Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Building a bridge over I-5 in one weekend, and how you can help

By Laura Newborn

The most dramatic sign of progress on our SR 167 Completion Project is a new bridge in Fife that's about to take shape in just one weekend.

On August 28 and 29, our contractor, Guy F. Atkinson Construction, will close both directions of I-5 between Federal Way and Fife to move 10 gigantic girders into place for the new 70th Avenue East Bridge. It's a heavy lift. Each girder is 220 feet long - almost the size of a 747-8's wingspan. Each one is 9 feet tall, 4 feet wide and 231,000 pounds. Installing these girders takes plenty of coordination, choreography and skill.
This bridge girder shows just how big these record-breaking girders are. The one belongs to the future southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge and is 223-feet-long. The Fife girders are 220-feet long. Combined, these two projects set the record for the largest pre-stressed concrete girders made in the US. They are made in Tacoma by Concrete Technology Corp.

Closing I-5 between Federal Way and Fife
Safely lifting loads this large across the highway requires a full closure of I-5 for two consecutive overnight periods. Each night, five girders will make the 5-mile, 45-minute journey from Tacoma's Concrete Technology Corp. to the bridge site in Fife. Cranes stationed on the southbound and northbound roadways will then guide each girder to its predetermined spot. Five girders one night and five the second night.

We chose weekend overnights for the work as they are the least-traveled times on I-5, but we understand there's never a good time to close a major interstate. Backups could be significant in both directions. And that's where we need your help. If possible, please avoid the area and skip discretionary trips during these hours:

Friday, August 28 and Saturday August 29
  • I-5 lane closures begin at 8 p.m. on Friday
  • All lanes of I-5 will close at 11p.m. between 54th Avenue East in Fife and SR 18 in Federal Way
  • Lanes start to reopen by 8 a.m. Saturday
  • All lanes will reopen by noon Saturday
Saturday August 29 and Sunday August 30
  • I-5 lane closures begin at 8 p.m. Saturday
  • All lanes of I-5 will close at 11 p.m. between 54th Avenue East in Fife and SR 18 in Federal Way
  • Lanes start to reopen by 8 a.m. Sunday
  • All lanes will reopen by noon Sunday
We need help from drivers
Drivers who must travel between Seattle and Olympia during the closure hours are advised to use SR 18, SR 167, and SR 512, which can accommodate the most traffic. The SR 99 detour provides access back to I-5. Southbound I-5 travelers headed to downtown Tacoma, Gig Harbor or points beyond will want to consider the SR 99 detour.

Benefits of building a bridge this way
One of the reasons we chose to build a bridge with these exceptionally long girders was to avoid long-term traffic impacts. Shorter girders would have required us to widen I-5 and build columns in the median – work that would have brought prolonged lane closures. The longer girders need one weekend to install. You can watch bridge construction and the girder lift on our real-time construction cameras.

In the end, this project will be worth it. When it opens in mid-2021, the new 70th Avenue East Bridge will greatly improve travel in the area by reducing congestion, improving freight mobility, and providing new options for people who walk and bike.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Reallocating space to support economic recovery and healthy lifestyles

By Beth Bousley

In response to the pandemic, communities are looking for creative ways to support their businesses while taking care of their residents. Some have approached us to reallocate space on public roadways to allow for more freedom for retailers and restaurants to operate outdoors and for people to stroll, roll, cycle, dine and shop while more easily staying six feet apart.

So we've come up with a plan. The Safe, Healthy and Active Streets Program.

Safe, Healthy, and Active Streets Program
As we began receiving requests from different communities interested in temporary lane reallocation, we developed a set of parameters for considering and responding to these requests.

Under Gov. Inslee's Safe Start Plan, we partnered with the Washington state departments of Health and Commerce to provide communities more access to public roadways to support business recovery and active, healthy lifestyles. This is one more tool for communities to consider as they think about the health of their residents and economic recovery for local businesses.

The Safe, Healthy and Active Streets Program (pdf 80 kb) allows temporary lane reallocations on some state roadways. The goal is to increase space for people walking or biking, or create outdoor seating for restaurants and sales areas for retailers, while maintaining physical distance to help reduce exposure to the virus. Across the state, 458 miles of state routes meet the criteria because they are located in a town or area where people live and have speed limits of 35 mph or less.
Parklet in White Salmon provides outdoor seating for restaurant.

The temporary lane reallocation is not one-size-fits-all. Some communities, like Bingen and White Salmon, are replacing a parking space or two with outdoor restaurant or brewpub seating. In Pullman the pandemic reignited the community's interest in the Central Business District Master plan, which is designed to enhance the energy and public spaces in the downtown corridor. By implementing a trial run with temporary lane reallocation along Main Street (which is also a segment of SR 270), Pullman is testing and getting community feedback on elements of the plan at a cost of less than $5,000.

