Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Keeping rest areas clean for freight haulers during COVID-19

By Meagan Lott

When you think of a rest area, it is probably something you consider as just a nice place to take a break and maybe stretch your legs before heading home. However, during a national pandemic it becomes one of the only places to take a break. Especially for those freight haulers carrying critical medical equipment, medications, food and supplies in response to COVID-19.
All of our rest areas remain open to help support freight traffic but we are increasing
cleaning efforts to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

This is why we are keeping all 45 of our year-round rest areas open. In order to limit the spread of the virus we are stepping up our efforts to clean and disinfect all touch point areas every two hours at our most-trafficked rest areas along I-5, I-90 and I-82. This includes things like sinks and faucets, door handles and hand dryers. All other rest areas will be cleaned twice a day and cleaning will take place daily between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Areas that receive a lot of contact such as door handles are being disinfected
every two hours at our most-traveled rest areas.

This is not the time for recreational travel. Please listen to Governor Inslee’s direction to stay home and practice social distancing. This will ensure the health of our employees who are on the frontlines to ensure our rest areas are clean and safe for the thousands of freight haulers delivering goods and services to our communities every day. We have also temporarily suspending our Free Coffee Volunteer Program until further notice as a continuation of efforts to slow the spread of the virus.
Rest areas are vitally important to freight traffic and we are working to keep them
as clean as possible during the COVID-19 emergency.

The freight community is always vitally important, and perhaps even more so during a national emergency. This is a very challenging time for all of us, but we need to continue to do our part to keep everyone safe and do all we can to help keep goods moving and those that haul them as safe as possible.

Partnering to help keep freight moving

By Andrea E. Petrich

When I was a little kid my favorite thing about road trips was when I'd try to get a semi driver to honk by doing the crazy up-and down-arm pull movement. At the time all I cared about was whether they'd honk or not and had no idea that those drivers were the ones working long hours to help get the things my family needed from farm/factory to the store.

As an adult – and as someone who works to help keep travelers moving – I have a huge appreciation for the work truck drivers do to make my life easier. So this year we are working with Washington State Patrol to help make those trucker's travels a bit easier as they move the things we need to the places where we need them.
Crews from Granite Construction will work to fix pavement, barriers and improve truck movement with updated striping at the Washington State Patrol weigh station that sits along southbound I-5 near Bow Hill in Skagit County.

I-5 Southbound Bow Hill Weigh Station
First up, our contractor crew from Granite Construction will start work to rehabilitate the southbound I-5 Bow Hill Weigh Station just north of Burlington. We will close this weigh station for about 10 days during this work and most of you won't even know it is happening. During this closure trucks will just remain on southbound I-5 while crews repave, adjust and add barrier and restripe to improve flow and make the best use of space in this area.

We hope to begin work on this project in March if the weather cooperates. During construction, the officers typically assigned to this scale will be working the road in patrol cars, continuing their commitment to making Washington roadways the safest in the nation.
During project design, crews did survey work along SR 9 near the area where crews from Northeast Electric will install
the new virtual weigh in motion station for Washington State Patrol to monitor truck traffic.

SR 9 Virtual Weigh in Motion
Later this year – potentially by the summer – our contractor from Northeast Electric will put in sensors and other electronics to create a virtual weigh in motion station on SR 9 in Acme in Whatcom County. This VWIM station will allow WSP to monitor truck weights as well as about 50 other regulatory and safety items from anywhere and local troopers can then pull over trucks whose load weight might be over the limit. Being able to leverage technology to assist with the limited resources available to find potential hazards is another step in helping keep our highways safe. You can subscribe to Whatcom County weekly highway emails www.bit.ly/WhatcomCoEmail for updates.

Thank you, truckers
When you're on the road this year and you see all those semi drivers, give them a wave. They're continuously working to get what we need where we want it.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Oh my girders, what a year!

By Cara Mitchell

One year. We are now one year closer to finishing a project that will transform travel for people crossing the Puyallup River in Pierce County. Easing congestion, adding new HOV lanes and building a brand-new I-5 bridge. After almost 20 years of construction in the area, being one year closer to finishing the final funded project on I-5 through Tacoma is kind of a big deal. So, if you’re the person who called the other day asking if construction is ever going to end, this blog is for you.

