Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Alaskan earthquake is a reminder of our own earthquake risk

Make 2019 the year you prepare yourself and your family

By Barbara LaBoe

In November, we watched as Alaska was struck by a 7.0 earthquake. I grew up in Anchorage and as I watched familiar roads now damaged or broken apart, I knew that the pictures could easily have been here in Washington.

Thankfully, despite the strength of the quake, there were no deaths or major injures in the Nov. 30 Alaska quake. That's at least partially due to stringent building codes enacted after a 9.2 Alaskan earthquake in 1964. Equally remarkable was the speed with which crews in Alaska got to work repairing the wreckage. Several main roads were damaged in the greater Anchorage area and temporary repairs were in place in roughly a week. Our hats are off to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities for their stellar work.
The Nov. 30 Alaska earthquake caused widespread road damage, including to the Glenn Highway north of Anchorage where lanes and side of the roadway collapsed. Credit: Alaska DOT&PF Flickr
State crews quickly got to work repairing roadways after the Alaska earthquake, including this work the Glenn
Highway the day after the 7.0 quake struck. Credit: Alaska DOT&PF Flickr

Following the earthquake we've received questions about whether our agency is prepared to swing into action as well. We wanted to answer a few of those while also reminding residents that none of us can become complacent about our earthquake risk or the long road to recovery after a truly massive quake.

Will WSDOT be able to make repairs as quickly as Alaska crews?
The quick answer is yes, we have emergency response plans and train regularly. The longer answer is it depends a lot on the location and severity of the quake.

We have employees and technology that will begin inspections almost as soon as the ground stops shaking. Our goal is to restore essential services as soon as possible, and in some cases that could be a matter of days depending on damage. But in other situations, including a very large 9.0 magnitude earthquake, our bridges are designed not to collapse, but they still may need repairs or even to be rebuilt before traffic can return.

And, while we have emergency response plans, we also have denser population centers than Alaska. In the greater Puget Sound region, in particular, we have many more bridges and older multi-story buildings vulnerable to earthquakes. The severity and location of damage – and how much effort is needed to rescue or transport injured residents – will drive much of the initial decisions about which road repairs are prioritized.

Because older bridges are vulnerable to earthquakes, we've spent more than $195 million retrofitting more than 400 bridges in the past two decades. Our newer structures, such as the SR 520 bridge and the SR 99 tunnel, are built to current seismic standards to make them far more resilient to earthquake damage. In conjunction with the state Office of Emergency Management, we've also focused much of our recent bridge retrofit work on creating a lifeline route both north-south and east-west, which may help crews bring in supplies and emergency help after an earthquake.
New structures, like the SR 99 tunnel, are designed to the highest seismic standards and the tunnel
will be one of the safest places to be if a large earthquake strikes Seattle.

Emergency repairs versus construction projects
We've been asked why Alaska crews could repair roads in five days while construction projects here can last all summer or several years.

It's important to remember that Alaska crews completed emergency repairs to get roads back open to the public. That's not an apples to apples comparison with normal construction or maintenance work.

Officials in Alaska said initial work was more of a "Band Aid" fix, with more substantial work planned for the summer. "We're slapping bandages on this damage so we can keep people and goods moving on our roadways. We'll come back later and make it right, but it will take longer," Alaska officials tweeted. "The work being accomplished right now is 100% incredible, amazing, awesome, and impressive. But it's less miracle, more just a ton of hard work." (We did the same thing after the Skagit River Bridge was damaged, quickly putting a temporary bridge in place to restore traffic flow but later installing a permanent, long-lasting replacement).
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities created this "Band Aid" photo to help explain that emergency earthquake
repairs weren't long-term fixes.

Emergency repairs can also be accomplished more quickly because bidding, public notice and environmental reviews are suspended and often the entire road is closed – so crews don't have to set up traffic control or work with vehicles passing in nearby lanes.