With the approval of the Pullman City Council, we joined the city in looking at the street's traffic volumes and determined Main Street could function adequately with two lanes. They worked together to develop the plans for revisions. Some intersections have been reconfigured to create shorter crosswalks, reducing the distance for people crossing the street and at the same time making it easier for stores and restaurants to spill out onto the sidewalk to help customers remain physically distant from each other. A lane of traffic was converted to a protected bike lane and back-in angled parking, which is serving to calm traffic to help people comply with the posted speed limit. With the protected bike lane, people on bikes have separation and protection that makes it more comfortable to ride than being right next to moving motor vehicles. Back-in parking adds more capacity than other options like parallel parking. It is also safer, because passengers don't need to exit the car into traffic and drivers have better visibility when re-entering traffic.

This trial period will last through the summer and early fall to give the community a sense of how the changes worked with and without Washington State University students present. So far, city officials say that people like the bike lane and new uses of the sidewalk. Crossing the street feels safer. The back-in angled parking presents some challenges. One truck driver shared that he finds the stalls too small, emphasizing that Pullman is an agricultural community with lots of trucks. He wants to see the program through to the end, but wants to make sure Pullman implements what feels right for the community.

WSDOT and the city looked at the street's traffic volumes, and determined
Main Street could function adequately with two lanes.

The extra space was used to change the parallel parking on the south side of Main Street to back-in angled parking.

There is also a new bike lane protected by temporary barriers.

In Pullman, the barriers will be gone by October and auto traffic will flow again.

Opening up portions of roadways helps retailers, restaurants and other businesses adapt to new operating requirements by giving customers greater access at their locations. This includes outdoor seating at restaurants on sidewalks or part of a roadway as well as curbside pickup locations for retailers.  These steps strengthen communities and let people experience their main street and downtown commercial neighborhoods in new ways.

Active transportation, like walking and biking, supports physical, mental and emotional health. Providing this extra public space encourages people and families to get outdoors and participate in more physical activities, which is especially important today to help cope with the stress of COVID-19. It also provides more room for such activities, especially in towns with narrow sidewalks that aren't conducive to physical distancing or lack ADA accessibility. Our COVD-19 transportation dashboard is showing increases in walking and bicycling well above the same time last year, while driving is down.

Helping communities
SR 14 parklet in Bingen provides outdoor seating for restaurants

This is a community-led program and happens only if a community requests it in a specific location for a limited duration (up to 90 days although it could end sooner or be extended). Currently, Bingen, Pullman, and White Salmon are in the program. A number of communities across the state including Seattle, Everett, Bellevue and Edmonds have opened parking areas or lanes in their city's commercial district for increased open space and business access or have temporarily changed neighborhood streets to provide more walk/bike space while continuing to provide access for drivers who live there or who are providing services or deliveries. Cities with state routes in their business districts should first get buy-in from their community stakeholders, then contact us. Counties can also propose locations in population centers that aren't incorporated as cities or towns.

Every project must meet state safety standards and be approved before implemented, and we will work with them to ensure they meet the following criteria:
  • Eligible state highway locations will be on roadways with 35 mph speed limits or lower and within population centers with demonstrated lack of space for physical distancing for walking, bicycling or other forms of active transportation.
  • Local jurisdictions will ensure that they've communicated with the people and businesses affected by the changes and that they report on how the roadway changes work.
  • The duration of temporary lane reallocations will be for up to 90 days, but could vary depending on the agreement with each city.
  • A traffic management plan that will enable people using every mode of transportation to get to their destinations is in place.
In these extraordinary times our goal is to support the wellbeing of people and businesses in interested communities, and ultimately throughout our state.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

2020 isn’t a normal year – including for our road maintenance work

By Barbara LaBoe

2020 has come with a list of challenges and “new normals” for everyone, and that includes the people working to keep our state roads maintained in the midst of a pandemic.

The pandemic and subsequent revenue reductions have left our crews months behind their normal workload and now trying to catch up while also encountering new obstacles. And that's on top of the backlog we were already facing before the pandemic struck.
Our crews are working night and day to complete needed maintenance work, but pandemic delays
and new restrictions means they can't get to everything they normally would this spring and summer.

Simply put, we're not able to do all that we have in past springs and summers. And we know that means the traveling public will notice the difference.

This is particularly tough for our crews, who take immense pride in the roadways they maintain within their communities and the work they do day in and day out. The delays are due to limits on hours and personnel – not the effort of our crews.

How did we get here?
We were already struggling to maintain infrastructure after decades of underfunding for work needed to maintain and preserve our infrastructure. What made it tougher was the pandemic.

The safety of our crews is our priority, so to keep them safe and slow the spread of the virus, in March we sent most of our maintenance crews home. (We also shut down construction projects across the state). This meant most work usually done in the spring – including summer prep – wasn't able to take place. And now subsequent pandemic-related revenue reductions and an April hiring freeze mean there is less money and fewer workers for both summer work and winter prep.
When crews can't maintain 6 feet of distance to complete a task, such as guardrail repair, they must don even more protective equipment, such as these Powered Air Purifying Respirators, which use battery packs to supply filtered air.

