Monday, February 23, 2015

I-405 Express Toll Lanes Part 1: What is the problem?

By Jennifer Rash

Big changes are coming for I-405 drivers later this year. We’re building express toll lanes on southbound and northbound I-405 between Bellevue and Lynnwood as part of a larger vision to help ease traffic on one of the state’s most congested corridors. One of the biggest changes coming this fall is a proposed change in the HOV requirements from two or more people to three or more people during peak commute hours, part of the toll rate and exemption proposal by the Washington State Transportation Commission.

We’ve heard a variety of reactions from folks about this proposal, and decided to tackle some of them in a two-part blog series. In this first post, we will discuss the problem we’re facing through a series of common questions we’ve received. In the second part, we’ll talk about how express toll lanes are part of the solution for I-405.

The ABC’s of HOV Lanes
To get to the solution, we have to start at the beginning. Return with me, won’t you, to November 1992. Aladdin opened at the box office, in Nashville, the great Miley Cyrus was born, and in Olympia, WSDOT adopted its Statewide Freeway HOV Policy. It was a magical time.

The main goal of HOV lanes was (and still is) to maximize the movement of people rather than vehicles, whether that’s in a carpool, vanpool or bus.  The target is to keep traffic moving consistently at a minimum speed of 45 mph to provide a reliable trip.  By reducing the number of single-occupant vehicles on the roadway, HOV lanes also help improve traffic in the regular lanes.  For example, when 15 people opt to get out of their cars to ride the bus or carpool with a co-worker, it removes up to 15 cars from the general purpose lanes.

Animation illustrating how HOV lanes work.

In 1994, the HOV Monitoring and Evaluation Technical Report showed that the majority of respondents in a public opinion survey supported HOV lanes and overwhelming supported that all HOV lanes should be open to vehicles with two or more people.

What’s happening with HOV lanes on I-405 now?

Congested HOV lane on I-405.
Fast-forward 23 years. If you drive I-405, you’ve likely experienced that the HOV lanes are often as congested as the regular lanes during peak periods. That’s because there is too much demand for the lanes. Last year, WSDOT completed the I-405/SR 167 Funding and Phasing Report which found that the existing carpool lane north of SR 522, the one lane section of the future express toll lanes project, is at capacity during peak periods. It also found that there are 200 or more days a year when speeds are below 45 mph in the HOV lane on southbound I-405, south of SR 527.

What is causing the increased demand?
There’s a clear connection between the break down in the I-405 HOV lanes and population growth on the eastside.  U.S. Census data shows that over the last 10 years, Seattle’s population grew seven percent, while the population on the Eastside, from roughly the Snohomish County line to Newcastle and everything east of Lake Washington to the crest of the Cascades, increased 15 percent.
Washington’s residential and employment populations are only projected to increase.  In the years ahead, the population of the city of Portland will be added to our region. We have a tremendous challenge to accommodate this massive growth.

Shouldn’t growth mean building more regular lanes?
That’s a common perception, but over the long term, it’s been shown time and time again that new lanes eventually become congested and simply add to the problem. We also must keep in mind that continually adding lanes our highways could also have impacts to local streets. We know from experience here and across the nation that we cannot simply build our way out of congestion, and we know that we need to get creative to manage the growing demand on our roadways. One of the best ways to do that is to learn from what’s working in other states facing similar challenges.

What is WSDOT doing to create solutions for increasing demand on I-405?
Over the last decade, WSDOT has worked with cities, counties, federal agencies, transit agencies and community groups to develop consensus on a long-term vision for the multimodal redevelopment of this highway. We adopted a multi-modal approach to ease congestion on I-405 that included, adding more lanes, improvements to local roads, increasing transit service, adding park and ride spaces and vanpools, and the possibility for an express toll lane system. 

After three published studies on I-405 express toll lanes, one of which was review by a panel of nation experts, WSDOT is implementing express toll lanes on I-405. Express toll lanes are a proven strategy for congestion relief that have been implemented, studied and expanded across the country.