Preparation is key
Alaska has been rightly praised for the way it bounced back from this earthquake – but there still is significant damage that's not getting the same national attention as the quick emergency repairs. According to media reports:
  • More than 750 homes and buildings in Anchorage suffered substantial damage and are red-tagged or have restricted access; another 900 buildings sustained minor damage and more than 700 still need inspections.
  • The Anchorage School District has announced two schools– including my junior high – are so badly damaged that they will not reopen for the rest of this school year or 2019-20 school year – if ever.
  • Strong aftershocks continue to shake the area and at least one building's roof collapsed in one of those after withstanding the initial earthquake.
  • State officials estimate the damage at $76 million, but that's expected to increase dramatically as more claims are filed and inspections completed.
Washingtonians should be prepared for similar challenges after a quake here. Our earthquake danger is just as real and no one should assume they're not at risk.

The state Emergency Management Division urges all residents to have two weeks of supplies for their family and be prepared to check on neighbors after a large earthquake. If roadways are damaged, emergency crews will have difficulty reaching some areas and it could be some time before regular traffic and visits to grocery stores, etc., are restored.
This how-to brochure is one of several tools that can help.

Now is a perfect time for everyone to create or update an emergency plan. After the Anchorage quake, for example, I'm working to bolt my garage shelves to the wall to keep supplies in place. If you don't have emergency items, start building a kit for your home and vehicle. If you're already stocked up, take a moment to review and replace anything that has expired. Make or update a family response plan, including options for limited travel and out of state contacts. Remember emergency prep not only helps for earthquake damage, it also means you're ready for the severe winds, power outages and flooding we see on a much more regular basis. As Alaska demonstrated, being prepared and having a disaster response plan is crucial to recovery.

Friday, January 25, 2019

SR 99 Tunnel Grand Opening: 5 things to know before you go

By Steve Peer

There's a celebratory light at both ends of Seattle's new SR 99 tunnel. We're hosting a family-friendly Grand Opening event on February 2 and 3 so visitors can explore the new tunnel and enjoy one last visit on the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Here's what's going on:

Saturday, February 2
The weekend celebration begins at 7:30 a.m. Saturday with an 8K fun run. The run, starting in the shadow of the Space Needle, will take runners through the new tunnel, onto the viaduct and even through the Battery Street Tunnel. Later that morning, we'll cut the ribbon for the new tunnel and launch activities that will last all afternoon. Visitors have the opportunity to:
  • Walk through and learn more about the state-of-the-art SR 99 tunnel
  • Take part in STEM activities at both ends of the new tunnel
  • Walk along the Alaskan Way Viaduct and imagine the new waterfront
  • Enjoy an arts festival and listen to live music on the viaduct
  • Enjoy cuisine from food trucks
More than 25,000 have already signed up for the 8K Fun Run through the tunnel and on the viaduct - sponsored by HNTB.

Sunday (SOLD OUT)
The weekend concludes Sunday morning, February 3 with a 12.5-mile bike ride through the tunnel (traveling north and southbound) and onto both levels of the viaduct. 12,000 people signed up for the ride – setting a record for the largest bike ride in Washington state

How to make the most of your visit
These events are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the past, present, and future of the Seattle waterfront in one afternoon. But if you're coming, you need to be prepared.
Similar to the 2016 SR 520 Grand Opening, we’re expecting big crowds for the Step Forward event.

Even if you already have a free ticket, you'll need to be prepared: 5 things to know:
  • If you've signed up, show up. Be sure to get to the event within 15 minutes of the time you signed up for. For example, if you signed up to tour the tunnel at 12:30 p.m. and don't show up until 1:15 – you may have to wait in line. The tickets were issued during time slots to better manage crowd flow.
  • If you don't have a free ticket, there will be lines for non-ticketed guests. We believe the best arrival window for un-ticketed guests will be between 1:30 and 5:30 p.m. We plan to accommodate all un-ticketed guests, however, we are not able to guarantee access if the wait extends past the 6:30 p.m. end time.
  • Take public transportation. You don't want to get stuck. There is limited parking near the event entrances but plenty of transit options, including the monorail. And remember that the #Realign99 closure is still on, so you need to be prepared.
  • Be a good visitor! We expect crowds. Please be patient and considerate of others. We want you to enjoy all the events, but remember there are others who want to come join you, so please make room for them so that everyone can enjoy the event.
  • Plan to walk a lot. The tunnel is 2 miles long and the viaduct is about 1.5 miles. Be sure to hydrate, dress appropriately and plan to spend a lot of time on your feet. The viaduct road surface is not in the best condition, so plan to wear comfortable, sturdy walking shoes.

