Friday, January 25, 2013

The Puck Test

by Guest blogger Mike Allende

Hockey is a winter sport and WSDOT is getting in on the puck action. Well, kind of. While it doesn’t involve goalies, slap shots or penalty boxes, this action may end up helping traffic move more efficiently.

Soon we’ll be giving Sensys Puck road sensors their first Seattle-area tryout when we install them on northbound I-5 near Northgate. It’s a test project pitting the youthful technology of these wireless sensors against the veteran savvy of existing loop detectors embedded in the roadway in a heated matchup to see which performs best in gathering traffic and vehicle information.

Loop detectors only work with good pavement, and funding for pavement preservation is looking grim. We still need to have reliable traffic information, so as an alternative, the plucky pucks may be the answer.
The pucks are compact and solid, just 3 inches tall and 3 inches in diameter, but don’t let their size fool you. There’s plenty of power and versatility packed in those little bodies and they hold up well under pressure, whether it’s a semi-truck or heavy rain.

What can these little guys do? Plenty. They count every car as it goes by, measuring speed, lane occupancy, gaps between vehicles, direction of travel and even vehicle length. This information is valuable in evaluating traffic flow and signal control, and letting drivers know if a road is congested or not on our flow map. That’s some MVP ability.

Inductive loops have similar skills but require pavement that is in good shape in order to work well. Pucks are also easier to handle than the gangly and awkward loops. That means they can get in position quicker, usually just 10 to 15 minutes per puck, leading to a much shorter disruption of traffic. Two loops, on the other hand, take about two hours to install.

To prepare for the puck’s debut, crews bore a circular hole in the pavement, about 4 inches wide and 4 inches deep. We want to put the puck in the best position to be successful, so crews level the holes so that each sensor gets an accurate reading.

After the pucks are in position, they're well protected with a strong epoxy. These guys are valuable and they need to be taken care of. They look sharp and impressive in their black uniforms, but at the same time aren't distracting. They'll fit right in.

The pucks aren’t going to be on their own, though. They team with a local controller, which receives transmissions and crunches data from each individual sensor. The controller can give an overall report about the presence of vehicles, average number of vehicles at any time, average speeds and lane occupancy, among other information. That’s some great teamwork! Loops also work in tandem but have to be hard-wired to a controller device, meaning there are only particular areas they can work without incurring a huge cost.

The pucks often make their appearance overnight to little fanfare, and can even be installed using a brief traffic slowdown rather than lane closures, unlike the loop sensors. They are run by battery and expect to have a long 10-year career. They’re also healthy, and unless the battery dies or there’s an epoxy failure, there shouldn’t be any other maintenance necessary. If maintenance is needed, the pucks can easily be popped out of the pavement, minimizing concrete damage. The health of loops is more questionable, as maintenance is a big issue with these guys. Some loops hold up well over time, others have to retire after 2 or 3 years. Maintenance involves digging up the concrete, dealing with the loop, and replacing the concrete, a much more invasive process. These are huge factors as pavement preservation is vital with increasing traffic. The less the ground has to be dug up, the longer it will last.

So who’s it going to be, the grizzled veteran or the intriguing rookie? The Northgate project costs about $20,000 while a comparable setup with the loops would be about $15,000. The signing bonus is higher for the pucks but add in the costs of maintenance down the road and the potential traffic disruptions and the up-front cost may be worth it. Clearly there are pluses and minuses with both, so the result of this tryout is going to be interesting and exciting to watch!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Looking at tolling I-90

 By guest blogger Michell Mouton

We’re collecting tolls on SR 520 to generate $1 billion in funding to help fund construction of a new SR 520 bridge – but we still need to close a $1.4 billion funding gap to complete SR 520 improvements between the west side of the bridge and I-5.

For years, planning studies and legislative actions have considered I-90 tolling revenue to help fill that gap. And since SR 520 tolls started, we’ve seen I-90 traffic volumes go up 11 percent or about 15,000 more vehicles a day. So the State Legislature has decided that the time has come to start the discussion again. 

We’re studying the possibility of adding tolls on I-90, between Seattle and Bellevue to help address both of the challenges: balance Cross-Lake Washington traffic and generate revenue to fill the SR 520 construction funding gap.