Construction on the officially named I-5 – Portland Avenue to Port of Tacoma Road – Southbound HOV project began in February 2019. Since then, design-build contractor Guy F. Atkinson Construction has managed to hit several construction milestones despite being soaked by almost 43 inches of rain.

Gargantuan girders and unique walls

Who is getting the longest girder in the country? We are!

This past February, crews set bridge girders for six of the nine bridge spans that make up the new southbound I-5 bridge over the Puyallup River. To do this, the contractor had to close a section of 20th Street East in Fife. The closure opened up space for a large crane that guided some of the girders into place.
Girders for the new southbound Puyallup River Bridge being put into place
The longest of these girders, measuring 223 feet, will be installed later this year. At this time, the girder will be the longest prestressed concrete girder made in the United States.

But let’s not let our glamorous girders get all the attention. Over the past year Atkinson Construction has been building an 1,100-foot “soil nail” wall. To build it, the contractor dug into the hillside and used a driller to place four rows of giant nails into the ground. A mix of sprayed-on concrete and concrete panels were used to secure the nails and the earth (or hillside) around them. The result is a wall that is more environmentally friendly, faster to build, and creates less of an impact on travel.

Affectionately known as NB-1, the wall is located next to northbound I-5 near East L Street. It ultimately creates space for a northbound auxiliary lane that will help ease congestion in an area that sees more than 115,000 vehicles a day. The new lane will allow people driving on SR 7 and I-705 to exit at Portland Avenue without having to merge with northbound I-5 traffic.
Atkinson Construction placing concrete panels onto steel along the NB-1 soil nail wall. Building the wall is part of the widening piece of the project that creates space for a new auxiliary lane near the SR 7, I-705 and I-5 merge point.

What’s next for Portland Avenue?

Widening I-5 also means adjusting the ramps that lead into it. That is what’s happening at the northbound I-5 exit to Portland Avenue. The contractor needs to adjust the Portland Avenue exit to align with the wider highway. But because of a lack of space to safely and efficiently complete this work, the following temporary changes are planned this spring:
  • Up to a month-long closure of the SR 7 on-ramp to northbound I-5
  • I-705 on-ramp to northbound I-5 reduced to a single lane
  • Northbound I-5 exit to Portland Avenue will temporarily move about a quarter of a mile closer than it is currently located and while the ramp will remain open, drivers will need to be in the far-right lane sooner than they are used to.
We understand the impact closing the SR 7 on-ramp to northbound I-5 for a month will have. Our crews will be working as quickly as the weather allows to avoid impacting traffic any longer than is absolutely necessary. Drivers who use the SR 7 on-ramp to northbound I-5 will be able to follow a signed detour. Four lanes will remain open in each direction on I-5 during the upcoming work. We’ll tell you more details about these changes and what to expect as we get closer to making them.
Drivers will need to use this detour while the SR 7 ramp to northbound I-5 is closed. Our goal
is to complete this work as quickly as weather allows.

50 is nifty

Safety first. It is one of our core values. That’s why we want to take a moment to remind everyone to be extra cautious while traveling through the construction areas. Keep your eyes on the road and be mindful of the drivers around you. The speed limit is 50 miles per hour. Shifting lanes, narrow lanes and narrow shoulders make this speed reduction necessary for the safety of drivers and our construction workers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Ramp meters coming soon to I-5 in Olympia, Lacey

Update: August 4, 2020
We initially planned to turn on these devices last April. However that date was delayed due to factors related to COVID 19. They have been rescheduled to activate as soon as Tuesday, Aug. 18.
By Doug Adamson

Every afternoon, travelers in Lacey and Olympia sit in backups on southbound I-5, and wonder, why can't someone fix this? There is some good news. We are.

One way to help maintain traffic flow is regulating vehicles entering the highway. And that's where traffic meters come in, and what's coming to Thurston County. Come mid-April, we expect to activate new meters at:
  • Martin Way East
  • Sleater-Kinney Road Southeast 
  • Pacific Avenue Southeast
  • Henderson Boulevard Southeast
Ramp meters are an effective and proven tool that help delay the onset of backups seen regularly on southbound I-5 between Lacey and Olympia. They also help reduce the potential for collisions.
New ramp meters are coming to I-5 in Olympia and Lacey to help improve traffic flow on the highway.

