Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Partnering with the public is key to our plans for State Route 530

Rebuilding the road that reconnects Oso, Darrington and Arlington begins with the people most affected by its absence. Together with Snohomish County, we have been working with those who lost loved ones and the communities and tribes affected to shape our plans for short-term access to and from Darrington and the clearing and rebuilding State Route 530.

Over the past several weeks, we’ve met with families, communities and tribes to listen to their priorities, concerns, comments and questions so that we could use that information to help us move forward. Based on those conversations, we were able to work with our partners at Seattle City Light to open the access road with a plan that fits within the needs of the community, such as daytime access for logging trucks, and around the clock availability for commuters. This short-term solution is a start. For many, this road is one small step back to a new normal.

Last night, we returned to Darrington to follow-up with the community as more work remains to fully reconnect Darrington in the long term.

Snohomish County updates
Snohomish County, in partnership with local geology experts, continues to monitor the slide area. Small pieces of the hill near the edges of the slide continue to slough off, which is expected. In addition, crews expect to complete their widening of the pilot channel for the river today, April 30. The new channel ranges in width from 60 to 80 feet. County engineers and river experts are studying at what the river will do this fall during high water flows, and how the slide has and will continue to affect fish runs. 

The Seattle City Light Access  road is open to LOCALS or those with business ties to local communities
Many folks are already seeing their commute times drop significantly now the emergency bypass road is open. We heard a number of suggestions going forward for how to manage the access road including revising the current schedule and watering down the road to prevent dust. Since this is Day Two, we are still keeping an eye on the traffic using the road to see if additional adjustments are needed. We will keep the local communities posted if there are changes to the schedule. Our SR 530 webpage will be updated with any new developments and provides information on using the access road.

Clearing SR 530
We provided an update on the contract for removing material from SR 530. That contract will remove roughly 90,000 cubic yards of material – which equates to nearly 9,000 dump truck loads of material, or 9 times the amount of concrete used to build CenturyLink Field. Bids close today and we hope to have a prime contractor in place by May 5.

Rebuilding SR 530
The long-term reconstruction of SR 530 is complex. The slide changed the entire geography and hydrology of the area. The river is in a different place and the soils around the roadway have changed considerably. All of these factors are being considered as we move forward in reconstruction. As a result, we will need to raise the height of the new road 10 to 20 feet in places to meet the new natural challenges of the area.

We will use a design-build contract for highway reconstruction. Part of the goal in that contract is determining a way to get people moving on the highway as it is reconstructed. Our goal is to award the contract by the end of May and have work start in early June. The beginning of that work will focus on the design of the new road and the goal is to open the road to both lanes of traffic by early October.

Why are we rebuilding SR 530 along the existing alignment?
Funds from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will reimburse rebuilding the road on its current alignment. If we built it elsewhere, we would need to find funding to do that work and that would take a considerable amount of time and legislative action.

In addition, the existing alignment is the best option relative to the river’s location and other areas where past slides have occurred.

Many have also asked if we can add shoulders and turning lanes. These are considered improvements to the road and may not be reimbursable. FHWA emergency funds allow for replacing a roadway as it was. This means, improvements must be agreed upon by both us and the FHWA. Raising the highway is also considered an improvement, however FHWA recognizes that the new road must be raised to accommodate the changes in conditions within the valley. We will continue to work on ‘betterments’ and update the community when we have news to share.

Local employment and contracting opportunities
There are a number of guidelines that we must follow to use federal funding. We know communities want the work to clear and rebuild the highway to remain local. While we can’t give preferential treatment to locals or incentivize prime contractors to hire local, we can work with prime contractors to create opportunities for sub-contractors. We will arrange a meet and greet forum for the prime contractors to meet with local interested subcontractors.

We know this is a priority to the communities and will continue to work on this important issue.
Please check our webpage to keep up-to-date with employment and contracting opportunities.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Pedal power rules in May

By Ann Briggs

Governor Inslee has proclaimed May as Bike Month (pdf 140 kb) in Washington in support of the national campaign. This is a great opportunity to dust off the bicycle that’s been sitting in your garage and give cycling for transportation a try.
Cyclists travel over the Hood Canal Bridge

You’ll feel better knowing that you’re helping to reduce carbon emissions, getting some exercise and saving money on fuel and parking, as well as reducing wear and tear on your vehicle.