New option for the SR 9/SR 204 intersection improvements in Lake Stevens takes center stage

UPDATE 3:15 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5: The open house scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 7 has been postponed due to snow/ice conditions and will be rescheduled for a later date.

By Diana Barreto

The new year often brings a renewed sense of opportunity and a new chance to invest in improvements. For the Lake Stevens community and Snohomish County drivers, 2019 brings new opportunities to provide input on a new SR 9/SR 204 intersection design. You may be thinking: “Didn’t we already finalize the intersection design?” And the answer is, yes – but we had some challenges to address.


In summer 2017, the SR 9/SR 204 intersection improvements project Stakeholder Advisory Group and the Lake Stevens community reached consensus on a grade-separated intersection design. This design required digging 30 feet into the ground to allow free flow of SR 9 traffic, with no stoplights, below SR 204.
An upcoming open house will be a great chance to hear about the future of the SR 9/SR 204 intersection in Lake Stevens.

Building on community consensus, the project team moved into the design phase of the project. They conducted project area surveying that included looking underground at utilities and groundwater levels. The groundwater level turned out to be just nine feet below the surface. This meant that the cost, materials, and overall feasibility of the project needed review as well. The project team reworked the new conditions into the project design and determined that the grade-separated alternative was too costly. Even though the project team included some cost risks into the initial plan process, the updated conditions exceeded those calculated risks.

The project team went to work looking for new solutions that would better fit the budget constraints while also addressing the needs of the community.

Keep your resolutions

Was one of your resolutions to be more involved in your community? If so, mark it off your list by attending our upcoming open house and providing feedback to the project team on the new design.
The open house will take place from 6-8 p.m. on Thursday, Feb, 7 at Cavelero Mid High School in Lake Stevens. A short project presentation will take place at 6:15 p.m. and again at 7:15 p.m. Learn about the project’s progress, the new intersection design, and what to expect as we move forward. **NOTE: The open house has been postponed due to snowy/icy road conditions and will be rescheduled for a later date.

The road ahead

Once we collect and review community feedback from this open house the project team will meet with the Stakeholder Advisory Group. The advisory group will review the feedback and provide additional guidance on the new design. Then the project team will begin final design work ahead of construction.

Construction to add a lane on southbound SR 9, south of Market Place Northeast, will begin this spring. This construction is a small part of the overall project.


Funded by the 2015 Connecting Washington funding package, we sought practical solutions to improve congestion at the SR 9/SR 204 intersection. Since 2016, the SR 9/SR 204 intersection improvements project Stakeholder Advisory Group and the Lake Stevens community provided input and guidance on design options aimed at creating better connections for all roadway users of this intersection, including pedestrians, transit riders, bicyclists and drivers.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Message is the same: Drive for conditions, especially through work zones

By Cara Mitchell

In this November 2018 blog, we reached out to drivers asking for their help in reducing collisions on I-5 near the State Route 16 interchange in Tacoma. Overwhelmingly, the more-than-200,000 drivers who use this area of I-5 daily do so safely.

However, that doesn't minimize the frustration we all feel when collisions require crews to close a highway, especially when that closure affects a morning or afternoon commute. Yet again Wednesday morning in Tacoma, a collision involving a semi caused a full closure of I-5 while crews replaced damaged jersey barrier, removed two damaged semis, removed debris from the highway and cleaned a large fuel spill. We know drivers are frustrated that this keeps happening. We are too.

The lane configuration on I-5 near SR 16 is a temporary one that has been in place since May 2018, and will be there through this April. It is allowing construction crews to build a new southbound I-5 alignment.

