Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Ending the 164th Street crosswalk dance

By Mike Allende

In fifth grade, I was a master break dancer (according to me). I’ve also become a skilled line dancer (again, according to me). And like many pedestrians, I’m skilled at the crosswalk dance.

You know the crosswalk dance. It’s like the hokey pokey: you put your right foot in, then out, then in, then out again. All the while, you try to figure out if that car is going to turn into the crosswalk or not. Hey, I never said it was a fun dance.

We will extend the traffic islands at the 164th Street Southwest on-ramp
to I-5, eliminating the HOV merge and making it safer for pedestrians to cross.

Well, we’re trying to end the crosswalk dance – and the guessing – at the busy ramp entrances on 164th Street Southwest and Interstate 5 in Lynnwood.

A project beginning soon (we need dry weather) will simplify the merge from 164th Street to I-5 by reducing the number of lanes that can make the merge from two to one.

As it is now, 164th Street has two lanes in each direction that can turn onto the I-5 ramps. The far right lane goes directly onto the freeway ramp, and the lane next to it can either proceed through on 164th Street or turn onto the I-5 ramp as a HOV. While all vehicles are supposed to signal their intent, we know it doesn’t always happen, and that’s where the crosswalk do-si-do comes in. Are they turning, or aren’t they?

This project will improve safety at the crosswalks by extending a pedestrian island that will essentially block I-5 ramp access from the lane that allows HOVs to turn onto the I-5 ramp. The remaining far right lane will be the only one where drivers can merge onto the freeway, simplifying things for pedestrians. The HOV lane will open to vehicles after the crosswalk. We’ll also be adjusting signage so drivers are aware of the change.

We will improve pedestrian safety at the crosswalk of  164th Street Southwest
and I-5 in Lynnwood by taking away the HOV merge lane.

This is the first of two parts of this project. In the future, we’ll also add pavement markings to make it a marked crosswalk and extend the islands even more. To further grab drivers’ attention, there will be a flashing warning beacon on signs that a pedestrian can activate by pushing a button at either side of the crossing.

Even with these changes, it’s important that pedestrians wait for a safe opening in traffic or for vehicles to clearly yield before stepping into the crosswalk. We don’t want people to have to dance their way to safety while dodging vehicles.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Clear it if you can steer it

By Mike Allende

We receive a lot of questions about what someone should do if they are involved in a collision:
                  “Should I stay put and wait for help?”
                  “Should I move, and if so, where to?”
                  “Stay in the car or get out?”

While our Incident Response Team (IRT) and our friends at the Washington State Patrol respond as quickly as they can, even they can find themselves at the mercy of traffic conditions from time to time. So we went to Trooper Mark Francis of the State Patrol and IRT member John Perez to find out just what you should do if you’re in a collision.

If IRT arrives to help, listen and trust them to help get you to safety.
What’s the first thing a driver should do if they’re involved in a collision?
MF: The first step is making sure no one in any of the vehicles involved is injured. If they are, call 911 immediately. If everyone is OK and the vehicles are still operational, limp the cars off to the next exit, or at least over to the shoulder.

But don’t we have to wait for the police to investigate?
MF: Only if there are serious injuries. If it’s a minor collision, we can investigate it from another location such as a side road, a gas station parking lot or the shoulder. Once you’re safely off the road, then call 911, take photos if you want to, exchange your information and wait for the State Patrol to arrive.

If your car his mobile, find a shoulder, gore point or other safe spot
to drive to before exchanging information.
Don’t stop in the lane of traffic.
How can a driver help the State Patrol get their jobs done once off the highway?
MF: Staying in your vehicle always helps. Have your information ready like your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance. And be prepared to either give or write a brief statement.

What if a car can’t be moved?
JP: It happens, and the best thing to do in that case is to listen to us and trust us. We know how to help, how to get you to safety and how to get traffic moving. Now and then a driver doesn’t want us to push them because they think we’ll damage the car. Our trucks have a layer of Teflon on the front so the most damage will be a black smudge that can be wiped off. Just put the car in neutral, stay off the brakes, listen to our instructions and we’ll get you and your vehicle to safety.

These cars quickly moved to the shoulder
after colliding on I-90. Moving to the grass on the
other side of the wall would be a great next step.
MF: Also be sure to activate your hazards so approaching vehicles know. Then safely exit your vehicle and find a safe spot to call 911, like the side of a hill or behind a retention wall or another large, sturdy object from where you can keep an eye on your vehicle from a distance. If there just isn’t a safe place to wait, stay in your vehicle. That will give you better protection than just standing near the roadway.

