Friday, October 26, 2012

I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East project reaches first major milestone before wrapping for winter

By guest blogger Meagan McFadden

Drivers traveling across Interstate 90 have patiently waited to hear these words: Delays related to work zones on Snoqualmie Pass are almost finished until next year. Rock-blasting closures are done for the season, the new westbound lanes are open to traffic and roadside work zones will be cleared by November.

The new wider lanes opened to traffic on Oct. 19
between Hyak and Rocky Run Creek
Despite very rainy conditions, a stalled semi-truck in the construction zone and a delayed asphalt truck, all lanes of I-90 opened to traffic on Oct. 19. Travelers are now driving on a stretch of new, wider westbound lanes and bridges between Hyak and Rocky Run Creek.

It has taken four years, more than 84,000 dump-truck loads of material, 163 closures for rock blasting and enough concrete to fill over 470,000 wheelbarrows to reach this first major milestone. By next fall the first three miles of the five-mile project will be complete, with the remaining two miles of six-lane roadway and bridges scheduled to be complete in 2017.

This work is part of the $551 million I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East – Hyak to Keechelus Dam project, which widens a five-mile stretch of the highway from four to six lanes and improves travel reliability and safety.

We still have more dump-trucks to fill, rock blasting to complete and more concrete to pour, but as winter weather closes in, we are taking a break until next spring.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Why are the express lanes going the wrong way?

by guest blogger Bart Treece

Whether it’s a weekend 520 bridge closure or people leaving a football game, we hear this question fairly often and usually from folks who were stuck going the opposite direction of the express lanes.
The simple answer is that the reversible, congestion-fighting powers of both the I-5 and I-90 express lanes add capacity to the direction of travel that can benefit the most drivers. Or, to put it another way, the direction with the most cars, wins. The decision to flip the switch and add lanes doesn’t come from a whim, a guess or a coin toss. It’s driven by hard numbers collected by sensors in the roadway and crunched by traffic engineers, (engineers love numbers).

Take for instance I-90. More people are heading westbound into Seattle during the weekday morning and vice-versa for the afternoon and evening commute, which is why the express lanes are switched to add lanes to all those drivers. During a weekend-long 520 bridge closure, I-90 is the go-to route for people trying to get across Lake Washington. Since our traffic sensors record the number of cars on the road, we know more people take I-90 westbound into Seattle from morning until early afternoon, and vice-versa for eastbound later in the day.

Not so, say some folks who were stuck westbound near Mercer Island late on a Saturday. Darren posted this on our Facebook page, “WSDOT, why not open the WEST bound express lanes on I-90 tonight? 520 is closed and EVERYONE is headed into Seattle. It's a parking lot out here and EAST bound is wiiiiide open.”

Driver feedback is important to us, so we checked the numbers. If we made a mistake, we want to know about it. Turns out, we made the right call. When Darren noticed the stark difference in east and westbound traffic flow, eastbound I-90 had an average of 600 more cars per hour. Anything that blocks the roadway, like a stalled car or a crash can also throw traffic flow out of whack, which is what happened the Saturday night Darren tried to make his way into Seattle.

We also hear from sports fans who want the express lanes to take them to a game at CenturyLink Field and then back across the lake after the final whistle. Sometimes we will, if the extra fans plus the typical normal users will create a larger demand. But, if we know more people will be heading the opposite direction of sports fans, the I-90 express lanes will be there for the majority of drivers. For example, we sometimes get a Monday Night Football game. Look, we love the ‘12th Man’, but during the weekday our first consideration is for the people who use the lanes regularly to get home from work, so we keep them eastbound for commuters.

What about I-5?
The other set of express lanes to consider is on I-5. These lanes are a great way to pass by a lot of Seattle-related traffic and they’re used mostly by folks who just want to get through downtown. If you’re trying to take the I-5 express lanes to CenturyLink Field, your only option is exiting before the stadium at Cherry/Columbia or afterward near Tully’s. Either way, you have to fight surface-street traffic, which doesn’t really help you.

