Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Come one, come all: Open houses to learn about upcoming Whatcom & Island County projects

By Ally Barrera

After being cooped up for what felt like an eternity by a relentless march of snowstorms, my colleagues and I are ready to get out into the community and meet with the public about our upcoming construction projects.

With a busy construction season on tap for Whatcom and Island counties, there are several opportunities coming up to learn about what's going on and have your questions answered.

This year's projects include:
  • Rehabilitating more than 45 miles of highway pavement
  • Improving fish passage through five creeks and tributaries
  • Building a new roundabout
  • Preserving and repainting one of Washington's most iconic bridges
Painting the Deception Pass Bridge is just one of the many projects
coming to Island and Whatcom counties this summer.

These events give us a chance to hear your stories, your concerns and get your feedback. Here's what's coming up:

Thursday, Feb. 21 - Mt. Baker Highway community event
1-4 p.m. at the Deming Library
Come hear about this summer's pavement resurfacing projects on SR 542, as well as the Tawes Creek fish passage project happening on SR 9 in the town of Van Zandt.

Tuesday, Feb. 26 - Bellingham projects open house
5:30-7:30 p.m. at Bellingham Christian School
We'll focus on the two paving projects happening on a 23-mile stretch of SR 542 from Bellingham to the town of Kendall. We've also invited the City of Bellingham, Whatcom County, and other partners to join us for this event in case you have questions for them, too.

Tuesday, March 12 - Island County open house
5:30-7:30 p.m. at Oak Harbor High School
If you want information about all of our 2019 projects happening in Island County - including the repainting of Deception Pass Bridge and the new roundabout coming to SR 20 - this is the event for you. If you can't make it Tuesday, Deception Pass State Park will also hold an event on Saturday, March 16, and will have more information on the Deception Pass Bridge project.
A 23-mile stretch of SR 542 between Bellingham
and Kendall will be paved this summer.

If you aren't able to make the open house in your community and have feedback or questions, you can email me your thoughts at barrera@wsdot.wa.gov. We're looking forward to meeting some of you this month and next. Thank you for being involved in your community and getting engaged in the conversation to help keep your family and all of Washington moving forward.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The I-405/SR 167 Interchange Direct Connector in Renton is opening to traffic as early as next week

By Victoria Miller

Attention I-405/SR 167 corridor drivers! We are wrapping up work on the I-405/SR 167 Interchange Direct Connector Project and the flyover ramp will be open to traffic as early as the afternoon of Tuesday, Feb. 19.

Yes, you read that correctly! The construction you have seen over the past two years at this busy interchange is nearing its end.

The Direct Connector project broke ground in September 2016 and was originally scheduled to open to traffic in spring 2019. “With the savings from our previous I-405 corridor projects, we were able to advance design engineering and purchase the right of way necessary to start construction as soon as we received funding from the Connecting Washington funding package,” said I-405/SR 167 Program Administrator Kim Henry. “Thanks to drivers’ patience and the project team’s hard work, we are pleased to complete this improvement four months ahead of schedule.”
The groundbreaking ceremony for the I-405/SR 167 Interchange Direct Connector Project was held on Sept. 29, 2016.

The 2015 Connecting Washington funding package is a $16 billion multimodal investment to enhance the statewide transportation system and maintain critical infrastructure.

The Direct Connector is the first phase of the upcoming I-405 Renton to Bellevue Widening and Express Toll Lanes Project, which will help to improve traffic operations throughout the corridor. The Renton to Bellevue project will add an additional lane in each direction of I-405 between Renton and Bellevue, rebuild several interchanges and build infrastructure for Sound Transit’s Bus Rapid Transit system. The work also makes additional improvements such as southbound auxiliary lanes from I-90 to Lake Washington Boulevard Southeast in Newcastle, and from Northeast 44th Street to Northeast 30th Street in Renton. The Renton to Bellevue project encompasses the stretch of roadway that will complete a 40-mile express toll lanes system between the Pierce County line on SR 167 and I-5 in Lynnwood. The Direct Connector is the critical component in connecting the High Occupancy Toll lanes on SR 167 to the future express toll lanes on I-405.