Here's a recent look at the spate of collisions in the Tacoma area, and the steps we have taken to reduce that potential:

Since the overnight hours of Sept.30/Oct. 1, seven collisions involving semis have occurred within the project limits of the I-5 – SR 16 HOV Realignment – HOV Structure and Connections project that resulted in closing both directions of I-5 for several hours.

Back in November, contractor Skanska began implementing weekly work zone reviews of lane and edge line striping throughout the project. They doubled the number of reflective markers on the temporary barrier that is in place to increase visibility at night.

At that time, we began displaying safety messages on the I-5 electronic reader board signs reminding drivers to slow down as they enter the work zone. We also conducted two separate reviews of the work zone traffic control that confirmed the traffic control set up and devices met state and federal standards.

An advisory speed limit of 50 mph was implemented before entering the work zone on southbound I-5, reminding drivers that they are entering a work zone with narrow lanes and shoulders.

Having a work zone with narrowed shoulders and lanes is common and is in place on most state highway construction projects. Those narrowed lanes and shoulders give construction crews room to do the work needed to maintain or improve the highway. Be kind to yourself and other drivers around you by paying extra attention to the road through this area. Speeding, following too closely or aggressive driving behavior is not advisable, especially during the dark, wet winter months. According to the Washington State Patrol, in almost all of these cases, the driver was cited for driving too fast for conditions, or negligent driving.

Of course, I-5 in Tacoma is not the only place where we've seen recent collisions involving semis. For example, on Nov. 28, 2018, a semi collision closed I-5 south of Tumwater. On Dec. 12, two separate semi collisions closed I-5, first in Olympia and secondly in Lacey. And on Dec. 19, two semis collided on the northbound SR 7 ramp to northbound I-705 in Tacoma.

So is there anything drivers can do to reverse this trend?  Yes indeed, we can all help keep traffic moving safely and efficiently by following these common-sense guidelines:
  • Drive for conditions. When the pavement is wet and it's dark outside, slow down accordingly.
  • Slow down through work zones. Many work zones have narrowed lanes and shoulders, which means less room for driver error.
  • Remember we all share the highway. Semis in particular need more space to maneuver and longer distances to stop (two football fields, to be exact, when traveling at 65 mph). The website FleetNet provides great tips when driving near trucks, reminding drivers to maintain a safe distance, avoid driving in other drivers' blind spots (which can be surprisingly large areas on commercial vehicles), and avoid cutting off large trucks.
We will continue to work with our contractor and the Washington State Patrol to do our part in helping drivers safely navigate through construction zones.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Against the wind - Picking up bicycling ahead of the viaduct closure and the Seattle Squeeze

By Bart Treece

It's cold. It's dark outside. It's frequently wet and rainy. This is my reality as a bike commuter during the winter months in the Pacific Northwest. There are days when it's more of a mental challenge to get out the door due to the conditions, but when I finish my trip, I'm glad I did it!

With the extended closure of State Route 99 in Seattle beginning Friday night, Jan. 11, getting around town is going to be difficult – not just for the three-week closure, but for several years due to construction and changes around town during the Seattle Squeeze. To keep the regional transportation system moving, we need folks to help us out by making different choices to how and when they travel because, well, everything is connected. Although incorporating bicycling into your commuting repertoire can seem a little daunting this time of year, kick-starting a new healthy habit could help you power through tough traffic for years to come.

It can be done. Some riders from West Seattle recently took a spin and posted a video to show how it works.

Want to try it out? Here are some tips to get you going.

Where the rubber meets the road – Making sure your wheels are in good shape
There are several different bikes for several different purposes. Don't worry about having a road bike vs. an off-road bike, vs. a gravel bike, etc. You just want it to be in decent condition for your regular route. A trip to your local neighborhood bike shop can help you determine what, if any, work is needed for a reliable ride. Unless you know how to change a flat (it takes some practice), know where the transit routes are and carry an ORCA card. If you haven't loaded a bike onto a bus, here's a nifty video that shows you how.
Gearing up
As the saying goes, "There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes." The reality is that you don't need fancy new bicycling gear to get on a bike. You do need to be comfortable. That means the rain or ski gear that you have now will probably be just fine on the road – basically what you wear to walk the dog on a misty day.

