since Saturday.  A storm manager on with King County, the National Weather Service and doing interviews; a traffic engineer tracking cameras and collisions, another person who’s tracking collisions just involving buses and large trucks . Those vehicles that cause the biggest problems.  Everyone is at the top of their game, except for the moments when they are mugging for the camera.

The traffic management center, the nerve center for operations in Puget Sound, has more staff tracking traffic, putting up information on overhead signs, talking with crews in the field and dispatching teams to trees down, icy spots on the roads or helping State Patrol.

Staff Monitoring Twitter
Then, of course, the public information corner: the kings of @wsdot_traffic. Their clever and informative tweets retweeted to thousands…when they aren’t putting together videos and taking pictures of our workers. They tell me they love their job. I know they do.

Snow and ice is always scary and I’m proud that my job involves helping people stay on top of road and weather conditions even if we’re just stuck in a building and not on the roads like our Highway Heroes who do the heavy lifting. The folks I work with are top-notch, dedicated public servants. We can’t make Mother Nature change course, but we are here to help you get where you
Crews on roadway
need to go when she’s busy breaking Seattle snow records.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

WSDOT helps to get the lights back on

While most are back to enjoying modern conveniences like high-speed Internet, some may still be wondering if they will have to spend another cold, dark night.

To make sure the lights and heat come back on as quickly as possible, our Olympia-area maintenance road crews are out with utility crews, working traffic control for Puget Sound Energy and others repairing downed power lines.

Monday, the crews were working on the tree-lined back roads of south Thurston County between Olympia and Centralia. These were hard hit with snow and ice last week and when branches fell, they took with them power lines on roads like State Route 121 near Millersylvania State Park and SR 507 between Tenino and Centralia, plus many city and county roads.

So what does a flagger or pilot car have to do with getting the lights on? Holding that stop/slow sign or leading traffic through the same 1/4-mile route over and over may not seem to help get power back on, but it’s those vital tasks that allow utility crews up in that bucket truck get their job done faster and safer, and make sure drivers get around those crews and back home.

Where, hopefully, the heat will be on soon.

Friday, January 13, 2012

What to do if you receive an SR 520 toll bill

Cars crossing the SR 520 toll bridge
By guest blogger Emily Pace

Tolling on the SR 520 bridge started December 29, 2011. If you’ve driven across the bridge, you might have noticed there are no toll booths. So if there are no toll booths, how do you pay the toll? Well, you can set up a Good To Go! account and always pay the lowest toll rate. If you don’t have an account no need to worry, we’ll send you a bill in the mail.

So how do we do it? If you don’t have a Good To Go! account, tolling equipment takes a photo of the license plate and the registered owner is sent a bill in the mail. Drivers can expect to receive a bill within seven days of traveling across the SR 520 bridge. The Pay By Mail rate is $1.50 more than the Good To Go! pass toll rate. That $1.50 covers the extra processing costs required to generate each bill.

While Pay By Mail is a great option for those who choose it, we would like to see more drivers saving $1.50 each time they cross the bridge rather than getting a bill in the mail.

More Good To Go! drivers crossing SR 520 bridge
Our goal was to have 50 percent of vehicles using a Good To Go! pass, and thanks to our customers, we have exceeded that number – on Friday, Jan. 6 (just a week after tolling started), 70 percent of drivers crossing the bridge had Good To Go! passes. That means we’ll be sending thousands less toll bills than we thought.

How to pay a toll bill
Drivers can pay their toll bill online, by calling 1-866-936-8246, by mail or in person at a customer service center in Seattle, Bellevue or Gig Harbor.

I have a Good To Go! Pass, why did I receive a toll bill?
You likely didn’t activate the pass. If you bought a Good To Go! sticker pass at a retail store and did not activate it by opening a new account or adding it to an existing account, you will receive a toll bill in the mail. If you activated your pass, there may be other reasons you received a toll bill. The best way to get things straightened out and avoid future Pay By Mail toll bills is to contact customer service at 1-866-936-8246.

What happens if I don’t pay my toll bill?
If you don’t pay your bill within 15 days, another bill will be sent along with an additional $5.00 administrative fee. If the toll bill is not paid within 80 days, the driver will be issued a $40 Notice of Civil Penalty for each unpaid toll charge. Similar to a parking ticket, the civil penalty may be contested through an administrative court proceeding. If you don’t pay or contest the civil penalty it may jeopardize your ability to renew your vehicle registration.

Our goal is to make tolling convenient and easy. Please visit our website to get more answers and information about toll bills.

If you have questions or concerns regarding a toll bill, civil penalty or Good To Go! account please call 1-866-936-8246 or email

Friday, January 6, 2012

The faces and places behind the SR 500 girders

Some of the many men and women who  make 
transportation  projects possible:
 members of the SR 500, St. Johns Blvd. project 
team stand with two of the project’s steel girders.
by guest blogger Heidi Sause

Coming soon to a worksite in Vancouver – cool, gray steel girders will stand 10 feet in the air and dramatically change the landscape that drivers are used to seeing along SR 500 in Vancouver.

Crews working on the SR 500, St. Johns Blvd Interchange project are completing final prep work to ready the project site for a large-scale girder installation. In the next few weeks, crews will install four massive steel girders on either side of SR 500. The girders will form the backbone of two new interchange ramps that are part of a project to reduce collisions and improve traffic flow for 60,000 daily drivers.

By 2013, the ramps will be open to drivers traveling through the Clark County intersection. But the girders have already made a trek of their own – a journey ranging from the steel mills of Delaware to a family-owned fabrication plant on the banks of the Columbia River. The girders’ journey tells a story of how construction projects don’t just build roads for Washington drivers; they build jobs for American workers.

And that’s a story worth telling.

Eight months ago, we awarded local contractor Tapani Underground Inc., of Battle Ground, the $27.2 million contract for project construction. Tapani broke ground in May, and, at that point, the girder production process started rolling.

Purchased under the Buy America Act, the steel for this project is 100 percent American-made. Claymont Steel, of Claymont Del., rolled out the raw material for the girders and shipped the steel cross-country by train to the Thompson Metal Fab, Inc. (TMF) plant on the banks of the Columbia River. Dozens of workers went to work inside the Vancouver fabrication plant, assembling the steel into large girders that will form the internal structure of two new ramps at SR 500 and St. Johns Blvd.

“We kept our entire bridge team in work through the winter because of this project,” said TMF President and Owner John Rudi. “We have a skilled workforce known for producing quality work, and 25 of those people are taking home a paycheck right now thanks to this contract.”

The TMF crew worked the steel into the skeleton of a ramp towering more than 10 feet tall and measuring 240 feet long. The girders were bolted together for inspection, then disassembled and are now waiting to be trucked five miles down the road to the project site where sub-contractor Zemek Construction of Maple Valley will secure the girders in place along the highway.

The girders may be cold and gray, but behind every inch of metal are the stories of men and women who have worked together to make this project possible.

You’ll find similar stories behind transportation projects across the state – even simple paving projects! For every mile of new asphalt, there are crew members operating paving equipment, truckers delivering the raw materials and workers assembling the asphalt mix at a plant. There are hard-working people behind every bridge, guardrail, rock bolt and dowel bar.

From the steel mills in Delaware to the TMF warehouse in Vancouver and the roadside construction work site, hundreds of employees earning a paycheck on this project agree that it’s not just the end result that matters – but the process it takes to get us there.