What's causing the backups?
Every day, we see large groups of vehicles flood southbound I-5 at the same time. Drivers naturally slow down due to merging traffic and congestion builds until traffic slows to a crawl.

Ramp meters – traffic signals at the end of highway on-ramps – regulate the flow of traffic entering the highway. The regulated pace vehicles enter the highway makes it more predicable for travelers already using I-5. Meters provide consistent gaps between vehicles, rather than allowing multiple vehicles to flood the highway at once.

But why not add more lanes to I-5? The answer is cost. We look at lower-cost enhancements, such as ramp meters, before big-ticket items like widening I-5. Right now, there is no funding to widen this section of I-5.

Why ramp meters?
Ramp meters are a long-used tool to help improve the flow of traffic on state highways. While new to southbound I-5 in Olympia and Lacey, ramp meters have successfully operated at the Marvin Road and Nisqually on-ramps to northbound I-5 in Thurston County for years.

Another southbound I-5 ramp meter at Marvin Road will activate later as part of the diverging diamond interchange project.

How and when ramp meters work
Ramp meters react to real-time conditions. Using computer-assisted technology and specially trained operators, ramp meters can activate anytime or any day if the network detects I-5 congestion.

On-ramp delays?
While ramp metering benefits the interstate, it can produce delays for drivers merging onto the highway. We will monitor the system and make adjustments as needed. At the same time, we do anticipate it will take longer to reach the highway. We expect some drivers will opt for in-city travel instead of using I-5. And as always, for those able to do so we encourage people to consider alternate forms of transportation such as transit, bicycling or walking.

What about northbound I-5?
It's a worst-first strategy. While there is northbound congestion, southbound is the focus due to longer-lasting afternoon chronic congestion. There also is no funding at this time for northbound ramp meters. However, you can expect this tool for northbound I-5 in the south sound when funding becomes available.

Not stopping in Lacey or Olympia?
Travelers heading to locations south of Olympia can help. Through traffic is encouraged to use the left two lanes. This does not apply to vehicles towing a trailer or vehicle or combination over 10,000 gross vehicle weight.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

What's going on with Seattle area traffic with COVID-19?

March 30-April 3
Traffic volumes still show decreases compared to February, reaching a steady new normal for Seattle-area routes in the wake of Governor Inslee’s shelter in place order declared in March.

By Friday, April 3 traffic along the I-90 floating bridge fell by 62 percent and on SR 520 by 76 percent compared to volumes in February.

Traffic along I-5 in Everett fell by 54 percent, and by 53 percent through downtown Seattle. Routes along I-405 kept with the trend with volumes decreasing by 58 percent in Bellevue and 53 percent in Tukwila.

March 23-26
Traffic volumes continued to decrease after Governor Inslee’s shelter in place order on Monday, March 23.

By Friday, March 27 traffic volumes on the I-90 floating bridge decreased by 65 percent and on SR 520 by 77 percent compared to numbers in February. Traffic along I-5 in Everett continued its downward streak, falling 56 percent while traffic on I-405 through Bellevue declined by 60 percent.

Monday, March 16 through Friday, March 20
Driving south from Everett to Northgate, traffic volumes are down 30 percent, and 36 percent between Northgate and downtown Seattle compared to traffic volumes in February. This was especially noticeable during the A.M. commute with overall traffic volumes down by 41 percent as of Friday, March 10.

South of downtown, traffic volumes also fell throughout the week with peak decline on Friday, decreasing by 32 percent.

Traffic in Bellevue along I-405 fell by roughly 35 percent, with decreases along the ends of the freeway in Bothell and Renton — both of which saw reductions near 30 percent compared to February volumes. During the same time period, traffic decreased by 45 percent on the I-90 bridge and 60 percent along SR 520.

Tuesday, March 17
We are seeing a sharp decrease on all Seattle area highways. Although we do not yet have exact figures for Monday, travel times were well below average during the typical peak commute periods. This includes I-5 between Everett and Seattle, which saw trips taking 30-40 minutes during the morning and afternoon drive times. That’s roughly a 50 percent drop from normal conditions.