Visibility is "in"
Always remember to think about visibility and line of sight for the driver whose job it is to make sure they leave appropriate passing space or stop in time. Can you see the driver coming? Can they see you? That means bright white headlights up front and red ones in the rear. Research tells us that the most effective use of lighting or reflectivity in your clothing is to use "biomotion" — put those reflective strips or lights at knees and ankles. The motion of your feet and legs moving resembles walking and is more reflexively recognized as human movement by the brain of the driver. Reflective strips are now built into some outerwear, but more is better. This fall, I started using the reflective running vest I picked up for Hood to Coast. It's fairly inexpensive and adds more visibility on dark rides.

It should go without saying, but worth repeating, use hand signals (pdf 2 mb) for turning and stopping. Be predictable! Good communications on the road improves safety for everyone.
Left: Riding a bike for your commute takes some planning and getting used to, but can be a great option to avoid traffic, especially during the SR 99 closure. Right: Being comfortable and having a bike
in good working order are two keys to a good bike commute.

Getting around when the Viaduct closes and the new tunnel opens
A frequent question we've been asked: "How will people bike along Alaskan Way when the viaduct is closed?" The answer is, much like they do now. The route has changed slightly along the waterfront, but it will not be affected during the three-week closure of SR 99. Outside of special events like the Tunnel Ride, it will be closed to bicyclists. Later this year during demolition, there may be marked detours on the route.

How biking became my go-to choice
Looking back, picking up bicycling as a commute option was gradual for me. It was February 2011. I first tried one day a week, then two, then three, then I wanted to see how many days in a row I could keep it up. The tough hills eventually got a little easier. The more I did it, the more confidence I had to tackle longer distances for both commuting and for fun. Sure, the weather is better in May, but with several months of regular riding, the spring and summer became a welcome reward.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Connecting communities - New SR 518 off-ramp opens in Burien

By Nicole Daniels

The new eastbound SR 518 off-ramp to Des Moines Memorial Drive in Burien officially opened to traffic at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 10.

New opportunities are about to become available for Burien travelers. On Friday, Jan. 11, a brand new two-lane off-ramp from eastbound State Route 518 to Des Moines Memorial Drive is scheduled to open.

Quick history lesson for anyone unfamiliar with the area: For years, travelers could only access Des Moines Memorial Drive through city streets and a westbound SR 518 off-ramp. Drivers headed eastbound on SR 518 had to exit the highway and use local streets to access Des Moines Memorial Drive. Streets that weren’t designed for the heavy vehicle and truck traffic.
This new ramp will channel traffic away from those local streets and provide a more direct route for vehicles and trucks moving goods between the city of Burien’s Northeast Redevelopment Area (NERA), the Port of Seattle and the greater Puget Sound region.

This is one of the first Connecting Washington projects to be completed in western Washington. Connecting Washington is a 16-year, $16 billion program designed to enhance and maintain the state’s transportation system. Projects are scheduled through 2031.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Sustainable Transportation: Preserving, restoring and revegetating habitats

By Meagan Lott

As part of a sustainable transportation system we not only strive to support the economy, enhance equity and quality of life in our communities, but preserve the environment.

Across the state we are integrating habitat preservation into roadside development and operations as well as including other habitat features into project revegetation and restoration plans.
We’re replanting native vegetation in the I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East project area to restore habitat impacted by the project.

One example is the work done earlier this fall at the Scatter Creek Rest Area off of Interstate 5 north of Centralia. A variety of seed mixes were planted utilizing a seed drill for the rest area and a variety of soil preparation methods with hand seeding at nearby research plots. This site will be monitored for successful establishment and flowering of plants and pollinator activity. As a result, soil preparation and seed mix performance will inform restoration and maintenance practices to provide future habitat for pollinators along our roadsides.