In the next post, we’ll discuss how express toll lanes will work in Washington as part of the solution for I-405.

Friday, February 20, 2015

SR 305 Agate Pass Bridge cleaning and inspection work nearing completion

By Doug Adamson

Area of the bridge before the rust was removed.
Crews have completed the painstaking process of hand-removing truckloads of dirt, debris and other gunk from the State Route 305 Agate Pass Bridge.  Crews removed roughly 9 tons of material, which is more than the average size of an African elephant.  After removing debris, crews most recently have been flushing the bridge with low-pressure water to complete the cleaning process.

Our workers also are turning their attention to removing rust. They use specialized air-powered tools that grind rust away. To help protect the environment, the rust is scooped up by a connected vacuum system.  After the rust is removed, they apply a zinc coating that protects the underlying steel from future rust. 

Crews continue to find what they expected on a bridge of this age – missing or rusted rivet heads, rusty bridge pins, chipped and broken sidewalk sections, etc. We will know more about the overall condition of the bridge after a complete inspection is done next week by our bridge preservation engineers.

That’s where highly-trained experts will conduct a meticulous inspection of this key link between Bainbridge Island and the Kitsap Peninsula. 

Drivers help prevent mega-traffic jams
We offer our immense gratitude to drivers who continue to avoid the bridge during work hours. It makes a big difference when people consolidate trips, carpool, and cancel discretionary trips.

Following rust removal, crews treated the area with
a zinc-based product to protect the underlying steel.
On Sunday, Feb. 22, the Chilly Hilly bike ride is scheduled to take place between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. Although the bike route does not cross the Agate Pass Bridge, we expect higher traffic volumes on SR 305 as participants from the Kitsap Peninsula drive to the starting point in Bainbridge Island. We would like to ask those Chilly Hilly participants to please add extra travel time to cross the bridge both on their way to the event, and on their journey back home.

Drivers use alternate ferry routes
Washington State Ferries has noted about a 5 percent decrease in vehicles on their mid-day Bainbridge Island runs, and a 3 percent and 4.5 percent increase in their daytime Bremerton and Kingston runs, respectively. We would like to thank ferry users who have changed ferry routes to avoid crossing the bridge, and encourage them to continue doing so since Ferries still has excess capacity on their mid-day Bremerton and Kingston runs.

If all goes according to plan, the work will wrap up on Saturday, Feb. 28.  Until that time, we continue to ask drivers to plan ahead and expect delays during the following times.

Remaining SR 305 Agate Pass Bridge work schedule
Single-lane alternating traffic 7 days a week until February 28, 2015
8:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. each Monday through Friday
7:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. each Saturday and Sunday

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The days of SR 520 drawspan openings draw to a close

By Nicholas Mirra

A cheeky use of a drawspan opening during
the bridge's grand opening in 1963.
If you drive across Lake Washington’s Evergreen Point Floating Bridge with any regularity, you’ve likely been caught at some point in a drawspan opening that halted your vehicle for up to 30 minutes. During these traffic stops, drivers have had the chance to admire the Cascades (when visible), ponder nearby bumper stickers and, of course, check out @wsdot_traffic for more information.

Most of these backups have been caused by a required opening of the floating bridge’s center drawspan to let boats pass through. Since construction on the new floating bridge began in spring 2012 and blocked the old bridge’s east navigation channel, the drawspan has opened for marine traffic more than 600 times. We know this has been difficult for drivers on the bridge. And we have worked hard to keep them informed, including creation of a text service that sends advance notice of drawspan openings to more than 9,200 subscribed drivers.

Those alerts, however, soon will be moot. Drivers – good news is at hand. Starting Tuesday, Feb. 17, the floating bridge’s drawspan will open for boats nevermore.

The new floating bridge, at left, nears the drawspan
of the existing bridge, at lower right. On Feb. 17,
added pontoons will prevent boats from passing
through an opened drawspan. (Photo credit: HDR)
Why? The new floating bridge we’re building lies just north of the old bridge. The new structure is steadily growing from east to west as crews join together its supporting pontoons. On Feb. 17, newly joined and anchored pontoons will completely obstruct the drawspan. (See a diagram of the closure on the SR 520 website.) From that day forward, the north-south channel through the middle of the bridge will be blocked.