There are Bike Month activities taking place all across the state. Our partners at Washington Bikes have a list of bicycle commuter challenges in communities statewide. Here is a list of key dates you’ll want to keep in mind:
  • May 1 – 31, National Bike Month
  • May 7, Bike to School Day – keep an eye out for children on bikes
  • May 12 – 16, Bike to Work Week
  • May 16, Bike to Work Day
Whether you’re a seasoned rider or just starting out, you’ll want to check out WSDOT’s bike webpage for tips on bicycle commuting, rules of the road, safety tips, maps and other resources.

Friday, April 25, 2014

How did the cougar cross the road?

Central Washington University biology professor Kris Ernest,
center, works with her small mammal team in the
Price Creek area adjacent to Interstate 90 in August 2013.
The team's research is part of the ongoing I-90 wildlife
monitoring project which will help guide the installation
of wildlife crossing structures. Photo courtesy of CWU.
By Barbara Arnott, Central Washington University

We all know why the chicken crossed the road, but do we know why the cougar crossed or how?

In an effort to protect animals and motorists near Snoqualmie Pass, researchers at Central Washington University are monitoring and researching wildlife along the Interstate 90 corridor. The project is the largest study of its kind ever conducted in the United States.

In 2008, we entered into a partnership with CWU where our agency funds the research performed by CWU faculty and students at animal crossing zones on a 15-mile stretch of interstate. WSDOT uses the data gathered by CWU to establish a baseline to measure against past construction and to refine project designs so the habitat at the crossing locations will connect the largest number and variety of species.

More than 20 large wildlife crossing structures—including three major overpasses at two locations—are proposed between Hyak and Easton as part of the ongoing I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East project.

For the past seven years, CWU researchers have focused on fish, amphibians, and small mammals. They’re discovering critical information about what species inhabit the project area and are learning how the freeway affects animal behavior and survival.

If you would like to learn more about the important work CWU researchers are performing, stop by the CWU Museum of Culture on the Environment and check out the newest exhibit: How did the Cougar Cross the Road? Restoring Wildlife Passages at Snoqualmie Pass. The exhibition is located on the first floor of Dean Hall on D Street in Ellensburg and runs through spring 2015.

Watch a YouTube video of the CWU team’s work.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The I-90 snowshed gone, so now what?

By Meagan McFadden

It took less than 48 hours to remove the snowshed, which is a lot faster than we originally thought it would take. So now you’re probably wondering why is I-90 still down to a single lane in each direction? Well there is still a lot of work to do. Removing the snowshed was just one piece; the other piece includes building detours, which is a lot like building a brand new roadway, but we only get three weeks.  We have to excavate material, haul in crushed rock, lay down asphalt and stripe the lanes. Closing a lane in each direction gives us more room to build the detours. Working between a rock and a lake creates a pretty confined work area.

We know I-90 is a major east-west transportation corridor in our state and that’s why we chose to do this work in April when traffic volumes are at their lowest and the weather is typically willing to cooperate. Unfortunately, construction doesn’t always take a holiday and this weekend is a good example. However, we are trying to limit the delays by opening two lanes eastbound on Friday and two lanes westbound on Sunday. If you have plans to travel this weekend and you want to avoid major delays, travel before 8 a.m. or wait until after 8 p.m. You can also check out our travel graphs online. You can also take another route like US 12 over White Pass or US 2 over Stevens Pass.

The good news, all lanes will be open by April 25. Construction will still be going on and you will run into some delays and of course closures at night for rock blasting. So make your trips a little easier this summer and plan ahead by using our tools:

Tips from the Incident Response Team

For an inside look at the life of IRT, follow #goIRT as @wsdot_traffic live tweets from the road between 6 to 10 a.m. Friday, April 18.
By Mike Allende

We’ve been known to refer to our Incident Response Team as “our super heroes.” It’s easy to see why. Whether it’s a flat tire, a major collision or a mattress in the middle of the freeway, our IRT workers always seem to be ready to help get things cleared and traffic moving again.

