Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Maintenance crew goes above and beyond to help rescue missing traveler

By Mike Allende

Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks, and we couldn't be more thankful for the incredible caring actions of our Blewett Pass maintenance crew workers recently.

Lynell McFarland, a 68-year-old woman from Spokane Valley, went missing on Thursday, Nov. 18 after leaving a friend's house in Ellensburg. A Silver Alert was issued and the Kittitas County Sheriff's office launched a search.

Meanwhile, Aaron Byrd, our Maintenance Lead Tech for Blewett Pass, was off duty when he noticed a social media post about the missing person, which included a picture of where her cellphone had last pinged from. He recognized the location and alerted the night maintenance crew, letting them know where to look.

The car of a missing driver who went over an embankment on Blewett Pass was tracked down by our maintenance workers after one of them recognized the location of the last place the cell phone of the driver pinged.

Heading out to the spot near the Blewett Pass summit in snowplows at about 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 22, maintenance techs Koby Todd and Gunnar Lantz checked over an embankment and spotted a vehicle about 40 feet down that matched the description of the car. As you can see in these pictures, it's remarkable they spotted it given that it was dark, the vehicle is black and it was surrounded by trees and debris. Knowing precisely where to look and taking the extra time to do so was vital.

Emergency responders rescue a woman who went over an embankment on Blewett Pass and was stuck in her car for several days until our maintenance team tracked down the car.

Our crew alerted emergency responders who roped down over the embankment. Thankfully, Lynell was still conscious in her vehicle!

She was transported to Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee with minor injuries.

A Silver Alert was issued for Lynell McFarland after she went missing after leaving her friend’s house in Ellensburg. Our maintenance team was able to find her over an embankment near the Blewett Pass summit.

Our road workers look at these type of situations as nothing out of the ordinary – just something they do as part of their job. But we know differently.

Yes, helping the public is something they do every day. But acts like this go above and beyond their normal work, and we couldn't be more proud of them. It was truly extraordinary actions they took to help the stranded woman and we are so grateful to have outstanding people like them working on our roads to help keep the public safe.

We are thankful for them today, and every day. And we're also very thankful that Lynell was rescued and is spending Thanksgiving getting the care she needs.

Friday, November 12, 2021

First major stage of SR 509 Completion project starting soon

By Lizzy Buechel

As usual this fall, we are seeing shorter days and leaves changing colors. If you drive in south King County or live or work near I-5 in Des Moines, Kent, or SeaTac you may also notice another change: the beginning of construction on the SR 509/I-5 to 24th Avenue South Expressway project. This four-year project starts sometime in November, depending on weather.

Through the SR 509/I-5 to 24th Avenue South Expressway project, we will provide a new connection to Sea-Tac International Airport, reduce truck travel on local roads, and improve access and safety for those who walk, roll, and use transit in the area. This work is part of the SR 509 Completion Project, which will extend SR 509 from where it currently ends at South 188th Street, to I-5.

This blog is the first in a series that will inform you about construction and what you can expect each step of the way. We start with a detailed look at where we are beginning construction – the I-5/SR 516 Interchange and the South 216th Street Bridge.

Want more information? Check out the SR 509/1-5 to 24th Avenue S. – Expressway Project Online Open House to find more details around SR 509 construction including primary work zones and schedules. The online open house is open through December 13.

I-5/SR 516 Interchange
The biggest change to the I-5/SR 516 interchange will be the construction of a new Veterans Drive undercrossing of I-5. The new undercrossing and Veterans Drive extension will provide a relief valve for drivers going to and from the Kent Valley, as it includes new access to both directions of I-5 and the new SR 509 Expressway. Combined with new and reconstructed ramps at the existing interchange, drivers will have a smoother trip through the area and new options for getting to where they want to go.

The first thing drivers may notice this fall is a slight shift of southbound I-5, which will move towards the median so that crews can widen the I-5 bridge over Kent-Des Moines Road. Crews will also be shifting lanes on Kent-Des Moines Road under I-5.

If you walk, roll, or use transit in this area you can expect the access you have today until 2024, when one of the two eastbound bus bays will temporarily close. The new eastbound SR 516 bus stop will open later in 2024.

If you live or work in the area you can expect typical construction impacts including heavy equipment, noise, and nighttime work on I-5.

