Monday, December 15, 2014

Why we spend millions to repaint bridges

The North Fork Lewis River Bridges
after their $12 million paint jobs.
By Tamara Hellman

Painting a bridge is a lot different than painting your house. Sure, it's nice to get a touch-up to improve your home's curb appeal. But for a bridge, it's more than just making it look pretty.

Painting helps preserve the roughly 3,500 bridges we manage around the state. The paint helps protect our bridges from the elements so everyone can use them for a longer period of time.

Here's an example. We just finished painting the North Fork Lewis River Bridges on I-5 south of Woodland. Both spans carry 65,000 vehicles a day on our state's primary north-south interstate highway.
Decades of wear, including rust and
peeling paint, on one of the bridges' trusses.
If we didn't paint these bridges, they would rust and deteriorate faster. The last time the North Fork Lewis River Bridges received a fresh coat, it was 1990. Since then, its "Cascade Green" color has worn off in spots and rust has formed on sections of the steel. Without a proper touch-up, the rust would spread and deteriorate the steel structure, causing it to weaken. Eventually, the bridge would not be able to carry the load it once did. As a result, freight haulers would have to make long detours, putting a crimp on interstate commerce.

We try our best to paint bridges every couple decades to ensure they're properly protected. While it's cheaper to paint a bridge than it is to build a new one, it still costs a decent amount of money. For the North Fork Lewis River Bridges, the final bill was around $12 million– about 20 percent under budget, paid for by both state-gas-tax and federal-preservation funds.

Why so much?
Several factors contribute to the cost of a bridge-painting project, two of which are the most important:

1. Keeping people safe
With any project, we need to keep traffic moving while ensuring the safety of both the people traveling through our work zones and the crews working in them. A good portion of the cost covers safety measures, such as temporary barriers, traffic control and scaffolding. Lane closures are expensive and limit the times when contractors can do their work.  If we have to close lanes, we do it mostly at night or on weekends, when people travel less frequently. Temporary barriers also provide a safe work area for crews, as well as safe lanes of travel for drivers. Scaffolding is used so workers can get access to high and low points on the bridges, and cable systems are used to protect the workers from falling. Keeping everyone safe is our number-one priority.

Barriers provide safe lanes of travel for drivers and a safe place for crews to work.

2. Keeping the environment safe
We work to be good stewards of the environment– not simply because it's required as part of the permitting process, but because it's the right thing to do. During the North Fork Lewis River Bridges repainting project, contractor crews installed a containment system of tarps, collection tubes and vacuum systems to prevent the many layers of deteriorated paint, rust and other debris from falling into the river. They sandblasted the old lead-based paint off the steel and cleaned the rust and dirt off the bridge. The environmental-protection systems collected all the material so crews could dispose of it properly. This was done in sections to keep the metal from exposure to the elements for too long, preventing new rust from forming before each section could be painted.

Environmental protection
systems prevent debris
from falling in the river.
The end result
The new coats of paint are expected to help preserve the bridges for about 25 years. We maximize the life of the paint by cleaning our bridges between paintings to remove debris that can make them deteriorate faster.

We have a significant backlog of steel bridges that need to be repainted throughout our highway system. With less funding and the list of bridges growing, we have to make some tough decisions on prioritizing which ones get painted next. We are constantly exploring practical ways to maintain and preserve our bridges, and we do it with safety, cost savings and the environment in mind.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

During floods, better safe than sorry

By Barbara LaBoe

With heavy rain forecast for Western Washington this week, there's a good chance of minor and even major flooding of rivers. With that in mind, we thought we'd share some flood preparedness tips. We hope none of you have to leave your homes, of course, but with the amount of rain we get in our fair state, these are good tips to review at any time.

The main tip? Pay attention to weather reports and warnings and do NOT drive through standing water. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that's the cause of most flood-related deaths in Washington.  It only takes six inches of water to stall a vehicle and a foot to float most vehicles, so never take the chance that you'll be able to make it across a flooded road.

Here are some other tips from FEMA's about things you can do before and during a flood to keep you and your loved ones safe.

Before a flood:
  • Create an emergency kit with medical supplies, food and water, dry clothing and important documents stored in a waterproof container.
  • Get a battery-powered radio or a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Weather Radio with tone alert. Stock extra batteries for both.
  • Establish a family communications plan and meeting place. Know where you'll meet if you're separated during an evacuation. (For flooding in particular, make sure it's on high ground). Designate a relative or friend outside the area to check in with if you're separated and can't reach each other. Here are some examples.
  • Stash extra charging cords or portable chargers for your cellphones in your vehicles so you have them if you have to leave quickly.
If fish can swim across the highway, don't cross.
This is a photo of US 101 in 2007.
During flooding:
  • Remember your safety, not possessions, is your main priority. If you're told to evacuate, do so quickly.
  • Follow weather reports closely and be prepared to evacuate quickly, including having key items ready to grab as you leave.
  • If there's time before an evacuation -- and you can do it safely -- turn off utilities at the main switches or valves. Disconnect electrical appliances. Do NOT touch any electrical equipment if you are wet or are in standing water.
  • Secure your home. If there's time, move essential items to an upper floor.
  • Follow WSDOT's Facebook and Twitter pages for our flood response updates. Visit the traffic alerts page for up-to-date road closure information.
While evacuating:
  • Do not walk through moving water. Six inches of moving water can knock you down. If you have to cross water to get to safety, walk where the water is still. Use a stick to check the firmness of the ground in front of you.
  • Do not drive into flooded areas. You and your vehicle can be quickly swept away. If floodwaters rise around your car unexpectedly, abandon it and move to higher ground if you can do so safely.
  • Do not camp or park your vehicle along streams, rivers or creeks, even if they're not flooding at the moment. Conditions can change quickly.
Feeling more prepared? Good.
Now, just remember these tips and do your best to stay safe -- and dry -- in the days to come.