While our crews are back, they returned slowly as part of turning the dial on Safe Start and each county's reopening phase. Once on the job they had new protocols and gear that are important but also slows down their normal work flow. Then in June mandatory state government furloughs and hiring freezes were announced, leaving crews with even less time to complete the already backlogged work and unable to hire the temporary summer crews that normally assist our efforts.
New safety standards are important but also require more rest and hydration breaks
as crews work in warm summer months.

Weather-dependent work limits our options
Much of our work is season- and weather-dependent, so pushing it further into 2020 to make up some of the missed items won't work in all cases. Some examples of that are:
  • Roadside mowing. Spring mowing wasn't able to take place and mowing during hot summer months is a fire hazard. So we need all travelers to be extra cautious of fire dangers this year to help prevent brush fires.
  • Roadside trash, which was already a problem, is one the items our crews have to forego to prioritize safety repairs and work. And our volunteer Adopt-A-Highway crews are suspended for their own safety during the pandemic. This makes prevention even more crucial – please secure all loads and properly dispose of any trash you accumulate traveling.
  • Roadway crack repairs. These are best done in early spring while the cracks are still at their largest. Filling them in summer isn't as efficient since the cracks shrink as the warmer roadway expands, so a new repair can fail as soon as the roadway freezes again in the winter.
  • Paving is delayed in areas due to spring delays and overall backlogs. That also means less pavement striping and painting, which are also summer work staples and require long stretches of dry weather.
  • Some work – such as installing new light poles – has been delayed because it requires crews working closely together, which requires additional safety equipment. (Emergency work requiring close contact still continues).
None of these decisions or new adjustments are easy – it's a struggle to not accomplish everything we would in a “normal” summer. But 2020 is a year of altered expectations for everyone and this is yet another unfortunate example.

Please be patient with any delays or reduced service you see on our roadways and take any precautions you can to help ease the stresses on the system. It's an adjustment for everyone, but we also know that working together we can make it through this just as we've met other pandemic challenges.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Highways not safe places to park, camp

By Mike Allende

One of the great things about our state is the recreation. Mountains, rivers, forests, ocean beaches. We have it all. And while the safest thing to do as we navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic is to stay close to home, we know that people are looking to get outside during the summer.

Recently we've received a lot of messages about people going to recreation areas only to find the parking lots full. Rather than find a less populated place to enjoy the outdoors, they park alongside the highway. This is not a great idea and we want everyone to be safe in whatever choice they make.

Highway shoulders are designed for emergencies. In many cases, people are parking on shoulders too narrow for their vehicle to fit without being partway on the highway. Not only does this lead to significant traffic congestion – especially on weekends – as drivers need to slow down to avoid hitting an illegally parked car, it's also a huge safety issue.
photo courtesy of US Forest Service

Parking on the shoulder also means people are walking along the highway, often carrying things like kayaks, canoes and coolers which limit mobility and their ability to see oncoming traffic. No one should be walking along most highways unless it's an emergency.
photo courtesy of US Forest Service
In particular, we've seen issues on US 2 at Eagle Falls – between Index and Skykomish – where very large crowds are parking in no-parking areas and driving dangerously, leading to significant congestion and big safety issues. We're seeing passing in no-passing zones, dangerous u-turns, people walking across the highway and parking vehicles too close to – and sometimes partway on – the highway. This is in a remote area with a 60 mph speed limit so any one of these actions could lead to tragedy. And, these issues also make it more difficult for emergency crews to respond to incidents as needed. We're working on plans to help with the situation, and the Washington State Patrol is working on enforcement but we also need the public's help in keeping everyone safe.

We know the draw of hiking to a waterfall or kayaking down a river is huge, maybe now more than ever. But we ask you to do it safely. Leave early and remember to have a backup plan if the place you want to go to is full – and that backup plan shouldn't include parking on the highway. Remember that it's still incredibly important to maintain a safe physical distance, and the more full a parking lot is, the harder that may be. It's a big state, with a lot of areas to enjoy, so please find safe areas to do so.
Camping at rest areas is illegal and those who use the safety areas should limit them
 to 8 hours for passenger vehicles and 10 hours for commercial vehicles.

Speaking of safe areas

We've heard from travel groups like AAA that this could be a big summer for camping and road trips. Like parking lots at state parks, many camp grounds are already filled up. So a reminder that camping at safety rest areas is illegal.

Rest areas are there for safety, to allow freight haulers and other travelers a place to rest and take a break. The law allows for commercial vehicles to stay at a rest area for 10 hours, and non-commercial travelers to stay for eight hours.

It is not legal for people to set up tents and other sleeping accommodations at a rest area. Does it happen? Yes. We work with the Washington State Patrol to enforce those laws but there's a lot happening all over the state and law enforcement has to prioritize what it can get to.

