Thursday, May 12, 2016

IRT continuing to do what it has always done best – clearing roads

By Justin Fujioka and Danielle Holstein

If you follow us on social media, chances are you've seen the exciting work of our Incident Response Team (IRT). Sometimes referred to as “super heroes,” IRT crews help keep our roads clear and safe using mighty vehicles that can push a stalled bus off to the shoulder and out of traffic. One of those trucks got added fame and recognition during the recent Alaskan Way Viaduct #99closure for clearing a rollover crash that was blocking all but the HOV lane of northbound I-5 in downtown Seattle.

Keeping on keeping on
Our IRT Program has been around for more than 35 years and is not going anywhere. With the viaduct back open, not much has changed. We continue to have up to 12 crews patrolling roadways in King and Snohomish counties, working closely with our traffic management center and Washington State Patrol (WSP) to locate and respond to incidents.

We also continue to collaborate with partner agencies like the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), transit agencies and police and fire departments, in deciding the most effective way to serve commuters. In fact, many of these groups regularly participate in a monthly coordination meeting that includes towing companies, an important resource in incidents our IRT cannot clear – like huge semis.

IRT during the #99closure
Any time a major roadway is blocked for a long time – or closed for roadwork – we see added congestion on other routes. That's why we worked with SDOT – like we often do – to beef up our IRT resources a bit while the SR 99/Alaskan Way Viaduct was closed for tunneling work.

We had our crews start earlier and end later. We also had an extra truck manned near the viaduct. SDOT had three incident response units to help clear city streets – and as always, we were ready to shift some of our IRT units from I-5 to SR 99 – at least the sections still open to traffic.

Where IRT focuses its efforts
Our IRT crews responded to more than 50,000 incidents across the state in 2015, clearing most of them off the road in 13 minutes or less. As much as we would like to have our IRT actively patrolling every state roadway around the clock, resources are limited to a biennial budget of $9 million, which also includes service in Tacoma through Olympia, Snoqualmie Pass, Spokane, Chehalis and Vancouver.

We can shift our crews to just about anywhere if needed, but we strategically focus our IRT coverage on certain corridors based on hours of congestion, freight routes and economic impacts. And that's because the cost of delay is about $300 for each minute we have an incident, according to estimates based on research from the University of Washington's Transportations Center (TRAC). Based on this data, the economic benefit of our IRT Program was more than $80 million in 2015.

IRT to expand along I-5
We're hoping that benefit increases even more when we add more IRT units to the I-5 corridor across the state. Passed earlier this year, the governor's supplemental budget included $10 million to purchase, operate and maintain 10 additional IRT vehicles along I-5 from Vancouver to Blaine. With six of those trucks planned to focus their efforts on the Seattle area, we're hoping to save commuters even more time and money!