Monday, January 13, 2020

Spinouts, downed power lines and trees create challenging 24 hours on US 2

Updates
3:45 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 16
US 2 will fully open at 4 p.m. across Stevens Pass! Crews spent the day clearing the final downed power lines and addressing potentially hazardous trees, followed by plowing and treating the highway. While drivers may still see utility crews in the area, the highway is fully open in time for the weekend. The highway closed on Sunday after heavy snowfall brought down power lines and trees between Gold Bar and the Stevens Pass summit, creating hazardous travel conditions. We know this has been a stressful and at times frustrating week and we extend a huge thank you to the residents of the area and the rest of the public for their patience throughout. We also offer our gratitude to all the crews who worked to keep people safe and reopen the road, including our maintenance crew, the Washington State Patrol, Snohomish PUD, Puget Sound Energy and King County and Snohomish County Emergency Management. Please be cautious as you travel through the area!

9:25 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 16
While US 2 remains closed between Skykomish and Stevens Pass, we have resumed work in that area. While conditions were too dangerous to work overnight, at daylight it was safe enough for our crews to return to the area to remove trees at risk of falling and for utilities to deal with downed power lines. Once the trees and utility lines are clear, we will use a snow blower and plows to clear the road. At this time there is still no estimate for when it will reopen. We will update this blog as soon as conditions change.

2:00 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15
An additional portion of US 2 is now open for local access up to Skykomish for people living between Money Creek tunnel (milepost 46) and Skykomish. US 2 remains closed between Skykomish and the Stevens Pass summit (mile post 64) as that stretch remains unsafe for travel as there are still power lines across the roadway. As has been the case all day, high winds are in the forecast and the highway could close again depending on conditions and any associated risk to the traveling public. We will update as we get further information.

10:00 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15
Some good news for the US 2 Gold Bar/Skykomish closure. The highway is temporarily reopened to Money Creek at milepost 46. That said, high winds are in the forecast and the road could close again for safety depending on conditions. The road remains closed from Money Creek to Skykomish as that stretch remains unsafe for travel as there are still power lines in the roadway. We will update as we get further information.

3:45 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 14
Our crews were back out at US 2 in the Gold Bar/Skykomish area on Tuesday. They found several dozen more trees that fell overnight. There are more trees leaning overhead loaded with snow and there is more snow in the forecast Tuesday night into Wednesday. We are working to clear what we can during the daylight hours, and utility crews are also onsite trying to restore their lines. On Wednesday, we will be out with additional crews to continue working but there is still no estimate for reopening.
By Frances Fedoriska

A fierce weekend winter storm brought down power lines and trees and led to the overnight closure of US 2 between Gold Bar and Skykomish on Sunday, Jan. 12, leaving many travelers huddled in for the night and into Monday morning. We know this was frustrating for travelers as well as the crews working through the night trying to provide options or reopen roadways, but safety has to be the driving force behind all our decisions. And on Sunday – and today as well – the risk of downed trees and falling power lines was just too high to reopen the road.

On Monday morning, utility crews were able to access the downed power lines to begin restoration work. Once the lines are restored and the area is secure, our maintenance crews will remove any downed trees and assess the area for any additional hazards. This work can’t be safely done in the dark so it was suspended Sunday night until Monday morning, and because evaluation is ongoing as power lines are removed, the closure will remain in place through the night of Monday, Jan. 13, until further notice. We know travelers would like an estimate for reopening, but at this point conditions and needed evaluations just don’t allow us to provide one. (Those with urgent needs should contact local emergency services).
Left: Crews need to assess the potential hazards of trees on US 2 in the Gold Bar/Skykomish area before the highway is safe enough to reopen. Right: Trees leaning under the weight of heavy snow continue to be safety risks
on US 2 in the Gold Bar/Skykomish area.

So what happened?
A combination of worsening weather exacerbated both travel and road clearing plans across US 2 on Sunday.

Backups and closures started up on Stevens Pass in the afternoon around 2:30 p.m. due to collisions and spin outs and while that was being cleared, deteriorating weather increased the amount of snow on the roadway while vehicles waited to be allowed back through the area. Crews were able to start clearing backed up traffic off the pass – both to the east and west – around 5 p.m. Then, at just before 6 p.m. trees and power lines came down on US 2 near Skykomish, making conditions dangerous for both response crews and travelers. At one point a tree struck one of the work trucks – thankfully no one was injured – and at 7 p.m. it became clear that the road needed to be closed in both directions.

The closure was needed to keep crews and travelers safe, but it also meant that traffic that had headed west down off the pass was now stuck between closures with no ability to go east or west. Crews responded to begin trying to clear the debris and assess the situation, but conditions made it extremely difficult to do so accurately.

With the utility agencies, State Patrol and us, there were a lot of moving parts and teams worked to try to coordinate what was going on and what the plan was. Unfortunately there weren’t a lot of good options for travelers given the conditions.
Left: Leaning and fallen trees continue to pose safety risks for drivers and road workers on US 2 near Gold Bar and Skykomish. Right: Several trees blocked US 2, necessitating the closure
of the highway in the Skyview/Gold Bar area.

