Monday, April 27, 2020

When it comes to agriculture, our noxious weed control efforts are essential

By Beth Bousley

Agriculture is vital to Washington state and a major force in the state's economy. That's why, as part of the essential services being performed during the COVID-19 era of Stay Home, Stay Healthy, our crews have begun work on noxious weed control in some locations.
We are prioritizing our work to control weeds threatening agriculture, including Rush skeleton weed spreading west along the I-90 corridor. These are heading for the prime agricultural lands in the central part of the state and is expanding across the state with a potential large cost to agriculture in the decades ahead if we don't control it now.

But what is a noxious weed?

According to the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board, a noxious weed is an invasive, non-native plant that is so aggressive it harms our local ecosystems or disrupts agricultural production. These plants crowd out the native species that fish and wildlife depend on. They also cost farmers, orchardists and ranchers millions of dollars in control efforts and lost production – and that can make the food we buy more expensive. The Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board adopts a State Noxious Weed List each year (WAC 16-750). The list categorizes weeds into three major classes according to the seriousness of the threat they pose.

Why does it need to be controlled?

Our maintenance landscape architect, Ray Willard says early detection and rapid response are key. By controlling the weeds today, we're protecting our crops for years to come.

With hundreds of acres of roadside right of way in our state, our agency plays a critical role in helping control noxious weeds.

"We are stewards of the land," said Dan Floyd, assistant regional administrator for maintenance and operations. "Our mission is to protect our valuable crops that support our communities' economic health and preserve our native vegetation that is vital to our eco-system."

Understanding that the need for noxious weed control is imminent, we are undertaking a targeted noxious weed spray application – only focusing on high-priority agricultural areas in eastern Washington, where weeds will begin to spread and threaten adjacent agriculture areas as the weather warms up if not addressed.

Ernie Sims, one of our maintenance superintendents, said this is the time of year when weeds begin to germinate and grow. He should know as he also farms wheat in Reardan, just northwest of Spokane. Our effort targeting noxious weeds represents about 30% of our normal vegetation management effort in a typical spring.

"It's just going to get worse if we let it go," Sims said.

According to the Washington State Department of Agriculture, our state has 39,000 farms operating on more than 15 million acres. Washington is a major agricultural state, producing some 300 commercial crops and livestock products valued at $7.9 billion to Washington farmers and ranchers.
Rush skeleton weed can be a tasty lunch for a goat. We use an Integrated Vegetation Management approach when controlling weeds and other unwanted vegetation, including the use of chemical, mechanical, cultural (establishing desirable vegetation), and biological like our helpful goats.

It's a huge job coordinating control efforts between public and private lands, and transportation corridors have the potential to accelerate the rate of noxious weed spread if we don't get them under control. In 2005, we conducted a research project to study the viability of using goats to control noxious weeds on the North Spokane Corridor.

Tom Riebold, one of our area maintenance supervisors, grew up in Washtucna, just west of Pullman, so he knows a lot about farming in the area and the importance of noxious weed control. He said some weeds carry 10,000 seeds or more and may just sit dormant for years before germinating. High winds in the area can carry the seeds across wide areas, affecting crops for miles around. This makes it harder to harvest. For example, every load of wheat taken to the grain elevator is probed and graded.

"If there are a lot of weeds, the quality goes down and so does the price," he said.

We work closely with state and county weed control boards to identify high priority areas, focusing on the local systems through work with the county coordinators. Our noxious weed control strategy is well thought out and our crews use integrated roadside vegetation management plans to select the right tools, and techniques and timing for taking care of the  roadside landscapes alongside highways.

The whole program is built around state law that requires adherence to a certain set of principles for integrated pest management (IPM). Our work on this over the years has helped put together a solid system but limited funding means roadside maintenance often isn't prioritized. This makes it a big challenge.

Willard, our maintenance landscape architect, works with our biologists, our design landscape architects and the Washington State Department of Ecology to minimize the effect of our work on the environment. Herbicides are used only when necessary and minimized whenever possible. Our crews follow strict guidelines to protect the environment and workers applying chemicals must be licensed to do so.

For example, milkweed cannot be treated during the breeding season of the Monarch butterfly. Nesting birds must be protected. We notify residents before spraying and replace private gardens or crops that are sprayed accidentally. Did you know that we have the oldest apple trees in the country? We protect those too.

