Monday, December 15, 2014

Why we spend millions to repaint bridges

The North Fork Lewis River Bridges
after their $12 million paint jobs.
By Tamara Hellman

Painting a bridge is a lot different than painting your house. Sure, it's nice to get a touch-up to improve your home's curb appeal. But for a bridge, it's more than just making it look pretty.

Painting helps preserve the roughly 3,500 bridges we manage around the state. The paint helps protect our bridges from the elements so everyone can use them for a longer period of time.

Here's an example. We just finished painting the North Fork Lewis River Bridges on I-5 south of Woodland. Both spans carry 65,000 vehicles a day on our state's primary north-south interstate highway.
Decades of wear, including rust and
peeling paint, on one of the bridges' trusses.
If we didn't paint these bridges, they would rust and deteriorate faster. The last time the North Fork Lewis River Bridges received a fresh coat, it was 1990. Since then, its "Cascade Green" color has worn off in spots and rust has formed on sections of the steel. Without a proper touch-up, the rust would spread and deteriorate the steel structure, causing it to weaken. Eventually, the bridge would not be able to carry the load it once did. As a result, freight haulers would have to make long detours, putting a crimp on interstate commerce.

We try our best to paint bridges every couple decades to ensure they're properly protected. While it's cheaper to paint a bridge than it is to build a new one, it still costs a decent amount of money. For the North Fork Lewis River Bridges, the final bill was around $12 million– about 20 percent under budget, paid for by both state-gas-tax and federal-preservation funds.

Why so much?
Several factors contribute to the cost of a bridge-painting project, two of which are the most important:

1. Keeping people safe
With any project, we need to keep traffic moving while ensuring the safety of both the people traveling through our work zones and the crews working in them. A good portion of the cost covers safety measures, such as temporary barriers, traffic control and scaffolding. Lane closures are expensive and limit the times when contractors can do their work.  If we have to close lanes, we do it mostly at night or on weekends, when people travel less frequently. Temporary barriers also provide a safe work area for crews, as well as safe lanes of travel for drivers. Scaffolding is used so workers can get access to high and low points on the bridges, and cable systems are used to protect the workers from falling. Keeping everyone safe is our number-one priority.

Barriers provide safe lanes of travel for drivers and a safe place for crews to work.

2. Keeping the environment safe
We work to be good stewards of the environment– not simply because it's required as part of the permitting process, but because it's the right thing to do. During the North Fork Lewis River Bridges repainting project, contractor crews installed a containment system of tarps, collection tubes and vacuum systems to prevent the many layers of deteriorated paint, rust and other debris from falling into the river. They sandblasted the old lead-based paint off the steel and cleaned the rust and dirt off the bridge. The environmental-protection systems collected all the material so crews could dispose of it properly. This was done in sections to keep the metal from exposure to the elements for too long, preventing new rust from forming before each section could be painted.

Environmental protection
systems prevent debris
from falling in the river.
The end result
The new coats of paint are expected to help preserve the bridges for about 25 years. We maximize the life of the paint by cleaning our bridges between paintings to remove debris that can make them deteriorate faster.

We have a significant backlog of steel bridges that need to be repainted throughout our highway system. With less funding and the list of bridges growing, we have to make some tough decisions on prioritizing which ones get painted next. We are constantly exploring practical ways to maintain and preserve our bridges, and we do it with safety, cost savings and the environment in mind.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

During floods, better safe than sorry

By Barbara LaBoe

With heavy rain forecast for Western Washington this week, there's a good chance of minor and even major flooding of rivers. With that in mind, we thought we'd share some flood preparedness tips. We hope none of you have to leave your homes, of course, but with the amount of rain we get in our fair state, these are good tips to review at any time.

The main tip? Pay attention to weather reports and warnings and do NOT drive through standing water. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that's the cause of most flood-related deaths in Washington.  It only takes six inches of water to stall a vehicle and a foot to float most vehicles, so never take the chance that you'll be able to make it across a flooded road.

Here are some other tips from FEMA's about things you can do before and during a flood to keep you and your loved ones safe.

Before a flood:
  • Create an emergency kit with medical supplies, food and water, dry clothing and important documents stored in a waterproof container.
  • Get a battery-powered radio or a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Weather Radio with tone alert. Stock extra batteries for both.
  • Establish a family communications plan and meeting place. Know where you'll meet if you're separated during an evacuation. (For flooding in particular, make sure it's on high ground). Designate a relative or friend outside the area to check in with if you're separated and can't reach each other. Here are some examples.
  • Stash extra charging cords or portable chargers for your cellphones in your vehicles so you have them if you have to leave quickly.
If fish can swim across the highway, don't cross.
This is a photo of US 101 in 2007.
During flooding:
  • Remember your safety, not possessions, is your main priority. If you're told to evacuate, do so quickly.
  • Follow weather reports closely and be prepared to evacuate quickly, including having key items ready to grab as you leave.
  • If there's time before an evacuation -- and you can do it safely -- turn off utilities at the main switches or valves. Disconnect electrical appliances. Do NOT touch any electrical equipment if you are wet or are in standing water.
  • Secure your home. If there's time, move essential items to an upper floor.
  • Follow WSDOT's Facebook and Twitter pages for our flood response updates. Visit the traffic alerts page for up-to-date road closure information.
While evacuating:
  • Do not walk through moving water. Six inches of moving water can knock you down. If you have to cross water to get to safety, walk where the water is still. Use a stick to check the firmness of the ground in front of you.
  • Do not drive into flooded areas. You and your vehicle can be quickly swept away. If floodwaters rise around your car unexpectedly, abandon it and move to higher ground if you can do so safely.
  • Do not camp or park your vehicle along streams, rivers or creeks, even if they're not flooding at the moment. Conditions can change quickly.
Feeling more prepared? Good.
Now, just remember these tips and do your best to stay safe -- and dry -- in the days to come.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Motion-activated camera captures wildlife and an unexpected visitor

By Ann Briggs

They’re big, beautiful and majestic, but when they wander onto high-speed highways the results can be deadly; we’re talking about elk. Weighing in at more than 500 to 700 pounds, elk pose a serious safety risk for drivers and passengers in vehicle-wildlife collisions.