Deciding whether to toll I-90 involves several steps including an environmental assessment (EA) that’s required as part of the National Environmental Protection Policy Act (NEPA). Basically, NEPA is in place to ensure that we understand, document and if necessary, mitigate the effects of I-90 tolling. That’s why it’s important we hear from you as we start this comment period. We want to learn about any project effects - good or bad - because the EA helps inform decision-making around this project.

How can you get involved?
The 30-day public comment period extends from Jan. 22 to midnight Feb. 22. There are many ways to share your feedback:

Go to a public scoping meeting:  Learn more about the project, talk to project team members and comment in person.
The following meetings take place from 4-7 p.m.:
  • Tuesday, Jan. 29 at Mercer Island Community Center, 8236 SE 24th St., Mercer Island.
  • Wednesday, Jan. 30 at Bellevue City Hall, 450 11th Ave. NE, Bellevue.
  • Thursday, Jan. 31 at Yesler Community Center, 917 E. Yesler Way, Seattle.
Go online: All meeting materials are posted on our web page and you can comment online as well:

Send us an email: You can also submit comments by e-mail at or by writing to Ms. Angela Angove at 999 Third Avenue, Suite 2200, Seattle, WA 98104. Mailed comments must be postmarked by Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2013.

What do I comment about? Ask yourself these questions to help get your ideas flowing:
  • How will I be affected by tolling on I-90? 
  • What should WSDOT consider as they look at the social and environmental influences of tolling I-90?
How much time do I have? Don’t panic if you can’t give us your feedback today or next week. This is a long process.
  • The comment period runs until February 22, 2013
  • More opportunity for public comment will be available at a public hearing in November where we will share the findings of the environmental assessment. The final environmental document is scheduled to be complete in late 2013.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

2012 In Pictures

I continue to be fascinated how transportation affects each and every one of our lives.  Whether it be a trip to the grocery store, a commute to work or a vacation trip across the state, we rely on this system to help us get to our destinations.  I thought it would be worth reflecting on 2012, and hope you enjoy the journey with me.

As the snow eased for the day, the setting sun turned clouds orange over the SR 520 east high rise (Explored!)
This was a scene from a wintry January SR 520 weekend closure as we continued work in the area to get ready for a new bridge.  Although tolling on SR 520 officially started in 2011, 2012 saw drivers adjusting their commutes as they help pay for a safer, more reliable bridge.

Crews clear avalanche debris at the snowshed
Early January saw significant snowfall to the mountain passes.  Here we see a familiar scene on I-90 as crews perform avalanche control near the snowshed.

Not often do you see plows out in force on I-5 in Thurston County, but we saw that during storms in early January.

Snowmobiling the North Cascades Highway
Crews checking out snow depth and conditions on the North Cascades Highway on March 7, 2012.

Avalanche control work at the snowshed
Snow continued to fall on the passes into March.  Here we see a result of avalanche control on I-90.

SR 99 tunnel prep - driving supports underground
SR 99 tunnel prep in Seattle continued throughout 2012.

2012 Workzone Memorial - WSDOT Remembers
We take the time each year to remember those workers who lost their lives in work zones.  There were some close calls but fortunately didn't lose anyone in 2012 and we're hoping you Give 'Em a Brake in 2013.

EV drivers from Canada join us at the West Coast Electric Highway Grand Opening
May 30, 2012, saw the grand opening of the West Coast Electric Highway, helping reduce range anxiety for electric vehicle drivers on main corridors in Oregon and Washington.

Baby in a bag
One of my personal favorites, banding a baby Peregrine Falcon. This chick is nesting in a box under the I-5 Ship Canal Bridge in Seattle. The mother of this chick has been on the bridge since 2002. Follow the entire account of falcon banding on our Storify site.

The storm before the flood - SR 14 slide recovery
Anyone else remember that crazy storm we had in July?  This particular cloud dumped several inches of rain on SR 14 and caused quite a mess with multiple mudslides and guardrail damage.

Northbound I-5 entrance into the express lanes
Automating the I-5 express lanes was a big step forward for us in 2012.  Instead of taking an hour to change the lane direction, new equipment was installed that cut the time to 15 minutes. Watch a YouTube video describing these changes.

Now we’re getting somewhere – The SR 99 tunnel boring machine stands tall
In August, we got our first glimpse of the world's largest-diameter tunnel boring machine. It was built in Japan and will dig the SR 99 tunnel beneath downtown Seattle starting in summer 2013.