I recently had a chance to spend some time with IRT member John Perez and he insists they aren’t super heroes. They’re out there because they want to help people, he said, and they appreciate that most people are happy to see them arrive on the scene.

IRT is always ready to push a disabled vehicle off
the highway and get traffic moving.
If you’ve driven our highways long enough, there’s a good chance you’ve gotten assistance from IRT. Maybe you need a gallon of gas to make it to the filling station. Maybe you were shaken up by a fender-bender in the middle of Interstate 5. As the “Morning Guy” on our WSDOT Traffic Twitter account, I have the pleasure of watching IRT every morning, zipping around our highways and trying to keep traffic moving as steadily and safely as possible.

I also get to field and send on Twitter comments from motorists, like “I’m sure IRT has that cleared up by now. Great Seattle resource, they are awesome,” and “The IRT folks are indeed super heroes.”

IRT heads towards a car fire to help keep traffic safely away.
IRT works closely with the Washington State Patrol to clear the highway as quickly and safely as possible in order to minimize congestion and enhance motorist and responder safety. That often means stepping out into fast-moving traffic with nothing protecting them except a helmet. With Work Zone Awareness Week just behind us, I thought a few tips from IRT about how you can help them help you might be helpful.

John, who handles incident response primarily on State Route 520, said drivers should stay in their car and stay strapped in until help arrives, because it’s going to be safer inside the vehicle. Be sure to call 911 just to be sure help is on the way.

One of the main challenges of responding to a blocking situation is that traffic around the stall or collision often doesn’t slow down. So…slow down and give our team a chance to work. If you want lanes to reopen, give IRT space and let them do their job so they can get traffic back moving again.

IRT has to handle many jobs, including picking
up someone’s lost laundry.
If possible, it’s always a great idea to drive your car out of traffic, either to the shoulder, gore point or exit off the highway and wait there for help to arrive. Sometimes a driver simply needs someone (IRT or the State Patrol) to tell them it’s OK to move, or they need some help guiding them to safety.

Sometimes a car is stuck and needs a push. John said there are times when a driver does not want an IRT truck to push the car to the side for fear of damage, but that shouldn’t be a worry. Our IRT trucks have a layer of Teflon on the front that they use to push a car to the shoulder or gore point. The most damage is likely to be a black smudge that can be wiped off. Trust our IRT, listen to their instructions, put the car in neutral (don’t hit the brakes!) and you and your car will be fine.

Who does the Army call when it needs help? Mighty IRT!
Running out of gas on the freeway can be embarrassing. But remember, IRT is only interested in getting you and traffic back moving, not to judge or lecture. So be up front about what’s going on so IRT can get things cleared quickly.

Collisions and stalls happen on our highways. There’s no real way around it. But we’re lucky to have our outstanding IRT ready to go when trouble calls. Follow their tips and give them some space, and they can help keep our highways moving as smoothly as possible. Oh, and don’t forget to add a “Thank you.” Even super heroes appreciate that.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Harnessing water pressure to breakup boulders

By Doug Adamson

The power of water in the form of torrential rain can bring mammoth-sized boulders down onto state highways. The power of water can also be used to help get rid of them.

Sometimes, boulders that come down hillsides are too big to lift, even with an excavator. Maintenance crews then have to break apart large boulders using jackhammers, which leads to traffic delays. Explosives could be used, but they pose additional risks.

Enter the Boulder Buster™ - a portable rock-smashing tool that’s slightly bigger than a shoe box and uses pressurized water to break up or ‘blast’ large boulders.

But the ‘blast’ is not what you might think. Forget about Hollywood explosions. There are no giant booms, fireballs or flying debris. That’s the benefit.

Instead, the process produces a muffled ‘poof’ that might not even startle a dog, let alone the people who live nearby. The non-detonating rock-breaking tool – which uses just a bit of gunpowder and water pressure - breaks a rock open like an egg. A heavy plastic cover limits flying debris.

