Thursday, January 14, 2021

Wildlife fencing proving to be a big success on US 97

By Mike Allende

While the I-90 wildlife overcrossing receives much of the attention when it comes to our wildlife-connectivity and safety efforts, it's not the only work we're doing to make things safer for everyone on and near our highways.
A bobcat stops for a close up while traveling under US 97 where new fencing has
helped give wildlife a safer way to cross the highway.

A big success in 2020 involved the 12-mile stretch of US 97 between Riverside and Tonasket, arguably the worst deer-vehicle collision area in the state. Running between the North Cascades and Okanogan Highlands ranges, we see all the usual wildlife you might expect and though we haven't seen them, we've heard there are rare appearances of Canada lynx, wolverine and endangered sharp-tailed and greater sage grouse as well. Oh, not to mention our state's largest herd of mule deer calling that area home. Many apple orchards in the area attract the deer and keep them close to the highway, which is never a good thing as that puts both passing motorists and the deer at risk

We knew something had to be done.

Led by Conservation Northwest, we were part of a team that also included Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Mule Deer Foundation to install about 1-mile of wildlife barrier fencing south of an existing bridge that had all the characteristics necessary to retrofit to allow the diverse wildlife in the area to safely pass underneath. The fencing installation began in October 2019 and was completed in August 2020, and our cameras monitoring wildlife movement has shown it to be a big success!
Looks like other animals are giving this cougar a clear path to cross under US 97, as area which sees a lot of wildlife activity.

In just this first year, we saw almost 2,200 mule deer crossings – about an average of six crossings a day! That's the most deer crossings we've ever documented in a single year. But it's not just deer. Everything from cougar and bobcat to raccoons to turkey and pheasant are taking advantage of the safer environment.

During this same period, we've seen a 63 percent drop in deer-vehicle collisions reported within the area the fencing lies. Because the fence was completed only halfway through the first year of monitoring, we expect to see numbers get even better. Judging by other locations, we can expect to see an 80-to-90 percent drop in deer-vehicle collisions by the next monitoring period.
Left: The US 97 corridor is home to the state's largest herd of mule deer and finding safe ways for them to cross the highway is good for both the animals and drivers. Right: It's not just large animals finding their way across US 97,
as this clan of raccoons shows.

Of course, we recognize this is just a mile of a 12-mile stretch that needs more mitigation. This likely requires building several new wildlife underpasses and connecting them with fencing, which all requires funding. While simply putting up fencing to keep wildlife from the highway may reduce collisions in the short term, it goes against our long-term goal of increasing wildlife habitat connectivity and avoiding the creation of new barriers to wildlife movement. We want to provide a safe travel corridor for both animals and drivers, and create an environment for our animal friends to be able to thrive.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Southbound SR 99 Duwamish River Bridge work in Seattle to start in February

By Tom Pearce

We have a contractor for work on Seattle's southbound State Route 99 Duwamish River Bridge, aka the First Avenue South bridge, but we don't have a date when work will begin. The current estimate is early  February; once we have a specific date we'll share it on our website and Twitter.

Massana Construction Inc. of Gig Harbor had the lowest bid among the five contractors who submitted proposals. Their bid of roughly $380,000 was actually about 18 percent below our engineer's estimate. The savings will be available for us to use on other projects.

With the West Seattle Bridge closed, we understand how important the SR 99 Duwamish River Bridge is to people who travel to or from West Seattle. We are working closely with the Seattle Department of Transportation as we plan for and schedule repairs.

Repairs coming
When this work begins it will only affect southbound SR 99; the northbound lanes will remain open at all times. While we're working, several alternative routes are available.
The bearing pads that the bridge girder rests on are worn out and need to be replaced
on Seattle's SR 99 Duwamish River bridge.

Our contract allows for up to 15 nights of work. At the start of the project we will need to close all lanes of southbound SR 99 between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. for one night so our contractor can set up their equipment. Travelers can expect about three weeks with the southbound bridge reduced to two lanes. We'll also need a full overnight southbound closure at the end of the project to remove equipment.
When we reduce the southbound SR 99 Duwamish River Bridge to two lanes, people have
several options to get around the closure.

During the work, Massana's crews will replace bearing pads, which allow the structure to flex and move with weather and traffic conditions. They'll also do some steel repair and concrete bridge deck repairs. To accommodate this, crews will shift traffic to one side of the bridge first, then move traffic to the other side to finish.

Why we're working now
The bearing pads – masonry pads that the girder rests on – were part of the initial construction when the southbound SR 99 Duwamish River Bridge opened in 1996. These pads are worn out and need to be replaced. The pads allow us to precisely set the elevation of the bridge's superstructure.

When a truck is on top of the bearing, it presses the deck down. When the truck moves, you can see the deck rise slightly.

During a regular inspection in October 2020, our bridge maintenance crews noted the bridge was moving on the bearing pads more than it should, so we did temporary repairs to keep the bridge stable while we planned the permanent fix.