Nearly three years after a landslide destroyed a quarter mile of SR 410 west of Naches, crews rebuilt the state highway along the toe of the landslide. On Aug. 30, Nile Valley residents and business owners were the first in line to drive on the new route that saves time and money.

This is how we limbo on SR 520
August saw more SR 520 weekend closures as construction continued throughout the year as we demolished overpasses, installed larger culverts and prepped the roadway for a new, wider SR 520.

In August, crews closed SR 167 in both directions for a weekend to add a new 19’ wide new fish friendly culvert.

New Olympic class ferry bulkhead construction
2012 also saw construction of the first of two new Olympic Class, 144-car ferries.  This one was named Tokitae.

Crews are making great progress on I-90 east of Snoqualmie Pass! In November, the new westbound lanes opened to traffic, and by next fall, we’ll complete the first three miles of five miles of improvements. By 2017, I-90 will be wider and less congested along Keechelus Lake, just east of Hyak, with fewer closures from avalanche-control work.  We hope to continue the improvements all the way to Easton.

Construction on the North Spokane Corridor freeway reached a significant milestone in 2012 with 5.7 miles of the 10-mile route fully completed and open to traffic.

Fish heads and guts spill on US 101
Sometimes you just can't give enough credit to crews out in the field who work to keep highways open. On a quiet Friday morning in October, 42,000 pounds of fish heads and guts were scattered across US 101 in southern Pacific County.  The semi was off the road within a couple of hours, but it took many more to clean up all the residual. Yuck.

Demolition begins on the old SR 16 eastbound Nalley Valley viaduct in Tacoma to make way for a new, expanded viaduct. Eastbound SR 16 traffic is driving on a temporary bridge until the new viaduct is completed later this year.

Rebar cage

An artful shot of crews assembling rebar cages for the new I-5 Salmon Creek interchange, which is in it's final stages of completion.

We are gaining momentum in delivering nearly $800 million in federally funded rail projects with the goal of providing faster, more frequent Amtrak Cascades service between Seattle and Portland. Five of our 20 federally-funded projects were under construction or completed in 2012, with five more set to break ground in 2013. The most recent completed project added two new tracks through BNSF’s busy rail yard near Everett to reduce the conflicts and delays from freight traffic.

Six feet of snow on Mount Baker Highway since Friday
While this shot is of Mount Baker highway, which saw hundreds of trees down across the roadway, December saw a 69-hour closure of US 2 from Stevens summit to Leavenworth due to falling trees (first time for that…). It started on Saturday, Dec. 22, and continued through Christmas Day. This unique phenomenon even had prominent meteorologist Cliff Mass blogging about the falling trees.

For Stevens pass, despite the higher than usual snow totals for the past two La Nina winters, December 2012 beat them. We had a total of 253 inches  by Dec. 22 – a total we didn't reach last winter until Jan. 23.

Launch pit gets deeper
The launch pit for the SR 99 tunneling machine.  When complete, it will be 400 feet long, 80 feet wide and 80 feet deep.

Social Media
Our social media audience continued to grow in 2012 as many people found value in the real-time information we provide via those channels.  Here's an example of the content we put on Twitter.

In September, Apple released iOS 6 update that included their new mapping software. Realizing how dependent some folks are on their mobile devices for navigation we decided to raise awareness of the flaws in the new mapping system by using a little tongue-in-cheek humor on Twitter:

Here's a list of the rest of the best tweets of 2012.

Other notable items worth mentioning:
  • First 520 pontoons floated into Lake Washington.  
  • For the first time, the Coast Guard began allowing boats to pass through the drawspan in the middle of the day with two hours notice. We had to figure out how to let drivers know before they were on the road that the bridge would open at a particular time. Our traditional alerts are primarily for media outlets. For this, we knew we had to reach drivers directly and do it in a way that gave them ample warning without overdoing it… as a result, a special alert just for 520 users that they could opt to receive as a text or an email.  
  • In May, crews completed an interchange on US 12 near Burbank, east of the Tri-Cities. The 60-mph traffic on US 12 no longer has to stop at a traffic signal, and  SR 124 drivers now use freeway ramps to enter and exit US 12, reducing conflicts and collisions.
  • Central Washington saw one of the worst forest fires in decades dubbed the Taylor Bridge Fire that closed SR 10 and US 97 multiple times in August.
  • Two I-5 widening projects were under way last year, one in Clark County and one in Lewis County. Together, they total $288 million in gas tax investments and improve traffic flow for more than 100,000 drivers. Both are still under construction and scheduled for completion within the next two years.
  • Two Clark County projects eliminated three at-grade intersections, one of which (SR 500/St. Johns) was one of the most dangerous in the area, with an average of one collision a week.
  • Finally started construction on the new vessel for the Keller Ferry route.  The “Sanpoil” will replace the “Martha S.’ which is the oldest vessel in our fleet, having been launched in 1948.
  • Fully completed the north 5.7 miles of the 10.5-mile North Spokane Corridor freeway.