Anything else drivers should know that would help?
JP: We understand that collisions happen, stalls happen. We’re not there to judge you; we just want to help you, get you to safety and keep traffic going. So be honest about what’s going on and trust us to get things cleared quickly.

You don’t have to wait for the State Patrol to arrive
before moving to safety. If you can steer your car,
clear it off the highway as quickly as possible.
MF: People don’t get in collisions all the time so it’s easy to forget what to do in those situations. Plan ahead and be prepared. If everyone does their best to clear minor, fender-bender collisions off the freeways and highways, we can have a large impact on the amount of congestion they cause.

Weekend roadwork on SR 99 and I-90, and Seattle area events

By Mike Allende

One of the great things about living in the Seattle area is the number of big events we have. Whether it’s a large sports game, festival or convention, there always seems to be something going on in our area.

That also makes it tough to get roadwork done. Between major road and bridge projects and ongoing maintenance needs, there is a huge amount to do, and limited time to do it. When possible, we do work during off-peak driving hours such as nighttime weekday closures. But some work can only be done with extended closures, and those typically need to be done on weekends to avoid disrupting people’s work-week commutes.

When we have weekend-long work, we try to plan around events as much as possible to minimize traffic disruptions, but it’s impossible to close lanes for any extended period without it affecting people’s plans. It’s also pretty much impossible to do a full weekend closure without it coinciding with several events in the area.

In those cases, we look at a number of factors: expected attendance, anticipated traffic levels, where a particular project is in its schedule and what other work is happening in the vicinity. We know major sports events like the Seahawks (68,400 average attendance), Sounders (43,700) and Mariners (25,500) are going to have a large group of people going to the same place at the same time and while we do still have closures on game days, we try to avoid major work affecting traffic near the stadiums.

Traffic patterns are a bit different for most weekend-long events. In those cases, while we see a spike in traffic in the hour or so before the start of the event and near the close, we see traffic more spread out than we do with single-day events.

Let’s take a look at this weekend. Westbound I-90 will be detoured to the express lanes and the SR 99 Viaduct will be closed, along with other parts of SR 99, for a variety of work. Meanwhile, Emerald City Comicon is happening at the Washington State Convention Center, a Pro Bull Riders event is at KeyArena and Taste Washington! is at CenturyLink Field’s Event Center.

We know that we’ll see heavy traffic near the I-5 exits to the Convention Center leading up to the 10 a.m. opening of Comicon followed by more dispersed traffic throughout the rest of the day. But, a look at last year’s traffic volume chart for the Saturday of Comicon shows that traffic is basically the same as it is on any other Saturday. The only time we see any kind of real spike over normal Saturday traffic is on northbound I-5 in the 11 a.m. hour and around 5:30 p.m. as people arrive and leave. Traffic on southbound I-5 is basically the same as it is on any other Saturday.

A look at southbound (above) and northbound I-5 traffic on a
 normal Saturday compared to on last year’s Comicon Saturday.

Closing lanes at any time – especially when there are events going on – is never ideal, but it’s necessary to get work done to improve our infrastructure. The best way to maximize your fun and avoid being stuck in traffic is to adjust your travel plans, try to get to your event early or avoid the heavy traffic at the beginning of the event and get there a little later. Some planning ahead could be the difference between a long wait in traffic and a long wait in the autograph line.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Bridge inspections make sure drivers stay safe

By Tom Pearce

We’re going to clean and inspect the Deception Pass and Canoe Pass bridges beginning March 30, which got me thinking about our bridges and bridge projects. With 3,286 bridges – including overpasses and underpasses – that are part of the Washington state highway system, our crews have a big job maintaining, cleaning and repairing them to keep them in good condition.

What keeps our bridge staff so busy? We inspect every bridge at least once every two years. In fiscal year 2014 WSDOT inspected 1,892 bridges. Our crews look for cracks, rust and other deficiencies. We look at the paint, deck, rivets, expansion joints, bearings, moving parts, anything that could need repairs.

Using two UBITs on the Deception Pass Bridge,
as we did in 2009, helps complete the inspection
more quickly.
Some bridges are fairly routine to inspect, like freeway overpasses where a lift can be used from the street below. But cleaning and inspecting many bridges can be challenging for both our workers and for drivers. We may need to close a lane to stage our equipment, so we do our best to choose times when traffic is at its lowest level, often mornings and weekends.