Another example is the work to provide improvements to Edgecomb Creek under State Route 531 near Arlington. As part of the latest fish passage project, vegetation was installed to provide bank stabilization, high flow roughness mitigation and shading and habitat for juvenile salmonid.
Vegetation installed at Edgecomb Creek near Arlington provide slope stabilization and shading and habitat for wildlife.

On I-90 just east of Snoqualmie Pass, we teamed up with the US Forest Service to collect native seeds and cuttings from the Snoqualmie Pass East project area to grow at local nurseries. Once the plants matured, we planted them along the project area to restore the habitat we impacted during the first phases of the project.
We’ve teamed with the US Forest Service to collect native seeds and cuttings from the Snoqualmie East project to grow at nurseries and re-plant in the area.

Through these innovative methods to preserve and restore native habitats we are providing a more reliable, responsible and sustainable transportation system now and into the future.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Chute safety: Preparing for avalanche season

By Andrea E. Petrich

The rain was pouring down along SR 20 in Newhalem and the only place you could see patchy snow was high on the mountains towering over the small Whatcom County town on the day I rolled in for Highway Avalanche Search and Rescue (HAVSAR) Training this past December.

While there wasn't snow there, plenty had already fallen in the mountains. So much – along with some rain – that backcountry avalanche warnings were already in place. That risk had reached some of our highways too. The SR 20 North Cascades Highway closed for the season on Nov. 27, when its avalanche chutes became unsafe for crews to plow the area.

At the HAVSAR training, about 30 of us gathered in the holiday-decorated hall on the Seattle City Light campus. Our group consisted of our avalanche and maintenance staff, Seattle City Light first responders, Border Patrol, Northwest Avalanche Center forecasters, North Cascades National Park rangers and members of the Whatcom County Sherriff's team – all people who would respond and be part of highway clearing efforts if an avalanche slides across SR 20.
First responders from agencies around Whatcom and Skagit counties gather for avalanche training

One of our avalanche forecast and control specialists, Harlan Sheppard, refreshed us on types of avalanches, what to look for in hazard areas and what can trigger one. We saw fresh pictures of avalanche chutes along open stretches of our highways and talked about risk reduction strategies. This includes proper training, low-cost markers along highways (you may have seen red-wrapped poles on US 2 indicating a no-stop zone for crews) and adding weather stations to increase accurate forecasting.
Harlan Sheppard, a member of our agency's avalanche team, leads the Highway Avalanche Search and Rescue Training

Once we were done in the classroom, everyone bundled up in their gear to head outside for beacon, probing and shoveling practice. This trains first responders how to locate someone buried in an avalanche as well as the best way to rescue them while still keeping yourself and other first responders safe. With little snow, we did the best we could and the participants kept the scenario as real as possible while probing for a paper bag in a downpour.
Crews from multiple agencies practice beacon use during avalanche training

Our crews always try to forecast avalanche risk early and bring down risky chutes safely, but there are times when the mountain has its own ideas and slides come down unexpectedly. When that happens, we work quickly to make sure everyone in the area is safe while being careful to assess the risk. Often it's not just one avalanche you'll see, but secondary ones that could trap emergency responders if we aren't careful. Sometimes that means waiting a day or two before it's safe for crews to move equipment in to clear a highway.

The risk is also why we hold HAVSAR training every year – we want to keep our skills sharp and also ensure as many first responders as possible have a chance to attend.

What's that mean for you? It's vital that anyone who travels on mountains passes in the winter needs to be prepared. Extreme weather events can happen with little warning and delays and closures could mean long waits. Always plan to bring enough supplies (medication, contacts, socks, etc.) to get by in case of unexpected closures. And, especially during storms or changing weather, stay informed about conditions as you travel. You can do that by calling 511, downloading our mobile app, following regional social media accounts or checking our travel alerts page. (Never use electronic devices when behind the wheel, have a passenger check or wait until you can pull over to a safe spot).
Attendees at our HAVSAR training practice shoveling technique during avalanche rescue training in Newhalem

With new shovels and probes and fresh batteries in our beacons, this group of first responders is equipped, trained and ready for winter along SR 20. Help them help you by making sure you're also prepared anytime you travel across a pass.