For some time, drivers at Skykomish were advised that they could head back east from Skykomish over Stevens Pass and stay in Leavenworth/Wenatchee or go around using Blewett and Snoqualmie passes. Their other option was to stay in Skykomish, but there would be no estimate on when the highway might reopen.

As Sunday night slipped into early Monday morning, conditions reached a point at Stevens Pass that sending people eastbound up and over the pass was no longer possible and word was delivered that people should find a safe location in Skykomish and wait until Monday morning when crews were able to better assess the situation, though later that very early morning some other vehicles were allowed to go eastbound. Some convoys were able to get some of those vehicles out Monday but conditions are still challenging and the closure remains in place.

Getting stranded overnight can turn a fun day at the pass into a long, difficult night. That’s why it’s so vital this time of year that people who are traveling, especially in higher elevations and mountain passes, be prepared for winter conditions, including possible closures and delays. They can come with little warning and last for an extended time. We worked with partners to keep people informed as conditions changed but we’re also always looking for ways to improve those efforts.

While our crews work to clear closures as quickly as possible, their safety and that of the public is always the main priority and we can’t reopen roads until we are confident that conditions are safe for everyone.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Year 2020 – New Lakewood overpasses and ramp connections come into focus

By Cara Mitchell

Update: January 10, 2020
Due to the weather, Atkinson Construction has rescheduled the two-week closure of the Washington Avenue and Berkeley Street intersection to begin Monday, Jan. 20.
Year 2020 marks the beginning of a new decade, and inevitably, new changes for travelers. This will be especially true for commuters who use the Berkeley Street overpass to Camp Murray and Madigan Army Medical Center on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Over the past year, commuters have watched a new Berkeley Street overpass rise up from shoulders of Interstate 5. Starting mid-January, design build contractor Guy F. Atkinson Construction will begin connecting local streets to the ramps of the new overpass. This work involves a series of local street and ramp closures that Tillicum businesses, residents and commuters will want to pay attention to.
The new I-5/Berkeley Street interchange will open in early 2020.

As early as January 13, the intersection of Washington Avenue and Berkeley Street will close around-the-clock for two weeks so crews can rebuild the roadway surface that leads to the new Berkeley Street overpass. During the closure, signed detours will be in place.

Once the intersection reopens, the contractor will begin a weekend closure of the old Berkeley Street overpass, allowing crews to connect the new overpass to the Madigan Army Medical Center gate.  During the weekend closure, Tillicum residents and businesses will need to use the Thorne Lane interchange to access I-5. Travelers who normally use the Madigan Gate will need to use alternate gates to reach JBLM.

At the end of the weekend closure, the new interchange will be open for all travelers, except for Berkeley Street to northbound I-5 on-ramp from Tillicum. This on-ramp will remain closed for an additional 15 days. Access to northbound I-5 will be maintained for JBLM drivers coming out of the Madigan Gate.

Once this work is complete, sometime towards the end of February, the new Berkeley Street Bridge will be completely open to travelers.

Thorne Lane interchange
Once the Berkeley Street overpass is fully open, construction activity at Thorne Lane will notably increase. The existing overpass at Thorne Lane is being replaced by two new ones. In fact, one is already finished. The second overpass that is almost 24-feet tall and spans all lanes of I-5 and the railroad, will have its bridge deck poured starting in March. Around the same time, Union Avenue between Spruce Street and Thorne Lane will undergo a long-term closure so the profile of Union Street can be raised to match the height of the new overpass.

Over on Murray Road, a new roundabout is being constructed to connect the northbound I-5 off- and on- ramps with the new Thorne Lane overpass. Once complete, this roundabout will help move traffic through the area without the delays that the current signalized intersection brings.

It's too early to say when the new Thorne Lane overpasses will fully open. A lot can happen during wet winter and spring months that have the potential to delay projects. We will continue to provide updates as construction progresses.
A new I-5/Thorne Lane interchange is taking shape with two overpasses and roundabouts that will keep travelers moving.

I-5 gets a new elevation
Here's some highway trivia you may not know: There's a pump house on the shoulder of northbound I-5 near the old Berkeley Street overpass that has a 1950's era pump running inside of it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The purpose of this pump is to keep water off of the lanes of I-5 as the highway sits below the water table at this location.

One big improvement we included in this project was to raise the elevation of I-5 at Berkeley Street. Maintaining water pumps is an ongoing maintenance expense we'd like to eliminate. To raise the elevation of I-5 to new heights, the old Berkeley Street overpass has to be removed. This will occur shortly after the new Berkeley Street overpass is open.

Once removed, crews will begin shifting lanes of I-5, making room for fill material to be put into place to raise the elevation of the highway. We will keep people moving by maintaining three lanes of traffic in both directions during construction.