Noxious weed control and social distancing

We have developed a Noxious Weed Control COVID-19 Safety Plan to protect the safety of our employees and prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. It includes guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting vehicles, using personal protective equipment, personal cleanliness and social distancing.

"It may be a bit cumbersome," maintenance superintendent Kurt Kaufman said, "but we'll make it work."

Friday, April 24, 2020

Staying safe as easy as moving over

By Ryan Overton

Shane McCandless says it's not a matter of if it will happen, but when it will happen. As an Incident Response Team member, Shane spends his days working around live traffic and he knows the risks. He knows them all too well.

That's because seven years ago, it did happen to him. And he remembers it like it was yesterday.

At the time, Shane was part of a crew responsible for maintenance and plowing a stretch of I-90 through downtown Spokane, one of the busiest sections of road in the area. It was around noon on a mid-October day.
IRT driver Shane McCandless activates this message on his truck when he's helping a driver
to remind people to follow the law and give him room to work.

The job was simple; inspect the overhead sign boards on eastbound I-90. The crew was nearing the Division Street off-ramp at milepost 281. They had already set out pre-warning signs and they had a truck with its sign board turned on warning drivers of the upcoming work zone stationed at the Monroe Street on-ramp gore point. Shane was next in line in a road warrior truck that was mounted with an attenuator, an accordion-like device that is a buffer and absorbs the effect of a crash while shielding the workers ahead. In front of him was a second attenuator truck just behind the crew inspecting the overhead signs.

As he sat in the truck, Shane recalls people zipping by, not moving over at all for the work zone. He watched as a small SUV in the right lane quickly come up behind him and he said he knew he was going to get hit.

"I watched her come up all the way behind me, texting the entire time," he said.
Shane McCandless was involved in a work zone collision in 2013 that he still clearly remembers
seven years later. Fortunately, he wasn't injured.

Shane tensed up and braced for the impact. Within seconds the vehicle slammed into the back of the truck, compressing the attenuator like an accordion. Fortunately, it did its jobs, leaving Shane with just soreness and the other driver uninjured. It could have been much worse and we're glad both parties walked away.

Since then, Shane has transferred over to the Incident Response Team and patrols highways without the benefit of carrying an attenuator on his truck to protect him. Whether helping someone change a flat tire, pushing a stranded vehicle off the highway or helping clean up at a collision, Shane is on the front line helping keep people safe while working around live traffic.
And he and other road workers in turn need your help to keep them safe.
It's state law to move over for all emergency response vehicles, including our Incident Response Team trucks.

Move Over, Slow Down
The Move Over Slow Down law requires any vehicle approaching emergency workers on the side of the highway – including Incident Response Team and maintenance workers – to move over one traffic lane if they can. If they can't, they must slow down to 10 mph below the posted speed limit. If an emergency vehicle is using audible or visual signs that it is responding to an incident – for example a truck with flashing lights, or a siren – whether they are moving or not, drivers are required to move over, or at least slow down.


While the law has been on the books for several years, many drivers still seem to not know about it. Shane said he hopes that changes. He's been in too many situations where drivers were so close to him they nearly rubbed mirrors with his truck. It's a huge safety concern, and he tries to remind people of the law by flashing "WA ST LAW – MOVE OVER" on his truck's sign board.

Ultimately, all he wants for him and his co-workers is to be able to do his job safely and go home in one piece at the end of the day.

"I hope people can limit distractions and pay more attention on the road," he said. "I have a son and a granddaughter, and it scares me each and every day that I may not get to go home and see them."

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Treat highway workers as if they were your family – because they are someone's family

By Beth Bousley

Rick Broderius has an easy way for everyone to take work zone safety seriously. A maintenance worker in the Ellensburg area since 1997, Rick wants people to consider how they would drive if that worker was their parent, kid or grandchild working in the road. Would you do everything you could to ensure their safety?
Well, just remember that those workers are in fact someone's family, friend and co-worker.

"Do you want to place them in any more danger than they already are?" Rick asked. "Put your phone down, slow down and pay attention."
Even though visibility was low, drivers kept traveling through this smoke putting themselves and our workers at risk.