As part of an ongoing project, we’ve been studying wildlife crossings under Interstate 90 since 2010 in the North Bend area, where the number of elk-vehicle collisions has been increasing. On average, 16 elk-vehicle collisions have been recorded in this area each year over the past five years. In addition to tracking a growing urban elk herd, during this research we learned that one of two wildlife crossings in this area had the highest black bear use documented for any highway crossing structure in North America.

We’re developing plans to install an 8-foot-high fence along I-90 in the North Bend area. While a fence is an effective way to prevent collisions, it also blocks normal wildlife migration and may interfere with their access to habitats and food needed for survival. We use motion-triggered cameras at bridges and culverts to learn what species use these safe passages to cross under the interstate and how frequently. The information is vital to developing an effective project design that allows for safe wildlife crossings and addresses fencing needs.

All was well until Nov. 10, when we discovered that nine cameras in three locations had been stolen. The value of the stolen cameras, along with their protective steel boxes, media cards, rechargeable batteries and shielded padlocks, is estimated at $7,000. This is one of the biggest losses the program has experienced. Unfortunately, it’s brought our monitoring of structures in the North Bend area to an end; we’ve taken down all remaining cameras to prevent further loss to taxpayers.

A person of interest
We discovered that one camera, mounted in a tree not far from a stolen camera, photographed a person of interest carrying a long steel bar, his face covered by a bandana. We’d like to know who he is so that we can ask him some questions. If you recognize this person or have any other information, please call Kelly McAllister, WSDOT wildlife biologist, at 360 705-7426.

In the meanwhile, we’ll use the data we’ve gathered so far to move this important safety project forward. The fencing project is currently unfunded.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Looping you in on travel time data

by Mike Allende,

The recent run of extra-challenging slow morning commutes – especially southbound out of Everett – has made travel times a big point of discussion. With several commutes topping the 100-minute mark – topped by a 140-minute time in late September – our travel times page has been getting a workout.

Travel times posted on our website let people know what their
commute looks like before they leave their home.
They update every five minutes.
There are a number of reasons why this is happening, from dark and wet conditions, to collisions and breakdowns in the wrong place at the wrong time, to simply a lot of people going to the same place at the same time every day. But that’s not what this blog is about.

Instead, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at just how we compute those travel times. We know people rely on them to plan their trips, and we use technology and data to make them as accurate as we can. It’s important for us to provide useful data to the public. So how does it work? Glad you asked.

Travel times listed on highway message boards give commuters
an idea of how good (or bad) their commute ahead is.
About every half-mile or so on highways in the area, we have loop detectors embedded in the pavement. These loops measure the speed of each vehicle that goes over it, and the amount of time that vehicle is on the loop. It then sends that data to junction boxes nearby which calculate the information and sends it to our website, giving commuters the amount of time it should take them to get from particular points. Our data is accurate about 95 percent of the time and updates on our website every five minutes.

But we don’t just rely on our loops. From time to time, we also have people drive the various routes at different times of the day to calculate travel times. We’ve found that the results are usually close to what our posted travel times are, which gives people a good idea of about how long it will take them.

Each month, we look at data from the previous three months to come up with the average travel time. If you watch our travel time page closely, you’ll notice that the average travel time changes throughout the day. That’s because we come up with averages based on time and day of the week, so the average time for the drive from Everett to Seattle at 8:15 a.m. on a Tuesday may be different than the average time for the same route at 7:35 a.m. on a Thursday.

Loop sensors embedded in the pavement of highways measure
the speed of each vehicle going over them, which are then
converted to travel times.
Something else to keep in mind is that it’s hard to account for poor weather when it comes to travel times. Rain and ice changes driving conditions in a big way and makes commutes much less predictable. A collision or stall blocking a lane can be exacerbated in bad weather and all of a sudden a free-flowing drive can become jammed within a few minutes, though that may not be reflected right away in our travel times. That’s why it’s important to check in with other sources, from our @wsdot_traffic Twitter account, to our Seattle traffic page and the media to get updates on road conditions. If you’re driving, of course, stick to radio traffic reports – please don’t check Twitter or our traffic page on your mobile device if you’re behind the wheel.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Building bridges and engineers of the future!

Bridge testing
 by Tamara Hellman

Earlier this week, dozens of Vancouver-area high school students built and tested model bridges at the Balsa Wood Bridge Competition— but down the road, they just might be working on the real deal.

We played host to the second annual event at the Southwest Region headquarters building Thursday, Nov. 6. Students came equipped with model bridges they crafted out of only two items – wood and glue! In all, 14, two-person teams from Evergreen, Heritage, Union and Mountain View high schools participated in the event. Each team did research on the type of bridge they wanted to build and then documented their findings in workbooks.

Broken bridge
Patrick Gallagher, a member of our bridge-design team, kicked off the event. He shared with the students how he became an engineer after participating in a similar contest when he was in high school. The structure he made for that competition inspired him to become a bridge engineer and 14 years later he wound up building the LeBree Bridge in Chehalis.

Both the bridge and workbook were judged as part of the competition. Bridge models in the competition were judged on structural integrity. Each model was tested by adding sand to buckets attached to the bridge to determine how much weight it could support before breaking. Some of the bridges practically exploded, while others simply broke at the joint supporting the weight. Engineers and our staff judged the competition.

So, who won? Teams from Union High School swept the structural bridge-design competition, winning the top three spots. A team from Evergreen High School won top prize for the workbook competition, followed by Union and Heritage in second and third, respectively.

Winning Bridge
Many of us use bridges daily, but seldom do we see the team behind the design. Exposing these students to engineering as a career path is a positive investment in our future transportation needs.

We are working with the Evergreen School District to host the event at our regional headquarters again next year.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Are you prepared for winter driving?

By Barbara LaBoe

Have you ever dug your car out of 4-foot-tall snowbank? Watched the world whirl by as you spun out of control down an icy freeway? Or prayed your car would stop skidding before it slammed into that moose up ahead?