We’re always reviewing traffic patterns to see if we can make improvements, because they can change. We want people to get to the game on time and home safely. We will make some changes with the upcoming UW Huskies and Sounders FC games, keep an eye on the schedule and plan ahead. Switching both the I-5 and I-90 express lanes help us manage traffic congestion and can make for a smoother ride.

Monday, October 22, 2012

I-5 construction in Kent

By guest blogger Jamie Holter

Crews smooth out fresh concrete with a concrete roller.
Interstate 5 is the backbone of the Washington state economy. In fact, given that it runs from Mexico to Canada, it could be considered the economic backbone of the West Coast.  But, that doesn’t really matter to the folks in Kent and Federal Way. They just expect the pavement to be drivable.

This week, WSDOT and Interstate Improvements begin a six month project that nibbles at the tip of the concrete iceberg.  Between October and late spring 2013, crews will replace 64 broken and cracked concrete panels and grind down more than three miles of rutted northbound interstate between Military Road South and S. 272nd Street in Kent. Crews will close lanes overnight Monday through Friday.

People don’t get too excited about pavement. When drivers use I-5, they focus on their destination not the concrete journey that gets them there. But we care about concrete, a lot.  Without these repairs, potholes grow larger, those jarring bumps get harder and that pooling water in wheel ruts on the interstate grow wider and longer.

In short, without these repairs, the road falls apart faster and faster.

We don’t have the money to fix all of I-5, but this triage approach will get a better driving surface, a safer road and a longer lasting road. Thank you for your patience while you drive.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

We really want to reach you

 by guest blogger Emily Pace

You might’ve seen recent article in the media about a customer who received a civil penalty for unpaid tolls, but never received a toll bill. We mail two toll bills to the registered vehicle owner on file with Department of Licensing. We give drivers 80 days to pay before we mail a third notice, this time with a $40 penalty for each unpaid transaction.

As with all mail, there are many reasons why a bill may not reach someone or is returned to us by the post office, some examples include:
  • The registered vehicle owner has recently moved and not updated their address with DOL. State law requires vehicle owners update their address with DOL within 30 days of moving.
  • The customer sets up a temporary hold (which can be in place for up to 30 days) but does not pick up their mail within 30 days, the mail is then returned to the sender.
  • The customer’s mailbox becomes too full to deliver mail, they moved and did not provide a new address, the address provided was incorrect etc.
We note in our files any mail that is returned to us for whatever reason. If a forwarding address is provided to us by the post office we reissue the toll bill to the new address. We have no way of knowing if the vehicle owner has moved, if they’re temporarily out of town or if they’ll eventually pick up mail at that address.

This brings us to an important point: If you don’t get a toll bill call us. You should receive a toll bill about 14 days after crossing either the SR 520 or Tacoma Narrows bridges. If you don’t get a bill for any of the reasons listed above, or you misplace it or throw it away – give our customer service center a call. When you call, if you have your license plate, state and name they will be able to look up any outstanding toll charges and you can pay them right then over the phone. You can also visit us at any of our walk-in centers in Seattle, Bellevue or Gig Harbor.

Quite a few people have asked why we don’t allow drivers to enter their license plate online so they can see any toll charges. It comes down to privacy. We don’t want people to be able to enter their neighbor’s license plate online, or anyone else for that matter, and be able to see all their toll crossings.

Ultimately, there must be consequences for drivers who don’t pay their tolls on time. If we don’t enforce the tolls, it isn’t fair to the drivers who are paying. Toll enforcement is also about ensuring we have enough revenue to provide funding for the bridge replacement.

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Bridge building 101: Salmon Creek Interchange Project

 by guest blogger Heidi Sause

Take a digital trip to the Salmon Creek Interchange Project in Vancouver for a high-flying journey of rebar, clamshells and cranes – here’s a step-by-step overview of how crews are building the base of the new interchange at Northeast 139th Street. (Note: Don’t try this at home.)

Step one: Dig a hole to China. Alright, not quite, but 130 feet deep is close enough. Crane operators use a giant oscillator to drill large metal casings (nine feet in diameter!) into the ground.  A huge clamshell attaches to the end of a crane and bites mounds of dirt out from the inside of the casings.