A bridge like Deception Pass can only be reached from above, so it requires what we call a UBIT – an under bridge inspection truck. As you can see, it has a long arm with a bucket that can go under bridges to show our inspectors what they need to see. These can also be used to make repairs. Often hovering over water more than 100 feet in the air, this is not work for the faint of heart.

That’s not the only challenge with our Deception Pass bridge work. Using a UBIT requires us to close a lane, but with only two lanes there, drivers will have some delays while flaggers control traffic through the only open lane. And given the size of the bridge, this is no quick and simple job. We’ll take two weeks to inspect the Deception Pass and Canoe Pass bridges, so drivers should start planning now. Crews will be on the bridges from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays beginning March 30. They’ll finish at noon on Fridays, with the last day set for April 10. The good news is we’re combining efforts with the city of Oak Harbor, which has its main water line on the bridge. They’ll inspect the water line at the same time we inspect and clean the bridge. If we did it separately, that could mean four weeks of lane closures instead of two.

Inspecting bridges with a UBIT often means blocking a lane,
particularly on a narrow bridge like Deception Pass.
 With so many bridges to inspect, it takes a lot of coordination to check all of them every two years. As the weather improves, you may see our crews completing more inspections. It may cause minor traffic delays, but regular check-ups can catch things that need to be repaired early, when they’re easier to fix. That beats a major delay for an unexpected problem any day.

Students draw attention to first wildlife overcrossing east of Snoqualmie Pass through social media contest

By Meagan Lott

We team up every year with the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition to educate students about safe wildlife passage along the I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East corridor through different contests.

This year we are launching a social media contest asking students to show how they “Heart I-90 Wildlife” on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

A design visualization of what the I-90 wildlife crossing
will look like when completed in 2020.
Students grades K-12 interested in entering can visit the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Web page, choose one or more species of wildlife native to the Cascade Mountains, illustrate the wildlife and take a photo of it to post on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #iHearti90Wildlife.

Awards will be given in several categories including: best classroom collection; best mammal or bird; best amphibian, reptile or mollusk; most creative entry and people’s choice. Prizes include a GoPro HERO, a customized #iHearti90Wildlife T-shirt and an REI gift card.

The contest runs March 25 to May 11. Winners will be announced in late May.

This summer, we’ll start building the first wildlife crossing over I-90 which is located about 10 miles east of Snoqualmie Pass and is part of the I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East project.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Don’t let closures on SR 99 and I-90 detour your weekend plans

By Annie Johnson

Between games, festivals, concerts and recreation, there’s always a lot going on in the Puget Sound area. There’s also a lot of roadwork that has to get done. It’s a challenging balancing act to get as much work in while creating the least amount of traffic disruption. And so when we can, we look for gaps that accomplish those two goals.

Even with these gaps, there’s no “good” time to close parts of the highway.

Work on SR 99 and I-90 is expected to cause congestion starting Friday evening, March 27 until Monday morning, March 30. The Alaskan Way Viaduct will be closed Saturday and Sunday during the day for its semi-annual inspection. Crews will also be working on SR 99 north of the Battery Street Tunnel and on westbound I-90 in the Mount Baker and Mercer Island tunnels from Friday night to Monday morning. That’s a lot of vital work packed into a short amount of time. We need to get these closures out of the way before our busy summer event and construction season heats up.

It doesn’t take a traffic engineer to know that when we close one stretch of highway, traffic goes other places. It’s also clear that closing lanes in the same direction on north/south or east/west routes at the same time would be a bad thing. When it’s possible we look at combining work to avoid spreading out the closures over multiple weekends. It’s kind of like putting together pieces of a puzzle.

Looking at this weekend’s closures, we know that closing SR 99 leads to more traffic on I-5 so we wouldn’t want to add to that additional traffic by also detouring eastbound I-90 to the express lanes for the weekend. The eastbound I-90 detour can create backups on I-5 since we only have about a mile to funnel traffic down from four lanes to one as it enters the express lanes. However, if we do the same detour to the I-90 express lanes westbound we avoid impacting I-5. And with more than two miles to get folks in the express lanes we have less of an impact on I-405.

Don’t get me wrong, we still expect to see heavier than normal weekend traffic around the region, particularly on alternate routes like I-5, I-405 and SR 520. People headed to Emerald City Comicon at the Washington State Convention Center, the Professional Bull Riders event at KeyArena and Taste Washington! at the CenturyLink Field Event Center will want to leave as early as they can so they don’t miss out on the fun. After all, when we close lanes, all that traffic has to go somewhere. We greatly appreciate your patience during this time.

