Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sync your calendar with WSDOT’s to prep for a busy month

By Harmony Weinberg

Wedding? Family reunion? Camping trip with pals? Wherever your plans take you in August, you should prepare now and plan ahead for some significant traffic impacts. We don’t take planning for major road closures lightly. We work closely with cities and  coordinate as best we can around special events to avoid closures during busy weekends when possible. 

We’ve created the friendly interactive calendar below just for you (and especially for the type A personalities out there like me). So grab your calendar and let’s sync up! Be sure to check this calendar frequently as work plans can and do change. Together we can get through a jam-packed month. By planning ahead you can adjust your travel routes and timing to make sure you aren’t late to catch the bouquet, throw a pie in Uncle John’s face or the last one to snag a campsite.

View the calendar below in Adobe .pdf format for more details.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Why is the grass brown along the highway?

SR 14 and I-205 in Vancouver, July 2015
 By Bart Treece

The green grass of home in the northwest is turning a different color with the unusually hot and dry weather. Lawns and areas along state highways are a pale-brown, which is a stark contrast to our nickname of the “Evergreen State.” WSDOT uses mostly native grasses along the roadsides that naturally go dormant in the summer after setting seed, but this has happened earlier this year due to the hot and extremely dry weather.

Vegetation plays an important role in keeping the soil in place along sloped areas, filtering stormwater runoff, and absorbing pollution, among other things. When designing a transportation improvement project, we use native plants that require little maintenance. This helps reduce staff and equipment costs.  Many native shrubs go dormant in the summer and may lose some of their leaves.  Some new planting areas are irrigated the first few years so they can firmly take root.

SR 529 Ebey Slough in Marysville, Feb. 2013
There are some exceptions. We work with local agencies and groups to keep certain areas green, like the irrigated lawns near the “Welcome to Washington” sign on northbound I-5 in Vancouver and the signs leading into Camas on State Route 14. Folks like the Master Gardener Foundation of Clark County and the city of Camas participate in the upkeep and absorb some of the costs for maintaining these areas. This allows us to focus our limited maintenance resources on roadway safety needs, such as repairing guardrails or patching potholes.

I-5 at Mill Plain in Vancouver
We still work in the medians and the sides of the highways by mowing the edges at least once a year. However, state guidelines limit this work to the early hours when the humidity is high and the fire risk is low, which is generally in evenings and early mornings, from 8 p.m. to 1 p.m.

This summer the brown along our roadways has come early with the extreme and early heat we’ve experienced. Further, expect this to be an especially brown summer as we are currently experiencing a statewide drought. Allowing our roadsides to ‘go brown’ follows the natural life cycle of native plants and conserves limited financial and water resources.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

SR 18 in Auburn: What lies beneath?

A large rebar cage serves as the future
bridge pier’s structure.
By Caitlin Morris

During the weekend of July 25-26, on State Route 18 we will perform a complex and well-choreographed dance of machinery, dirt and water to install a 120-foot-long bridge pier for the future SR 167 southbound HOT Lane.

Passersby will notice cranes, drills, and 20,000-gallon tanks full of water and mud. While the scene may look very chaotic, all the action is really happening underground.

And the work will occur in an area about the size of a baseball diamond.

The bridge will eventually connect the north and south ends of the 8-mile-long SR 167 southbound HOT lane extension project, and will be 24 feet wide with retrofitting for future lane additions on either side.

In any kind of construction work, you start at the bottom and work your way up. Over the weekend, we will lay the foundation for the rest of the bridge. It’s the most critical step, and we’re trying to get it done in a very short amount of time.

Crews will work within a small construction zone.
Big Weekend Closure Ahead
To do all of the work, crews will shut down westbound SR 18 completely and funnel eastbound traffic to one lane at SR 167. Even if most drivers avoid the area over the weekend, we’re expecting increased travel time on and around SR 18 in Auburn.

Plan ahead, folks.

The weekend’s construction will take place in the 50-foot-wide space between the two existing SR 167 bridges over SR 18. A drill held by a large crane will bore a hole deep and wide enough to hold the 120-foot-long concrete cylinder’s 8-foot-wide diameter. In order to do that, we will need several 20,000-gallon tanks of water to maintain the hole’s stability as the drill works.