We need the parking lots of rest areas to stay relatively clear to allow for those who need them for safety to be able to access them and for our crews to be able to maintain the facilities. We can't have them filled up with campers.

We want everyone to be able to have a safe summer. Please follow the parking and camping rules, whether at a park or a rest area, and we can all enjoy the wonderful parts of our state before the rainy season moves back in.

Big changes coming to I-5 in Vancouver

Plan for delays this summer in advance of the Interstate Bridge Closure, Sept. 19 - 27

By Tamara Greenwell

Anyone who travels southbound on Interstate 5 in Vancouver is all too familiar with traffic backups and delays. Vancouver is the state's second-fastest-growing city according to the Office of Financial Management's (pdf 1.4 mb) population report. Continued growth and development are contributing to congestion on area highways that is beginning earlier in the morning and lasting later at night. The solution is not always adding more infrastructure but rather using existing infrastructure in a smarter, safer, and more efficient way.

This summer, we're installing new smart technology upgrades and adding a bus-only lane on southbound I-5 between 99th Street and the Interstate Bridge to help improve the flow of traffic and safety. While we're juggling mandatory furloughs and COVID-19 safety guidelines, we're working to get these projects completed ahead of the Interstate Bridge Trunnion Replacement project, which will close the entire northbound span of the Interstate Bridge on I-5 from September 19-27 and will have a ripple effect on travel throughout the region.
Traffic backup on southbound I-5 in Vancouver

New smart technology upgrades on I-5

First let's talk about these new lower-cost tools we're installing, including a combination of new traffic cameras, adaptive ramp meters, electronic message signs and traffic/weather sensors along a 4-mile stretch of the interstate between 78th Street and the Interstate Bridge. We chose to install Active Traffic and Demand Management (ATDM) tools along this stretch of I-5 because it's an area where we see consistent congestion and a significant number of crashes. This stretch of highway also has several on-ramps spaced close together, which causes traffic to stack up as folks entering the highway merge onto the interstate. Intermittent lifts of the Interstate Bridge and stalled vehicles also cause backups.
Electronic message signs provide real-time travel information

The pieces of the new ATDM system will work in tandem so we can provide you with real-time changing roadway conditions like weather information, changes in speed due to congestion, a crash or bridge lift, and lane closures due to a stalled vehicle, crash, police activity or construction. With earlier warning of an upcoming slowdown or lane closure, you can start adjust your driving before traffic stops. We put together this nifty video so you can see how it works.

The system includes adaptive ramp meters which are currently being installed along southbound I-5 at 78th Street, Main Street, State Route 500/39th Street, Fourth Plain Boulevard and Mill Plain Boulevard. We're also upgrading the existing ramp meter at SR 14/Washington Street in downtown Vancouver. These meters aren't the ramp meters of yesterday. Adaptive meters respond to real-time traffic conditions and turn on automatically when traffic starts to stack up. To maximize the existing roadway and minimize traffic backups onto nearby streets, newly installed signs and roadway striping will allow drivers accessing southbound I-5 via Fourth Plain Boulevard, Mill Plain Boulevard and SR 14/Washington Street to use the shoulder of the ramp as an additional lane to line up at the ramp meter when it is turned on.
Adaptive ramp meters on southbound I-5 in Vancouver

Adjusting the flow of vehicles merging onto I-5 at a consistent rate helps synchronize the flow of traffic to get more vehicles through this stretch of I-5 than is the case today. Another benefit to maintaining consistant traffic flow is that it helps to reduce the severity and frequency of crashes. While you might wait a little longer at a ramp to get onto I-5, you'll get more reliable and safer travel on the interstate, helping you reach your destinations sooner and safer.
Crews installing electronic message signs over southbound I-5 in Vancouver

The system will also help reduce the number of people who skip around traffic backups on I-5, using downtown streets as a bypass. Currently we see about 35 percent of the drivers who exit I-5 at Main Street get right back on again in downtown Vancouver. By providing reliable travel on I-5, through travelers are more likely to stay on the interstate.

We're about halfway done with the installation of this smart technology upgrade. Later this month, we'll close I-5 between the I-5/I-205 split and SR 500 from 11 p.m. Friday, July 24 until 6 a.m. Saturday, July 25, to install a new high-tech electronic message sign bridge, which will span the full width of the interstate, across all lanes in both directions.

Please be patient as we test the system to make sure it's all connected and working in tandem before the system “goes live” in September. While we can't fully stop congestion (unless more people continue to telework or work alternative hours), these new smart technology tools will work to maximize our existing roadway system, providing real-time information to help reduce traffic backups and delays, all while improving safety.