I have experienced all of the above – as both a driver and a passenger. They make for interesting stories now, but only because I had the right supplies to keep me safe and warm until help arrived.
After years in Alaska and Montana, my car is packed with blankets, food, a first aid kit and other winter supplies. But many of my friends – and even some coworkers who will remain nameless – can’t say the same. I’m always amazed when someone tells me they don’t have jumper cables or an ice scraper in their trunk. It seems as risky as starting out on a long trip without enough gas to get there.

I know it’s easy to procrastinate stocking your vehicle for winter weather. We’re all busy, and no one wants to think a crash or weather delay will happen to them.  But even if you’re the safest driver in the world, the driver next to you can still cause a chain reaction crash and the road ahead can still be blocked by snow.

I can’t inspect each of your cars, as I’ve done with some friends, but I can share this Winter Driving Supply Checklist to make winter driving prep easier. Take it with you shopping to ensure you get everything you need. Then use it as a packing guide for your vehicle. (Storing winter items in a plastic bin helps control clutter and also makes them easy to find in an emergency).

Printable version of Winter Driving Supply Checklist (pdf 176 kb)
Of course, I hope you’ll never need to use these items. I hope I won’t either. But past experience has taught me things like snow storms, road closures and even the sudden appearance of moose or deer can happen without warning. And I think we’ll all feel better knowing you’re prepared if something similar happens to you. Think of the great stories you’ll be able to tell.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Suspended use of guardrail end terminals in Washington

By Barbara LaBoe

You may have heard in news reports, on Oct. 20, a U.S. District Court in Texas found Trinity Industries, the company that manufactures the ET-Plus guardrail end terminal, failed to inform the Federal Highway Administration of design changes after initial approval of the system. As a proactive measure, we’ve halted the use of Trinity Industries’ ET-Plus guardrail end terminals in the state until concerns about their safety are resolved.

Safety remains our number one priority. To date, we are unaware of any problems with the Trinity end terminal in Washington, but we’re conducting a statewide review to see if they’ve performed any differently than others we use. We expect to have the review completed in three to four months.

In addition, we are working with FHWA and others to gather more information. Several other states have instituted similar moratoriums or bans pending further review and testing.

Federal highway officials asked Trinity to conduct more safety tests. A testing plan is due by the end of October and tests will be conducted as soon as possible. Trinity also has stopped shipment of its end terminals until the new safety tests are completed.

We do not have a specific database listing each end terminal in the state by manufacturer, but we are creating one as part of the statewide safety review. The end terminals we use are made by many different companies and often are installed by private firms as part of construction contracts. The manufacturer data exists, but it will take us some time to filter and organize into one database.
We’re continuing to monitor the situation and may take additional action as more information becomes available.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Snow brings an end to Artist Point road’s longest season

 by Tom Pearce

When the gate closes only hikers, skiers and
snowshoers can get to Artist Point.
After the longest season on record, we shut down State Route 542 just east of the Mount Baker Ski Area on Thursday, Oct. 23; the road to Artist Point is now closed for the winter. This section of highway will remain closed to vehicles until next summer.

It was a great year for Artist Point fans, who began calling in early June to find out if it was open. The earliest we’ve ever opened the road is June 30. We had callers from New York, California and Canada, among other locations. A couple of callers had guests coming in from Germany and the Middle East and wanted to take them up to see the breath-taking views.

Thousands of people travel to Artist Point each summer for views like this.
Artist Point was open for 115 days this year, eclipsing the old mark of 111 days set in 2004. The July 1 opening matched the second earliest, and the road has had just three later closing dates, the latest being Oct. 26, 2011. We’ve only been keeping records since 2002, but the area’s history reaches back much further.

Once snow starts to accumulate on the road, which reaches its high point at 5,080 feet, it’s time to close the gate. The road has lots of steep hills and curves without guardrails. The reason for no guardrails is that the 30 to 50 feet or more of packed snow that piles up most winters could wreck them. The tons of snow would destroy our signs as well, but we take them down each fall and put them back up in the spring.

The snow still can be 20 feet deep at the parking lot
when the road to Artist Point opens.
While we close the road with the first snow of the fall, Artist Point itself remains open all year. You can hike, snowshoe or ski in, but you can’t use any motorized vehicles like ATVs or snowmobiles. Just remember to be prepared for anything, because you travel at your own risk in back-country conditions.

For most of us, though, the closure of the road means the end of the season. We still have our memories, and can look forward to next summer when our workers start to clear the highway. That will take six weeks or more, depending on how much snow we get this winter. And next June, the phone will begin to ring again as folks anxiously await the opening of the road to Artist Point.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Got goats? We do and we’re using them to remove invasive weeds and save money!

 By Tamara Hellman

In a creative approach to getting more done with less, Heidi Holmstrom, one of our maintenance technicians from our Vancouver office, came up with the idea of using her pet herd of goats to remove invasive weeds like the Japanese knotweed. Seeds from the knotweed plant are transferred by water and sediment; quickly becoming a big problem in Clark County.

Front row: Choco, Buttons, Fergie and Taffy.
Second row: Daisy and Irma.
Third row: Mocha, Latte, Cappuccino and Breve.

Heidi’s herd of 15 goats resided in an acre and a half of land this summer off State Route 503 near Brush Prairie. The area was fenced to make sure the goats did not take off or block the roadway. During the summer the group of goats chomped away at the invasive Japanese knotweed; but also other weeds like sweet pea, blackberry vines and scotch broom. Not only do the goats get a decent meal out of the deal, their two-stage digestion process ensures the invasive plants do not re-root and continue to spread.

Maintenance Tech Heidi Holmstrom with a baby goat.
The short-term saving for maintenance equipment and staff is about $15,000, with the only costs being some animal crackers to treat the goats and Heidi’s time to check on her babies.

Another benefit of going goat is we avoid costly herbicide on the knotweed. The most effective application, aside from using goats, is injecting herbicide directly into the root of each plant. That process takes time, equipment and staff hours away from other roadway maintenance work. Cutting down the Japanese knotweed isn’t a good option as it becomes a bigger problem, because segments will re-root themselves, becoming brand new plants that just keep multiplying.

