Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Why does it take "so long" to reopen some roads?

By Barbara LaBoe

We know people's time is important and whenever rain, wind and flooding – or all three – close our roads we work hard to reopen them as soon as possible.

But, clearing a closure on state routes and interstates isn't as simple as just brushing aside debris and waving vehicles through. Safety is always our top priority and sometimes the steps needed to keep the public and our workers out of harm's way means roads are closed longer than any of us like.

We were lucky during last week's storms that there were no serious injuries to drivers, even during massive landslides and washouts on Interstate 5 and US 12. We can't take that luck for granted, though.

This photo of crews (far left) climbing up the slope near the I-5 landslide demonstrates the size of the boulders that fell on the roadway – and why we need to follow safety precautions to keep workers and motorists safe after a slide or closure.
(Photo courtesy of the Governor's Office)

Boulders the size of SUVs and even small houses rained down onto I-5 after the first initial slide on Dec. 9. Our precautions of keeping workers and drivers out of the area until the slope stabilizes meant no one was on the roadway when those boulders came down. The ongoing risk, though, meant we needed to be absolutely sure the slope was stable before we put crews or motorists back on the road. As for US 12, the roadway was literally washed away in three locations, making it unsafe for anyone to travel on the highway.

So, what goes into reopening any road after a closure?

We have maintenance crews that work around the clock to respond to problems as they occur. For smaller events, regional crews can sometimes do initial safety inspections, but large landslides or washouts require our geotechnical experts from headquarters to review the slope and analyze the danger. This work requires daylight, both to gather the best information as well as to safeguard the workers.

While we're waiting on geotechnical surveys, other employees work through the night planning for detours and also assembling the materials and crews that will be needed to begin clearing the materials that have blocked the road. Both are major undertakings. A detour from the northbound lanes onto one lane of southbound I-5 was planned near Woodland, for example, and would have been nearly five miles long and required hundreds of safety cones and barrels. Such work also requires some serious traffic control to keep workers and motorists safe.

We provide detours whenever we can and when U.S. 2 closed near Leavenworth last week we directed vehicles to use the Chumstick Highway during the 18 hour closure.

But, sometimes there just isn't a good, safe alternate route. That was the case in both the recent I-5 and US 12 closures, either because there weren't nearby routes or they were also closed due to weather or other problems. Before we set up a detour we also must map the route and ensure the road can handle all the additional traffic – sometimes smaller roads can't take the extra load. If we want to use county or city roads, we also must coordinate with local jurisdictions, who often are already swamped with their own emergency weather response.

On I-5 last week, we were able to open first one and then a second lane of roadway the evening of Dec. 10, about 27 hours after the landslide. A third lane remains closed due to continued work to stabilize the area to ensure additional slides are mitigated. This was a way to balance the need to get at least part of the road back open while still keeping everyone safe. Unfortunately, at US 12 the damage is so extensive that we couldn't reopen any portion of the highway. Repairs have started, but the road remains closed indefinitely.

This picture of a washout on the west side of White Pass on US 12 shows the extensive
damage that has closed the highway indefinitely while repairs begin.

Going forward, we remain committed to keeping people and goods moving. But, in all things, we also must ensure everyone's safety. We know it's frustrating to find a roadblock or have to delay travel plans, but we ask for your patience as we work to ensure you not only get where you're going, but that you do so safely.

1 comment:

Jody Davis said...

thank you for the updates and your hard work.

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