Until the Renton to Bellevue project is complete, the new 1,500-foot-long flyover ramp will serve carpools from northbound SR 167 to northbound I-405, and carpools from southbound I-405 to southbound SR 167. The ramp will operate as a 2+ high occupancy vehicle lane from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day, allowing single occupancy vehicles to use the ramp outside of these hours. To learn more about the HOV systems and carpool rules, visit our HOV lanes page.
Looking north on SR 167 in May 2018, crews remove formwork from two crossbeams for the future flyover ramp.

We will be holding a ribbon-cutting on Feb. 19, the earliest day we plan for the ramp to open to traffic. Once the orange traffic barrels leading up to the base of each on-ramp are gone, the ramp will be ready to use! However, due to the current weather forecast, we will provide an update if conditions require rescheduling opening the ramp to traffic.

While we plan for the I-405/SR 167 Interchange Direct Connector flyover ramp to be operationally ready as early as next week, please keep in mind there will still be some overnight closures as the project team completes paving work into the spring.
As early as next week, Tuesday, Feb. 19, the I-405/SR 167 Interchange Direct Connector will open to traffic, connecting the HOT lanes on SR 167 to the HOV lanes on I-405.

To stay up to date on the latest construction closure information for the project, please visit the I-405 Construction Updates page and the King County Construction Updates page.

Friday, February 8, 2019

We answer some of your most frequent snow and ice questions

By Barbara LaBoe

With one storm behind us and more on the way, we know you have questions about how and when we treat and clear roadways. We've compiled some of our most frequently asked questions below.

As always our priority is safety for our workers and the traveling public. Heavy storms will mean drivers should expect to be traveling on packed snow and ice and need to slow down and stay alert - and consider altering trips if possible.

1.  How do we stay plugged in to forecasts? How do we determine when winter weather may be on the way?

We monitor and prepare for conditions several ways. First, we contract for private, site-specific forecasts to understand how our roadways will be affected. Our crews can reach out for more detail from the forecasters around the clock.

We also work closely with the National Weather Service both on forecasts and ways to communicate conditions to the public.

Our crews and workers in our Transportation Management Centers are also constantly monitoring conditions and sharing roadway information in case adjustments need to be made.
Personnel in our Traffic Management Centers – like this one in Shoreline – monitor hundreds
of cameras to help crews respond and also deliver information to the public.

2.  What are the steps we take when we believe a snow/ice storm will be coming?

Anytime severe weather appears to be on its way we alert staff, coordinate with forecasters and check in with our maintenance crews across the state to ensure we have enough supplies and to learn of any particular concerns or challenges. Often we'll have a series of meetings or planning calls in the days leading up to a predicted storm. If needed, we can also activate our Emergency Operations Center to help respond and coordinate resources.

We may speed up delivery of certain supplies such as salt to keep our sheds from running low and also have crews from other duties shift to snow and ice response.

3.  What types of products does WSDOT use to treat highways, and what conditions do we use each product for?

We use several products depending on conditions, generally a mix of solid salt and liquid products such as magnesium chloride, calcium chloride and sodium chloride (salt brine), all of which are salt-based products. The "chemical treatment approach" allows us to proactively treat roads to help prevent the formation of ice and compact snow on the road and help to accelerate the return to a bare and wet condition. This approach has led to a significant increase in the level of service provided to the traveling public and substantially improves mobility. While we continue to use sand in certain conditions, it is no longer the primary tool.
We maintain sheds with material such as salt and sand throughout the state.
Most of the time our salt is mixed with other chemicals.

Before and during storms crews will:
  • Pretreat roads before storms arrive (in cases of rain turning to snow this can be challenging as some pre-treat can be washed away).
    • Liquid anti-icers are generally applied to the roadway before weather events occur, and prevent ice crystals from bonding to the pavement. The amount applied can be adjusted based on conditions.
  • Plow snow as it arrives.
  • Treat accumulated snow and ice on roads.
    • Solid de-icing chemicals are used to keep accumulating snow loose and "plow-able" so it can be removed with snowplows. If snow and ice become compact and bonded to a paved surface, the solid chemical de-icers can absorb into the compact snow or ice, melt it and break it up for snowplow removal.
  • Sand roadways
    • While not used as much as in years past, sand is still put down to help improve traction in some areas and is also sometimes mixed with salt products. Sand is a more reactive than proactive treatment and tends to get blown off the road more quickly than chemical products.
4.  When we say a road has been plowed, or has been treated, what does that mean? What will the roads look like? Which lanes do we clear first? Why don't we clear all the lanes? How are ramps prioritized?