So what exactly are our crews doing during these closures?

Well, on SR 99 our bridge inspection crews will be conducting their semi-annual inspection of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. During the closure, crews get up close and personal with the viaduct to measure existing cracks and look for new ones, check for movement of the viaduct structure, and closely examine the viaduct’s foundations.

WSDOT bridge inspectors use Under Bridge Inspection Trucks (U-BITS)
to inspect the viaduct. This special equipment allows them to
see the bridge from all angles.
It’s pretty common for us to extend the closure boundaries during viaduct inspection weekends. This lets us and other agencies complete additional work with minimal added inconvenience to drivers. For instance, this weekend our contractor crews will complete important utility work just north of the Battery Street Tunnel while Seattle Department of Transportation contractor crews install large sign posts for future use. A bit further up the road, Seattle Public Utilities crews will do street restoration and drainage repairs.

Meanwhile, over on westbound I-90, contractor crews will be working inside of the Mount Baker and Mercer Island tunnels as part of a project to add all-day carpool lanes to I-90. In order to squeeze a fourth lane across I-90, from where the carpool lanes end now on Mercer Island to Seattle, we have to  upgrade our fire detection systems, fire sprinklers and hydrants, cameras and other items that help us keep drivers safe in the event of a fire or other incident inside the tunnels. Getting all that done will take a while but doing it during weekend closures maximizes the amount of time crews have to do their work while keeping drivers and workers safe. If we did the work with just nighttime closures it would significantly extend the amount of time needed for the project. As it is, this is the second of up to 30 directional weekend-long closures between now and mid-2017.

Crews work on the fire detection system inside the eastbound Mount Baker
Tunnel during an earlier weekend closure.
What can you do to help keep traffic moving during this weekend’s work? The most important thing is to know before you go. Check our Seattle traffic website, call 5-1-1 or check the WSDOT app for real-time travel information. Definitely plan ahead for congestion and add plenty of extra time to get where you need to go. If you can, consider using transit, delaying your trip, or traveling outside of times when we typically see higher traffic volumes (on weekends that’s usually between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.). Also, expect congestion on alternate routes like I-405, I-5 and SR 520 as well as local streets.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Give ‘em a Brake: roadway work zone safety matters to everyone

By Barbara LaBoe

With workers on roadside projects every day, we take work zone safety very personally.  We want all our workers -- and all the passing motorists -- to return home safely every night.

That’s why we wholeheartedly support this year’s National Work Zone Awareness Week – which begins today – and why we hold our own memorial event each year.  This year’s WSDOT Worker Memorial is April 22 at our Olympia Headquarters Building.  It’s a time to honor and remember our fallen workers as well as a chance to once again emphasize our safety messages to both workers and the public.

Safety is our number one priority.  We employ numerous safety measures at our roadside work zones, but many sites are still dangerous just by their nature.  Nationally, there’s a collision in a work zone every 14 minutes.  Closer to home, Washington has averaged nearly 950 state roadway work zone injuries a year since 2006.  Last year, we had 1,384 reported collisions either in a work zone or in a back-up caused by one, including four fatalities and 454 reported injuries.

Our safety crews are there to keep our workers – and you – safe
 in work zones. Please slow down, follow directions and stay safe.
While we want to keep our workers safe, it’s often the driver or passengers who are injured in work zone collisions.  In 2014, 94 percent of Washington roadway work zone fatalities and injuries were to drivers or their passengers.  The top three reasons for work zone collisions were driver inattention, following too closely or excessive speed.

That makes our Give ‘em a Brake message all the more important, because informed, aware drivers are a key part of reducing the risks.  Remember, you’re not only protecting our workers by slowing down and obeying traffic signs – you’re protecting yourself and your loved ones.

Our workers have vehicles passing just a few feet away from them,
which is why it’s so important to slow down and be alert in work zones.
We ask all drivers in work zones to:
  • Slow down and drive the posted speeds
  • Stay calm
  • Pay attention, both to workers directing you and surrounding traffic
  • Merge as soon as possible
  • Expect delays, leave early or take an alternate route if possible
We’ve lost 59 WSDOT employees in work zones since 1950.  Every one of the deaths is a tragedy to their families as well as our agency and the state.  Working together, we can spread awareness and make work zones a much safer place for everyone.

So the next time you’re in a work zone, please give our workers – and yourself – a brake.