As the drill progresses, crews will haul off residual dirt, resulting in nearly 30 truckloads of materials that must make their way in and out of the small construction zone, while also avoiding detoured traffic. It’s all about taking the space we have and making it work.

Design eliminates several weekend closures 
The project requires rigid time and space constraints to spare commuters additional closures of the popular SR 18/SR 167 interchange. In the project’s preliminary design stages, engineers had the option of adding three shallower bridge piers, but opted for a larger, deeper pier that bears more weight. Reducing the number of piers allows crews to reduce three separate closures to one. Over a typical summer weekend more than 170,000 drivers pass through the SR 18/SR 167 interchange, making one closure the ideal option. A lot of engineering and coordination went into minimizing traffic impact.
The bridge pier will be 120 feet long with and 8 feet wide.

To complete the installation in one weekend, crews will rotate around the clock in a relay race of operations. On Friday night, crews will deliver 3-5 truckloads of materials that within hours will become the crane supporting the oscillating drill. At the same time, crews will begin excavation. As the oscillating drill moves deeper into the ground, crews will remove the residual dirt, simultaneously filling the hole with a water and clay mixture to maintain the hole’s structure. After crews excavate, they will place a large rebar cage in the middle of the shaft and begin pouring concrete to create the bridge pier’s cement cylinder. As the concrete fills to the surface, large pumps will catch the residual water and clay mixture refilling the 20,000-gallon tanks.

While traffic congestion may rise in the SR 18/SR 167 area over the weekend of July 25 and 26, drivers on eastbound SR 18 will get to catch a glance of this carefully coordinated operation. We will post photos of this engineering feat to the project’s Flickr site.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Search continues for two, separate missing planes

UPDATE 3:50 p.m. July 15: At the request of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, we’ve added a photo of the plane wreckage found in Whatcom County this morning to our Flickr account. The photo can used by media with a credit to WSDOT. The identity of plane and occupants will not be officially confirmed until crews can reach the site. The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office is charge of the search as well as any further updates.


News Release from the Whatcom County Sheriff 7/15/15 12:04 p.m.:

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) initiated a search for a private aircraft that was traveling to Orcas Island from Minnesota with two passengers aboard. The aircraft never arrived on Saturday (July 11th) as scheduled. The aircraft was reported missing to the Washington State Department of Transportation on Tuesday evening. Shortly after 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday, the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Civil Air Patrol initiated a search and located an aircraft crash site on Twin Sisters Mountain in Whatcom County (approximately 10 miles east of Acme) .
The incident was turned over to the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office for further investigation and recovery. Aerial photographs of the site that were provided by WSOT indicate that debris is spread over a large area and no signs of human life.
The crash site is in a remote wilderness area with rugged terrain. Whatcom County Sheriff's Office deputies are analyzing the photographs and assessing how the site might best be safely accessed. Sheriff's Office deputies will be coordinating recovery efforts with Whatcom Search and Rescue.
At this point, the identity of the crashed aircraft has not been determined and it is not confirmed that it is the same aircraft from Minnesota that was reported missing.
Bill Elfo, Sheriff - 360-676-6650


Missing Montana plane:  UPDATE 12:15 p.m. July 15: The Skagit County Sheriff’s Office has taken over the search for a missing Montana plane as crews work toward wreckage spotted in the search area Tuesday night. No confirmation of either the plane or the remaining two occupants can be made until search crews reach the site.
Further media inquiries should be directed to the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office.


Missing Minnesota Plane - UPDATE 11:30 a.m. July 15: A WSDOT crew this morning located the wreckage believed to be a Minnesota plane that did not arrive in Orcas Island Saturday and was reported missing to authorities Tuesday. The search has been turned over to the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, which will work to reach the site and make positive identifications of the plane and occupants. No identification has been made at this time. The wreckage site was found using radar coordinates from the aircraft's last know location on Saturday. Media inquiries should be directed to the Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo, 360-676-6650.


Missing Montana and Minnesota planes - UPDATE 10:30 a.m. July 15:
In response to several inquiries, there is no evidence the two missing planes were involved in any mid-air collision. The Minnesota plane left radar several hours before the Montana plane was last tracked on radar. Search efforts for both planes continue at this time.


