Monday, December 24, 2012

Mount Baker Highway crews working hard to clear the highway

If you’re a skier, boarder or snow aficionado of any sort, the closure of Mount Baker Highway is probably an unwelcome pre-holiday present. An unusually potent combination of rain, snow and heavy winds forced us to close the highway (also known as SR 542) Tuesday morning, Dec. 18, just east of Glacier.

We know how important our mountain pass highways are to not only freight traffic but local ski areas – when we close, they close.  We want to get the road back open to drivers (and for the ski areas) as soon as it’s safe, but right now, our crews have to take it day by day. As our maintenance supervisor Theo Donk says: “Things can change completely in three hours.”

And they have. Starting Monday night, Dec. 17, nearly 100 trees came down across the highway in less than 24 hours. It’s now been more than 48 hours, and the tally is up to at least 120 trees – and counting.

Did we mention the snow? More than 6 feet (and counting) since Friday, Dec. 14. It’s a combination that has our maintenance crews on their toes. Donk said it’s the kind of weather that makes the hair stand up on the back of his neck: Whiteout conditions, and the all-too-real threat of a large tree crashing down at any moment.

As the snow continues, larger trees are falling. Not only are limbs snapping off, entire 30-inch-diameter trees that can’t handle the added weight of the snow are coming down across the highway.

Maintenance crews are staged at the Shuksan maintenance camp and ready to tackle the trees (and the snow) – as soon as it’s safe to get out on the road. They’ve got two large excavators, an assortment of chainsaws and plow trucks all on standby, ready to clear the highway at first light.

“We’ve got what we need to do our job – now we’re just waiting to go do it,” Donk said. “We’re taking it one day at a time.”

Friday, December 21, 2012

Becoming Bertha: the journey begins for the world’s largest tunneling machine

Bertha’s Twitter profile photo. More photos of her and construction in Seattle are posted
regularly on Flickr. A 10-foot-long interactive model of Bertha is on
display at Milepost 31, the project’s information center in Pioneer Square.
For more information about the SR 99 Tunnel Project, visit
Before you buy a car, you take it for a spin to see how it runs. 

Same goes for the world’s largest-diameter tunneling machine. With that in mind, leaders from the SR 99 Tunnel Project flew to Japan this week to visit Bertha, the five-story tall behemoth that will begin tunneling beneath downtown Seattle next summer.

They spent the day at the Sakai Works factory in Osaka, watching major components of the $80 million machine rotate, extend, retract and move. The goal? Make sure Bertha – whose name was chosen earlier this month as part of a contest for school-aged kids across Washington – is running smoothly before she boards a ship to Seattle.

“This machine is incredibly innovative,” said Linea Laird, WSDOT’s administrator for the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Program. “Using technology like this allows us to create a new highway 99 while keeping the viaduct open to traffic.”

With so much riding on Bertha, it’s no wonder Laird and others made the long trip. Seattle Tunnel Partners, WSDOT’s contractor for the project, will authorize shipment of the machine after testing is completed next month. Crews will then prepare the machine for its eventual departure to Seattle.

They will spend the early part of next year disassembling Bertha into 41 separate pieces – the largest weighing up to 900 tons – and loading them onto a single ship. After a month-long trip across the Pacific Ocean, Bertha will land at the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 46, to the west of CenturyLink Field. Crews in Seattle will transport the pieces a few hundred yards east to an 80-foot-deep pit where the machine will be reassembled and launched beneath downtown next summer.

When Bertha arrives in Seattle, she’ll bring with her plenty of excitement. But the project she’s a part of has already brought something very important to Washington: jobs. Construction to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct is boosting the local and regional economies, sustaining more than 3,900 jobs at the height of construction. Evidence of that can be found near Bertha’s launch pit, where crews are busily preparing for her arrival.

Bertha’s preparing too, according to her recently established Twitter profile. Step 1: get her travel documents in order.

“So nice to finally have an identity,” @BerthaDigsSR99 tweeted shortly after her name was announced. “Maybe now the passport agency will take my application.”

Laird and others are counting on that as Bertha’s journey to – and eventually beneath – Seattle draws closer.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Kirkland area travelers, get ready to meet your new interchange

By guest blogger Anne Broache

After some 18 months of construction, we’ll soon be finished revamping the area where Northeast 116th Street meets Interstate 405. Our goals were to improve your access to and from the highway at this interchange, and to upgrade safety for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians alike.

