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.