Bus-only lane on I-5 between 99th Street and the Interstate Bridge

To provide more reliable travel times for transit users, we're partnering with C-TRAN to build a bus-only lane using the left shoulder on southbound I-5 from the Northeast 99th Street Transit Center in Hazel Dell to the Interstate Bridge. During weekday peak travel times when travel speeds drop below 35 mph, buses will be able to use the left shoulder of the interstate to bypass traffic backups. The bus-only lane is reserved for transit buses and are not designed to carry large amounts of traffic.
How new ATDM tools and the bus-only lane will look when construction is complete

The bus-only lane will look and operate like any other shoulder and have a minimal effect on traffic. Newly installed signs along the roadway will let you know when buses are using the lane. The shoulder will always be available for disabled vehicles, incident response and emergencies (bus drivers are trained to go around these incidents). This project helps us maximize use of the existing roadway and provide reliable travel times for transit users.

Interstate Bridge Trunnion Replacement Project

COVID-19 and furloughs have certainly changed how we work, but we're still on schedule to get the ATDM and Bus on Shoulder projects completed ahead of the Interstate Bridge Trunnion Replacement project, which will close the entire northbound span of the Interstate Bridge from September 19-27. During the closure, crews will replace mechanical parts that help lift and lower the 103-year-old bridge.

Vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists in both directions of travel will share the three existing lanes and sidewalk on the southbound bridge span, resulting in heavy traffic and long delays in Vancouver and Portland on I-5, I-205, I-84, SR 14 and local streets.

If we're going to keep traffic moving during the closure, we'll need everyone's help. Consider options such as delaying or shifting trips, biking, taking transit, or working remotely when possible. If travelers do not change their driving habits during the bridge closure, and if traffic is at normal levels, the length of backups on I-5 may double to four miles and the region may experience up to 16 hours of congestion per day.

After the bridge closure, travel delays will continue on southbound I-5 near the Interstate Bridge while crews close one lane of I-5 for additional work for seven full days and nights, which will create delays for morning southbound travelers. Whether you take a vacation, work from home or use public transit, it'll be important to plan ahead so you're not stuck in traffic due to construction this summer and fall. We have some great tools to help. You can get real-time travel information via our mobile app or sign up to receive email updates.

Interstate Bridge Replacement Program

With work to replace the trunnion on the Interstate Bridge happening this year, many folks have asked what's happening with long-term efforts to replace the bridge. Recognizing that transportation challenges associated with the aging structures remain unaddressed, both Washington and Oregon dedicated funding to restart Interstate Bridge replacement work in 2019 and each state legislature formed a committee with eight representatives to provide direction and oversight. In fall 2019, Governors Jay Inslee and Kate Brown signed a Memorandum of Intent announcing the restart of Interstate Bridge Replacement Program efforts and directed ODOT and WSDOT to open a bi-state office to complete this work.
Left: Photo courtesy Office of Governor Kate Brown;
Right: Interstate Bridge lift in progress

Recent efforts have focused on reengaging partners through a facilitated workshop process and bringing on critical staffing resources. This includes the hiring of a new program administrator to lead the bi-state program office and selecting consulting firm WSP to provide specialized expertise to support program work. The goal is to begin the next phase of program development work this summer, including technical analysis and the start of community engagement work. This will include the formation of two advisory groups as part of broader, comprehensive community engagement efforts with a wide range of stakeholders to identify a bridge solution that reflects community values and can build broad regional support. You can sign up to receive email updates on this work, including public meeting notices and ways to stay engaged.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Final filling begins for the Battery Street Tunnel

By Laura Newborn

The final ingredient in the layer cake that is filling up Seattle's Battery Street Tunnel is being mixed starting this month. Crews have begun pouring a special type of concrete into the tunnel through ventilation grates and holes in the tunnel's roof. This flowable material will fill in the remaining space within the old SR 99 highway tunnel.

Crews working for the contractor, Kiewit, are starting the pouring at Denny Way, the tunnel's north end. The low-density cellular concrete (LDCC) is mixed on-site with mobile equipment staged adjacent to Borealis Avenue. The mixing plant will stay there for several weeks, then move to the Battery Street Tunnel's south portal, which is adjacent to First Avenue. Over the next several months, crews will pump LDCC from the south portal area using a series of  hoses placed along Battery Street.
LDCC mixing equipment staged along Borealis Avenue, just south of Denny Way

What is low-density cellular concrete (LDCC)?
LDCC is produced by mixing water and slurry (a liquid form of concrete) and then injecting a foaming agent. This process produces a kind of concrete meringue that is lightweight and does not get as hard as typical concrete. The material's lightweight property helps protect the utilities beneath it from excess weight, while its lower strength will allow future crews to dig through it when required to reach those utilities. A 5-gallon bucket of LDCC weighs about 20 pounds, versus 100 pounds for standard concrete.

This final stage of filling will use approximately 40,000 cubic yards of LDCC to fill the roughly nine vertical feet left in the tunnel. This is a lot of material – by comparison, CenturyLink field reported using about 10,000 cubic yards of concrete in its construction.

