Thursday, August 8, 2013

Going off-grid with Emma Lance

By Guest Blogger Broch Bender

Combine the patience of ice fishing, a passion for puzzles, and a love for I-405 drivers that would make the @WSDOT_Traffic Twitter Fairy giggle, and you’ve got WSDOT Transportation Engineer Emma Lance.

OK, so there is no Twitter Fairy, however, magic wands and Twitter dust aside, Emma Lance is the mastermind behind the #Take5 detours you use when northbound Interstate 405 through Bellevue is closed for repairs.

“It’s easy to put pen to paper and design something,” said Emma. “It’s another thing to be accountable for keeping drivers out of lengthy backups.”

Emma and her team are traffic-busting heroes. During weekend-long pavement repair shutdowns of northbound I-405, they go where the traffic cameras can’t; patiently combing through backups so that you won’t get stuck in one.

You might be wondering, “Why does WSDOT need people on the ground when you have Twitter?” Good question. Our tweets are generated by information we see on our webcams, traffic sensors embedded in the highway, and occasionally from drivers like you.

Emma Lance
But, what happens when we close our highways completely and all the average person can see are orange barrels and crews working? And what if the detour is on local streets without cameras and sensors (hint: NE 8th St. or 116th Ave. SE in Bellevue)?  Emma says, “It’s kind of a black hole for drivers. It’s like we are telling them, go here because the highway is closed – see you on the other side!”

Last month was her first call to duty, and she’s back again this weekend, August 9 through 12 for the final roundof concrete panel replacement through downtown Bellevue.

Emma and her team are winning the traffic game by shining a light into the detour abyss. When she sees a slow spot in the road, she’s on the phone with the City of Bellevue so they can adjust traffic signal timing before you can say “red light, green light 1-2-3!,” An extra few seconds of “green” time on a traffic light can make a huge difference. And, if the signals suddenly stop working, Ms. Lance is on the horn to the Washington State Patrol so they can direct traffic.

When drivers enter the “detour black hole,” there is no real way to tell what the detour travel time is.
In the past we’ve literally watched cars exit the ramp to the detour and watched the on-ramp hoping to find the same car and timing how long it took them. That’s ok, but not too reliable. Emma’s got wheels on the ground and stopwatch on the dash, rolling through the detours all day long, timing how long it takes from start to finish. Every 30 minutes she contacts the WSDOT traffic tweeters with her findings.  Bottom line: Ms. Lance is a big reason drivers get the latest, most accurate detour travel times possible all weekend long.

Just like any superstar, Emma is motivated to use her congestion-busting powers for good. Since the beginning of her WSDOT career in 2007, she’s specialized in planning out highways that coexist with fish habitat and Bellevue’s growing metropolis. “It’s a challenge trying to balance tight budgets with high environmental standards,” she said. “But it’s totally worth all of the effort to have state of the art highways side by side with nature, instead of having to choose between them.”

During the first round of I-405 pavement repair closures back in July, she noticed drivers were getting stuck at the NE 8th Street area trying to get onto I-405. This time around her advice is to avoid NE 8th Street and instead use other arterials to go north. “You’ll save yourself a nice chunk of time.”
When our best “traffic-un-jammer” is not designing construction projects, detailing detours or out saving drivers from traffic fatigue, you can find her honing her patience and fortitude over jigsaw puzzles, fishing for walleye and being a favorite aunt to her niece.

Monday, August 5, 2013

SR 520 Bridge 50th Birthday

August 2013 marks the 50th birthday of the SR 520 floating bridge on Lake Washington. Throughout the month we’re taking a look back at the history of the bridge, as well as the places it connects and the people who use it.

The Evergreen Point Bridge, its original name when it opened five decades ago (and before it was named for former governor Albert D. Rossellini), was built in a different era. Prior to 520, drivers had just one crossing across Lake Washington – the original Lake Washington Floating Bridge. And prior to that, you either drove around or hitched a ride on one of many ferries traversing the lake. Today’s quick trek across the lake was once a day’s (or more!) journey.

520 construction began in 1960, lasted through the 1962 World’s Fair, and opened on Aug. 28, 1963, the same day as Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.

Aerial view of west approach bridge construction in 1962. Bridge piers were built in Lake Washington prior to adding the superstructure and roadway. Photo credit: City of Seattle Municipal Archives
Each winter, significant wind and wave action takes its toll on the existing SR 520 floating bridge, requiring WSDOT to perform regular inspections and maintenance.
Over the next 50 years, the 520 bridge has been through a lot. It’s endured decades of winter storms and wave action and closes for safety when sustained winds reach 50 mph. The 1993 Inaugural Day storm ravaged Puget Sound with winds reaching 94 mph and closed the bridge for several days. It’s been tolled, untolled, and tolled once again. It’s been hit by a barge. It’s had cables strung through its pontoons for additional post-tensioning.

During the 2008 Seafair Marathon, thousands of runners crossed the SR 520 floating bridge, filling its two eastbound lanes to capacity.
But through it all, the bridge’s work ethic remains strong. SR 520 is still the world’s longest floating bridge, and it still carries thousands more cars per day than it was designed to accommodate in the 1960s. Sometimes it even takes a break from car traffic: 520 hosted the Seafair Marathon in 2008!

Retirement is the next step, as crews continue work to assemble the new SR 520 floating bridge on Lake Washington, featuring a bicycle/pedestrian path, new transit/HOV lanes, and wider, safer shoulders.

This visualization of the new SR 520 floating bridge looking east shows the bridge’s new transit/HOV lanes, bicycle/pedestrian path, wider shoulders, and sentinel architectural features.
The new floating bridge’s opening is on the horizon, and the bridge is expected to serve the region for 75 years or more. While it’s never easy seeing one’s replacement come onboard, today’s bridge can rest assured that it will be remembered and celebrated as a vital connection across decades of growth and development in the region.

Happy Birthday, SR 520 Bridge!

Those are our memories. What are yours? We’d love to hear from you. Hitch a ride on 520 Memory Lane to share your fondest 520 memory as a story, poem, photo or video. We’ll be posting them regularly throughout the month of August.