Friday, March 20, 2015

I-405 Express Toll Lanes Part 2: A new option for 450,000 people stuck in traffic

By Jennifer Rash

Did you know that each weekday, over 375,000 vehicles travel the north end of I-405? That equates to over 450,000 people.  In the average 16 hours of daily consciousness, each person is faced with thousands of choices—everything from hitting the snooze button to how many stars on your Pad Thai.  Choosing how you travel each day is an important choice, typically based on factors of distance, time and comfort.

I-405 experiences eight hours of congestion a day, mainly during peak travel times for those 450,000 people.  Some are sitting in cars, others on buses and in vanpools, but all still in traffic.  In Part 1 of our express toll lanes series, we discussed the vision for HOV lanes in Washington, and how growth on the eastside has caused some I-405 HOV lanes to be as congested as the regular lanes.

Later this year, we will open 17 miles of express toll lanes between Bellevue and Lynnwood to manage congestion in the HOV lanes and create new choices for I-405 users.  Express toll lanes give drivers the choice to use the HOV lanes by paying a toll.  Transit, vanpools and carpools meeting the occupancy requirement will be able to use the lanes for free. Toll rates will automatically adjust to keep the express toll lanes moving at 45 mph or faster.  By using price and volume to manage congestion, the express toll lanes will keep everyone moving and create reliable travel times for all users.

Some drivers might use them every day, but most will use them when they need them for a variety of reasons that are personal to those 450,000 individuals.  And for transit users, vanpoolers and carpoolers, you know that the lanes will provide travel time reliability—moving at least 45 mph.

How does changing the carpool requirement to 3+ during peak hours help reduce traffic?

On Wednesday, March 18, the Transportation Commission approved toll rates and exemptions for the new express toll lanes, including a change in the carpool policy to require three or more people to qualify during peak times on weekdays.

As we said in Part 1, we can’t build our way out of traffic— population growth means more cars will just fill up the new lanes.  Keeping the two-person requirement at peak times would mean the express toll lanes would continue to be congested like they are today, not meeting requirements that the HOV lanes move at 45 MPH or better 90 percent of the time.

The existing HOV lane is underutilized just outside of peak
periods and overused during the peak, causing slower speeds.

By changing the requirement to three people during peak times, and 2+ at off-peak times, the express toll lanes can keep traffic flowing at 45 mph or greater, providing faster, more predictable travel times for transit, carpools, vanpools, motorcycles and drivers who decide to use the express toll lanes.

When an express toll lane is added to the current HOV lane
between SR 522 and Bellevue, the increased capacity moves
more vehicles at higher speeds.

Common responses and reactions to express toll lanes and the carpool change:
  • How will this improve traffic?
  • It’s not going to work.
  • But nobody else in the world has to do this!
We know, we know, you’re skeptical. We expect that. But we have data that’s encouraging. More than 30 express toll lane systems have been successfully implemented in places around the United States, including Orange County, Calif., Miami, Atlanta and our very own SR 167 HOT Lanes. After express toll lanes opened on I-95 in Miami, HOV lane speeds tripled and general purpose lane speeds doubled. On SR 167 the number of trips has quadrupled since opening, now at 4,500 per weekday.

Will we get similar results on I-405? That remains to be seen, but we certainly think that this is going to help. Getting people to their destination as quickly and safely as possible is our goal, and we’re confident that this is a solution that will work for our region.

This map shows other examples of express toll lanes projects across the country.
Click on map to enlarge.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Demolition of Pacific Avenue Bridge in Tacoma to begin soon

By Doug Adamson

Editor’s note: The Pacific Avenue overpass near I-5 in Tacoma closed to all traffic Monday, April 6. The overpass will be closed around the clock through at least March 2016. Depending on the weather, the overpass could be closed longer.

Big equipment will soon demolish the Pacific Avenue overpass in Tacoma. Beginning in early April, big pieces of machinery will disassemble the span over Interstate 5 between South 30th Street and South 32nd Street. It’s the latest phase in the three year I-5 - M Street to Portland Avenue – HOV project.

Why are we tearing it down? 
We’re making substantial improvements to northbound I-5 near I-705/State Route 7 and the Tacoma Dome by expanding the highway to accommodate high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes. There’s limited room in this area. The widened highway will go right through the current location of Pacific Avenue bridge supports called piers, so the overpass needs to be replaced and the piers relocated. While northbound I-5 will have a new route, the HOV lanes will be located on the current northbound I-5 lanes.