Our first goal in clearing roadways is ensuring the right hand lane is passable, so  we'll work to get that cleared before moving on to ramps and then to the other lanes of the roadways. During large or heavy storms travelers need to be prepared that not all lanes will be cleared immediately; they could be driving on packed snow and ice. This means they'll need to adjust travel times and plans in severe weather.

In some cases where snow or ice has accumulated, we'll treat with salt before clearing, which helps break the bond to the roadway. So travelers may see some roads with snow that has been treated but not yet cleared because the salt needs some time to work.

We can clear roads only to see snow and ice from shoulders in some areas to melt during the day and then freeze as temperatures drop, causing roadways to ice up again. We re-treat roadways, but drivers should be prepared that any roadway could be icy during and immediately after storms and cold snaps.

5.  How many snow plows does WSDOT have?

We have 500 snow plows statewide. Each plow covers between 50 to 75 lane miles on one run through a route. Crews will continue working routes several times a day, especially as snow keeps falling.
Our snowplow operators usually work 10-hour shifts but during major snow events, they will work
12-hour shifts with some overlap so that plows are always running.

6.  When people say they haven't seen a snow plow at all in their drive from X to X, why would that be? Does it mean we don't have plows out?

During storms our crews are out around the clock. We have a lot of miles to cover, however, and plows don't move very fast - about 25 to 30 mph - as they cover an average of about 50 miles on a run. So if a plow was 10 miles ahead of you on the roadway, you may not see it during a morning commute, but it will be out on the road again behind you after it has replenished supplies.

In some areas we also need to conduct tandem plowing to completely clear several lanes - especially on passes. This means a series of plows will work one stretch to push snow off to the side. In this case, you may not see plows on your stretch of road because they're tandem plowing another section before coming to yours.

7.  Why do I see trucks going by with their plows up instead of plowing?

There could be a couple of reasons. They may be first treating the roadway with de-icer to break up the bond between snow and ice and roadway. In that case they would want to give the salt de-icer some time to work.

It's also possible the plow is on its way to an assigned area a bit farther out and another plow will soon be clearing the area you're at. Because plows run slowly when the plow is down, it's more efficient to send some to further out areas before they start clearing than to have them try to plow the entire way there. We have assigned routes for drivers to clear as much area as possible on each shift.

Also, a plow could be heading back to a supply area to refill with de-icing material and thus wouldn't have the plow down to slow that return trip.

8.  How does WSDOT prioritize which routes are plowed and treated? At what point will WSDOT move trucks from a top priority route to a lesser-priority route?

Generally, our priority routes are determined by the volume of traffic on each roadway. Routes with the heaviest traffic are addressed first and less used routes have lower priorities. More information about this is available online.

Sometimes this means number of trucks versus location - we don't send all plows on the west side to I-5 first, for example. But areas with a major interstate would have more plows regularly stationed in their area.

9.  What are the challenges plow operators face during snow/ice operations? How can drivers help them?

Plow drivers are concentrating on the roadway, ensuring they're plowing or treating efficiently and avoiding any hazards. Please give them space and be patient. Your best bet is to wait until a snowplow operator pulls over and lets you pass when it is safe.

Plows can throw snow to either side of the vehicle and some equipment extends from the plow and may not be easy to see in heavy snow or at night. Visibility is difficult for the plow operator too, so please allow space and only pass if it's safe to do so.

10.  What's the typical shift look like for a plow operator during these events? When do they start and how long do they work? How do they prepare the vehicle?

A normal shift is 10 hours but it is extended to 12 hours during storm prep and response. Crews will come in and talk with the person who just finished on their route and then ensure their vehicle is stocked with products such as salt, mixes and sand, and then head out on their route. Plows may be diverted if a trouble spot develops but generally run a planned route for most efficient coverage of large areas.