A reconfigured SR 516 interchange, new ramps that provide connections between SR 509 and I-5, and non-motorized improvements will make it easier for people who drive, walk, bike and use transit to travel through the area.

South 216th Street Bridge
To build the new ramps to the SR 509 Expressway, we need to demolish and replace the existing South 216th bridge. Unlike the existing bridge, the new bridge will include sidewalks, bike lanes and a turn lane, to make it easier and safer for all people to get across I-5 in this location. Those who walk and roll will have access across the bridge throughout construction.

The new bridge will have one lane in each direction, a center turn lane, 5-foot-wide bike lanes and 6-foot-wide sidewalks.

Crews will construct the eastbound lanes of the new bridge next to the existing bridge, between early 2022 and early 2023. During this stage, the bridge will be open to both directions of traffic, but there will be changes on I-5 where we will reduce lane widths and shift lanes on I-5 between SR 516 and South 200th Street. This will allow crews to build the new bridge and ramps connecting I-5 to the new SR 509.

From mid-2023 to late 2023, we will demolish the existing South 216th Street bridge, and construction on the westbound lanes of the new bridge will begin. During this second stage, the bridge will close to eastbound traffic for approximately six months. A signed detour route will direct drivers across I-5 at South 200th Street.

The new South 216th Street bridge will be open during stage three of construction, with periodic lane closures. The new bridge will fully open by the end of 2023/early 2024.

The new bridge will be built in stages to minimize affects to the traveling public.

Drivers can expect nighttime lane closures on I-5 in 2022 and 2023 when crews demolish the old bridge and set girders for the new bridge. When these lane closures happen, all but one lane of either northbound or southbound I-5 will close overnight, typically between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. Drivers can also expect periodic single and double lane closures at night throughout construction.

Need a quick refresher?
The SR 509 Completion Project is part of the Puget Sound Gateway Program, which also includes the SR 167 Completion Project. Together these projects will help truck traffic move more efficiently and ease congestion throughout the Puget Sound region. These improvements will enhance the state's economic competitiveness, both nationally and globally, connecting the state's largest ports to key distribution centers in King and Pierce counties.

When finished, SR 509 will provide new access to the airport, allow drivers to bypass I-5, SR 518, and help get freight off local streets. That means, among other things, less truck idling and related CO2 emissions in the area due to heavy traffic. In addition to SR 99 tunnel improvements, this project will also create a critical north-south alternative to I-5 through Seattle and King County.

The project will improve access through the area with interchange improvements, new ramps that connect I-5 to SR 509, and the first mile of the SR 509 expressway.

The SR 509/I-5 to 24th Avenue South Expressway Project is the first major stage of the greater SR 509 Completion Project. This first major stage of construction will begin in late 2021 and will end in 2025. We will complete the SR 509 Completion Project with Stage 2 between 2024 and 2028.

If you still have questions, you can call the construction information line at (206) 225-0674 or email the project email at sr509construction@wsdot.wa.gov.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Crash Responder Safety Week: This week, and every week, our crews need you help protecting roadside workers

By Celeste Dimichina

A split-second glance in the mirror – and the safety training behind it – likely saved Frank Stewart's life.

As a member of our Incident Response Team, Frank responds to all kinds of situations in a single shift. He can go from helping someone who has run out of gas to changing a spare tire to helping control traffic around a multi-vehicle crash scene – all while working next to active traffic.

So when he was called to a crash scene on State Route 14 in east Vancouver last December, Frank was already thinking how to keep himself and others safe. He parked his truck at an angle, for example, knowing it would help shield emergency workers up ahead from the passing traffic.

Despite orange flashing lights on his truck, Frank also knew to take the extra step of checking his mirrors one last time before stepping out of his vehicle. And that's when he saw a truck approaching at full speed and switching lanes. An instant later the driver struck Frank's truck and landed in a ditch. Neither Frank nor the driver were seriously injured but if Frank hadn't done one last mirror check this event could easily have ended in tragedy.

The damage to the front of our IRT truck was bad enough but if this was a worker instead of a
 vehicle this could have ended as a tragedy.

This is Crash Responder Safety Week but close calls like Frank's show why this safety message is important every day and every week of the year. As this year's Governor's proclamation reads, "the safety of all, including the traveling public and response personnel at incident scenes is of paramount concern." And that's why we need the public to stay alert any time you see flashing lights on the side of a road.