This visualization illustrates I-5 in Tacoma once construction is complete. 
The new Pacific Avenue overpass will be constructed to current earthquake standards, better protecting our state highway bridges from temblors. The new Pacific Avenue overpass will also have important upgrades for people who walk or ride bicycles. There will be a new 14-foot-wide shared use path that helps encourage walking and bicycling. The bike-pedestrian friendly feature also fits right into the City of Tacoma’s bike lane plan.

When will the Pacific Avenue overpass be closed? 
Starting April 6, the overpass will be closed around the clock for 11 months or longer, depending on weather. All vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians will use a detour until the new connection opens. Plans call for the Pacific Avenue overpass to reopen to two lanes - one lane of traffic in each direction – by March 2016.

We’ve worked with the City of Tacoma to establish a detour route for vehicles using M Street during the closure. McKinley Way will be used by bicyclists and pedestrians. We understand the closure is an inconvenience for drivers, neighborhood residents and businesses. We also appreciate everyone’s patience as crews build new HOV lanes in Tacoma. 

All Pacific Avenue traffic will be detoured as shown in this map. 

McKinley Way up next 
When the first two lanes open on Pacific, we’ll close the adjacent McKinley Way overpass. It will be closed for 18 months or longer, depending on weather. The McKinley Way overpass also has bridge supports that stand in the way of the new path of northbound I-5 in Tacoma.

After two lanes open on Pacific Avenue, crews will close the McKinley Way
overpass for 18 months or longer, depending on weather. Traffic, bicyclists,
and pedestrians will be detoured as shown on this map.
Ongoing construction
The Tacoma area has seen a lot of highway construction over the years. We have been putting together a very large puzzle called the I-5 - SR 16 Tacoma/Pierce County HOV Program. Each time a project is completed (the most recent was the new Eastbound Nalley Valley viaduct), the transportation system gets better. When the puzzle is complete, around 2019, motorists will enjoy increased highway capacity, and an HOV system that extends from Gig Harbor to Everett. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

A light winter helps WSDOT do some heavy lifting on the North Cascades Highway

By Tom Pearce

Skiers may be cursing the lack of snow, but when it comes to the spring reopening of the North Cascades Highway, it’s actually a good thing. We’ve been clearing a rock slide and loose rock since early December 2014 about eight miles east of the Diablo Gate, where we close the highway in the west each winter.

During a regular snowy winter we probably couldn’t have done much, if any, of this rock removal until the snow melted. That could have delayed the annual spring reopening of the popular scenic highway. Instead, we may be looking at a relatively early opening. More on that later.

We closed the Diablo Gate at milepost 134 on Nov. 24, when the snow started to pile up at Washington Pass and Rainy Pass. About two weeks later a large rock slide crashed down onto the highway near Granite Creek. Our crews cleared the initial slide, but since then it’s been a game of cat-and-mouse with the hillside.

Geologists evaluated the site after we removed the initial rock fall and found there was still a lot more loose rock up on the hillside that could potentially come down. In February we hired a contractor to remove the rest of that loose rock. However, shortly after they finished our geologists used laser measurements and found the hillside was still moving.  In late February we blasted the unstable part of slope and cleared the debris. 

New measurements revealed the slope stabilized. Now contractor crews are bolting the remaining rock to the hillside to keep it in place. We expect to finish that work in a week or so. Then we’ll be ready for the snow plows to clear the North Cascades Highway.

The initial slide covered more than 100 yards of the highway.

Our crews scouted the highway for plowing last week. This year we have 15 to 30 feet of snow on the highway around the Liberty Bell avalanche chutes near Washington Pass. Sounds like a lot, right? Not really; in past years we’ve seen 50 to 70 feet of snow in these locations. Our crews began clearing the highway from the east side on March 16 and will begin clearing from the west side on March 23. That’s about a week earlier than recent years. It will take about a month to clear the snow from the highway.

The contractor brought in “Rockzilla,” a long-armed
machine to remove loose rock from the hillside.

We caught a break with the lack of snow this year. Most years the Granite Creek area would be covered with snow, and we’d just be starting the rock slide clean-up, delaying the opening. Instead, we dealt with this site when the highway is closed anyway. Now we can focus on clearing snow. If we don’t have a significant snowstorm, we may see our earliest opening in 10 years. That’s good news for everyone.

Find photos of the North Cascades Highway reopening effort on Flickr.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Light snowpack throws WSDOT a softball

By Summer Derrey

We were tossed a softball, not a snowball, this winter. The light snowpack throughout Washington has contributed to reduced closures, spinouts and collisions on state highways. There was less wear to the roadway surface from chains, deicer and plows. Fewer storms also meant less overtime pay to maintenance crews.