Irma is ready for her close-up.
Aside from being a fun approach to a serious problem, goats are an eco-friendly, low carbon-footprint alternative to weed control. Previously maintenance crews would have to go into this area with gas powered tools and use herbicides. The other day, I was driving and couldn’t see around a corner. It made me realize how important the work of these goats was.

The goats are on winter break, but will be back to work in the spring and hungry for more.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Flashing lights signal start of I-405 express toll lane equipment install

By Emily Pace Glad

Many drivers have seen a blue flash above the HOV lane on Interstate 405 north of State Route 522. A few have asked us what it is. It’s part of the toll equipment that will anchor 17 miles of new express toll lanes on I-405 between Bellevue and Lynnwood in late 2015.
If you drive I-405, you may have noticed toll equipment above
the lanes in certain areas. This equipment is similar to
what’s on SR 520.

Throughout the year, crews have been installing towering green structures over the roadway, known as gantries. Now they are outfitting those gantries with the gadgets that will allow tolling to work, including toll readers, cameras and special beacons that help Washington State Patrol with enforcing proper use of the lanes.

The blue flash you’ve seen is from testing the toll cameras that will help us take photos of a vehicle’s license plate.  You may have seen a similar flash if you’ve used the SR 520 bridge. After we install the cameras on I-405, we need to make sure they are ready to take photos day and night as we work to get the system up and running and ultimately start tolling in 2015.

Crews will wrap up installing toll equipment north of SR 522 later this year. After the new year, they’ll install equipment between Northeast Sixth Street in Bellevue and SR 522. Once everything is set up there’s still a lot of fine tuning and testing to be done before we can open the express toll lanes to drivers. In the meantime, no tolls will be charged, and the HOV lane will continue to operate the same way it does today.

The work we’re doing is part of a project to convert the I-405 HOV lane between Bellevue and Lynnwood to an express toll lane. In addition, between Northeast Sixth Street in Bellevue and SR 522 in Bothell, we’re building a second express toll lane to form a dual express toll lane system in both directions of I-405.

Why build express toll lanes?
If you use I-405, we don’t need to remind you that the highway experiences some of the worst traffic in the state, and the HOV lanes are often as congested as the regular lanes. New express toll lanes will let drivers choose to travel faster by paying a toll. The regular lanes will remain free for all drivers.

Toll rates will adjust depending on traffic to guarantee a faster, more reliable trip for express toll lane users including transit, carpoolers, or folks driving alone. As more drivers use the express toll lanes, traffic moves faster in the regular lanes.

We’re still working with the Washington State Transportation Commission to finalize a number of key decisions about the lanes, including carpool exemptions and rates, so stay tuned for more information early next year. 

Still have questions about how the lanes will work? Check out our new FAQs.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A sincere Thank You!

By Cara Mitchell

Many drivers took our warning and stayed away from I-5
in Olympia during the expansion joint replacement work.
We would like to sincerely thank drivers for heeding warnings about potential backups and responding accordingly by staying off Interstate 5 and US 101 in Olympia while contractor crews completed work over two high-impact weekends replacing a 28-year-old bridge expansion joint.

Your response to our request is the reason our flow maps on the Olympia Traffic Camera page stayed green, meaning free-flowing traffic, the majority of time over both weekends. Just how light was traffic? On Saturday, Sept. 14, between noon and 6 p.m., traffic on southbound I-5 in Olympia was 51 percent less than it was the previous Saturday. This trend continued into the following weekend, where we saw over a 60 percent reduction in traffic.  The light traffic allowed us to accelerate construction plans by closing lanes early, with the end result that northbound I-5 lanes and ramps opened a full day early on both weekends, and southbound I-5 lanes and ramps opened several hours early on both weekends. That’s what you call a win/win!

We asked the public to alter their plans, take the not-so-convenient scenic routes, and try Amtrak Cascades. You responded overwhelmingly, and for that we are full of gratitude.

As a reminder, whenever you see the orange cones for construction, bridge work or maintenance activities, please “give our crews a brake.” Together we can preserve and maintain your highway infrastructure in a safe manner.

I-5 Stillaguamish River Bridge project making good progress

By Tom Pearce

Replacing an 81-year-old bridge deck full of ruts, cracks and holes is hard enough. Add to that the bridge being on a heavily-used highway, and you've got some serious challenges. But in the case of the I-5 Stillaguamish River Bridge, our contractor crews are rising to the occasion.

Caption below photo
I-5 Stillaguamish River Bridge
size 18 pothole.
While the steel superstructure of the bridge is holding up well, the old deck was worn out. We've repaired it a number of times, but with exposed rebar and potholes that dwarf a size 13 boot, it was time for a full replacement.

The $8.7 million project is scheduled for completion in mid-November. Since we reduced traffic to two lanes in each direction and shifted southbound I-5 to half of the northbound I-5 bridge, the contractor, Mowat Construction, has made good progress.

Working from north to south, the old southbound deck was removed. That took careful planning and a lot of skill. The 607-foot long, 48-foot wide, 8-inch thick concrete deck was cut into roughly 6-foot by 8-foot pieces that weigh up to 4½ tons, then each piece was removed by a track hoe fitted with a special lifting attachment.

Caption below photo
I-5 Stillaguamish River Bridge removed 6-foot by 8-foot deck section.
As the deck was being removed, another crew followed along to inspect the underlying steel framework. We were pleasantly surprised by what they found – most of the steel was in very good condition. We had to replace just four pieces, like this stringer, one of 216 that run lengthwise to support the deck. It’s a lot stronger than it looks, but we wouldn't want to leave it there for another 50-plus years, which is how long the new deck is built to last. The rest of the original steel was checked, then sandblasted and repainted to protect it for decades to come.

Caption below photo
I-5 Stillaguamish River Bridge rusted stringer.
Crews were still working on the steel framework when the concrete forms were placed. Once that was complete, the green coated rebar was put down. That will keep the concrete strong for another 50 years or more. The coating will help keep the rebar from rusting.

