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.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Goodbye double white line on SR 167 HOT lanes!

We’ll be returning the SR 167 HOT lanes to the
original single line striping.
By Emily Pace

Starting today, Aug. 11, drivers will have easier access to the SR 167 HOT lanes.

If you’ve traveled the SR 167 corridor, you’ve seen the HOT lanes, which are carpool lanes that solo drivers with a Good To Go! pass can pay a toll to use. Up until now, the lanes have been separated by a double white line, and drivers were only allowed to enter or exit at specific points.

Our number one complaint from drivers is that they can’t access the HOT lanes at any point in the lanes. Their access is restricted.

You asked, and we listened. Say goodbye to the double white line!

Last night, contractor crews began work to remove the double white line and replace it with a single white line. Crews started at the south end of the northbound lanes of SR 167 in Auburn and worked their way north. Starting today, on some sections of northbound SR 167, you'll notice a single white line – which you can cross! One exception, you’ll notice there will still be double white lines at the ends of the HOT lanes to eliminate weaving at these locations.
Current SR 167 HOT lanes with the double line striping

Once the northbound work is complete, crews will switch over to the north end of the southbound lanes in Renton and work their way south. Work is scheduled for Saturday through Thursday nights, with striping during the week of Aug. 10-16, and striping and sign placement Aug. 17-21. Crews have to grind off the inside stripe and paint the dashed segments so that they are solid white lines. This work is weather dependent.

In the places where you still see the double white lines, drivers need to continue to obey the law and not cross them.

How will we measure the success of this project?

Restriping SR 167
As part of the federal grant we received which paid for the re-striping, we’ve collaborated with the Washington State Transportation Research Center at the University of Washington to create an evaluation plan. We’re collecting data six months before and one year after the changes. We’ll be evaluating the effects of the project on traffic, revenue, usage, safety and customer satisfaction.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Washington State Ferries – working hard to keep you moving

by Broch Bender

You won’t see any of our 22-vessel team competing for maritime gold like some of their stouter cousins plying Puget Sound.

(photo courtesy of: Friends of

Our ships prefer the hard-working life of connecting communities and transporting goods day in and day out along our state marine highways.

(M/V Walla Walla at Colman Dock in Seattle)

Ferries by the numbers

  • 22.5 million riders and 10 million vehicles - What Washington State Ferries carries every year.
  • 7 days a week, 21 hours a day – The hours we’re on the job.
  • 1800 crew members, 450 departures a day from 20 terminals on 10 routes – That’s how we roll.

Even the best laid plans…

Let’s face it, the average age of our vessels is 38. Many are pushing 50 years old or more. Sometimes, no matter how careful we are to keep our vessels in working order, things can happen. And sometimes those things happen on multiple ferries at the same time!

What happens when we’re down a few good ferryboats?

Our fleet is designed to keep a full-service schedule even if one or two vessels are out of service. If more than two are out of service at the same time, we do what we can to restore service to as many customers as possible.

Moving ships or cancelling service is not a decision that we take lightly.

We try to match the largest available vessels to the busiest routes. For example, in July, when the 202-car Tacoma lost power on the busiest commuter route in the system (Bainbridge Island-Seattle) we moved the 202-car Puyallup from the Edmonds-Kingston route to  make up the difference.


We also ask ourselves, “Is there an alternate route?” Ferry service saves commuters time by zipping across the water instead of driving around the long way. In some cases, however the long way takes hours to drive, or is a non-existent route as in driving to the San Juan Islands.

During times of reduced service, we prioritize active vessels to ferry routes that don’t have viable alternate ways to get to a destination.

Maintenance – Essential to keeping ferries on the move

Throughout the day – Crews constantly monitor systems, perform routine and preventative maintenance and keep the ship in ship-shape.

On a weekly basis – More of the above, including tending to long-term projects such as tearing apart an engine for deep cleaning.

Quarterly inspections– Four times a year the U.S. Coast Guard checks all of the safety and life-saving equipment on the ferry to make sure it is in working order. The inspection also requires crew members to perform passenger safety and emergency rescue drills like the one pictured below.

Annual inspections– Just like a checkup at the doctor’s office, the ferry is evaluated from end to end, including the hard-working engine room. If the U.S. Coast Guard finds anything out of order, we tie-up the ferry and make repairs before returning it to normal service.

The “2 and 5” – Every two and five years, we take the ferry out of the water for a few weeks for a U.S. Coast Guard inspection. The looksee includes everything inspectors would normally comb through during the annual, plus the exterior hull and propulsion system.

(Above: crews practice lifesaving drills during an annual inspection)

Painting O’ the ferry – Alas, when there’s enough funding in our maintenance coffers, every few years we carefully blast off the old paint and apply a couple new layers of white and WSDOT green.

(Photo of the freshly painted TOKITAE at Vigor Shipyard in Seattle. )

The painting of the ferries guards our vessels from the ravages of rust so they can be better prepared to take on years of winter rainstorms.

Fleet feet – The crew that makes it happen
Our ferries aren’t complete without its dedicated crew. 

(A WSF deckhand connects the passenger bridge
to the dock at the Seattle terminal)

Some employees work an 8 or 9 hour shift several times a week, others, like those in the engine room, work a 12-hour shift (day or night shift) for seven days in a row. They have a week off before returning to work the opposite shift for another week. Crew members alternate between day and night shift every other week.

All told, our 1800-person staff is just enough to cover all of the positions required to keep our fleet operating at full service. However, just like the rest of us, sometimes crew members get sick, or stuck in traffic, or have to attend to an emergency and are late getting to work.