For drivers and transit riders, those midday minutes of motionless, midlake tranquility will be a thing of the past.Local mariners will still be able to get past the floating bridges (both old and new) by passing through a reopened east navigation channel or the marine channel on the west side of the lake. For more information on the navigation channels, visit our drawspan information Web page.

Until traffic moves to the new bridge in spring 2016 and the old bridge is removed, there will still be the occasional drawspan opening for late-night maintenance or high winds, but comparatively few motorists should notice.

We thank drivers and boaters alike for their patience as we continue to build the new floating bridge. We look forward to next year’s opening of the new cross-lake highway.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A new HAWK soars in Edmonds

By Mike Allende

Hawk fever is winding down in the Puget Sound area until next season, but in Edmonds a new kind of HAWK is drawing attention, and drivers should be prepared.

On Wednesday, Feb. 4, we will activate the first HAWK traffic signal on a state highway in Snohomish or King counties when a new pedestrian crosswalk goes into operation on State Route 104 near Pine Street next to City Park. It will be located where the pedestrian trail leads out of the west side of the park to SR 104.

A what signal?
It’s called a HAWK signal, and not just in homage to our favorite football team. It stands for High-intensity Activated crossWalK, and it’s going to take a bit of getting used to. Because while it works the same as other crosswalks for pedestrians and cyclists – press the button and wait for the walk signal – it’s not something that most drivers have encountered.

Drivers will have clear notice when pedestrians and cyclists wish to cross busy SR 104 near
Edmonds City Park, which sees heavy commuter and ferry traffic.
Here's how it works:
  • Dark signal: When there is no pedestrian activity at the crosswalk, the signal will appear dark as though it is turned off.
  • Flashing yellow signal: When a pedestrian presses the crosswalk button, the signal will have a flashing yellow light warning drivers that a pedestrian wishes to cross and drivers should start slowing.
  • Solid yellow signal: This alerts drivers to begin stopping because the signal is about to change to red.
  • Solid red: All vehicles are required to stop to allow pedestrians to cross.
  • Flashing red: Flashing red signals mean drivers may proceed through the crosswalk one at a time after stopping to verify the crosswalk is clear of pedestrians.
  • Dark signal: The signal will then go back to dark until the crosswalk button is pushed again.

Get it? If not, here’s a handy guide (pdf 414 kb) that explains it, and this animation should help. You can also watch the following video to learn more about how the HAWK traffic signal works.

Drivers should also be ready for a speed limit reduction as it will go from 40 mph to 35 mph on SR 104 between Dayton Street and Paradise Lane, approaching the new crosswalk from both directions. This will also help vehicles slow down as they get near the area.

A new signalized crosswalk on SR 104 in Edmonds will give pedestrians and cyclists safer access
between Point Edwards and Edmonds City Park and downtown Edmonds.
And as with any intersection, pedestrians and cyclists should take care to be sure that the 58-foot-long crosswalk is safe to enter before crossing.

We recognize that this crosswalk represents a change for drivers on SR 104 and will take some getting used to. We’re planning on having some extra signage leading up to the crosswalk on both sides of the highway for a while to prepare drivers for the change.

This area sees heavy commuter and ferry traffic and we chose this unique signal to give drivers an extra notice – the red light – to stop for pedestrians and cyclists, providing them with a safer, controlled way across SR 104 to City Park and downtown Edmonds. The project was financed through a grant from the WSDOT Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Program with additional funding from the City of Edmonds.

Monday, February 2, 2015

It’s not quite spring, but heavy cleaning awaits SR 305 Agate Pass Bridge

By Doug Adamson

You wash your car and your dog. You wash behind your ears. But, washing bridges? It sounds odd, but the answer is yes. Washington’s aging bridges get a lot of exposure to the elements and occasionally need a bath. It is particularly true when key spans are near corrosive saltwater.
The Agate Pass Bridge requires a thorough inspection.
In order for that to happen, crews need to deep clean the bridge.