Caption below photo
I-5 Stillaguamish River Bridge green coated rebar.
There still is a lot of time-consuming work to be done, but we’re on schedule to open as planned in mid-November. Once the new deck is poured, probably starting in early October, it will take about three weeks to cure. When that’s done, the deck must be grooved to improve traction in the rain, the guard rails will be reinstalled and the road will be restriped for three lanes of traffic, along with other minor work. 

As the deck cures, the contractor crews won’t just be sitting around watching concrete harden. They’ll be busy repaving the bridge approaches. After all, the approaches have been handling traffic for 81 years too.

When everything is ready, the contractor will remove the barriers on southbound I-5 to restore traffic flow onto the new bridge deck. For northbound traffic, it’ll take a few days to remove the concrete barriers from the middle of the northbound I-5 bridge, then a couple more days to restripe the northbound bridge for three lanes, but we expect to have I-5 back to its original configuration, just in time for holiday travelers.

A note on traffic
Traffic flow was a big concern when this project was being developed. We had to take an interstate with three lanes in each direction, put in crossover lanes and reduce it to two lanes that are more narrow than normal, all while sharing a bridge that is wide enough for four lanes, but with small shoulders. 

At the Stillaguamish River, the two bridges handle a total of 80,000 to 100,000 vehicles per day. We anticipated backups at peak hours, but they've been less than we expected. The longest delays typically have been about 15 minutes, as some drivers have adjusted their travel times or selected alternate routes when their destination was Stanwood or Arlington. 

We appreciate the patience of motorists through this project. You've helped keep the backups manageable. Keep it up; in less than two months you’ll have a brand new bridge deck!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Washington’s newest mega project: Fish barrier corrections

By Ann Briggs

You've probably heard about our four “mega projects:” Alaskan Way Viaduct, State Route 520 Bridge, Interstate 405 Corridor and the North Spokane Corridor, but did you hear about the newest one? It's called “Fish Passage” and it's currently unfunded.

Statewide, there are about 6,500 culverts on the state highway system. Of those, about 3,200 are in fish-bearing streams. We're required by law to maintain culverts, fish ways and bridges so that fish have unrestricted passage to upstream and downstream habitat.
SR 530 Moose Creek culvert before correction.

A recent federal court injunction requires the state to step up its fish barrier corrections in the northwest part of the state. About 989 culverts are affected by this court action, with 825 of them having significant habitat. To comply with the injunction, we'll need to fix about 30 to 40 barriers each year for the next 15 years.

The amount available for this work in the current biennium is $36 million. Right now we estimate approximately $300 million is needed each two-year budget cycle through 2029-31. The initial estimated cost to comply with the injunction is $2.4 billion at the low end, and likely to go up. As we do more detailed design work on a first round of 34 projects, we are finding that costs are higher than initial estimates for those projects. That's mostly due to limited site-specific information when the initial cost estimates were developed. We anticipate cost estimates for the entire program will stabilize as we learn more about individual site characteristics.

We've been working to improve access to habitat for fish since the 1990s. About 280 fish-barrier correction projects have opened access to more than 975 miles of potential fish habitat.
SR 530 Moose Creek culvert after correction.

Why do we do this? It's part of our agency's goals to protect natural habitat and water quality. It also supports the Governor's goals for the environment and salmon recovery.

So how did we get here? You have to remember that much of our state's infrastructure was built decades ago. Many of these culverts were installed simply for the purpose of conveying water, before we had the science and understanding of the needs of fish.

In some areas, like Interstate 90 at Snoqualmie Pass, projects that improve fish passage have improved conditions for other species, allowing deer, bear and other wildlife to cross safely under or over the busy freeway lanes – that's safer for drivers too!

Visit our Fish Passage project website for an interactive map of all barrier locations and project details.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

One weekend down, one to go

By Doug Adamson

Our crews have knocked out one of two high-traffic-impact weekends on I-5 at the US 101 interchange in Olympia. They return during the weekend of Sept. 19 to complete the effort to replace a troubled bridge joint that’s been hammered by heavy traffic since Ronald Reagan was President of the United States.

Because of the location of the work zone – a key interchange with limited alternate routes – we asked drivers to stay away. Drivers did just that.

We offer immense gratitude for drivers who avoided I-5 in Olympia during the weekend of Sept 12.

We thank drivers for:
  • Avoiding the area.
  • Traveling earlier or later in the day.
  • Using inconvenient alternative routes.
  • Staying focused while driving through the work zone.
We warned of possible 14-mile backups
We saw virtually no backups in either direction of I-5, and minimal backups on US 101 approaching I-5. Why didn’t those lengthy backups develop? It’s because drivers took our advice to heart. Drivers who avoided the area did their part. The substantial reduction in traffic even allowed crews to finish and reopen the northbound lanes 25 hours earlier than scheduled. It also helped keep the roadway open for first responders, police, and medics. 

Green = good! This traffic map image shows that on Saturday, Sept. 13,
at 3:03 p.m., traffic in both directions of I-5 was free-flowing.
WSDOT thanks drivers for responding to our request to avoid the area!
Crews used last weekend to create two separate work zones on northbound and southbound I-5.
The concentration of vehicles in the photo are where crews were excavating
old concrete, removing the old expansion joint and pouring new concrete
in the northbound lanes of I-5. They created a twin work zone
in southbound I-5 and repeated the process.

Crews complete finishing touches after replacing a failing
I-5 expansion joint in Olympia. After the concrete cured
and traffic control was removed, the roadway was
reopened to traffic.
The bridge joint spans 171 feet of northbound and southbound I-5 lanes and US 101 ramps. Crews completed half of the project during the weekend of Sept. 12. They will return to complete the job during the weekend of Sept. 19.

So you have one more weekend?