Missing Minnesota Plane - UPDATE 9:28 a.m. July 15: WSDOT Aviation Emergency Services has launched a search for a plane due to Orcas Island Saturday which never arrived. The search area is in Whatcom County at this point.

The private plane's two occupants were on vacation in the area from Minnesota and they did not arrive Saturday. We do not have an exact time it was due to Orcas Island on Saturday, just that it didn’t arrive. Family did not notify officials of the overdue plane until Tuesday night. More details will be announced as they become available.

NOTE: This search is separate from the one for a Montana plane that also disappeared Saturday near Mazama. Ground crews are hoping to reach wreckage spotted in that search area Tuesday. No identification of the plane or occupants has been made at this point.


Missing Montana Plane - UPDATE 9:17 a.m. July 15: Ground search crews under the direction of the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office left at 8 a.m. today headed out to wreckage located last night in the general search area for a missing Montana plane. No positive identification of the plane or occupants can be made until crews reach the site. Helicopter air support may also be used I the search as needed.


UPDATE 10:38 p.m. July 14: Search crews looking for a missing Montana plane located wreckage this evening in the general area of where a crash survivor emerged from the woods Monday near Mazama.  Crews have not been able to reach the crash site this evening and at this time no identification has been made of either the plane or the two remaining occupants.

The search has ended for the night to protect the safety of crews. It will resume in the morning. Officials will assess whether air crews can be used and also will coordinate ground crew searches with the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office.

This will be the last update tonight. We will update tomorrow as information becomes available.


UPDATE 8 p.m. July 14: Search activities for the missing Montana plane and remaining two occupants continue this evening. Crews will continue searching as long as light and weather allow. Weather has been very good today, the best day since the search began, officials said. We will update again when crews stop for the evening or if there are any other developments.


UPDATE 12 p.m. July 14: Two planes and a Homeland Security helicopter are now searching the area near Mazama for the missing plane. Another helicopter from Snohomish County will join the search shortly.


UPDATE 10:18 a.m. July 14: Searchers are using a helicopter crew from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office to search for the missing plane near Omak today as well as fixed-wing airplanes. The planes are heading out soon, helicopter will launch later this morning or early afternoon.

Officials note the Easy Pass trail area near Mazama is some of the most rough terrain to search in the state. With one of the plane’s occupants’ safe, the search continues for the two remaining occupants and the plane itself.


Update 7:30 a.m. July 14: Search crews in helicopters and fixed wing airplanes will resume searching near Omak this morning for a plane missing since Saturday. Launch time hasn’t been established yet and will depend on weather conditions at the search area.


UPDATE 10:57 p.m. July 13: Naval helicopter crews have called off their search for the night.

Search crews will resume Tuesday morning as light and weather allows. Helicopters may be used again if available and after search needs are evaluated. This will be the final update for the evening.
UPDATE 8:03 p.m. July 13: Naval helicopter crews continue to search for a missing plane near Omak tonight. Fixed wing plane searches will resume Tuesday morning as light and weather allows.


UPDATE 4:41 p.m. July 13: Aerial crews are still mission focused searching for the plane’s location. We are referring calls to the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office for confirmation of the call they received and any ID they’ve been able to make.


UPDATE 4:05 p.m. July 13: We are aware of the reports of a call in to Okanogan law enforcement about a woman saying she’s Autumn Veatch and is in Mazama following a plane crash. We cannot confirm any other information at this time and need to let law enforcement have the time to do their work and confirm what’s being reported.


UPDATE 2:05 p.m. July 13: The missing plane’s tail number has been released. It’s: N8749A. The plane is white and red Beech 35.


UPDATE 1:50 p.m. July 13: Civil Air Patrol (CAP) officials, our partners in the search for the missing plane, have released details about how they use cell phone data to help search for planes. Using this information, crews narrowed the search area for the plane to around Mazama (near Omak), the Lost Lake Airport and the Rainy Pass area.


UPDATE 12:15 p.m. July 13: Weather over the Cascades has cleared, allowing four search planes to launch from Bellingham in the search for a plane that never landed as expected. The planes will launch momentarily and search in Skagit, Whatcom, Chelan, and Okanogan counties.

A fifth plane, which will launch from Spokane, also will join the planes in the search.
Search crews resumed looking for a missing plane Monday morning, under the direction of our agency and the Civil Air Patrol.