In looking at the previous week, the daily average volume dropped about 10 percent in the region compared to February. The largest decrease was along SR 520, which saw 30 percent fewer vehicles.

By DiAngelea Millar

As many large employers in King and Snohomish counties encourage teleworking and school districts take the classroom to the cloud because of COVID-19 concerns, we started fielding questions about the affect those changes had on the morning and afternoon commutes.

It's too soon to call what we're seeing a "trend"- technically, trends require lots of time and data, but as the weeks march on it's pretty clear the demand on the highway system is lighter.
Left: The light morning commute through the middle of downtown Seattle on Thursday, March 12 shows how much traffic has been affected by people staying home due to the coronavirus. Right: A look at I-405 in Bothell during
the peak of the morning commute on Thursday, March 12.

As we watch the roads and collect travel information over the coming weeks, we'll continue to update this post.

Let's start with the first week of March
Traffic volumes (a measurement of the number of vehicles on a section of roadway during specific time) in early March were consistently average as were the length of backups. Interestingly, the backups cleared faster than usual.

Wednesday, March 4

Traffic patterns showed lower than average travel times, with commutes 5-30 minutes quicker than normal. This was most apparent on southbound I-5 between Everett and Seattle. With the decrease in travel demand, the amount of vehicles making use of the highway system more closely matches the capacity of our roads. Simply put, we weren't seeing as much congestion with fewer cars on the road.

Friday, March 6

It doesn't take much to bump up the commute times, even when there are fewer vehicles on the roads. Case in point was northbound I-5 into Seattle. Wet roads and blocking incidents created a blip in our seemingly easy commute week. A crash involving a truck that spilled oil closed two left lanes in downtown Seattle but cleared before 7 a.m. Commute times from Federal Way to Seattle were 30-40 minutes higher than usual.
A look at traffic graphs from Wednesday, March 4 shows a significant change in traffic congestion. The vertical axis shows travel time in minutes, the horizontal shows time of day. The 90th percent line indicates the top 90 percent travel
times on that route and the 10 percent line is an average of the lowest times on that route.

Now on to the second week of March
The week started off with low traffic volumes and travel times. 

Monday, March 10

Traffic volumes decreased by 4 percent on southbound I-5 between Everett and Seattle. On the same day, northbound I-405 traffic between Renton and Bellevue decreased by 8 percent. It may not sound like much, but the difference between a smooth commute and a rough one is at the margins. Any specific drop in traffic demand, especially during the peak periods, can result in a noticeable improvement in trip time.

With slightly fewer cars using our roads, vehicles can move faster with greater spacing. This makes it possible to prevent traffic-flow breakdown, essentially the point when there is more demand than carrying capacity, which results in backups and delays and fewer vehicles getting through each lane. Additionally, it took less time for normal speed to resume following a blocking incident like a crash or stalled vehicle, especially during peak travel times.
Highly unusual to see travel times at or below average on these routes from these
travel times at 8:40 a.m. on Thursday, March 12.

Fewer vehicles in toll lanes
We've seen a decrease in traffic on our toll roads, although it is too early to tell how this will impact revenue long-term.

What does this mean?
Many factors affect travel times including weather and blocking incidents. But work and school schedules also affect demand on our highway system and if schools are closed or people work from home, we can see the result of this in our travel times and traffic volumes.

Stay tuned. As we gather more data over the next weeks and months, we'll update this blog with additional information.

This is a great time to plug a couple of our useful tools to keep in your back pocket. Check our statewide travel alerts, Twitter accounts and the WSDOT App for the most up to date traffic information. As outlined above, commutes can turn on a dime and it's in our best interest to be an informed traveler.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Construction at Thorne Lane reaches new heights

By Cara Mitchell

Now that the new Berkeley Street overpass is open to the majority of travelers in Lakewood, construction at Thorne Lane is shifting into high gear. The existing overpass at Thorne Lane is being replaced, not by one, but two new bridges. In fact, one is already finished. The second overpass, which is almost 24-feet tall and spans all lanes of I-5 and the railroad, will open in late spring, weather permitting. Replacement of both overpasses is necessary as crews continue to widen I-5 between Steilacoom-DuPont Road and Thorne Lane.