Half of the expansion joint concrete work was completed over the weekend of Sept. 12. Crews will return again over the weekend of Sept. 19 to finish the job. Because of the pinch point, we’re again asking drivers to avoid I-5 in Olympia.  Unless drivers change their travel plans, those mega-backups could quickly develop. This second time around, an additional restriction will be in place - from late Thursday, Sept. 18, to Monday morning, Sept. 22, the speed limit on northbound I-5 will be reduced to 35 mph through the work zone. Drivers on Friday can expect backups on northbound I-5 as well as on the southbound US 101 on-ramp to northbound I-5. During the weekend, there could be backups in both directions since I-5 will have reduced lanes in each direction both day and night.

During the upcoming weekend, you can see with this over-simplified
graphic that drivers will encounter closed lanes.
Northbound I-5 traffic will be shifted to the right. Vehicles will travel in an area – called a gore point – that’s generally closed to traffic. Southbound I-5 won’t have a traffic shift, but the lanes will also be reduced. The southbound I-5 exit to northbound US 101 will remain open. Note: both nearby on-ramps to I-5 (Henderson/14th Ave SE on-ramp to southbound I-5 and Deschutes Way to northbound I-5) will be closed through the weekend.

Traffic wasn’t bad at all last weekend
We ask drivers to not become complacent about the upcoming weekend given the light traffic volumes last weekend.  Our advice for the weekend of Sept. 19 remains the same: Avoid I-5 in Olympia. If you must go, travel early in the morning or late at night.

Know before you go
Check Olympia area travel cameras before you leave. Give yourself information about whether you need to avoid the area or take an alternate route.

See the project page for more information: I-5 - Vicinity Tumwater Blvd to Gravelly Lake Dr - Paving

New and improved text messaging….

by Jeremy Bertrand

You asked, and we listened. Using your feedback, we’ve made some upgrades to our text messaging service. Instead of getting a text message from a different number every time you receive one of our alerts, each text will come from one number: 468311. No more getting texts from a different number every time, which will allow you to add that number to your address book and keep those texts more organized on your device. But wait, there’s more.

We’ve also added the ability for you to subscribe and unsubscribe to our two most popular text topics, Hood Canal and 520 bridge openings, by sending a simple text to start and stop the service.

Remember, because the east navigation channel of the 520 bridge is temporarily blocked by construction equipment, we have to open the bridge for marine traffic more often. To make sure you know about those openings, we send two text messages to 520 bridge alert subscribers, the first two hours before the opening and the second thirty minutes before the opening, so that you know when it’s ok to travel across the bridge.

We’ve also made it much easier to manage your 520 bridge alert subscription. To subscribe to texts about 520 bridge openings, send a text with the words “WSDOT 520” to 468311 and you’ll start receiving those updates. To stop, send a text with the words “WSDOT stop” and you will no longer receive them.

The Hood Canal bridge also opens for marine traffic. To be notified about those openings, just send a text with the words “WSDOT hood” to 468311 and you’ll start receiving text updates. To stop getting those updates, send a text to 468311 with the words “WSDOT stop” and you’ll immediately be unsubscribed.

Thanks for letting us know what you wanted from the service, hope you like these improvements!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The I-5 Bridge Joint Repair survival guide

 by Cara Mitchell

Whenever we can, we work at night so motorists can get where they need to go during the day. Once in a while, a project comes along that doesn’t allow night work exclusively. Mid-September in Olympia is one of those times.  Mark your calendars, because over the weekends of Sept. 12 and 19, a planned I-5 expansion joint repair near Olympia’s Capitol Lake will require day and night lane and ramp closures. Traffic models show that even with up to 30 percent of motorists going elsewhere those two weekends, we can still expect to see miles-long backups on I-5 and on US 101 approaching I-5.  This work is weather dependent. In the event of rain, the weekend of Sept. 26 is a backup weekend for the work to take place.

The intersection of I-5 and US 101 is the site for the bridge expansion
joint repair project planned for the weekends of Sept. 12 and 19.
Best advice?  Avoid the area!  If you must drive on I-5 through Olympia during those two weekends, come through before 10 a.m. (the earlier the better), or wait until after 8 p.m. (the later the better).  In addition to the backups, expect narrowed and realigned lanes and closed ramps. Closure details can be found on our project website. Here’s why the work must be done.

Construction details
Our construction crews are repairing a 28-year old expansion joint that spans the width of northbound and southbound I-5, and some ramps, near Capitol Lake in Olympia. The concrete surrounding the joints has deteriorated and has already led to some events in which the steel in the expansion joint caused damage to vehicles.  The synthetic rubber seals that are meant to keep the joint waterproof are also broken, allowing water to leak through the joints and cause other concerns. Over those two weekends, we will remove and re-pour the concrete headers around the expansion joint and, in subsequent nights, replace the old rubber seals with a silicone-based seal.

Expansion joints are a critical part of a bridge’s infrastructure. The joints allow the bridge to move and flex with changing traffic and weather conditions. Around the state (most recently, in the greater Seattle area) we have been working hard this summer to repair or replace failing bridge expansion joints. As with our highways, the expansion joints are aging and need attention.  If ignored, failed expansion joints can result in emergency lane closures at very inopportune times.  We want to repair these joints under scheduled closures before they fail.

Keep traffic moving

We are asking motorists to avoid this area of I-5 and US 101 in Olympia.  Over a typical Saturday and Sunday, this stretch of I-5 is traveled by more than 276,000 vehicles. Mix in multiple lane closures in both directions, with motorists trying to get to sporting events, concerts or even a quick trip to the mall, and suddenly  too many vehicles are traveling on too little pavement. The outcome is - you guessed it -gridlock resulting in miles-long backups.

We need your help during the weekends of Sept. 12 and 19. At the risk of repeating ourselves, avoid using I-5 and US 101 in Olympia.  If you must go, plan ahead. If you know the back roads, take them, but keep in mind local side streets around the work zone will see an increase in congestion too. If you’re traveling from south of Olympia north to Tacoma or Seattle, look at alternate state routes such as SR 12, SR 7, SR 702, US 12, or US 101. If you must take I-5, plan on traveling before 10 a.m. or after 8 p.m. to avoid lengthy backups. If you’re heading south to Portland, or to the coastal beaches, the same advice applies.