The restrooms near the summit of Chinook Pass
are usually covered in snow this time of year - but not this year.

Another advantage – seasonally closed passes are on track to reopen earlier than normal. Cayuse Pass is tentatively set to open Friday, March 27, and Chinook Pass a week later on Friday, April 3. North Cascades Highway will follow suit around mid-April - or sooner.

About three feet of snow covers the summit of Chinook Pass.
With significantly less snow, avalanche crews haven’t blasted the slopes once this year. In an average season, they would have performed avalanche control on Snoqualmie and Stevens passes dozens of times by now.

Snowpack on the summit of Chinook Pass is down
about 10 feet from the seasonal average.

Here’s a look at the snowpack statewide as of March 1:

Current snowpack/average
  • Snoqualmie Pass: 14 inches / 90 inches
  • Chinook Pass: 65 inches / 157 inches
  • Cayuse Pass: 18 inches / 180 inches
  • Stevens Pass: 33 inches / 99 inches
  • Washington Pass: 54 inches / 108 inches
So far, the 2014 – 2015 winter season is shaping up to be the lightest snowfall on record for Snoqualmie. And there are very similar stories statewide. 

Minimal avalanche danger will speed up the clearing process.
You may be wondering if there is a financial gain to less maintenance resources spent this winter. Between the really heavy winters, the in-between winters and the lighter years like this one, the money seems to about balance out. And winter may not be over yet – remember last spring?

The slight reprieve also gave crews a chance to catch up on routine maintenance and refresh on safety training. That way, when the real winter comes, hopefully next year – we’ll be ready to play hardball.

Visit our website for more information about Cayuse and Chinook passes and North Cascades Highway. Photos of the Chinook Pass reopening effort are available on Flickr.

Friday, March 6, 2015

SR 542 Glacier Springs realignment moves forward with a blast

By Tom Pearce

We are getting closer to opening the new section of State Route 542 near Glacier Springs. On Feb. 8 we reduced SR 542, also known as the Mount Baker Highway, to one lane about four miles east of Maple Falls because the Nooksack River was eroding the bluff below the highway.

In an ordinary winter, reducing this road to one lane would be a major challenge because the Mount Baker Ski Area draws 2,000 to 5,000 skiers and boarders each day. The ski area and other businesses remain open, but with more rain than snow this winter, there’s not as much traffic on SR 542. On the other hand, if we had a more normal winter with heavy snow instead of the heavy rains, maybe we wouldn’t have had the winter erosion that forced us to reduce the highway to one lane last month. Either way, there are always challenges when a highway and a river coexist in the same place.

We’re building the new roadway about 100 feet northeast of the current highway, far enough away from the river that future erosion shouldn’t impact this section of highway. We hired Ram Construction of Bellingham to do the project. They began work on Feb. 19, the day after an emergency contract was signed.

Rock blasting earlier this week allowed crews to clear the new path for the highway. Once the base layer for new road is complete, crews will put down asphalt on the new 1,000-foot long section of SR 542. The contractor plans to finish work in the next few weeks, restoring the highway to two lanes.

Graders and compactors smooth out the roadbed for the new section of SR 542.
We're shifting the road to the northeast because the Nooksack River eroded
the bluff beneath the original SR 542 path.
We’ve been watching this area for several years. In late November we saw the bluff was eroding again. A significant amount of the bluff slid away and moved the edge closer to the road, so we began monitoring the bluff daily. Heavy rains in early February caused further erosion of the bluff, moving it even closer to the road. Because of the safety risk, we decided to go to a one-lane road and enter into an emergency construction contract to move the roadway. 

With the shift to a one-lane highway, we installed temporary signals to control traffic through the 1,000-foot single lane section. So far delays have been minor, usually less than a minute. During construction hours our contractor has flaggers controlling traffic, and we had some 30-minute delays for the rock blasting earlier this week, but that was the exception. We should only see brief delays as we continue building the new section of highway.

Businesses east of the road work are still open, including the Mount Baker Ski Area. It’ll take a few extra minutes to get there until we finish the new road later this month, but you can still get there. In the meantime, thanks for your patience.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Breaking down Wednesday’s I-405 emergency closure

Pavement on southbound I-405 in Renton had been repaired
multiple times but needed a permanent fix.
 by Mike Allende

What started as a fairly routine maintenance call early Wednesday morning, March 4, turned into a bigger issue for our maintenance staff and commuters on Interstate 405.