This is the second year Gov. Jay Inslee has issued a proclamation reminding all drivers about the importance of keeping all roadside responders – including transportation agency crews – safe.

Move over/Slow down whenever you see roadside flashing lights
In Washington, the Move over/Slow down law requires motorists to move over a lane or slow down as they pass emergency vehicles and other vehicles with flashing lights. While you may not think of them as emergency responders, that includes our highway maintenance crews making repairs as well IRT trucks like Frank drives. It also applies to tow trucks and utility trucks if their lights are activated.

If there is room, drivers should move over a lane as they approach these vehicles. If that's not possible then they must slow to 10 miles below the posted speed limit.

In addition to moving over to give roadside crews enough room to safely work, whenever you see flashing roadside lights please remember to:

  • Slow Down – drive the posted speeds (and 10 mph below them if unable to move over one lane)
  • 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 – no meeting or appointment is worth risking someone's life

Help us keep our crews – and everyone on the road – safe
Frank has been with our agency for 27 years – 22 years in our maintenance department and five years in IRT. When he isn't working, Frank enjoys finding, collecting and refurbishing old Coleman lanterns. The lanterns are just another way he stays prepared for any sort of emergency.

Frank Stewart places traffic cones out along the roadway as one of several safety precautions to
 protect our maintenance crews doing road repairs.

We ask everyone to please remember folks like Frank and the dangers they face every day as they work along our roads and highways.

Doing your part to be as safe as possible when you enter a work zone or emergency response scene ensures everyone -- you, your passengers, surrounding travelers and our crews – make it back home safe every day.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Our second pandemic winter will look a little different – what you should expect

By Barbara LaBoe

These aren't ordinary times, and this won't be an ordinary winter on our roads.

Washington state is almost two years into a public health emergency of global proportions. Like many others in our state, this has affected our agency in a number of ways – including winter operations.

Our staff began winter prep work months ago, but we also want the public to know that things will look different this winter. And that's why it's more important than ever to plan ahead, be prepared and stay informed.

What to expect this winter

So, what will the public see this winter?

Safety is always our top priority – for those of you traveling and our employees. Our dedicated crews will absolutely still be out on the roadways, plowing during and after storms as well as preparing and, in some cases, pre-treating roadways before storms.

Drivers should be prepared for possible delays or closures during the winter while crews work to clear highways.

But we have fewer staff this winter for several reasons, which means roadways will look different during storms. Our work, as always, will be prioritized based on safety, resources and our pre-existing plowing priority maps based on volume and/or critical roads.

What to expect:

  • Some roads and passes will be closed longer than normal during and after significant storms.
  • Some roads will not get the same level or service, may be only plowed minimally or will have snow and ice on the roadway for longer periods of time. Some areas may not be staffed 24/7.
  • Especially during large storms or long-lasting ones, we won't have a deep enough "bench" of staff to respond 24/7 for several days throughout the storm.
  • Some lanes of the freeway system may have snow and ice while crews focus on keeping just one or two lanes open.
  • Lower speed limits in areas with variable speed limits.
  • There may be slower responses to crashes and other emergencies, and it may take longer to clear major crashes or slide-offs.
  • Less attention to secondary routes and recreation areas as crews focus on higher priority roadways.

Pandemic staffing issues

In a typical, pre-pandemic winter we have about 1,500 people in the jobs tied most directly to winter operations. (Many other staff throughout our agency also provide valuable support, of course).

Staffing has been a challenge for all kinds of businesses and agencies throughout the pandemic – and we're not immune:

  • An aging, close-to-retirement staff and pandemic-related hiring freezes, reduced revenue, furloughs, etc. left us understaffed going into last winter. Some of the positions we were able to fill were temporary and not permanent.
  • This past year, we've seen a global worker shortage as well as very high demand for some of our key winter jobs, such as diesel mechanics and people with Commercial Drivers Licenses. It's not just in Washington, our fellow state DOTs are seeing the same challenges.
  • Some of our open positions – especially mechanics – are a force multiplier because if we can't keep trucks running, that affects each employee who uses that particular plow throughout the day.
  • Some of our internal promotions also create a secondary vacancy we then must fill.
  • In October, we had some staff leave the agency due to the state vaccine mandate – 5.9 percent agency-wide – which affected the already-low winter operations numbers.