11.  Why doesn't WSDOT have more snow plows?

We have a lot of snowplows - 500 statewide. But we also must balance resources against needs just as families do in their household budget. In our case, that includes a number of other maintenance costs and duties throughout the year in addition to snow and ice equipment. In areas that rarely see snow, it's not cost effective to have large numbers of plows that may not be needed most years.
Our maintenance crew shifts also are extended from 10 hours to 12 hours when storms are approaching and we can call in workers from other areas to help cover routes. Shifts also have a built in overlap so that roads are covered while other workers go on or off shift.
Our mechanics work to keep our fleet of 500 snow plows in good shape.

12.  How do we coordinate with cities and counties? Some state routes aren't our jurisdiction. How do we make sure everything is accounted for?

Coverage and plowing responsibility is determined well before storms approach. We also hold annual snow and ice prep meetings across the state to ensure everyone knows our plans and how to contact us. We work closely with our partners in cities and counties to ensure everyone is covering the roads under their jurisdiction. We also sell salt and other products to smaller jurisdictions, which is easier than them trucking in their own supplies.

13.  How fast does a snowplow move?

Plows generally move between 25 - 30 mph while applying product or clearing snow and ice. They need to move slower so that they can focus on their task and ensure they're working efficiently. Also, they are larger vehicles and have some limited sight lines. If plows are running at higher speed they throw snow off the sides too fast and too hard, which isn't safe.
Our snowplow operators have limited sight range so drivers should always
give them plenty of room as they work to keep our highways safe.

14.  Can we shift resources from one area to another if the storm path changes?

Yes, we can and we do. This can be staff, equipment or supplies and is balanced on where the need is the greatest. In some statewide events - like this coming weekend - there may be fewer unaffected areas to pull from,  but managers still discuss and prioritize based on needs and conditions.

15.  I know you have a lot of roads that are considered priorities. When deciding which of those roads to treat and deal with first, are you drawing from on-the-ground reports/data, camera information, historical trouble with the road, or just a mix depending on conditions?

The short answer is all of the above.

All these types of information go into treatment plans as well as any changes that might be made as conditions change or we observe new issues. This can be a quick discussion between plow drivers as they hand over trucks - like a particular area along a route could use some extra work - or more formal as we decide to re-deploy trucks to another area.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Another round of snow predicted across the state starting Friday

Preparation key for everyone

By Mike Allende

Just as we're digging out from the snowfall in the Puget Sound region earlier this week, the National Weather Service is predicting another round of snow systems starting Friday and lasting through at least the weekend that could affect most of our state.
Our snow plows are working 24/7 throughout the state to plow and treat highways,
and drivers should give them plenty of room to work.

On the west side, the forecast is calling for anywhere from an inch along the coast to a few inches on the southwest and northwest interior, to 3-6 inches in the Puget Sound area, to 6 inches or more in the mountain passes. Central and eastern Washington are also expected to get snow and high winds, with blowing and drifting snow and difficult visibility a concern.

These are just projections by the NWS at this point, but it's better to be safe than sorry.

Our crews will continue to pre-treat highways and plow and treat roads during the snow. We prioritize the highest-traveled routes, working to keep at least one lane as clear as possible. That said, if heavy snow is falling, there's only so much we can do and it will affect roadways. Roads will be slick, bridges/ramps/overpasses will be icy, collisions will increase and traffic will be challenging.
While crews will be working to clear roads, snow and ice events lead to high levels of
traffic congestion and drivers should plan plenty of extra time to their trips.

That's where you come in. In conditions like this, travelers must be sure they and their vehicles are prepared for winter conditions.