The reason for bridge washing, however, goes well beyond ‘keeping things tidy.’ Our inspectors are required to clearly inspect critical bridge elements, such as joints. That’s tough to do when those bridge elements are covered in a thick layer of gunk.

What are we doing? 
For 21 consecutive days beginning February 9, our bridge maintenance crews will deep-clean the Agate Pass Bridge on State Route 305. Workers also will inspect this vital link between Bainbridge Island and the Kitsap Peninsula. Crews will use three Under-Bridge-Inspection-Trucks (UBITs) to reach all areas of the bridge. UBITs have a crane-like arm that extends crew carriers over the side of the bridge.

What does this work mean for drivers? 
Crews will use three UBITs to clean and inspect Agate Pass
Bridge in February 2015. This photo shows a UBIT being
used to inspect the SR 167 Puyallup River Bridge.
Every day from February 9 through February 28, drivers will encounter single-lane alternating traffic
at the bridge each Monday through Friday between 8:45 a.m. and 3 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays, single-lane alternating traffic will be in place from 7:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. Drivers who use SR 305 across the bridge should expect long delays during work hours. The work hours were chosen in coordination with the Washington State Ferries schedule to minimize impacts to ferry users.

Traffic impacts
There will be a lot of potentially frustrating traffic backups. That’s why we will need help from drivers. The Agate Pass Bridge is used by 22,000 vehicles per day.  During the seven hours between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. - the times crews will work - SR 305 carries about 4,600 vehicles in each direction.

Planning ahead could help save you time and frustration.

Here’s a time-tested strategy:

  • Allow plenty of extra time to travel through the work zone.
  • If possible, travel early in the morning or later in the afternoon or evening. 
  • Consider rescheduling discretionary trips and telecommuting.

Why isn’t this work being done at night? 
The Agate Pass Bridge, built in 1950, is a critical link
between the north end of Bainbridge Island
and mainland Kitsap County.
Since one of our key goals is to keep traffic moving, we routinely schedule lane closures on state highways when traffic volumes are lower, typically at night. This project, however, is different. Workers need daylight to get this kind of work done. Motorists will see the bridge lined with three UBITs. An operator inside the truck needs to move in concert with workers inside a crew carrier to thread the truck’s crane-like arms through tight spaces under the bridge deck. The arm – that carries two crew members in a basket on the end of the arm – is delicately navigated through V-shaped steel portions of the bridge both above and below the deck. The operation has been compared to threading a needle when both the needle and the thread are moving. In this case, one person is holding the needle while a second is holding the thread.  Once the needle is threaded, daylight allows bridge inspectors to take an in-depth look at the bridge’s steel, checking for corrosion, cracks or other signs of wear.

We want to make sure that nothing, not the crews, the equipment, the driving public or the bridge, is damaged or injured in this process. In this particular scenario, working at night introduces unacceptable safety risks and inefficiencies.

Why don’t you just use the money to build a new bridge? 
The $200,000 cost of this work is akin to investing in your old, yet dependable car to keep it going. Reality is, the funds being used to clean the bridge wouldn’t pay even a fraction of the cost to build a new one.

Bridges and highways are significant investments in our state that were made by previous generations. We’re working to preserve the infrastructure – like the Agate Pass Bridge - for years to come.

Done with an eye toward protecting the environment 
In order to protect the environment, we have been working with the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) to do this work. During the work, we’ll hand-clean the bridge of debris followed by low-pressure flushing. The approach, approved by DOE following a pilot project, minimizes the impacts to waters flowing below the bridge. Sampling after this two-step approach has shown insignificant impacts to the environment. This option is also much less expensive since it doesn’t require crews to fully encapsulate the bridge in an oversized tent.

For more information about the SR 305 Agate Pass Bridge daytime closures, visit the project website.