This tool can be safely used near pipes. It also is safe to use near structures and much safer overall when compared to something like dynamite.

Much safer compared to dynamite, the Boulder Buster™ breaks
up boulders with a muffled ‘poof.’
During a recent training session on a windswept State Route 112 in Clallam County, maintenance staff took advantage of a Boulder Buster™ training session to clear the roadway shoulder of several big boulders that had come down in a recent slide. Maintenance crews who took part in the training exercise became qualified to teach others at our agency how to safely use the Buster.

After the rock-busting session was complete, the remnants of the boulders were used as fill for another project.

So, how does it work?

First, we drill a hole about 75 percent through the boulder. Then, we pour the “secret ingredient” – water – into the hole.
Pouring water into the breech body
Next, we place the “breech body” inside the hole. It’s similar to a cast iron vase that has no bottom. A heavy plastic cover, similar to an industrial-sized door mat, then goes over the breech body, followed by a single shotgun shell-sized cartridge.

A representative from Boulder Buster™ leading the training.
A metal top that works as the firing mechanism is screwed to the top of the boulder. We then attach a lanyard, go a safe distance away and pull once on the “trigger” – a rope.

The boulder busting aftermath.
With the telltale ‘poof,’ the boulder breaks apart.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Pass clearing continues on North Cascades Highway

By Jeff Adamson

They’re back…Pink Floyd and his family of avalanche safety flamingos. Yes, they ARE cute, but they have an important duty.

Pink Floyd pointing out
work zone hazards.

The flamingos are eye-catching tools that point out hazardous zones to the snow removal teams. They’re reminders to always have your “avalanche eyes” open for chutes, debris, another work crew and other hazards. Now if we could only agree on which song to go with our mascot...

East side update

On Monday, April 7, Pink Floyd joined the east side snow removal effort on SR 20 – North Cascades Highway as the team’s avalanche training refresher at Silver Star Gate kicked off the second week of this massive snow removal project . Then it was off to begin clearing just above Lone Fir Campground.

While the maintenance crew pushed and blew snow from SR 20, the avalanche team climbed to the 6,200-foot-level up Liberty Bell Mountain.
Snow blower at Lone Fir Campground.

Spring’s rising temperatures can trigger snow slides below – a major hazard for crews. The avalanche control team dug a snow pit and assessed the Liberty Bell Mountain zone to determine which layers of snow might separate and slide. It tells them what the avalanche potential is and what kind of snow movement to look for when the maintenance crew progresses into the giant Liberty Bell avalanche zone.

In years past, the avalanche control team doesn't join the clearing effort until the east side maintenance crew reaches Cutthroat Ridge in the second or third week. The zone has 12 active chutes.  This year, the avalanche team has been on site monitoring unstable slopes since week one. Most of the winter’s snowfall didn't start falling until mid-February so what’s on the slopes isn't as stable as snow that’s spent all winter compacting on itself.

A second bulldozer joined the east side clearing effort.
Last week, the two teams joined to take on Cutthroat Ridge and by week’s end, they had cleared through Cutthroat Ridge avalanche chute 8 at milepost 164.5.  Think of a layer cake. A snow blower can handle six-feet or so of snow no problem. In an avalanche zone, a snow slide can be 10 times that height and as wide as a football field.

The solution is to cut the top layer off (anything over 6 or 8 feet) and the tool of choice is a bulldozer or two. Through the Cutthroat zone, a D-6 caterpillar worked the top of the slide and when its work was done, the maintenance crew’s excavator, snow blower and a grader cleared the snow down to the pavement.
When they get to the end of the Cutthroat zone, a larger D-8 cat we lease from a local logging company joins the effort to cut down the top layer of the more than 30-foot-deep slides in the Liberty Bell Mountain zone.

West side update

Eastbound SR 20 clearing continued on Monday, April 7, just beyond the Canyon Creek Trail.
Snow blower on SR 20
just below Easy Pass.

By the end of week two, the two-man team had eastbound lanes cleared and widened to about three miles short of Swamp Creek. The less-than-a-foot snow depth increased to 4 feet as they worked towards Rainy Pass. Next, the team will be moving forward towards Easy Pass.