What does that mean?
  • Slow down. Seriously. We can't say this enough. Slow down. At these low temperatures, even if a road appears to be clear, it could be icy. With the low temperatures we've had this week, roads will also ice up quicker than normal once new rain or snow starts to fall. Other than not traveling at all, there is no better way to be safe in these conditions than lowering your speed and being cautious. And remember, 4-wheel drive and all-wheel drive doesn't mean you can steer or stop better on ice.
  • In addition to slowing down, build in extra time for any travel. You and everyone else need to take it slow, so your normal commute time won't be enough. It's no fun leaving earlier than normal, but it's far better than worrying about your time while also dealing with snow and ice.
  • If you can, think about adjusting or cancelling weekend travel plans. Consider heading home a little earlier than usual Friday to ensure you get there before any snow starts falling, for example, or delay weekend plans to later in the month.
  • Be sure your vehicle is in good shape. Check your tires. Be sure you have a full tank of gas. Clear all the snow and ice off your vehicle, including your roof. Snow can fly off the back at other drivers or even fall forward and suddenly cover your windshield.
  • Give each other space. Increase following distance, work together, signal your intentions. Work to keep everyone safe.
  • Give road crews as much space as possible. This includes snow plows and emergency responders. It's safer for you and it's safer for them. And the safer they can work, the quicker they can get an incident cleared.
  • Be patient. Traffic could be slow. Crews may take a while to get to your area. Everyone is working hard, everyone wants to get where they're going safely. Take your time, set realistic expectations and remember that it's always better to get somewhere safely than quickly.
  • If mountain passes are in your travel plans, be aware that Washington State Patrol troopers will be doing chain enforcement. Have chains available, know how to put them on, and do so if the traction requirements call for it. Stay plugged in to conditions on our mountain pass page.
While our crews work to keep all highways clear, priority is given to the highest-traveled routes such as I-5.
Another few things to keep in mind:
  • There are some pretty large special events going on this weekend. Though Michelle Obama canceled her Friday appearance, Bob Seger (Saturday) and Justin Timberlake (Sunday and Monday) are still on at the Tacoma Dome and the Seattle RV show Friday-Sunday at CenturyLink Field Events Center. If you can take transit or carpool to the events, it would help, and be sure to add as much time as possible to your trip to get there.
  • Stay informed about road conditions, weather and any closures by using our online tools such as the our app, our travel alerts page, regional Twitter accounts and Facebook. Or keep it simple by calling 5-1-1- for travel conditions.
  • Keep in mind that we don't maintain every road in the state. Our jurisdiction is primarily state highways. While we coordinate with partners in local cities and counties, we don't typically maintain city and county streets and roads. If you have concerns about those areas, please contact those local jurisdictions.
  • If you get in a collision, your vehicle stalls out or for whatever reason you get stuck on a highway, please don't abandon your vehicle. It is never safe to walk on a state highway, especially in icy and snowy conditions. If possible, pull off the highway or to a shoulder and wait for law enforcement or an emergency responder to come assist you. Abandoned vehicles also hamper our ability to plow and keep roadways clear.
  • If you are unsure of your ability to drive on snow and ice, go with that feeling and if at all possible, don't travel during these storms. The safest thing you can do is to stay off the roads.
This has been a challenging week, and it could get even more challenging if we see a series of heavy snow events. We'll have crews working before and through any storms, but we also need your help. With some preparation and adjustments, we can all get through this weather event safely.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The research behind our SR 99 Tunnel educational campaign

By Chris Foster

Since our educational campaign for the new SR 99 tunnel in Seattle launched, we’ve received a lot of questions. The media have prominently featured the viaduct closure and the tunnel opening, so why did we need to spend money on billboards, commercials, and other forms of paid media?

This campaign is teaching people how their commute will change with the tunnel and giving them all of the tools to learn more about their commute online at 99tunnel.com.

One of the big changes drivers will have to adjust to is the new route of the tunnel. There are no longer any mid-town entrances or exits like there were on the Alaskan Way Viaduct. In late 2017, we surveyed approximately 1,000 drivers in the Seattle-area who live in zip codes serviced by the SR 99 corridor. The survey showed that only 30 percent of respondents knew there would be no entrances and no exits to downtown in the tunnel and that they would need to exit before or after the tunnel to get to destinations downtown.

With lower awareness of these major changes to the SR 99 corridor’s route through Seattle, we realized we needed to reach drivers and provide them with information on how their commute will change.

Our experience with opening the I-405 express toll lanes and SR 520 Bridge has shown us that a robust educational campaign with traditional media, grassroots outreach and social media engagement are all essential in reaching the broadest possible audience.

By using different avenues to reach drivers, we’re able to provide them with the tools they need to figure out their specific route, on their own time as specific routes are unique to each individual driver.

When people visit our resources available at 99tunnel.com, such as these videos that focus on how to use the tunnel, they can better understand the route of the tunnel which will help reduce the potential for confusion or frustration. More importantly, an educated driver is a safer driver.