What’s new?
For drivers:
  • New lanes and traffic signals on Northeast 116th Street and 120th Avenue Northeast
  • A rebuilt bridge with additional lanes over the railroad
  • A new interchange design aimed at boosting traffic flow (more on that below)
  • More space for vehicles on the I-405/Northeast 116th Street on- and off-ramps, resulting in decreased merging and collision risks
For bicyclists and pedestrians:
  • Improved lighting
  • Wider sidewalks
  • A continuous bike lane through the interchange area
For the environment:
  • A new storm water pond and drainage vaults to preserve water quality
Drivers traveled through the new Single Point Urban Interchange
(SPUI) at NE 116th Street and I-405 in Kirkland on its first day of operation, Dec. 20.
This SPUI is the first interchange design
of its kind on the I-405 corridor.
Most notably, we transformed this interchange from a traditional one to a more efficient half Single Point Urban Interchange, or SPUI (pronounced “spooey”). This SPUI is designed to maximize traffic flow in this notoriously congested area for Kirkland commuters heading to and from I-405.
How does a SPUI work?
With the new SPUI design, the on- and off-ramps converge at a single location controlled by one set of traffic signals at the center of the interchange. The signal in this case is located on the underside of the I-405 overpass.
The SPUI design increases the number of vehicles that can clear the interchange each time the light turns green for a particular stream of traffic.
Want to learn more?
This video explores the interchange’s new features so you’ll know what to expect. You can also see more photos of the construction progress at our Flickr page.
Finally, we’d like to send a special thank you to all of the Kirkland commuters who experienced the construction closures and delays while we worked to improve this interchange.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Sanpoil gets ready for service

By guest blogger Al Gilson

Here’s a different story about a boat getting flipped over.  No, there are no big headlines about a daring rescue at sea in this story.

Now being built near Longview, the “Sanpoil,” our new ferry vessel for the Keller Route across the Columbia River in eastern Washington reached a major construction milestone on December 11.
For the last several months, workers at the Foss Maritime boat yard have been fabricating this new ferry vessel.  They began by building the frame for the car deck then pieced together the hull frame, followed by the hull plates.  When that phase was completed, the center section, and two outer sections were upside-down on the shop floor.

The next move was to flip the 20,000-pound center section over.  In a process that took two cranes and about 45 minutes, the 56 foot-long component was lifted up, rolled over and placed on a special cradle aboard a multi-axle trailer.

Coming up, the ship builders will attach the bow sections.  (There are two “front ends” on the boat and no stern since it’s a double ended ferry.  Cars and trucks will drive on and off at either end so the boat never has to turn around.)  When those are connected, the center section on the trailer will be 22 feet wide and 116 feet long.  That’s the maximum size that will be able to squeeze along the highways and under any overpasses as it, the two outer sections, the pilot house, and other components are towed from the boat yard to Grand Coulee Dam for final assembly early next year.
The Sanpoil should enter service in mid-2013.

The three sections of the new “Sanpoil” ferry.
The center section was placed on the trailer.
Help up by the crane.
Being rolled over to set on the trailer.
The cradle and trailer under the boat.
All done.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Putting it back together again

When a vital roadway gets knocked out of service, it's our job to get it back open as quickly as possible for drivers, and emergency responders. Fixing something like a bridge fixed is by no means, a small feat. An average of 15,000 vehicles each day use the northbound lanes of the SR 529 Snohomish River bridge from Everett to Marysville. This hard-working blue-collar bridge has been around for 85 years and took quite a beating this weekend when a driver smacked an SUV into a couple of support beams.

For safety, our inspectors closed the northbound bridge until the damaged support beams could be fixed. These are critical pieces that support the bridge deck. Replacement parts can't be ordered out of a catalogue, we had to custom make them from raw steel.

A team of about 30 worked in shifts around the clock to design, fabricate and install a new diagonal and vertical support beam.

We didn't want to risk further stress on the bridge deck, so we needed to park heavy equipment on the ground and use boom lifts to access the damaged support beams. Replacement parts were up to 30 feet long and weighed as much as 1000 pounds. It's really tough to safely get those pieces in place in the driving rain with high winds.

After about 500 combined hours of work, the northbound SR 529 Snohomish River bridge reopened to traffic at about 12:30 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 4. We don't roll the dice on safety. It's pretty amazing how quickly it all came together. In 81 hours, the bridge went from damaged to repaired. We closed it, stabilized it, designed replacement parts, fabricating and installed them - and only disrupting one event commute for drivers.