There's never a good time to reduce capacity on a major highway. However, scheduling this work allows people to plan ahead and consider alternate routes. It also helps us avoid the need for emergency repairs that require unscheduled closures. Thanks for your patience as we complete this vital work!

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Enjoy the snow and the outdoors - but please don’t park or walk along roadways

By Barbara LaBoe

Winter's here and outdoor activity is a good option during a pandemic – so we know why so many people are flocking to the mountains right now. But we're also seeing some serious safety and access issues with travelers parking and walking along roadways near crowded areas.

Winter activities aren't new, but we're seeing much higher numbers as people seek out new outdoor activities or just a chance to get out of their house. Those higher numbers mean more crowding at popular recreation areas and this poses serious safety concerns. It also is preventing our crews from clearing some roadways and passes. With several more months of winter ahead of us, we're asking all travelers to help us keep everyone along our roadways, exit ramps and interchanges safe.
An increase in people looking for winter recreation has led to a dangerous increase in vehicles parking alongside
a highway and sledding on interchanges right next to the road.

Highway shoulders are not parking lots – or walkways
On multiple mountain pass roadways, ramps and interchanges across the state, we're seeing vehicles parking along shoulders when parking lots or other areas fill up. This also means people walking along the highway, often carrying bulky gear that obstructs their view of vehicles around them, or wearing snow gear that may affect their mobility.  This is a tragedy waiting to happen – just as it was this summer when we saw similar practices. Now, however, we have lower visibility and snowy/icy roads in play as well – and we've already seen close calls in areas.
Cars parking on the side of highways makes it hard for snow plows to maneuver and get through to treat and clear roads.

In the past few weeks, we also saw people using highway interchanges as sledding hills very close to active traffic and areas where crews are clearing snow. Again, this poses serious dangers, including the chance a sledder will shoot out into open traffic. Interchanges and other highway right of ways are not designed for pedestrian use or recreation and they're simply not safe for those activities – even if covered in snow.

Vehicles parking along the shoulder also slow down traffic and increase the risk of crashes as passing vehicles have to maneuver through the now-narrowed area. That's the last thing we need during busy travel times or winter weather.

Help keep our snowplows moving
In addition to the safety factor, vehicles parking along shoulders at interchanges and other areas are also causing problems for our plows and the crews working hard to keep the roadways open.

On Snoqualmie Pass, plows couldn't make it into storage areas for additional salt and supplies recently due to vehicles parked on shoulders and blocking access. In some cases, there also wasn't enough room to turn around a plow to do their return runs, or barely enough space for large plows to move through roadways that people decided to turn into parking lots. Our partners at the Washington State Patrol ticketed some of those vehicles, but they don't have the staffing for such widescale parking enforcement.
A snow blower works to clear US 2 Stevens Pass while in the distance people walk on the highway,
creating potentially dangerous situations for them and vehicles.

During heavy storms these delays could lead to more road closure as crews aren't able to keep roadways treated or cleared. It can also affect emergency crews being able to reach crash sites. We hope everyone keeps that in mind when looking for safe, legal parking options.

So, what can you do to help lower these risks?
  • Plan your trips ahead of time – and have a Plan B if your first choice is full. Simply driving until you see snow isn't always safe, especially if there is no designated parking area. Some areas also may not be developed due to avalanche or other risks that aren't immediately apparent.
  • Find safe places to recreate. State parks as well as local parks can be a good option to explore the outdoors – check state park sites and safety tips online. If visiting ski areas, check ahead to see if they have limits or new safety procedures due to the pandemic.
  • Check conditions and know your limits. Heavy snow can increase avalanche dangers. Check the Northwest Avalanche Center for forecasts and alerts and be sure to carry safety supplies with you. If you're not used to outdoor snow activities, research risks and needed skills, or consider a less risky alternative.
  • Do not park or walk along highway shoulders. Hate to sound like a broken record here, but this is not safe for you or passing motorists.
  • Pack extra supplies. Whether it's due to a road closure, vehicle trouble or other issue, it's always a good idea to have extra food, warm clothing and other supplies during winter travel. Not sure what you need? Check out our online winter supplies list for suggestions.
Illegal parking alongside highways puts everyone in potentially dangerous situations.

We know many Washingtonians enjoy outdoor winter activities and we want everyone – members of the public as well as our crews – to be safe when they do so. Please keep these tips in mind to help ensure all of your outdoor adventures are safe and fun.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

It’s a team effort to help keep Snoqualmie Pass open this winter

By Meagan Lott

We're fresh into 2021 and we are already seeing heavy snowfall across our mountain passes. Mother Nature greeted us harshly the first weekend of the year, hammering I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass with almost 3 feet of new snow. We saw the heaviest snowfall on Saturday, when dozens of vehicles spun out and blocked lanes, leading to a 7-hour closure. 

We hear it every year. Why does it take so long to reopen Snoqualmie Pass after a closure? Well, let's break it down.

Crashes, spinouts cause most closures

First, the majority of closures of the pass are not due strictly to weather. Our snow plows work hard to keep the roads as clear as possible – no easy task in storms like we see on Snoqualmie. Most closures are because of spin outs and crashes blocking the road. And most of those? Because drivers are unprepared and/or don't follow the traction requirements. 