Our goal with every project, including this one, is to get the construction work done as quickly and safely as possible with the least effect on the traveling public. This particular type of work requires that concrete be removed, re-poured and cured in the same timeframe. After careful consideration, we determined that condensing the work into two admittedly difficult travel weekends was still the best work method that would have the least impact on traffic.

What if I can’t change my travel plans?
Let’s be frank – things are going to be rough. In addition to exploring alternate routes or taking alternative modes of transportation, expect to sit in long backups for both north and southbound I-5, and eastbound US 101 in Olympia. Make sure your gas tank is full or your battery fully charged before heading out. If traveling with kids, be prepared to hear the classic question, “Are we there yet” multiple times. Pack your patience and avoid road rage.

We will have additional Incident Response Teams pre-positioned in the work zone to clear any collisions that might occur. The Washington State Patrol will also be on scene to keep an eye on things.

Stay engaged with road conditions over both weekends. Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to WSDOT’s GovDelivery to receive information via email or text on current traffic conditions.

Visit our I-5 Olympia Expansion Joint Repair website to learn more information.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Another major closure in the books

 By Lynn Peterson

What a summer.

Wildfires, flash floods, tornados. Our state has faced no shortage of unplanned challenges recently. In addition to causing more serious repercussions, these challenges strain our transportation system, particularly when they hit during a busy season of planned construction closures. Add it all up and you end up with a predictable outcome: delays and frustration for travelers trying to reach their destination.

New SR 99 at Broad Street
Today, as scheduled, we wrapped up a four-day closure of State Route 99 in Seattle that included two rare weekday closures of the highway. Before the closure started, we asked you to do your part to help. We suggested you plan ahead, change your travel mode or revise your commute, among other measures aimed at reducing congestion. As you did during major lane reductions on I-90 last month, you delivered. Traffic was more challenging than usual, but we expected that. And had you not heeded our suggestions, things would have been much, much worse.


Of course when you’re sitting in traffic, it’s easy to forget that the headaches we’re enduring have tangible benefits. In the case of the four-day SR 99 closure, we came away with plenty to show.

Most notably, crews building the future north portal of the SR 99 tunnel demolished and replaced the section of SR 99 that crosses above Broad Street in Seattle. It looks easy in this time-lapse video, but completing this work and reopening the highway in four days was no small feat. 

During the weekend portion of the closure, crews replaced 81 concrete panels on SR 99 south of downtown, repaired an expansion joint at the Seneca Street off-ramp from northbound SR 99 and cleared ivy from the Alaskan Way Viaduct to make future maintenance of the structure easier.

With more than 18,000 miles of highway under our care, we’re always getting ready for the next big push. There will be more closures, more travel challenges. But please be assured that we spend a significant amount of time and energy coordinating our work in advance, and doing everything we can to minimize delays for the traveling public.

When the next big closure approaches, we’ll again ask for your help. Let me say in advance, on behalf of your fellow travelers, thank you. Your help, and your patience, benefit everyone as we work together to maintain and improve our state’s transportation system.

What does it take to build the world’s longest floating bridge?

By Ian Sterling

It takes people – a whole lot of them. As Labor Day approaches, we at WSDOT tip our hardhats to the men and women building and maintaining our state’s transportation system, with a special nod to the more than 1,400 workers involved in one of the largest construction undertakings in state history.

Did you know that the SR 520 Bridge Replacement and HOV Program is actually a series of separate projects being built at several sites around the state? These locations include:
Brandy Cunningham, a traffic control supervisor
Making it all happen are workers like Brandy Cunningham, a traffic control supervisor and member of Laborers’ Local 440. The mother of two has spent most of her weekends and many an early morning this summer directing drivers around roadwork on the Eastside Transit and HOV Project. Cunningham says it’s cool to be working on something that thousands of people use every day. She tells us she has a  sense of pride anytime she drives by the project because she has a role in it. One of her favorite parts of the job is when drivers give her team a wave. She says the crew gets to know the faces of a lot of people driving by and enjoys it when they get a smile or a wave. Keeping drivers safe and moving through the construction is a critical role.

Tyler Rabey is a member of Carpenters Local 317. Aberdeen-born-and-raised, he completed a two-year carpentry program at Grays Harbor College and now helps build the massive pontoons that make up the backbone of the new floating bridge. He says it’s incredible how they’re built and it’s amazing to be part of their construction. He also notes that the job has allowed him to buy a house and a nice car before most of his friends of the same age. His training and work on the pontoons have launched his career.
Operator trainee Pernell Vuepa

Operator trainee Pernell Vuepa starts his day at 3:30 a.m., making the commute from his home in Auburn to work on the Eastside Transit and HOV Project. The heavy-equipment operator has a job that any child with a Tonka truck would envy. He says kids come to watch as he operates a giant loader. He tells us little kids like to see big things – like concrete forms, piles of dirt and other objects he spends his days moving into place. According to Pernell, the best part of his job is getting to do something different every day. He’s a proud member of the Operating Engineers Local 612.

One of the most unique jobs anywhere has to belong to Daniel Nielsen, a fourth-generation pile driver with Local 196. He’s in charge of bolting together the football-field-size longitudinal pontoons on Lake Washington—a key to the Floating Bridge and Landings Project. He notes the bolts used are up to 20 feet long and weigh roughly 400 pounds each. To reach the latest pair of pontoons being joined, he walks on the ones already connected. Every time two more pontoons are bolted together, his on-foot commute along the pontoons increases. He tells us it currently takes about 15-minutes to make the walk.

Daniel Nielsen, a fourth-generation pile driver
These are just a few of the many faces making the new SR 520 bridge and corridor a reality. From scuba divers in the waters of Grays Harbor to crane operators perched high above Lake Washington, well over one thousand individuals are laboring every day to rebuild this vital corridor. Other SR 520 construction workers we talked to for this story included Randy Janson, a concrete foreman in Aberdeen and member of Cement Masons Local 528; Mark Folk, a former jeweler now doing carpentry work on the new floating bridge’s east approach; and Sergio Carlos, a member of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters who’s building concrete forms on the highway’s Eastside corridor.