Here are some short answers to questions you might have:
  • The closure gates stay closed until the entire highway is reopened (estimated about the second week in May)
  • No licensed motor vehicles are allowed beyond the gates, but boots, bikes and snow mobiles are.
  • We work Monday through Thursday, leaving Friday through Sunday for uncontested(!) recreation, but we encourage you to check the back country avalanche forecasts and weather before you go  
  • We also ask you to stay clear of our clearing equipment so no one gets hurt or hurts it

Check out photos from the SR 20 North Cascades Highway snow removal project on Flickr.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

1 million gallons of biodiesel fuels WSDOT on road to greener, more sustainable transportation

By Noel Brady

Our fleet of trucks and ferries recently realized a seven-digit milestone on the road to sustainability. For the first time, the agency’s fuel purchases in 2013 included more than 1 million gallons of biodiesel for ferries and mid-to-large-size trucks and equipment.

That means a net savings of more than 1 million gallons of regular diesel, including 687,741 gallons used for ferries and 318,775 purchased by the land fleet to fuel work trucks and other heavy equipment. It’s big news for Washington, where transportation ranks the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s the latest green thumbs up for WSDOT’s award-winning fleet.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (pdf 753 kb), substituting biodiesel, which is derived from vegetable oils and animal fat-based oils, for petroleum-based diesel can reduce smog-forming emissions from particulate matter by 10 percent, hydrocarbons by 21 percent and carbon monoxide by 11 percent for highway vehicles. Hydrocarbons are greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

WSF’s fleet of vessels each use up
to 5 percent biodiesel. Soon WFS
will launch a pilot project to study
the feasibility of using up to 10 percent
biodiesel to fuel ferries.
Increasing the use of biofuels, such as biodiesel, is a widely accepted strategy for slowing climate change. Since biodiesel is derived from plant matter, it is not a fossil fuel, so it’s renewable. Biofuels come from plants and trees, which need CO2 to grow. Using biofuels doesn’t add as much CO2 to the atmosphere; it recycles it.

Considering these factors and others, a 2006 study published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that biodiesel can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 41 percent.

The benefits of biodiesel are clear, and we plan to continue
growing its use as an alternative fuel, said WSDOT Energy Policy Manager Tim Sexton. Washington State Ferries uses biodiesel made primarily from recycled canola oils. WSF is preparing for a pilot project to evaluate increasing the percentage of biodiesel it uses to fuel vessels.

Into the green fleet first

Since 2009, use of biodiesel and other alternative fuels, such as propane and electricity, has helped WSDOT’s  fleet cut greenhouse gas emissions by 263 metric tons of CO2 equivalent. Since 2008 WSDOT also:
  • Reduced employee travel by 2.2 million miles
  • Cut fuel consumption by 10 percent or about 400,000 gallons
  • Purchased plug-in hybrids, all-electric vehicles and charging stations

Source: Washington State GHGEmissions Inventory 2009-2010

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Slope stabilization – using proactive strategies in a constant battle of nature

Our hearts are with those affected by the SR 530 Slide, and thoughts with those who continue to toil through the debris.

Photo of debris field on SR 530 near Oso.
The extreme reach of this landslide was catastrophic, and it’s not an event that WSDOT would have expected to impact the highway, given that the slope is on the opposite side of the valley.

WSDOT tracks known unstable slopes adjacent to state highways and Interstates. With the recent slide near Oso being more than a mile away and across the North Fork of the Stillaguamish, it’s not one that was included in our slope database. Prior to 1995, unstable slopes were stabilized reactively after they had failed. Since then, we’ve been proactively tracking problem slopes next to our roadways – slopes that have the potential to threaten the highway and its users.  Typical slope hazards that we manage include landslides, debris flows, rockfall, settlement, and erosion. Currently, we’re keeping tabs on about 3,300 locations which can be found on the map below and in this list (pdf 648 KB).
Map image of unstable slopes by rating (pdf 3.6 MB)

Each identified location receives a score ranging from 33 (lowest) to 891 (highest), which is based on the potential risk factors to the usability of the highway if a slope failed. This is helpful so we can strategically determine which slopes should be addressed with the limited funding available. With this management system, we’ve worked to stabilize about 244 slopes adjacent to state highways and Interstates since 1995 at a cost of $180 million, using both federal and state funds.

