Thursday, September 21, 2017

WSDOT: From the age of disco to Twitter, 40 years of keeping the state moving

By Barbara LaBoe

When the Washington State Department of Transportation was created in 1977, dancers still shimmied across disco floors, "The Love Boat" was just starting to sail into people's televisions and the original "Star Wars" movie was still in theaters. Gas cost 65 cents a gallon, the average new home cost less than $50,000 and Atari had just introduced the first popular home video game console.

Much has happened in the past four decades – bell bottoms even had time for a (thankfully brief) return – but the agency's mission remains much the same: Keeping people and goods moving across the state.
Left: final paving of the I-90 bypass in North Bend in July 1978.
Right: crews backfill the northbound I-205 bridge abutment in Clark County in March 1982

Of course, there were state highways long before the age of 8-Tracks and pet rocks. The first official state agency to develop roads was created in 1905, later morphing into the state Department of Highways and adding ferries in 1951.

Want to know more about our history? Our department library has digitized many records and documents, some as far back as 1905, with more being added all the time.
When we opened the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 2007, 60,000 people walked across the span to celebrate.

A unified department
In 1977, lawmakers voted to "create a unified department of transportation." Gov. Dixy Lee Ray signed the legislation into law on June 2, 1977, and the agency officially began Sept. 21, 1977, with the first meeting of the newly organized State Transportation Commission. (Initially the commission hired the Secretary of Transportation, though now the governor appoints the head of the agency).

In addition to highways and ferries, the new agency now oversaw the Aeronautics Commission, the Toll Bridge Authority and the Canal Commission, as well as some functions of other agencies. This allowed for better overall state transportation planning, and made it easier for the state to apply for national funding and implement national transportation policy. Agency leaders also said the one-stop location for transportation issues also would allow for more public comment and involvement.
Almost 7,000 cyclists helped celebrate the April 2016 opening of the SR 520 bridge in Seattle.

A busy 40 years
It's been an eventful four decades. Since 1977, our agency has:
  • Completed the Washington portion of Interstate 90 and half of the North Spokane Corridor.
  • Rebuilt the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway (State Route 504) after the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens destroyed dozens of roads and bridges.
  • Launched state-funded Amtrak Cascades passenger train service.
  • Inspected and repaired numerous roads and bridges after the 2001 Nisqually quake, leading to the project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel.
  • Opened the Hood Canal, Glenn Jackson (I-205), I-182, Intercity, Foss Waterway, new Tacoma Narrows and new 520 bridges.
  • Added sensors and traffic cameras to roadways and computerized traffic management systems to better track real-time traffic conditions.
  • Purchased new, larger vessels for the Washington State Ferries system, the largest ferry system in the country.  
  • Launched the Commute Trip Reduction program to ease congestion, improve air quality and reduce oil consumption by promoting alternatives to driving alone to work.
  • Placed a temporary bridge on I-5 over the Skagit River just 27 days after a vehicle strike knocked a portion of the structure into the river.
  • Started the agency's first social media account, growing to what is now the largest following of any state DOT in the nation.
  • Worked with local and state agencies to rebuild a road – and help a community recover – in Oso after a massive landslide buried homes and State Route 530, killing 43 people.
  • Created the Active Transportation Division to further integrate active transportation modes into our agency and assist others in doing the same.
The Chimacum is the latest of our ferries to set sail and is the third of four Olympic Class ferries to join our fleet.
So, what's next?
No longer focused on just highways, our agency's multimodal focus includes people who walk, bike, take transit, ride a ferry or rideshare. That includes considering the range of travel modes when planning projects, embracing new technology and reorganizing our management structure to better integrate all travel modes into decisions. (It's also a nod to our history: the 1905 Road Laws of the State of Washington allowed for dedicated bicycle and pedestrian lanes on all public highways).
The Amtrak Cascades passenger train service – owned jointly by Washington and
Oregon - will soon have these new locomotives on the rails.

As we embark on our next 40 years, our agency's name guides us more than ever: We serve all travelers in the state, no matter how they make their way through the world.

Or, to paraphrase Fleetwood Mac in "Don't Stop," one of 1977's most popular songs: We won't "stop thinking about tomorrow."