Many traditional workplace environments can accommodate flexible schedules and last minute emergencies.

At Washington State Ferries, if every assigned crew member is not at their stations at the start of the shift, the shift can’t begin.

Crewing the vessels
We’ve got schedulers working around the clock filling regular service shifts and fill-in shifts for sea-going employees on vacation or at a medical appointment. 

Nonetheless, filling vacant shifts within our fleet is challenging, particularly during the peak summer travel season. We are doing the best we can with the resources we have, including providing crew members with additional training so they are qualified to fill a wider variety of shifts.

First mates to oilers, it’s the norm around here to work overtime.

If you ever wondered what it takes to run a ferry boat, here's an overview of work stations, duties and pay rates.  This example is for the Issaquah class, the hardest working boat in the ferry business. 

Keeping it all in perspective
Your state ferry system has an overall service record of 99% reliability across the board. While we feel that is a strong record, it doesn’t minimize the real impacts that people like you experience when we do have incidents, and we sincerely apologize for that. We know we've been having some challenges this summer and we appreciate you bearing with us.

Interesting fact: Most U.S. airline carriers boast a 78% reliability.

Looking to the future
We’re on course to provide the best service we can with the resources we have. Right now we’re in the thick of building the Samish, our second of three new 144-car ferries.

Starting in January 2015, we’re expanding Save A Spot, our vehicle reservation service, to the San Juan Islands route. 

We are committed to getting you where you need to go safely. A big thank you goes out to all of our customers.  We appreciate the opportunity to serve you. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Stop sign subtraction

by Bart Treece

It’s unusual to see stops signs disappear, but that’s what will soon happen where eastbound State Route 518 meets 51st Avenue South in Tukwila. A few years ago, WSDOT made the intersection an all-way stop. Meaning that everyone – drivers exiting eastbound SR 518 and those coming north and south on 51st Avenue South – would need stop and before proceeding through.

The problem with this is, shoppers trying to leave the Westfield Southcenter Mall on Klickitat Drive (which becomes 51st Avenue South), would get backed up because of the stop and go upstream. It’s not ideal, nor was it the intention of the all-way stop.

New configuration
All but a single stop sign will be removed, and that will remain in place for folks who are exiting eastbound SR 518 to turn left to northbound 51st Avenue South. When analyzing this intersection, we noticed a lot fewer vehicles were making that turn anyway. For the ones that do, signs, guardrail and striping will be adjusted to give them a better sightline and they can proceed when the intersection is clear. Traffic exiting the freeway will continue to head south toward the mall without stopping, and soon northbound drivers from 51st Avenue South will continue on through also.

When will this happen?
If the weather holds, maintenance crews will make the changes on Sunday, Aug. 10. Traffic will be flagged from 6 a.m. until around 10 a.m.

The end result
These intersection improvements should help traffic move more efficiently, which also promotes better safety for surface street drivers in the area.

Friday, August 1, 2014

We all have a stake in keeping people moving – thank you for doing your part

I’ve seen the headlines saying that we avoided “Carmageddon” and we did. Our agency and the media worked hard to get the message out and we were successful, but the reality is that we could not have done it without you. Highway traffic significantly decreased across Seattle and the Eastside – at times up to 60 percent. The result: We saw minimal backups and reasonable travel times. It’s clear you understand how important preserving our infrastructure is, and when asked, you do your part to help keep people moving when a big project that creates the potential for big traffic impacts.

When you think of transportation, it means different things to different people. Some might think about cars with families tucked safely inside, semi-trucks on a long-distance haul, buses packed with commuters, ferry riders crossing Puget Sound, folks on foot in the neighborhood and even Lycra clad cyclists peddling away. Regardless, we must invest in our system to preserve what we have. Sometimes this means making a change to how or when we travel.

Changing how we do things is a challenge and delays because of road construction and maintenance can be frustrating. We communicate early to get the word out and we use social media to let you know about unplanned things like emergencies or accidents so that you ‘know before you go’ and while these projects can be frustrating, they are planned with you – the user- in mind.

Last week, everyone noticed the choices drivers made to keep traffic moving while hard working contractor crews replaced expansion joints on westbound Interstate 90 between Bellevue and Mercer Island. People changed the way they traveled for seven days, and those choices to telecommute, bike, carpool, take transit and go on vacation paid off in a big way.

Many of our roads were built decades ago, and have critical pieces that wear out over time. The signs of wear and tear can be found along many major routes around the state. Bumpy rides, potholes and cracking pavement are signs the roadway is aging. Without further action, the deterioration will only get worse, and cost more to fix in the future.
State of the concrete on I-5 in the University District.

The recent lane closures on I-90 were painful, but in the end it was necessary to keep the corridor open and safe for drivers. An unplanned closure for emergency repairs would have not just affected commuters, but also the economy.

In keeping with the Results WSDOT Strategic Plan, we’re looking for ways to invest in our system to keep people and industry moving during the busiest times. Maximizing the limited funding we have available, we’re using a triage approach to fix the worst of the worst by replacing broken and cracked concrete panels or grinding the surface to remove ruts. This has been used on I-5 and 405 with great success. And this month, we’ll begin a project to do the same on a worn stretch of State Route 99 near Seattle’s SODO District. These methods only buy us another 10 years, and it’s imperative that funding becomes available so we can keep people moving safely for decades to come.

These projects are designed with your safety in mind, and I want to thank you for your understanding and patience as we move forward in building a safe and sustainable transportation system for years to come. We can’t do this important work without you.
Thank you,