One example is I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass.

Photo of nail wall being installed along I-90 at Snoqualmie Pass.

As part of the five mile project to widen I-90 from four to six lanes, crews are working to significantly reduce the rockfall hazards that are present by constructing more stable cut slopes, heavily reinforcing these cuts with rock anchors, and providing more catchment area for the natural, ongoing weathering of these new slopes.

Another is a stretch of SR 20 near Rockport that is constantly buffeted by the Skagit River, especially during flooding. When the river runs high, it eats at the riverbank and, at times, has threatened to even wash out the road. Right now we have a project in construction that is building logjams with something called dolos to protect the riverbank and our highway from continued erosion.

Photo of Skagit River - Permanent restoration using engineered logjams
combined with concrete dolos.

The geology of our state is complex and dynamic, and conditions are subject to change. With potential problem areas identified, our maintenance staff who drive these areas every day are on the lookout for developing problems, such as new rocks in a ditch or dirty water that wasn’t there the day before. This points our geologist to a spot that may be changing and is worth a closer look. If it’s determined that a highway is unsafe for travel, we’ll close it until it can be made safe.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

SR 20 - North Cascades Highway snow removal is underway

Clearing work began this week to open State Route 20 - North Cascades Highway.

Snow blower clearing nearly a foot of snow from the west side of SR 20 at Diablo Gate.

East side progress

Maintenance techs from Twisp set off Monday, March 31, to start blowing and pushing snow from the closure barricades at the Early Winters Information Center up to the Silver Star Gate. That’s a seven-mile stretch on the east side of SR 20.

Crews had cleared two snow blower widths of snow from between those mileposts by Tuesday evening. Clearing work begins today on the shoulders and pullouts throughout that area in addition to the parking and turnaround space at the Silver Star Gate.

In years past, maintenance techs start the clearing process on either side of the pass. An avalanche control team member joins the process once the crew reaches the Cutthroat Ridge avalanche zone to watch for avalanche activity. That person is essentially a spotter for those clearing the highway.

This year is different.

Crews discovered during their assessment last month that Delancey Ridge avalanche zone had come in with snow and debris reaching the road – a first in recent memory for our clearing team.

With that much snow, maintenance crews need their spotter early. They’ll be joined by a member of the avalanche crew on Monday, April 7.

West side progress

Work on the west side began Tuesday, April 1, once maintenance technician Bob Hopfield took control of his usual spring “ride” – a loader-mounted snow blower – at Diablo Gate.

An in-progress view of the Rudy
Ridge snow slide clearing process.
Before he arrived at SR 20, Hopfield had been assisting State Route 530 slide emergency response operations along with many others from WSDOT.

The snow depth at Diablo Gate has melted down to less than a foot deep. Further up the highway, the snow is nearly two-feet-deep. The Ruby Ridge avalanche zone has been active as well, with chute #10 covering both lanes of SR 20 with a dozen feet of snow. This is a relatively small slide.

By the end of Tuesday, the crew had cleared a single lane all the way to milepost 144, just before East Creek Trail. Next up is widening the cleared area and tackling the clean-up of the Ruby Ridge avalanche zone slide.
A bank of snow on the shoulder
of SR 20 at the Ruby Ridge slide. 

Late snow meant a late start to snowmobile season this year. The west side clearing team is leaving snow on the westbound SR 20 lanes from the gate to Granite Creek for up to two extra weeks to give snowmobilers more time on the snow. The beginning of westbound lane clearing and ditching work will mark the end of snowmobile season from the west.

In the meantime, crews are clearing and widening only the eastbound lanes for the 14 miles up to Granite Creek.

For the latest SR 20 – North Cascades Highway news, visit our website or sign up for email updates. See even more SR 20 clearing photos on Flickr.