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.