Crews assemble one of the 54 rebar cages that
will form the interior of the bride piers on the
new NE 139th Street bridge in Salmon Creek.
The end result is something engineers call a bridge shaft – a deep, cylindrical hole reaching from sun and sky to bedrock – that is, the Troutdale Formation. Trivia fact o’ the day: the Troutdale Formation is a layer of rock and silt several millennia old that was carried more than 500 miles and deposited in this area during the Great Missoula Floods. Cool, huh? But I digress.

Back to bridges… The shafts are important because they form the foundation of the bridge. They are the crucial first step toward getting a bridge off the ground and in the air.  

Step two: Build a rebar cage. Using a variety of large rebar, construct a continuous structural web of metal. Some of the rebar pieces are more than 2 inches in diameter, and each rebar cage weighs up to 80,000 lbs!

Step three: Use two large cranes and a complicated rigging set up, lower the massive metal web of rebar into the drilled shaft.

Step four: Pour 230 cubic yards of concrete into the shaft. Keep in mind, concrete needs to flow at a steady pace in order to set correctly. A well-orchestrated fleet of concrete trucks tags out at the pump truck to keep the pour flowing smoothly.

Step five: Remember the large metal casings mentioned in Step one? Crews will use the same casing pieces to drill 54 separate bridge shafts for the new interchange, and the casing can’t stay in the ground while the concrete sets. An oscillator steadily lifts the casing out of the ground so when the concrete goes in, the casing comes out.

Step six: Detach and remove each casing piece as it’s lifted above ground. Set aside for cleaning.

Repeat steps four through six until the concrete pour is complete and the hole-to-China has been replaced with a concrete bridge shaft, waiting to cure. 

Then brace yourself and get ready to start over – one down, 53 to go!

Friday, October 12, 2012

SR 3 ‘slides’ to finish line

SR 3 before slide repairs
By guest blogger Claudia Bingham Baker

With months of record-setting dry weather gracing the area, it’s hard to remember that just a few months before, heavy rains caused many landslides along our state highways. One such slide on State Route 3 just north of Shelton had reduced the highway to one alternating lane of traffic since mid-March. On Oct. 4, WSDOT completed a repair that allowed the second lane to reopen.

The concept of the repair was straightforward enough – build a 120-foot-long retaining wall to reinforce the damaged section of highway. The execution of the repair, however, was another story.  Steep slopes and tough terrain added challenges to the crew as they drilled H-shaped steel piles deep into the slope and reinforced them with ground anchors. They then installed treated horizontal timbers between the piles to stabilize the slope and support the road. 

SR 3 slide repairs
Photos tell the story the best. The ‘before’ photo shows water damage and erosion to the aging retaining wall and hillside. The ‘after’ photo shows the width and breadth of the repairs. “Those repairs will ensure that this section of highway is stable for years to come,” said WSDOT Project Engineer Scott Ireland. “We sure appreciate the patience that drivers showed us while the road was down to one lane.” 

Contractor Rognlin’s Inc. of Aberdeen completed the $1.3 million emergency repair on time and within budget.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Testing our traffic camera images in the cloud

The way people are using the Internet is shifting: Cellphones are getting smarter, tablets are more easily accessible and all of these devices are finding their way into more hands as Internet access becomes more affordable. We’re paying close attention to this and are seeing it reflected in our own Web statistics.

Wait, a transportation agency that focuses on state highways and ferries is worried about how people use the Internet? Why yes, we are!  

Here's what we’ve seen:
  • The number of people who are accessing our website on a daily basis has increased since the same time last year, from 78,000 unique visitors a day in 2011 to nearly 90,000 a day in 2012.
  • Mobile device usage is also surging. Compared to the same time last year (January-June), the number of mobile devices visiting our website has gone from 4.5 million visits to 8.7 million visits.
  • We now have more than 200,000 downloads of our iPhone and Android mobile app.
Example of one of the traffic camera images that
gets a lot of use during a winter storm.

So why pay attention to this? During the snowstorm on Jan. 17, 2012, we saw more than 800,000 people access our website. That's nearly 12 percent of Washington’s population. What happens if that grows? How can we best position ourselves to handle that amount of traffic, or higher, again?