Rick has seen a lot of close calls because of inattentive drivers or materials flying off of loads that are not properly secured. Distracted driving is a particular problem. A few years ago during a fire near Ellensburg, the Washington State Patrol pulled over 40 vehicles in one hour for speeding or taking pictures of the fire as they drove by the incident. In one case, all three passengers and the driver had their phones out.

"It just doesn't make any sense," Rick said.
Plowing in winter conditions takes lots of concentration so drivers should be extra cautious around plows and give them plenty of room.

In the winter, Rick operates a wing snow plow which has a plow on the front and on the side. His favorite route is along I-90 near Vantage where the weather and road conditions can get dicey. Rick said he remembers wind blowing so strongly while he was going westbound across the Vantage bridge that it sounded like rocks hitting the windshield.

Operating the plow is no easy job as he must manage both front and side plows, ensure that the proper amounts of deicer, salt and sand are being applied to the highways, call in weather and road conditions, and report collisions. The last thing he wants to worry about is someone tailgating or passing illegally, putting him in danger.

He also notes that passing a plow does a driver no good. The safest place to be is well behind a plow, letting it clear the road for you rather than speeding ahead of it into snowy and icy conditions.
The driver of this motorcycle was traveling in broad daylight with half a mile of visibility when he crashed into the back of an attenuator truck, injuring himself, the truck driver, and putting others at risk. In the mile prior to the collision, he passed three signs indicating there was roadwork ahead.

When a lane needs to be closed or a detour put in place, workers safely harness into the back of a "road warrior truck" to place cones and signs to set up the work zone. To protect those workers, the road warrior truck is followed by an attenuator – or buffer – truck, so named for its huge bumper cushion. Those attenuator trucks often are the difference between a safe work zone and tragedy.

Rick remembers a few years ago when a motorcycle slammed into the back of the attenuator truck, injuring both the motorcyclist and our worker in the truck.

"Just imagine what would have happened if that buffer truck hadn't been there," he said.

We do the best we can to give travelers as much advance notice of road work as possible, from traffic advisories, social media messaging, web site notices and advance signage on the highways. But in cases of emergencies, it's not always possible to give advanced notice and that's when we need people to pay attention the most.

Rick said he was working at a fire once when a driver stopped in the middle of the work zone to ask why no advanced notice of the fire was given, causing vehicles behind him to come to an abrupt stop. He was told there were flashing yellow signs advising of an incident leading up to the scene. Fortunately no one was hurt but in our state, 94 percent of work zone injuries are to the driver, passengers or nearby pedestrians.

That's why it's important for everyone to do their part to keep both workers and the traveling public safe. This is National Work Zone Awareness Week but every week we ask travelers to remember:
  • Slow Down – drive the posted speeds, they're there for your safety
  • Be Kind – our workers are helping to keep you safe and improve the roadways
  • Pay Attention – both to workers directing you and surrounding traffic
  • Stay Calm – expect delays, leave early or take an alternate route if possible; no meeting or appointment is worth risking someone's life
Our work zones are carefully planned and often include lane closures as an added precaution. But emergency vehicles on the side of the road – including highway maintenance trucks with flashing lights – also need your attention. Please remember to Move Over when approaching them if it's possible; if not, state law requires you to Slow Down to 10 mph under the posted speed limit as you pass by.

Transportation crews work while traffic moves closely by. They are there working to keep all travelers safe and deserve our respect and extra attention.

"We work hard to ensure safety every day, but we also need the public's help," Rick said. "Just like them, we have families and loved ones to get home to."

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Illegal dumping increasing along roads and at rest areas

By WSDOT Staff

While most of the state is doing a good job of Staying Home right now, one thing that isn’t staying put is trash and debris. Roadside litter had been an ongoing battle, but we’re seeing a disturbing rise in illegal dumping at our rest areas and other state land in the past month. And it’s one we need everyone’s help to stop.
The struggle of keeping highways free of litter is a mighty one. We spend more than $4 million a year on that very battle along with teaming with the Department of Ecology and Department of Corrections, but it’s one we don’t always win. We’ve also had problems before with people using our rest area dumpsters as their own personal dumping grounds.
Trash cans and dumpsters at rest areas like this one at the Alpowa Summit on
State Route 12 are for travelers’ incidental trash, not household garbage.

