Friday, May 23, 2014

Skagit River Bridge – One year later

By Lynn Peterson

Today marks the one year anniversary of the Skagit River Bridge collapse. I was just finishing dinner when I received a call saying that a section of the Interstate 5 Skagit River Bridge had collapsed and several vehicles were in the water. I knew this was not a drill and that it would certainly be a critical test for my agency moving forward.

My first thought was how many people could be hurt? As first responders arrived on scene, the Governor and I flew out of Olympia by helicopter to survey the damage. Details were
After - The completed bridge
sparse. We knew that an oversized truck appeared to have hit a support beam of the steel-trussed bridge, which was later determined to cause the collapse. Thankfully, everyone who was on the bridge was found safe. Unfortunately, the state suffered a tragic loss after the bridge collapse when Trooper Sean O’Connell was killed while managing detour traffic. He made the ultimate sacrifice serving the citizens of Washington. 

The next three months, were a challenge for impacted Skagit families, communities and businesses as well as for this agency. And with just three months on the job, I along with many other people in our state, became keenly aware of the vulnerability of our transportation infrastructure.
A lot of questions arose from the impact of the Skagit River Bridge collapse. Questions about the safety of our bridges, commercial vehicles that carry goods long distances, and what more could be done to keep people moving.

There are nearly 3,700 bridges in our state inventory, and many were built long ago and are still in good shape. With the Skagit River Bridge, many people outside of the engineering world learned new terms, “Fracture Critical,” and “Functionally Obsolete.” Simply put, Fracture Critical means if that if key supports fail, the bridge is in danger of collapsing. Functionally Obsolete is a technical term to reflect that design standard have changed, and a modern bridge would be built differently. Neither term means that a bridge is unsafe. Our bridges are inspected at least every two years, to ensure they are able to meet the day-to-day demands of traffic. With our detailed records, we can make strategic decision for improvements and extend the life of these structures.

When the I-5 Skagit River Bridge was first constructed in 1955, freight cargo wasn’t nearly as large as it can be today. Since 2008, we’ve issued around 860,000 special vehicle permits for oversized and overweight loads. That number coupled with the 103 bridge impacts during the same time period show that freight haulers are generally very good about following the law by ensuring their load can safely travel underneath our structures. Still, the target is zero. We can’t drive the routes for each trucker, but we can provide drivers with good information so they can make good decisions. We sign our overhanging structures more aggressively than the national standard, provide easy to access permitting information and up-to-date restrictions for highways statewide.

Our team was able to quickly reopen the bridge to traffic in 27 days with a temporary span, followed by a permanent replacement in 66 days using a creative design-build method that minimized traffic impacts. This was an impressive achievement carried out by a creative team driven to reconnect our communities along this vital corridor and funded by our partners at the Federal Highway Administration.

Before Thanksgiving, we even raised the overheard clearance to 18 feet across all lanes. We’ve been asked about retrofitting the overhead height of other bridges, but we simply do not have the funding. With the little money we do have, we strategically use it (pdf) for preservation like painting projects that prevent corrosion of our steel structures, or bridge deck rehab projects that can extend the structure’s life 20 to 30 years to keep traffic moving.

There’s still one more chapter to be written for the Skagit River Bridge, and that will be included in the final report from the National Transportation Safety Board. With their information, we could learn what, if anything can be done to better protect our transportation infrastructure for generations to come.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Two intersection improvement projects beginning on SR 9 in Snohomish County

By Kris Olsen

Drivers who use State Route 9 through Marysville or Lake Stevens will see the beginnings of two new projects to improve traffic flow and safety.

At the intersection of SR 9 and 32nd Street S.E., our contractor will install new traffic signals this summer. Farther north at the intersection of SR 9 and 84th Street N.E. (Getchell Road), they will begin work on a new roundabout. The contractor started work Monday, May 19.

The intersection of SR 9 and 84th Street N.E. as it appears now
Traffic volumes are growing on SR 9, which is a vital commuter and freight corridor. As traffic volumes have increased, so have collisions and congestion. A roundabout and signals will help keep traffic moving and reduce the risk of collisions. Collisions and congestion often go hand in hand: four to ten minutes of traffic congestion can result from every minute a lane remains blocked.