Heavy snowfall the first weekend of 2021 created difficult traveling conditions.
Several spinouts lead to a full closure of Snoqualmie Pass for seven hours.

We display traction requirements on our electronic highway Variable Message Signs leading up to the pass in both directions to alert drivers of what lies ahead. We also list these conditions on our mountain passes webpage, our mobile app under Snoqualmie Pass and on our Highway Advisory Radio 1610 AM or 530 AM. 

We need everyone to follow traction requirements

We see all kinds of vehicles struggle going over the pass, from smaller passenger cars up to semi-trucks. We also see the full range of vehicles ignore the traction requirements.

It only takes one driver ignoring the traction requirements to create a domino effect of spun-out vehicles blocking an entire stretch of I-90, prompting a closure to get things cleared out of the way.

Many vehicles including semi-trucks spin out trying to climb the hill up to the summit of
 Snoqualmie Pass on I-90 after failing to follow the chain requirements.
We partner with the Washington State Patrol to station troopers along I-90 during a major storm event to ensure vehicles are abiding by the traction requirements. Troopers will issue citations of up to $500 for those vehicles not abiding by the requirements. We don't set up checkpoints because with 20,000 vehicles traveling across the pass every day it would create more backups, congestion and potentially lead to rear-end collisions and longer delays.

But, troopers can't stop everyone. That's why we need drivers to take responsibility to chain up, slow down and do their part to keep themselves and everyone else safe, and the pass open.

It takes time to get tow trucks and responders into narrow passes

When the highway closes for a crash or spinout, our focus turns from plowing snow – our crews are scheduled 24/7 to treat highways this time of year – to helping the WSP and emergency services get to the scene.

While conditions may look bare and wet, drivers still need to take it slow due to slush which can pull your vehicle in a direction you don’t want to go, as this driver found out.
Remember, while well-traveled, Snoqualmie Pass is a remote area with limited services, which means there are only a small number of tow-truck companies, and they are often busy clearing other wrecks during a storm. The tight conditions along passes also means it can take tow trucks longer to maneuver into position, which also adds to clearing times.

Investigating crashes, clearing roadways takes time

While clearing any crash can be a challenge, the bigger the vehicle, the harder it is, especially, for example, if a semi-truck needs to be uprighted. 

If any cargo or gear has spilled onto the highway, it needs to be recovered. If a vehicle is leaking fuel or other chemicals, the Department of Ecology is called in to clean up.  Finally, WSP needs time to investigate the collision scene before our crews can finally start removing any snow that's accumulated in the area during the closure.  

All of this work and coordination can take hours. Remember, all of those workers involved in cleaning up the crash have to first get through all of the traffic and weather to get to the scene.
Semi-truck spins out: It only takes one or two vehicles spinning out to
close Snoqualmie Pass for an extended time.
Our goal every winter is to keep Snoqualmie Pass open. Our maintenance crews work around the clock treating and clearing a 70-mile stretch of I-90 from North Bend to Ellensburg. They are constantly checking weather forecasts in order to move equipment, materials and personnel where they are needed the most. It takes time to complete this work, especially if the storm continues to produce low temperatures, ice, freezing rain and snow. No one can guarantee ice- and snow-free roadways. 

So, this is how you can help us this winter: 
  • Carry chains and know how to install them. All vehicles – yes, even all-wheel drive and 4-wheel drive – are required to carry chains or an approved alternative. When chains are required, it is vital that drivers chain up – that's how we keep the pass open to traffic instead of having more closures. Learning how to put chains on in the middle of a storm is never ideal. Practice at home beforehand.
  • Have good tires. All-weather or snow tires are incredibly important to have this time of year, especially if you're traveling through a mountain pass. While 4WD and AWD don't require chains during most "chains required notices" they DO need to have appropriate traction tires.
  • Stay informed. It's even more important to check weather and conditions before you leave and during travel – never check from behind the wheel. Use our travel alerts and many tools and social media accounts and the 511 phone system to keep informed of conditions and any possible closures or alerts. Our app also has all the info you will need to stay in the know.
  • Be prepared for delays and closures, including having extra masks and hand sanitizer. As this past weekend showed, closures can come with little warning and be in place for quite awhile. Be prepared for unexpected delays and possibly needing to make unplanned stops or getting assistance such as towing. You'll want to be sure to stay safe in these interactions.
  • Expect less than ideal conditions.  Drive assuming snow and ice conditions. Even when it appears wet, it might be black ice or slush. Reduce speeds and leave more space between vehicles.
  • Consider altering travel plans during heavy storms. If you're unsure about your winter driving ability or your vehicle's equipment, there's no shame in delaying or altering your travel plans.
Keeping Snoqualmie Pass open is really a team effort between our maintenance crews working around the clock to keep traffic moving and drivers being prepared and taking it slow in the ice and snow. Let's all work together this winter to keep traffic moving.