The LDCC is the third type of fill material crews have used in the Battery Street Tunnel. First, crews poured crushed rubble produced from viaduct rubble into the tunnel with trucks from the surface. This spring and summer, crews have been filling the tunnel with Controlled Density Fill concrete (CDF) around the new utilities to protect them from heat and impact. The LDCC is the final layer in the cake, filling in the headroom between those utilities and the tunnel's roof.

What should I expect during construction?
People traveling in the area should expect single-lane closures on Battery Street and cross streets between First and Sixth avenues, and along Borealis Avenue between Sixth Avenue and Denny Way. The batch machinery and idling trucks will also produce an increase in noise and possible vibration.
The mobile LDCC mixing plant staged along Borealis Avenue

More work to come
Fully filling the Battery Street Tunnel is not the end of the job. Once the LDCC is poured, crews will be able to turn to improving the surface of Battery Street. This work has already begun on some blocks, and includes patching over the tunnel's ventilation grates, building new sidewalk and ADA-compliant ramps, and installing new street lighting. The tunnel's south portal has been the construction staging yard for the job and will be turned into a slope and then handed over to the City of Seattle. All work on the project is expected to conclude in 2021.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

In an abnormal year, fire season returns as usual

By Mike Allende

This year has been an unusual one, for many reasons. Put simply, few things are the same as they've been in the past.

But one thing that is the same? Fire season has arrived, as it so often does this time of year. As we've seen the past several weeks, fires along our roadsides have increased as we've gotten into the dry weather of summer. It's an unwelcome return as now more than ever, we need the public's help in preventing in small sparks that could ignite into a full-fledged blaze.
During dry seasons brush fires like this recent one in Wenatchee can
spread quickly and present extreme dangers to surrounding areas.

Why now more than ever? Well, again, it's not a usual year.

Our maintenance crews work hard to keep areas near roadways mowed for fire season to reduce brushfire risks. COVID-19 pandemic has affected that work, and now crews are furiously trying to catch up.  Add to that, important but bulkier coronavirus safety equipment, means keeping up with all the maintenance needs throughout the state is a monumental task.
This is the time of year when we see a rise in roadside fires, especially east of the Cascades like this recent fire in Wenatchee.

In the case of vegetation management, that means some areas have not been mowed as much as we'd like. Most of our mowing takes place ahead of the dry season because mowing can present fire hazards as well, so many areas that we would have normally maintained in the spring won't be mowed, at least anytime soon. And that's why we need your help more than ever.

So what can you do?
  • Always properly dispose of cigarettes, fireworks or anything else with a flame. Never toss them out of a vehicle window.
  • Keep your vehicle off of dried grass. Pulling your vehicle into a field with dry grass can spark a fire from the heat of the undercarriage or wheel bearings.
  • Make sure your vehicle and any trailers and equipment are in good working order before heading out. This reduces the chances of vehicle fires which can grow into larger fires. It also helps you avoid getting stranded along the highway.
  • Carry extra water in your vehicle during the summer. Not only might you need it to drink, but you might need it to help douse a fire. It's always a good idea to have some in case of emergency.

During dry conditions it doesn't take much to start a brush fire, like this recently near I-5 in Tacoma, and we need the public's help to limit them.

One thing in particular we're concerned about this year is people taking road trips in RVs and larger vehicles that they aren't used to. These vehicles often have safety chains and it's absolutely vital that you make sure those chains do not drag on the pavement. That little bit of carelessness can cause sparks that can quickly explode into a fire. Be sure to give your vehicle a good look before leaving and be sure everything is secure.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

An update on Amtrak Cascades as we move through the summer

By Janet Matkin

As with many other transportation modes, 2020 is proving to be a challenging year for Amtrak Cascades service. The spread of COVID-19 led to large drops in ridership, Canadian border closures, new safety and distancing protocols to protect passengers and staff and significant decreases in revenue.

Amtrak Cascades is currently only operating one daily roundtrip between Seattle and Eugene, including Portland and all other stops in between. All other train service, including all service north of Seattle due to the border closure, is suspended. We continue to monitor ridership levels and will start adding more trips as demand increases. Ridership is down more than 90% below levels as at the same time last year and we continue to follow the Governor's directives related to non-essential travel. This includes limiting ticketing on the trains to 50% capacity to allow plenty of room for physical distancing. Our ultimate goal is to return to a full schedule when it's safe and smart to do so.
Amtrak's Horizon equipment now operating in the Cascades corridor

Train equipment

Amtrak recently delivered Amtrak-owned Horizon train cars to Seattle to replace the Talgo Series 6 trainsets taken out of service in June 2020. This interim Horizon equipment will remain in service on the Cascades route until new trains are manufactured and delivered in the years ahead. In addition, the Talgo Series 8 equipment owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation will continue to operate in the corridor and Amtrak is evaluating adding other interim equipment as demand for service increases.
Consistent with our fleet management plan and as recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board, we are disposing of our two Talgo Series 6 trainsets and spare cars this summer. Information on this competitive bid process is posted on our web pages, with bids due by Aug. 3, 2020.