Tolling will start as early as this summer and closer to toll commencement, there will be a second phase of the educational campaign focusing on tolling in the tunnel, and how Good To Go! works. In the survey we mentioned above, 67 percent of drivers who didn’t have a Good To Go! account were unaware that they would pay a lower toll rate with a Good To Go! account. Drivers who know how to use the tunnel and have a Good To Go! pass to pay the lowest rate will be more likely to choose the tunnel when tolling starts. Our hope is that this helps reduce the number of drivers who seek alternate routes, such as city streets and I-5.

We dedicated $4.4 million of the overall $3.3 billion viaduct replacement program budget to this educational marketing campaign. About two-thirds of the campaign budget, or $2.8 million, pays for the costs of placing ads on television, radio, print, billboards and more. These costs are not small, but represent the cost of reaching drivers in the 12th biggest media market in the United States. The remaining $1.6 million went to research to ensure we developed the most effective campaign possible, development and production of the campaign.

Friday, February 1, 2019

SR 99 Tunnel Grand Opening

By Barbara Laboe

The 24-hour countdown to the SR 99 Tunnel Grand Opening has begun! Whether you're heading out for the fun run, planning to bid adieu to the viaduct or just monitor from home, here are some ways to stay informed about all of the events Saturday and Sunday.

Still planning how to get to the event? Check out this helpful website. More event tips are available in our 5 things to know before you go blog and common questions about the event.

Stay informed
We'll be posting about the event throughout the day, as well as updates about traffic and any other developments. If you're on-site, it's a chance to stay informed; if you can't make the event you can follow along online. Here are accounts to follow:
Let's help everyone enjoy the event
We expect a strong turnout – about 100,000 people throughout the weekend -- so we ask that all visitors help everyone have a good experience by being patient while in line (staggered starts and entries help crowd flow and also meet safety and capacity requirements). Once at a particular event, please also be considerate of those behind you by making room for others once you've experienced each activity We want everyone to have a fun and memorable visit.

Maintenance lead’s sharp eyes lead to cat’s lucky day

By Andrea E. Petrich

Maintenance lead Doug Knott was just about done cleaning up a bunch of items spilled along a highway in Skagit County when he noticed something unusual: A pair of eyes staring at him from underneath a hubcap.
Maintenance lead, Doug Knott, and Lucky after its highway rescue.

No, this isn’t the beginning of a Stephen King story. It’s the story of an unusual rescue.
Between cleaning up debris from crashes or spilled loads, and helping people who are stranded, our road crews are always busy. On this particular day, the Washington State Patrol called Doug to help clean up a pile of clothes, boxes and other items that appeared to have fallen off a vehicle. While unfortunate – please remember to always secure your loads – it wasn’t particularly unusual.
Lucky cleaning up

The eyes, though, were certainly unusual.
Turns out, the eyes staring back at Doug were from a cat who had been hiding amongst the debris. Doug grabbed his leather work gloves and worked to coax the cat out of its hiding place. For any of us who have cats, you know, this is no easy task. It’s made all the more challenging when you are trying to keep the cat from bolting onto the highway and into passing traffic.
Lucky helping the guys with some of their dreaded paperwork

But just call Doug the Cat Whisperer. He was able to secure the cat – who his daughter aptly named Lucky. Doug took Lucky to a local vet and outside of a broken tooth and some road rash, found it to be in good shape. They also learned the cat didn’t have a microchip and the Humane Society of Skagit Valley had no reports of a missing cat.

So Doug became a foster dad to Lucky while we wait to see if the cat is claimed.
Since being rescued from a Skagit County highway,
Lucky follows his hero, Doug, around everywhere.

We don’t know how this cat ended up on the highway. Maybe Lucky fell off a vehicle while being moved or hitched a ride by hiding in a vehicle without humans noticing. Or maybe Lucky was just looking for a warm place to hide. What we do know is that everyone – except maybe Doug’s dog – is grateful that our caring crews were there to find and rescue Lucky.

If you’ve lost a cat and think Lucky may be yours, please call Skagit Humane at 360-757-0445 and let them know the cat’s gender and which highway in Skagit County it might have been lost on/wandering near.