Building the infrastructure that would be needed to handle these infrequent weather spikes just isn't a good use of taxpayer dollars. Over the years, we've made numerous improvements so that we can function during those types of bad weather days. However, to ensure the information that you need to make informed travel decisions is available whenever and wherever you need it, we need to think outside the box. 

Instead of buying a whole farm of computer servers to accommodate the amount of requests for information we might get during one crazy storm, we will be testing cloud technology.  Essentially, we’re renting the ability to handle that spike in requests so that you can make travel decisions in an emergency.

What is cloud technology? Think of it this way – if we use just one computer to provide information, it can only handle so many simultaneous requests. If instead, we put our camera images to a location that has access to a really big server we can ensure the images you want to see will be available when you need it.

So what does this mean to you? On Wednesday, Oct. 10, and Thursday, Oct. 11, we are shifting all of the traffic camera images from our servers to the cloud to test our ability to make this change.  Testing this now means we’ll be ready when that crazy weather or emergency situation causes people to immediately go to our website to see what is happening.  On a more technical note, for those of you who have linked to the images, you won’t notice a difference; the urls will remain the same.

You may have to be patient with us Wednesday and Thursday, but we're crossing our fingers that you won't notice a thing.  If, however, you do see something unusual, be sure to let us know.

Friday, October 5, 2012

WSDOT volunteers educate fairgoers

By guest blogger Mike Westbay

There’s nothing quite like the Central Washington State Fair for getting reacquainted with old friends, sharing deep-fried foods and viewing exhibits.

For at least ten years, our volunteers have hosted two fair booths in Yakima, both inside the Sundome and outside among the vendors and food booths. Large, full-color posters of highway construction and maintenance projects always attract attention and help get conversations started.

Our fair booths are a personal way to show and tell what we do and how drivers benefit from the gas tax they pay at the pump.

Tanya Martinez and Chris Kroll, WSDOT volunteers,
greet fair booth visitors at the Sundome in Yakima.
This year our fair booth volunteers talked with fair visitors from all walks of life about how the featured projects (I-90, SR 410 and US 97) affect their families, their businesses and their commutes to work and school.

The most often asked question about the projects is “When will it be done?” Some were disappointed to hear that the US 97 Satus Creek Bridge replacement and US 97 wildlife crossing bridge projects would take another season to complete because of delays due to high fire danger. But many were pleasantly surprised to learn that the new section of SR 410, around the landslide in the Nile Valley, was already completed ahead of schedule and under budget.

Opening the new section of SR 410 around the landslide is a popular topic. This leads to conversations about where people were and what they were doing when the landslide buried the highway, destroyed homes and flooded farms. Cabin owners expressed appreciation for opening the new route ahead of schedule and for shortening their drive to the nearest store and restaurant from 15 to six minutes.

Most booth visitors wanted to know how we are planning to replace the old snowshed on I-90 where most of the avalanches happen. Many were interested to learn the contractor is proposing to save long-term maintenance costs by building bridges instead of a larger snowshed so that avalanches can slide underneath the highway.

Fairgoers visit the WSDOT fair booth at the Yakima Sundome.
Concrete pavement was also a hot topic. Most comments were about how nice and smooth the new pavement is near Easton and how rough the old pavement is. Funny and far-out guesses were offered again and again about the mysterious “three slots” in the wheel paths of the right lane on I-90 and I-82. Of course, the brief answer of “dowel bar retrofitting” was not acceptable.

In-depth explanations of how and why polymer-coated steel dowel bars strengthen the old pavement were necessary. Even after much debate, one gentleman stuck to his idea that uranium fuel rods were being placed in the roadway to melt the snow.

Attendance at the fair was down at first, likely due to the thick smoke in the air from nearby forest fires. As the smoke cleared, fairgoers came streaming in and in the end, attendance surpassed last year’s count.

Conversations are the key to this effort’s success. This year, the comments were mostly positive about our work nearby and across the state. Many visitors took time to stop and thank us for a job well done.