A new Charger locomotive will be delivered to Seattle by September to replace the one lost in the 2017 derailment. It's being paid for with insurance proceeds from Amtrak. Locomotive 1408 was manufactured at the Siemens facility in Sacramento – the same site all our other locomotives were crafted – and is now at the Transportation Technology Center test site in Pueblo, Colorado. It will be moved to Washington once testing is completed.
Amtrak Cascades locomotive 1408 on its way to the testing facility.

Point Defiance Bypass

We continue to meet bi-weekly with Sound Transit, Amtrak, ODOT and Federal Railroad Administration to move forward on the return to the Point Defiance Bypass between Tacoma and DuPont. As the track owner, Sound Transit is leading those discussions and managing the schedule and next steps.

Currently, Sound Transit is developing its Rail Activation Plan related to safety criteria, outreach activities and processes they need completed before they will approve track testing and Amtrak crew qualification. Once those activities are underway, Sound Transit will determine a date for returning passenger rail service to the Point Defiance Bypass.

When service returns to the Bypass, the demand for intercity travel increases, the pandemic risk is minimized and the state transportation budget issues are resolved, we will move forward with adding two more daily roundtrips between Portland and Seattle. These will offer passengers both an earlier morning and later evening trip in each direction, allowing both business and leisure travelers to take day trips back and forth between the cities. We do not have a date when this will happen.

The years ahead

Despite the challenges facing Amtrak Cascades service in the years ahead, we're committed to continue to provide memorable intercity passenger rail service in the Pacific Northwest. The Cascades route is one of the most scenic and popular routes in all of North America. We look forward to the return of riders and the expansion of service in the years ahead.

Even ‘simple’ projects can have complications, so we prepare

Plan ahead for night closures on SR 99 Duwamish River Bridge in Seattle

By Tom Pearce

We have a saying around the office – there’s no such thing as a simple paver. On the surface a project to repave a section of highway may not look like a big deal, but sometimes things happen and that project quickly gets complicated.
Some of the existing steel deck grids have large patches where steel has broken.

On Sunday night, July 19, we’ll begin three weeks of weeknight closures, from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., on the northbound State Route 99 Duwamish River Bridge, aka the First Avenue South bridge, in Seattle. Our contractor crews are going to replace some worn sections of the steel deck. When we started planning, this looked like a fairly standard preservation project. Then the West Seattle Bridge closed.

Uh oh.

Suddenly, the 100,000-plus vehicles that used the West Seattle Bridge each day had to find an alternate route. A lot of those trips moved onto the SR 99 Duwamish River Bridge, which already carries more than 50,000 trips a day.

See what I mean about no simple pavers (or bridge deck repairs)?
Travelers will have the choice of several other bridges
while the northbound SR 99 Duwamish River Bridge is closed.

Immediately after the West Seattle Bridge closure, we started looking at different options for getting into and out of Seattle besides the Duwamish River Bridge. We also worked with the Seattle Department of Transportation – which manages and maintains the West Seattle Bridge – to figure out alternatives and how to tell people about them. These alternatives include bridges in South Park, Tukwila International Boulevard, West Marginal Way and even Interstate 5.

Initially the Spokane Street lower bridge wasn’t on the table. That bridge is only one lane in each direction and is the main access point for businesses on Harbor Island – definitely not capable of handling more than 100,000 vehicles a day. And for the most part, it’s still not an option. However, things are different at night. There’s a lot less traffic – enough that SDOT is comfortable with letting all vehicles use the bridge during the overnight closures. So now we have that as an alternate as well.

People still need to limit their trips on the lower Spokane Street bridge, even at night. If you’re traveling after dark, you can help by using other alternate routes, depending on your starting and ending points. For example, if you’re at the south end of West Seattle, consider going east to Tukwila and take Tukwila International Boulevard or I-5. If you’re headed for Bellevue or points east and normally would use I-90, think about trying SR 518/I-405 to get there. The highway system provides plenty of options.

While there are no simple projects, there may be some relatively simple solutions to travel issues. We’ll do our best to plan for and provide ideas to help you get where you need to be.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Shift to the right, shift to the left, straight to the finish

Lots of movement coming up on I-5 project in Tacoma

Update: September 17, 2020

Since we chose a dance theme for the original version of this blog post, we want to let you know we skipped a step. You’ll recall from our original blog post (below) we had a total of three traffic shifts planned for this year. Our design-builder, Atkinson Construction, completed traffic Shift 1 work and we have now skipped Shift 2 and gone straight to Shift 3 nearly one month earlier than previously estimated.

Because we went directly from Shift 1 to Shift 3, drivers may notice more of a change in the alignment of the highway lanes than they otherwise would have. When Shift 3 work began on September 9, northbound traffic shifted to the right. Opening a temporary work zone between northbound and southbound I-5. Work on Shift 3 is expected to be finished by the end of the year. Shift 2 utility work will be completed at a later date.