    Quite a busy year when you look back on it, thanks for being there with us, here's to a safe 2013.

    Friday, January 4, 2013

    A year later: SR 520 tolls are already helping fund construction of a new bridge

    by Guest blogger Emily Pace

    Dec. 29, 2012 marked one-year since tolling started on the SR 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington. It’s been a team effort and we thank drivers for their patience during this first year of tolling.
    SR 520 traffic and revenue continue to meet projections and we are on the way to providing more than $1 billion in funding to help pay for the construction of a new bridge. Through the end of Nov. 30, 2012, SR 520 tolls have generated approximately $50 million in gross revenue. SR 520 variable tolling is also a successful traffic management tool as some drivers are adjusting their trip times to off-peak hours to take advantage of lower toll rates.
    Looking back to December 2011 before tolling started, we anticipated about 48 percent drop in traffic volumes on SR 520. That projection was close to actual traffic at the start of tolling, but as expected, throughout the year we’ve seen more drivers return to the corridor and SR 520 bridge traffic is now about 70 percent of pre-toll levels.
    As expected, alternate routes are busier, particularly outside of peak commute times. However, not all of the former SR 520 traffic has diverted to other routes. Here’s what we’ve seen on other routes:
    • Overall we have seen a decrease of about 5 percent in the number of total trips around and across Lake Washington on SR 520, I-90 and SR 522.
    • Traffic volumes on the I-90 floating bridge have increased approximately 11 percent and the average travel times in both directions of I-90 between Issaquah and Seattle have increased one to two minutes.
    • Traffic volumes on SR 522 in Kenmore have increased approximately 9 percent, or about 3,800 vehicles daily. Travel times remain relatively the same as before tolling during the morning and are about two minutes longer during the afternoon.
    Others took advantage of increased transit service and now take the bus instead of driving. King County Metro Transit and Sound Transit continue to see strong ridership growth across Lake Washington on SR 520. Estimated daily ridership through September 2012 was up a total of 25 percent since 2010.
    The majority of drivers pay the toll using a Good To Go! account. About 84 percent of all trips across the SR 520 bridge are paid with a Good To Go! account, which is 12 percent higher than the original forecast. Through the end of November, there have been more than 18 million tolled trips on SR 520.
    If you’ve driven across the SR 520 bridge without a Good To Go! account and received a toll bill in the mail, it’s not too late to open up an account. You can open a Good To Go! account, pre-pay $30 and then call customer service and have the toll bills applied to your account. You can open an account online, by calling 1-866-936-8246 or in person at a customer service center in Seattle, Bellevue or Gig Harbor.

    Wednesday, January 2, 2013

    West Seattle Bridge interchange: Construction closures this weekend

    By guest blogger Jamie Holter

    Crews will replace expansion joints on the I-5 ramps that
    connect West Seattle, Columbian Way and Spokane Street.
    Don’t be surprised by construction. Know before you go in SODO.

    This weekend, the first weekend in January, marks the official start of WSDOT’s 2013 Seattle area construction season. Construction crews will close the southbound I-5 ramp to the West Seattle Bridge and the westbound Columbian Way ramp to the West Seattle Bridge.

    Traffic will be busier than usual as drivers wind their way to the West Seattle Bridge using the Viaduct, South Lander Street, Forest Street, First Avenue South and Fourth Avenue South.

    During this weekend closure and the next 10 weekend closures, crews will replace 50-year old expansion joints, pieces of steel that run across all lanes and allow the bridge to bend and flex with heavy traffic and the freeze-thaw cycle.

     Each weekend closure will be a different ramp. Drivers who want to take the guess work out of construction closures can check the color-coded map (pdf 515 kb). Engineers have planned out each weekend closure between now and April.

    Don’t be surprised by construction. Know before you go in SODO.