On this Labor Day, we say, “Thanks, we can’t do it without you,” and salute them all for a job well done.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Get ready: Four-day closure of SR 99 begins Friday at 10 p.m.

By Chad Schuster

In October 2011, we closed State Route 99 through Seattle for more than a week so we could demolish and replace the southern mile of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Traffic was a challenge during the closure, but with help from flexible and patient commuters, we made it through and ended up with a better highway to show for it.

On Friday night, we’ll begin another extended closure of SR 99, this time a four-day closure that will enable crews to demolish and replace (pdf 2.5 mb) a section of the highway at the north end of downtown. As it did three years ago, we expect that closing SR 99 will cause congestion and perhaps frustration among travelers trying to get to and through Seattle. But with your help, we’ll manage, and we’ll complete important work related to our efforts to replace the remaining section of the viaduct.
Please plan ahead for SR 99 closures from Friday night, Aug. 22 to Wednesday morning, Aug. 27. Here are the details:
  • From 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 22 to 5 a.m. Monday, Aug. 25, SR 99 will be closed in both directions from the West Seattle Bridge to Valley Street.
    • Northbound SR 99 will be open from South Royal Brougham Way and southbound SR 99 will be open from Columbia Street until midnight on Friday, Aug. 22 for exiting Seahawks traffic.
  • From 5 a.m. Monday, Aug. 25 to 5 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 27, SR 99 will be closed in both directions from the south end of the Battery Street Tunnel to Valley Street.

Lots of work to do

It’s never easy to close a major highway, but it might make it easier to accept if you know how much work we’ll be able to accomplish due to the sacrifices being made by you and your fellow travelers. The main need for the closure is to allow crews building the future north portal of the SR 99 tunnel to demolish and replace the section of SR 99 that crosses above Broad Street. To minimize the need for additional closures, separate crews will complete the following work elsewhere along the SR 99 corridor during this time:
  • Utility work at Harrison Street
  • Concrete panel replacement in SODO
  • Expansion joint repairs on the viaduct near the Seneca Street off-ramp
  • Ivy removal from the viaduct

Driver tips 

The closure will likely cause backups on city streets and I-5. Travelers should consider the following:
Thanks in advance for your patience, and for doing your part to minimize congestion as we build a better SR 99 corridor.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Sometimes Mother Nature calls the shots

by Meagan Lott

It’s no shock that Mother Nature calls the shots when it comes to the weather. This week we saw a grab bag of different kinds of weather from lightning and flash flooding to even a small tornado touching down in the Tri-Cities.

We try really hard to work around the weather and most of the time we can, but safety is our number one priority and earlier this week it wasn’t something we were going to gamble with.

On Tuesday, we planned to close Snoqualmie Pass for rock blasting at 7:30 p.m. Each blast takes approximately 5,000 pounds of explosives and in order to be ready for the closure, crews have start prepping the blast area early in the morning.

As we got closer to the 7:30 p.m. closure, the lightning meters we have installed on the pass started detecting lightning strikes within 15 miles of the blasting area. Then it jumped to just one mile. As part of Washington State Law (WAC 96-52-67055) and for the safety of drivers and our crews, we had to close the pass immediately. Unfortunately, this didn’t leave us much time to let drivers know that the pass was closing an hour-and-a-half earlier than planned.

Fortunately, we were able to detonate the explosives, clean-up debris from the highway and get the pass back open to traffic within an hour.

We apologize for those of you that may have been stuck in the closure, but again it wasn’t to cause an inconvenience, it was for your safety. In the four years we have been closing the pass for rock blasting, this is the first time we have ever had to close early due to weather.
In case Mother Nature throws us for a loop again, make sure to follow us on Twitter @snoqualmiepass, check us out on Facebook or visit the What’s Happening on I-90 Web page.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Property for sale: must like fast moving vehicles, occasional traffic noise

 By Ann Briggs

We work with property owners to purchase land needed
for highway improvements, such as this roundabout.
At some point in our life most of us will buy or sell a house, and we’ll call on a real estate agent to help us through that complicated process. Buying and selling property for transportation projects is equally complex, and we have a team of Real Estate Service specialists who act as real estate agents, relocation specialists, property managers, title researchers and appraisers to get us through the maze.

We auction off properties that are no longer needed for highway purposes. Often, these surplus properties are strips of land next to a highway, parcels that were used for construction and are no longer needed, or former pit, quarry and maintenance sites.

Occasionally a large parcel such as the 55-acre lot in the city of Renton, which is now being offered for bids, is placed on the auction block. We bought the site in the late 1950s and used it as sand and gravel pit.

Revenue from the sale of surplus properties goes back to the motor vehicle fund to be used for transportation purposes. Since 2009, the surplus property program has generated more than $20 million. That money is made available to city, county and state agencies to fund road, street and highway projects.

What’s a first step in building a road? Having someplace to put it

A key difference in our buying process that you might not experience when buying a house, is the property we’re looking at is usually not on the market for sale. We try to find transportation solutions that have the least amount of impact on homes and businesses, but that’s not always possible, especially in urban areas. That’s where our Real Estate Services team steps in.

Just as your real estate agent looks at comparable home sales in the area when you are buying or selling a home, we do the same when establishing a fair value for the property we want to acquire. We use a market analysis for properties under $25,000 and do a full appraisal for anything over. With this information, we begin good faith negotiations (pdf 367 kb) with the owner. At times, we may enlist a third-party mediator if negotiations stall. Only when all else fails, do we use the state’s right of eminent domain and go through condemnation proceedings.

When a property is acquired, the state pays all taxes and fees that would normally be charged to the seller. The reason is that the seller did not initiate the sale – we did. If a property is acquired and affects the ability of the occupancy to continue, we help the owner, tenant or business find a replacement property, cover all costs associated with moving and even help renters with payments for a set number of months, if they are relocated to a higher-cost rental unit.

It’s our job to ensure that we make good use of taxpayers’ money and deliver needed transportation improvements, but we also recognize that property owners have invested a great deal – monetarily and emotionally – in their property. In the end, we want them to come away feeling that they were treated fairly.