Completed Shift 1 work included realigning the northbound I-5 Portland Avenue exit ramp to the newly widened highway. During Shift 3, we will be repaving I-5 just south of the Puyallup River bridge. Doing Shift 3 work now allows Atkinson to prioritize weather-sensitive work before winter weather sets in.

By Nick VinZant and Cara Mitchell

The Macarena, the Electric Slide, the Chicken Dance; every good dance craze has steps we can all follow. We are about to go through the same thing with some travel lane shifts on Interstate 5.

Over the next year, design-build contractor Atkinson Construction will temporarily relocate lanes along I-5 near Portland Avenue in Tacoma. The shifts will keep people moving around our work zones while we finish widening and drainage work along this portion of the highway. This work brings us that much closer to finishing the final funded HOV project on I-5 through Tacoma. An end that will ease congestion on I-5, add HOV lanes, build a new bridge over the Puyallup River and cap off construction. YAY!

Traffic Shifts

A series of lane shifts on I-5 will start later this July near East Portland Avenue to East McKinley Way. We know these shifts will bring a new experience for the traveling public, so we will be communicating often about what is happening and when. As a starting point, here is what I-5 looks like now, before we shift lanes.
Map of the current I-5 layout
The current setup of I-5 in our project area as of July 1, 2020.

Step One: Close a ramp, close a lane and shift an exit
The first stage of changes to I-5 moves the Portland Avenue exit west and reduces the I-705 on-ramp to one lane to allow for concrete paving without any full ramp closures.

The first and biggest traffic shift drivers will notice takes place between Portland Avenue and the I-705 on-ramp to northbound I-5. Over the past year, construction crews widened northbound I-5 in this area. Now we have to realign the northbound I-5 exit to Portland Avenue.

Here’s what will happen: starting as early as July 22, we will move the Portland Avenue exit about a quarter of a mile west toward I-705 (also known as the Tacoma Spur). New signs and lane striping will be in place to alert travelers when to exit. Adjusting the location of the exit allows the contractor to keep it open during the daytime, and drivers won’t have additional detours to contend with. Northbound I-5 will remain three lanes wide, with an additional lane exiting to Portland Avenue during those times. Travelers can expect to see overnight lane and ramp closures as well.

At the same time, the northbound I-5 exit to Portland Avenue is shifted, one lane of the I-705 on-ramp to northbound I-5 and the entire SR 7 on-ramp to northbound I-5 will close.

The goal is to get this work done as quickly as possible, so cross your fingers for some dry weather days. We estimate this portion of work will be complete one month after the shift begins.

Step Two: Northbound to the right, southbound to the left
Photo of the second shift in traffic on I-5
In the second traffic shift, northbound travel moves one lane to the right and southbound moves one lane to the left. This opens up space for crews to install new drainage in the project area.

Once work is done at the northbound I-5 exit to Portland Avenue – and the SR 7 and I-705 ramps are fully reopened to northbound I-5 – another shift will be put in place. Traffic on northbound I-5 will shift one lane to the right, southbound will shift one lane to the left. Doing this opens up two temporary work zones, one between northbound and southbound I-5 and another along the north side of I-5. The contractor will use this space to install drainage along southbound I-5. We expect this shift to last between 4-6 weeks, during which time the contractor will complete drainage installation.

Step Three: The final move
Photo showing the final shift in traffic on I-5
The final phase shifts southbound traffic back to its current location and expands the median work zone.

Once drainage is installed, southbound I-5 will shift back to the right, expanding the center median work zone and removing the work zone on the north side of I-5. This move sets the stage for the contractor to begin replacing the last section of 1960’s era concrete still on I-5 in Tacoma. The three northbound lanes will remain in their new (Shift Two) location until the end of the project. Once this shuffle is complete there will be no other lane shifts through the end of the project.

Wait wait, one last thing

While construction crews will be working throughout the day, planned lane closures will only occur overnight.

There will be some noticeable changes for people looking to use the northbound I-5 Portland Avenue exit during Shift One, but overall, these shifts shouldn’t feel like a major change.

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Saving the best for last

When finished, the project will mark the end of the last funded piece of HOV construction on I-5 in Tacoma as part of the Tacoma/Pierce County HOV program. When that happens:
  • Southbound lanes across the Puyallup River will increase from four to five, with four general purpose lanes and one HOV lane that will continue and connect with the HOV lane to State Route 16
  • Northbound I-5 will include an additional lane at Pacific Avenue, an extra lane between the I-705 on-ramp and the Portland Avenue exit, and an HOV lane that connects HOV traffic from SR 16 into Seattle and destinations beyond.
  • A rebuilt L Street overpass that crosses over I-5
As the region continues to grow, these road improvements will better serve Tacoma travelers and residents. We ask you to stay safe traveling through the construction zone. Remember to slow down and pay attention near our work zones to keep construction crews and drivers safe.