But now we’re seeing something beyond those usual challenges. Either because landfills are closed or they’re worried about dumping fees, people are leaving large amounts of trash and large items along roadsides and rest areas. Compounding matters, many of our crews are working from home to slow the spread of the coronavirus. We’ve also suspended our Adopt A Highway volunteer program due to coronavirus concerns – so now is the worst possible time to see an uptick in illegal dumping.

The increased trash is not only an eyesore, it is a danger to our employees who find themselves faced with a trash pile that needs to be addressed. These piles of often-unknown materials can pose a direct health threat. Our workers do not know if what was discarded contains substances that might require full hazmat gear to keep them safe. With all but essential emergency work on hold, crews will not be cleaning up these dumpsites unless there is an immediate safety concern for those using the highway.
Dumped trash along State Route 7 in Tacoma is not only unsightly – it’s illegal.
Please help us keep our roads and rights of way clean.

In addition, this kind of dumping is illegal and can result in criminal prosecution as a misdemeanor, or even a gross misdemeanor for someone who litters in an amount of one cubic yard or more. Littering can also carry a $1,000 fine. Our crews are documenting these dump piles and reporting them to law enforcement for possible investigation and prosecution of the dumper.

If you see trash or debris in the roadway that poses an immediate risk to the life and safety of our highway travelers, please call 911 so crews can respond and remove it before it causes a crash. And if you do need to travel, please secure your loads and contain all of the litter you generate.
It took two truck loads to haul away discarded appliances, rusted metal
and other debris along SR 225 near Benton City in early April.

Ultimately, we are asking everyone to stop this litter at the source. Please make sure you’re disposing of your trash at an approved, legal location. Your consideration now will help our employees focus on the importance of maintaining and preserving our highways when we’re all back on the roads again.

Just like we’re all working together to slow the spread of COVID-19 by following the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order, we need everyone’s help keeping our employees safe while keeping Washington beautiful.

Monday, April 20, 2020

National Work Zone Awareness Week highlights need to keep road crews safe

By Barbara LaBoe

Maintenance tech Jason Pratt didn't have time to think when he was suddenly dragged away from a car on the side of Snoqualmie Pass several winters ago – he just knew it meant trouble.

Sure enough, a speeding vehicle had lost control and was skidding straight for the vehicle Jason had been kneeling next to while helping install chains. Making matters worse, Jason and the Washington State Patrol officer pulling him to safety were on a high bridge in the westbound lanes, so jumping over the guardrail to safety wasn't an option. Thankfully, they got away just before the speeding vehicle struck the parked one. Everyone walked away that day, Jason notes, though the speeding driver left in handcuffs.
Jason Pratt works on Snoqualmie Pass keeping roads open in the winter and making repairs in the summer.

Jason has been working for us on Snoqualmie Pass for 14 years, and that crash on the Denny Creek bridge is just another example of the risk our maintenance crews face every day. Despite numerous safety precautions and warning signs – and even a WSP cruiser with flashing lights – the driver's decision to not slow down could have easily ended in tragedy.

"We've seen pretty much every close call and incident you can think of," Jason said. "You never know what's going to happen, some drivers are just oblivious even with plenty of warnings and signs. …and that's why we invest so much time in training to teach our employees the best way to stay safe."

It's also why we're commemorating National Work Zone Awareness Week every day this week. Our crews are out there working to make the state transportation system safer for all of us, yet they face incredible risks in the process.

It's a risk that's personal for us at WSDOT – 60 of our workers have been killed on the job since 1950 – and it's why safety is our top priority. But we also need the public to do their part to keep everyone safe.
We need everyone's help in and around work zones to keep our crews and everyone on the road safe.

The statistics are sobering. In 2019, there were 1,672 crashes in work zones on our state highways, including 10 fatal crashes. Many of those injured and killed are the drivers themselves, their passengers or passing pedestrians, meaning work zone danger touches everyone – workers and travelers alike.

Right now, many of our traditional work zones and projects are shut down due to coronavirus public health concerns, but that doesn't mean the risk to our workers has gone away. We've seen a disturbing trend of excessive speeding – sometimes more than 100 mph – even as vehicles pass emergency crews on the side of the road. That's a disaster waiting to happen.