The intersection of SR 9 and 84th Street N.E. after the roundabout is built
Here’s a closer look at each location and how the improvement will benefit drivers:

SR 9 and 32nd Street S.E. – traffic signals
  • The signals will control traffic in both directions of SR 9 and 32nd Street S.E., and include dedicated right- and left-hand turns lanes on SR 9.
  • The signals will be programmed to optimize traffic flow during peak periods.
  • Drivers at this intersection often have lengthy waits when trying to enter or exit SR 9.
  • Collisions can occur when drivers misjudge the speed of oncoming traffic.  From 2006 to 2010, there were 18 collisions at or near 32nd Street S.E. Of those, three were rear-end collisions and four involved drivers entering SR 9 from 32nd.
  • An intersection controlled by a traffic signal can reduce the risk of collision and improve traffic flow, particularly for drivers trying to enter or exit the highway.
SR 9 and 84th Street N.E. - roundabout
  • The roundabout will be large enough to accommodate trucks and buses.
  • A center truck apron or island allows the back wheels of large vehicles to ride up on it to easily negotiate the roundabout.
  • Drivers naturally slow in roundabouts. The few collisions that occur in roundabouts are typically minor and cause few injuries because of the low speeds.
  • Roundabouts encourage a continuous flow of traffic. They reduce the risk of collisions by approximately 30 percent and the risk of injury collisions by 75 percent.
    • Between 2007 – 2012, there were 43 reported collisions
      • 63 percent were rear end collisions
      • 16 percent were drivers entering SR 9 from 84th
      • 14 percent involved drivers heading in opposite directions
  • You can learn more about how roundabouts improve traffic, reduce congestion and collisions and how to drive through one on WSDOT’s roundabout information website.
What should drivers expect during construction?

Most of the work at both locations will occur weeknights from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Drivers can expect to see traffic reduced to a single lane on SR 9, 32nd and 84th. Flaggers will help direct traffic through the work zone. There will also be some daytime closures of right turn lanes, although turns will still be permitted.

There will be a full weekend closure of 32nd on the west side of the highway. The date for that isn’t scheduled yet, but it’s necessary to rebuild the approach to SR 9 and create a more level “landing” area for cars. That way, when the new signal is operating, drivers on 32nd won’t be waiting on a steep hill for the light to change.

When will the work be complete?

We anticipate the contractor will complete the work in fall 2014. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Not easy being green? Check out WSDOT’s fleet

By Noel Brady

We are continuing down the path to sustainability with our fleet of vehicles and equipment. The fleet recently became a finalist among the 50 most sustainable and efficient government fleets in North America. In fact, our agency was the only state DOT fleet to make the list for the 2014 Leading Fleets.

WSDOT employees charge up a Nissan Leaf at the DC
Fast Charge station at Headquarters in Olympia

The awards, sponsored by Ford Motor Company and Property Room, will be presented next month in San Diego. The Leading Fleets program recognizes government fleet operations in North America for leadership, efficiency, long-term planning and overcoming challenges.

We became a finalist for sustainably managing a fleet that runs on a mix of alternative fuels, including electricity, biodiesel and propane. The fleet was evaluated for innovation in reducing fuel consumption and emissions, increasing vehicle efficiency, using sustainable and biodegradable products and recycling. It‘s one of the largest and most diverse to be recognized at the awards.

It’s the latest in a series of honors for our fleet’s transition to alternative fuels, such as electricity and propane. Our agency also recently ranked 12th among the 2014 100 Best Fleets in North America – the agency’s highest ranking on this list in years. The award highlights our commitment to quality fleet services based on specific criteria, including technology and environmental stewardship.

In recent weeks our Fleet Operations became the first state agency in the country to reach an agreement with Nissan to lease its all-electric, plug-in Leaf cars. The ground-breaking lease agreement paves the way for other state agencies to lease the industry-leading Leaf electronic vehicles.

We are leasing five new Leaf EVs for use at offices from Shoreline to Vancouver. According to WSDOT Fleet Administrator Greg Hansen, two have arrived at Northwest Region headquarters in Shoreline, and one new Leaf each is available at Headquarters in Olympia, Olympic Region in Tumwater and Southwest Region in Vancouver. Charging stations are being installed at each location.

Our land and water fleets also passed a million-gallon milestone for biodiesel in 2013. It was the first year our agency purchased more than 1 million gallons of emissions-cutting biodiesel to fuel ferries, trucks and equipment.