Crews are using the last found cell signal – at about 4 p.m. Saturday near Omak to help focus the search in Skagit, Whatcom, Chelan, and Okanogan counties in northern Washington.

A plane launched at 8 a.m. out of Spokane to check weather conditions to ensure it was safe for others to fly. Rain has delayed those subsequent flights but they will launch as soon as given the all-clear.

Aerial crews will search for emergency locator beacon signals as well conducting visual searches of the ground looking for any sign of the plane. Five planes will be used for this search. The rugged terrain is in the Cascade mountains. Ground search crews will be sent in if a targeted location is determined.

The first crews this morning are determining weather conditions over the search area to ensure it is safe to launch more planes in the area.

All three occupants are family members: plane owner/pilot Leland Bowman, (62) and his wife Sharon (63), of Marion, Montana, and their step-granddaughter Autumn Veatch (16) of Bellingham, Washington. The family has provided a photo of Leland and Sharon Bowman and the plane.

Below is an updated timeline of events from Saturday. All times are in Pacific Daylight Time).
  • 1:01 p.m. – Plane departs Kalispell, Montana Saturday, July 11, headed for Lynden, Washington.
  • 2:21 p.m. – Plane crosses ID/WA state line, near Newport, WA
  • 3:21 p.m. – Plane drops off radar near Omak, WA
  • 3:49 p.m. – Last signal from a plane occupant’s cellphone, roughly near Omak, WA
  • 4:05 p.m. – Time plane was expected to arrive in Lynden, Washington (based on visual flight plan filed before take-off). Plane did not arrive.
The Federal Aviation Administration and family contacted authorities late Saturday night when the plane did not arrive on schedule. The first search plane launched at 6 a.m. Sunday.

We are responsible by state statute for coordination and management of aerial search and rescue within the state. The Aviation Emergency Services Program is operated by our Office of Emergency Management.  We are working closely with the Civil Air Patrol, U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center and other entities on the search.

We will provide updates on this blog throughout the day.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Working to prevent roadside brush fires

by Barbara LaBoe

With drought conditions across Washington, the risk of devastating wildfires like those in Wenatchee will continue throughout the summer. In addition to the risk to life and property, when fires like the one in Marysville on Tuesday break out along roadsides, they can snarl traffic as crews work to respond and keep the flames from spreading.

Crews extinguish a fire on eastbound I-90 at milepost 86.
Photo Credit: Washington State Patrol
Summer is the busy season for transportation maintenance work, but we're taking steps to reduce and prevent fire risks.

The first is timing. Every year, we do most of our mowing in early spring or late fall to avoid the hot, dry summer season. We also leave bare ground barriers alongside roadways in many cases to provide extra protection against sparks and other fire risks. This year is no different.

That said, some of our maintenance work can't wait, often because to do so would comprise motorist safety. And work like mowing, grinding or welding carry some inherent risks of sparks that could lead to a fire.

That's why whenever we complete maintenance work during the dry season we take several precautions. We obtain Industrial Fire Precaution Level waivers from the Department of Natural Resources and abide by their guidelines. That includes having water and tools on site to immediately extinguish any sparks or fires that start due to our work.

We also limit our maintenance work, according to waiver guidelines, during the hottest part of the day. Work is done from 8 p.m. to 1 p.m., when it's more humid and less likely for a fire to start. If weather conditions are particularly severe, everything except emergency work is halted.

In the past two years we've also invested $250,000 in additional fire prevention tools such as water tanks, shovels and backpack sprayers. We've also conducted extra fire prevention/safety training at a cost of about $50,000.

On our construction projects, the responsibility to follow fire safety rules falls on the contractors doing the work. Our engineers remind companies of those responsibilities, including working with DNR and others to ensure all work is done safely.

Northbound I-5 in Marysville.
We also need the public's help in preventing roadside fires.

The top causes of brush fires along roads are: drivers throwing lit items (cigarettes, fireworks) out of cars; a blown tire or other malfunction that produces sparks and driving a vehicle onto dry grass or vegetation. The heat from a car's engine can start a fire in dry grass.

Please be safe and smart on the roads this summer. Dry conditions are expected to continue, so we all need to work together to keep the state fire-free.