Here’s what happened:
  • Our maintenance crew became aware that concrete on a bridge deck that had received several temporary repairs on southbound I-405 near the State Route 169 on-ramp in Renton was in imminent danger of falling apart, creating a serious hazard to drivers and requiring immediate repair.
  • Upon beginning the repair and digging into the concrete, it became clear that the damage was more extensive than originally thought, covering a greater area of the road.
  • The dry weather and low traffic volume presented an opportunity to make a permanent fix to the bridge deck and adjacent expansion joint. The feeling was that the work could be completed prior to the morning commute.
WSDOT maintenance crews discovered more damage than
originally expected in the course of repairing the pavement.
Repairing roadways and expansion joints isn’t easy. Our crew had to make precise cuts into the roadway, clear out all the old material deep into the roadway, make the repairs and then cover it back up. This repair job had a few challenges.
  • The location. Had the damage been in an outside lane, our crew could have closed just one lane, using the shoulder to move around. But it was in the center of three lanes, requiring a second lane to be closed to keep our workers safe as they moved around.
  • The temperature. It was cold, with temps in the upper 20s and low 30s. This made it harder for the highway material to set. Our crew felt they’d have enough time but the curing took longer than expected. They tried to heat the area to move the process along but it didn’t work, so they needed to wait until it was firm enough for vehicles to drive over.

Crews heated the repair area to try to help the material to set,
but cold weather still slowed the process.
The permanent repair should give drivers a much
smoother and safer drive through the area.
Our communications staff and traffic management crew went to work alerting commuters and the media of the situation to encourage people to use alternate routes but still, an 8-mile backup formed before all lanes cleared at about 7:30 a.m.

There’s never a good time to close lanes on state highways and as we typically do, we’ll evaluate this closure to see what we can learn to better assess the size of repairs, weather conditions and locations. Our crews did an excellent job of getting the roadway repaired and making the area safe for drivers.

Unfortunately, we can’t promise that lane closures for emergency maintenance work won’t happen again. Our highways are old, in many cases 40-to-60-years-old, and like anything that age, things begin to fail (learn more about our infrastructure challenges in our Gray Notebook). We do our best to plan projects ahead of time to make those repairs, because while it’s still an inconvenience for drivers, we can at least let the public know in advance what to expect so they can plan around it.

Sometimes, though, we encounter a situation that is hazardous for drivers and must be closed as quickly as possible until we can make it safe. That’s always our top priority, because while we never like to see people stuck in traffic, we would trade that for ensuring that people get where they need to go safely.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Coming soon: Coal Creek Parkway ramp meter to better manage I-405 traffic

By Justin Fujioka

A relatively quick, low-cost project is underway to install a
ramp meter from Coal Creek Parkway to southbound I-405.
The Coal Creek Parkway on-ramp to southbound I-405 is finally getting some love, and that’s great news for drivers between Bellevue and Renton. This busy ramp has been sitting single on the sidelines as the only one in the area without a ramp meter. Until now.

A relatively quick, low-cost project is underway to install a meter on the ramp and improve traffic flow along a busy corridor that’s congested almost every afternoon. There was no space for a ramp meter there because of a bus stop along the on-ramp. Well, the bus stop was recently moved to the next off-ramp (Lake Washington Boulevard), where a park-and-ride was built.

A bus stop along the on-ramp was removed recently,
making space for a ramp meter to be installed.
You may be wondering how adding a ramp meter – basically a traffic light – will improve traffic flow. Think of it like this: You’re at a wedding and eager to get to the buffet line at the reception. If everyone gets up from their table at the same time, the buffet will be crowded with everyone struggling to get to the salmon or chicken. But if the tables are dismissed one by one, the buffet line will move more smoothly and everyone wins. That’s basically what a ramp meter does. It dismisses each table, or car, one by one, providing an even pace for vehicles to enter the highway and promote easier merging and better traffic flow.

Like all metered on-ramps, we will monitor the need for activation daily while keeping an eye on the nearby
The Coal Creek Parkway on-ramp to southbound I-405 is
currently the only one in the Bellevue area
without a ramp meter.
surface streets. The ramp meter will only activate when traffic on southbound I-405 dips below the posted speed limit.

The $220,000 project will require lane and ramp closures through early April, when the project enters its honeymoon phase. Until then, drivers should prepare for a full closure of the ramp each weeknight during the week of March 9. There will also be some daytime lane closures on the ramp. For updates on the latest lane and ramp closures, visit our I-405 Construction Update Report.