About those closures…
Construction crews like to minimize closures just as much as you. They also need to finish the project. Up until now, the new overpasses at Berkeley Street and Thorne Lane have been built with the contractor closing lanes and ramps only at night when traffic volumes are much lower. When it comes time to connect all the local streets to the new overpasses, sometimes we have to implement longer-term closures. We know it is an inconvenience, which is why we are giving you advance notice on what to expect so you can plan ahead.

There will be a lot of new changes in 2020 for both of these intersections. We appreciate your continued patience while crews finish this important work. Please continue to watch your speed in work zones and give construction crews the room they need to finish this important project.

Follow the latest closure and detour information for all Pierce County maintenance and construction projects online at www.TacomaTraffic.com.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Tumbling into the new year

By Summer Derrey and Mike Allende

Some of our maintenance team and the Washington State Patrol welcomed in 2020 in a pretty unusual way. A 9-million-cubic-yard unusual way.

Tumbleweeds stacked 20-to-30-feet high blocked a two-mile section of SR 240 west of Richland near the Tri-Cities on New Year's Eve and into the first day of the new year. The Tumblegeddon – as the Washington State Patrol trooper on the scene dubbed it – buried five abandoned vehicles. Some people were also trapped for several hours in their vehicles by the thorny debris, and hundreds of drivers had to detour or turn around. Poor visibility, a sea of tumbleweeds, gusty winds and the dark night was no laughing matter for those involved. Fortunately, no injuries were reported.


"It was a new experience," maintenance worker Jason Vandine said. "We'd dealt with tumbleweeds before, but not to that extent. To have a road closed because of it was different. And then not knowing the extent of it because it was so dark. I opened the first section and thought we were in business to let traffic go and then found out there's a whole other section covered. You couldn't get a good perspective."

Over the course of 10 hours, our crews, with help from the State Patrol and Hanford Police, worked to clear the tumbleweeds. WSP kept track of the vehicles, and some were removed to make way for snow plows – yes, snow plows – to clear the road. Eight of our maintenance workers in the plows ran over, shaved down and pushed the dead Russian thistles off the highway.

Vandine said once vehicles started stopping because of the" tumbleweed blizzard," everything changed as they had to slow down operations to account for the people and vehicles. One of the biggest helps was the temperature being warm enough that they didn't have to worry about people freezing. Plow operators had to drive under 10 mph to avoid obstacles such as vehicles that were hard to see through the darkness and the debris.
Our maintenance crews work to uncover a semi truck buried by tumbleweeds
on SR 240 on New Year's Eve
"You just couldn't see what might be in the piles, if there were cars and people in the middle of it, so we couldn't just plow through them," Vandine said. "We were lucky because a lot of things could've gone wrong because it was so hard to see anything. I give the public a lot of credit, they did a good job with what was going on."

Our priorities were making sure the public and our workers were safe first, getting the road opened second. Communication was key, especially between our crews and the State Patrol as troopers worked as spotters for our crews as they dug into the piles of debris.
Nope, not snow. This is a huge pile of tumbleweeds on SR 240
near Richland that a snowplow is working to clear.
Our crews also had to be careful to avoid the tumbleweeds wrapping around the undercarriage of the trucks and puncturing a hole that would lead to air leaks. And while the wind dying down helped, it also hurt because it was needed to help push the debris along.

"I had tumbleweeds just engulf the plow truck on its sides, on top and in front," Vandine said. "The people would try to let us know where their vehicles were so we could try to keep track of what was there and where so we could avoid damaging any property and so we could keep everyone safe."

While tumbleweeds aren't an unusual sight on the east side of our state, the amount of them and the fact that they actually closed a road and buried vehicles, was enough to draw attention from news outlets all over the country.

"I've worked here for about 20 years and although there are a lot of tumbleweeds blowing out there in the desert, I have never seen that much at once, and that deep," said Ryan Miller, one of our maintenance supervisors. Kara Shute, maintenance superintendent for that area, agreed that she hasn't seen a tumbleweed storm of this magnitude in 35 years.

It's believed that heavy rain and strong, gusty winds up to 30 mph loosened the weeds and produced the unusual event. Fencing along the shoulder of the highway was able to catch some of the weeds. Our crew estimated that had all of the tumbleweeds been hauled away, it would've taken at least 5,000 truckloads.
High winds created a tumbleweed blizzard that buried several vehicles on SR 240 near Richland on New Year's Eve.

Vandine said it was similar to large snow events but the big difference was with snow, we often know it's coming and can prepare ahead of time. This rolled in so quickly that it was all about catching – and then keeping – up.

While more work is needed to remove the debris from the berms, our crews are keeping a close eye on the weather in order to respond should a Tumblegeddon 2: The Tumbleweeds Strike Back, happen. If it does and you find yourself in the middle of a storm of tumbleweeds, State Patrol Trooper Chris Thorson says to treat it like a blizzard. If you can't see the road, pull off to the right shoulder as far as you can, activate your hazards and wait for help to arrive.