To make this happen, travelers who use the I-5/Thorne Lane interchange to reach Union Avenue in the Tillicum neighborhood, or Murray Road to reach 146th Street Southwest in the Woodbrook neighborhood, will see long local street closures and detours.

Two-week closure of 146th Street Southwest
At 9 p.m., Saturday, March 14, design-build contractor Guy F. Atkinson Construction will close 146th Street Southwest at Murray Road around-the-clock until March 28. During that time, crews will build new curbs and sidewalks at the intersection of Murray Road and 146th Street Southwest. During the closure, drivers will detour using Spring Street Southwest and 150th Street Southwest.

New roundabout opens
If the weather allows, during the overnight hours of Saturday, March 14, construction crews will open the newly realigned northbound I-5 exit to Thorne Lane and the new roundabout. During the overnight work, the following closures will occur for paving and striping:
  • Northbound I-5 exit to Thorne Lane will close from 10:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. Sunday, March 15
  • Thorne Lane on-ramp to northbound I-5 will close from 10:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. Sunday, March 15
  • Single-lane alternating traffic on Murray Road at the new roundabout from 10 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. Sunday, March 15
Once fully open, the new roundabout will bring a continuous flow of traffic that will move through the intersection more quickly. Studies show that roundabouts lead to a 20-percent reduction in delays.  Anyone who uses the Thorne Lane interchange knows just how long the signals cycle through. Replacing them with roundabouts will be a huge improvement.

Union Avenue closed until late May
As long as all ramp connections at the new Berkeley Street overpass are open, as early as 8 a.m. on Monday, March 16, a one-block section of Union Avenue will close between Spruce Street and Thorne Lane.

The closure allows construction crews to raise the profile of Union Avenue over 23 feet so the street can connect with the new Thorne Lane overpass. The around-the-clock closure will be in place until the end of May.

During the closure, travelers will detour on Thorne Lane to Portland Avenue and to Berkeley Street. The I-5/Thorne Lane interchange will remain open during daytime hours.

With all of the closures and detours, planning for extra travel time during your commute is highly advised. We will work through this next phase of construction as efficiently and quickly as possible.

There will be a lot of 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.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Emergency repair – and weekend closure – will preserve westbound SR 18 west of Tiger Mountain summit

Emergency repairs on westbound SR 18 were finished at about 6:30 p.m. Sunday, March 8. The highway is now open in both directions.
By Tom Pearce

The drenching rains that started 2020 may have subsided, but we’re still dealing with the aftermath of all the water that soaked our state and highway system – including on State Route 18.

The rain damage in western Washington included an early February slide under the shoulder of SR 18 about 1.5 miles west of the Tiger Summit Trailhead. To repair damage from this slide, at 8 p.m. Friday, March 6, contractor crews will close westbound SR 18 from Tiger Mountain Summit to Issaquah-Hobart Road until noon Tuesday, March 10. During the closure, travelers will detour via westbound I-90, I-405 and SR 167 or I-5.
Contractor crews will repair westbound SR 18 between Tiger Mountain Summit and Issaquah-Hobart Road. This will require closure of the westbound lane from the evening of
Friday, March 6, until noon on Tuesday, March, 10.

The Feb. 6 slide washed away soil under a wide spot of the westbound shoulder between Interstate 90 and Issaquah-Hobart Road. Part of the pavement collapsed, but damage did not reach the shoulder – yet.

The highway is fine, though if you travel in one of the 27,000 vehicles that goes through that area each day you probably have seen our orange traffic barrels on the shoulder.
When the soil eroded away under the SR 18 shoulder, the guard rail was left
hanging and pieces of the asphalt turnout collapsed.

To prevent any further damage, we need to close the westbound lane so crews have enough space to safely dig out saturated soil from under the damaged turnout near the shoulder. When they reach solid ground, which we expect they’ll find about 10 feet down, the crews will place rock to fill and support the area, then repave it.

We know this will be an inconvenience for people who rely on this important route between Snoqualmie Pass and south King County or Tacoma. This relatively quick restoration allows us to preserve the highway and avoid a major problem should more of the hill slide away from under the roadbed before we can fix it. That could cause a long-term closure, perhaps of both directions of SR 18 – something we all want to avoid.

Thank you for your patience as we work to preserve this vital roadway!