Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Why does it seem Snoqualmie Pass is closing more this winter?

By Meagan Lott

Let’s be honest, last winter felt more like an extension of summer. We didn’t close Snoqualmie Pass once for avalanche control work. It had just over 100 inches of snow. So driving over the pass didn’t really require the need to check if it would be closed.

The weather took a drastic turn this winter. December 2015 was a whopper of a month dumping a total of 193 inches of snow, with 112 of those inches falling the last week of December, breaking the historical snowfall record for a 7-day period.  To date, Snoqualmie Pass has received over 300 inches of snow while the 30-year average is about 233 inches for this time of year. This has led to several extended closures for snow removal and avalanche danger. In addition to the weather related closures, two separate collisions involving fuel trucks required day-long closures to safely clean-up the flammable material.

Crews cleaning up after avalanche control work by the new avalanche bridge

The construction project to expand I-90 from four to six lanes is also causing more closures this winter. When the snowshed was removed in 2014, we knew it would take two winters before the first of two new avalanche bridges were finished and would require more closures for avalanche control work. It also meant putting traffic closer to the hillside reducing the space we had to store snow.

This summer, crews will shift traffic onto the new eastbound avalanche bridge, so by next winter there should be fewer closures from avalanche control work because our most active avalanche paths along Keechelus Lake will no longer deposit snow onto the highway. By 2018, the westbound avalanche bridge will be finished and both bridges will take drivers up an over a series of avalanche paths that will allow snow, rock and other avalanche debris to go under the bridge piers. Although the new avalanche bridges and other improvements on I-90 will reduce closures in the winter, there will still be the need to close the pass due to collisions and stalled vehicles as well as some avalanche control work west of the Snoqualmie Pass Summit.

The new eastbound avalanche bridge this winter

Our team of managers and staff on Snoqualmie Pass are well trained with decades of experience. They handle a wide range of duties involving snow and ice removal, responding to collisions and reducing the danger of avalanches. During a snow event, there can be up to 30 pieces of snow removal equipment including plows, graders and blowers on I-90 from Vantage to North Bend. Snow plows push the snow off the highway in tandem from one blade to the next efficiently moving it off the highway. If you don’t see snowplows in bad weather, chances are, they are behind you.

Our equipment technicians are on-call 24/7 and work tirelessly to keep all the equipment working on the highway in good repair. We coordinate closely with the Washington State Patrol on traction requirements and closures for unsafe conditions.  Our Traffic Management Center staff are in constant contact with crews in the field and monitor cameras, update the website, the highway advisory radio and variable message signs to keep drivers informed on current conditions.

We understand I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass is a vital transportation corridor for our state's economy. Our goal is to efficiently move people and goods across the pass, but our number one priority is safety.