So please join us this week and every week in working to reduce the risks in work zones. Whenever you're approaching one we ask you to:
  • Slow Down – drive the posted speeds, they're there for your safety
  • Be Kind – our workers are out there helping to keep you safe and improve the roadways
  • Pay Attention – both to workers directing you and surrounding traffic; put down your phone when behind the wheel
  • Stay Calm – expect delays, leave early or take an alternate route if possible; no meeting or appointment is worth risking someone's life
And the next time you see warning signs about workers ahead, remember to keep an eye out for our workers like Jason.

"We're out there sweeping, working on guardrail, and fixing signs or keeping the road open and safe for everyone," he said. "So please just pay attention to your surroundings."

Thursday, April 16, 2020

What’s going on with travel in Washington state with Stay Home, Stay Healthy?

By Bart Treece

Like many, my workday usually begins with a check of our Twitter feed to see what's happening on the roadways. Typically, I'd see growing travel times as the morning progressed, and sometimes news of an incident that people should know about before heading out the door. That's changed during the past several weeks since Governor Inslee introduced the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order. We've been monitoring travel conditions statewide and it's clear people are staying off the freeways and ferries.
Northbound I-5 traffic in Shoreline, Thursday, April 16.

However, as we head into another weekend when people are being asked to stay close to home, it's important to note we've seen traffic volumes inch back up in many areas across Washington. While the roads look starkly empty and the sun might be a temptation to break distancing rules, let's stay the course.

What we're seeing

The graph below shows the overall number of vehicles is down significantly from typical conditions last year. Weekends are consistently lower than weekdays, due to the fact those types of trips are largely discretional and those options are limited with only essential businesses remaining open.

Timeline

In early March, several large employers in King County allowed staff to work from home, which coincides with the first dip in traffic. The next decline came after K-12 schools in Snohomish, King, and Pierce counties were closed on March 13, which was extended to all districts in the state. The first day of statewide school closures was Monday, March 16. Coupled with the closure of all recreation facilities, and in-person seating for bars and restaurants, traffic continued to decrease. On March 23, Gov. Inslee issued the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order. Thursday, March 26 was the first full day the order took effect and that was also the day highway numbers bottomed out. There are still some slight daily changes, but nothing dramatic.

Central Puget Sound

The declines are more pronounced in the urban areas, which makes sense since this is where populations and major employers are concentrated. In looking at the edges of commute sheds - the outer areas where people begin their trips towards jobs centers - the numbers are below typical conditions, then tend to drop more near the central business districts of Seattle and Bellevue.

For example, if you look at I-405 during the weekday, decreases in Bothell and Tukwila are around 40% since February. In downtown Bellevue it's 55%. We see a 40% decrease on I-5 in Everett and Lynnwood, with reductions near 50% in downtown Seattle.

Down the I-5 corridor into Pierce County near the Fife curve, weekday traffic volumes are down 37%. On I-5 through the JBLM corridor, weekday traffic volumes are 33% lower. On State Route 16 just west of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, weekday traffic is down 40%.

Similar trends are happening farther south in Thurston County where weekday I-5 traffic volumes dropped 40% at Meridian and in Tumwater.

In Centralia, traffic on I-5 is around 30% below typical conditions. In Clark County, the triangle of I-5, I-205 and SR 14 have all seen reductions between 28-43%.

This trend is similar in Spokane County, with reductions near 20% on the North Spokane Corridor, and 38% on US 195.

Ferries

Ferry ridership is also lower. Vehicles aboard ships are down 76%, and walk-on passengers are down 92% compared to the same time last year. The largest impact is on the core Seattle routes. Sailings have also been reduced and adjusted due to the lack of demand. For the most part, the ferry system is continuing to operate to serve communities' essential services like groceries, fuel, and for first responders who commute.

OK, so what's the point?

Why are these numbers important? In short, they're helpful for decision makers and public health officials in understanding if there is an effect with the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order and social distancing practices. There are still a lot of unknowns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, but what we do know is the measures people are taking now help to keep us safe and reduce the spread of the virus.

While the numbers we've seen are drastic reductions in ridership and the number of vehicles on the road, many of the percentages aren't as low as they were just two weeks ago, and you can see the rise on the graph. That's not a welcome trend just yet.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, let's stay vigilant and keep up the good work of social distancing during the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order.

Please be well and enjoy the nice weather responsibly!