We are actively and creatively recruiting to fill winter operations positions: please check our online site or @WSDOTjobs on Twitter for open positions and read about typical winter work on our 2020 blog.

Crews will be working hard to maintain highways this winter though some roads may not see
the same level of service they’ve seen in the past.

We're also prioritizing work and planning on shifting staff as needed to respond to storms in particular areas. But as of Oct. 19, 2021, of our typical 1,500 winter staffing positions, we were down almost 300 to 1,200 today. And even as positions are filled, training time means there's still a lag before we see increased crews on the road.

Our workers are incredibly dedicated and take the service they provide their communities personally. We know it's tough for them to not be able to provide the same level of service this year. But we simply can't ask these hard-working colleagues to do more with less. Safety is key here – we can't risk staff being injured or equipment being damaged by working crews beyond reasonable limits. It's not safe for anyone.

What you can do

As we do every year, we're asking that the public be prepared for winter conditions, including ensuring their vehicles are ready, packing winter supplies and staying informed about conditions both before and during travel. This year that will be even more important.

One person driving too fast or not having the proper equipment can close a pass down for everyone. In fact, on Snoqualmie Pass most closures are due to crashes and spin outs, not avalanche control work to remove higher mountain snow. So please, be prepared for winter conditions to help keep everyone moving.

We have several options to help you track conditions, including online tools, travel alerts and pass conditions webpages and our 511 telephone travel information line. Please also pack some extra winter supplies (PDF 1.5MB) and be prepared for delays when heading into storms. Keeping the gas tank filled, your mobile device charged and some extra snacks on hand is always a good idea. And remember, if you're unsure about your driving skills or your vehicle during a storm, there's no shame in delaying or canceling plans.

We know road and pass closures are frustrating even during a normal winter. And seeing more snow and ice on roads this winter won't be welcome news. Our crews will be out there, clearing and reopening roads as soon as it's safe to do so, but we also thank you for your patience as they do this work during these unusual times.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

New I-5 HOV lanes showing immediate benefit for travelers

By Cara Mitchell and Tim McCall

This October marked three years since the I-5 Steilacoom-DuPont Road to Thorne Lane Corridor Improvements projects began. While the contractor is wrapping things up, our traffic engineers are looking at how the addition of a new northbound and southbound high occupancy vehicle lane has changed traveling through this corridor.

In July 2021, when the northbound HOV lane first opened near 41st Division Drive at JBLM to Gravelly Lake Drive in Lakewood, drivers told us they saw an immediate improvement in drive time. The daily backups that previously occurred during the commute hours approaching 41st Division Drive vanished.

Three months later, an early look at the traffic data shows big benefits for travelers.

I-5 with HOV lanes open at Berkeley Street near JBLM and Lakewood's Tillicum neighborhood.

Ways to look at traffic data
Traffic data comes in different forms.  We can look at actual traffic volumes or look at traffic density or congestion.

Because the corridor has been under construction for three years, pulling accurate traffic data that uses traffic volumes can be misleading. Construction tends to skew that data because there are either reduced or shifted lanes that traffic sensors can't capture. This happens in large part because the instruments that we use to capture that data were disrupted or temporarily taken offline during construction.

The type of data that we can look at with a fair amount of confidence is density or congestion. That is what these heat maps show, and it reflects the feedback that travelers through the corridor are experiencing.

What these colorful maps represent
The colors in these density maps represent traffic congestion at different locations at different times.

  • Red and black indicate that things are slow going.
  • Yellow indicates some slowdowns.
  • Green is free flowing with no backups or delays.

The locations are listed on the right side of the map. The time of day is listed at the bottom.

The data chosen for the heat maps shown below were Tuesday through Thursday averages in the month of September for year 2019 and 2021. We are not using 2020 data due to the low traffic volumes associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Northbound I-5 traffic density in 2019 and 2021

In 2019, before the HOV lanes opened, travelers on northbound I-5 frequently saw heavy traffic volumes during the afternoon commute approaching JBLM Main Gate through Berkeley Street. The morning commute also saw frequent congestion, although not quite as dense as the afternoon, starting from SR 510 in Thurston County north to Berkeley Street in Lakewood.

The data from 2021 shows during the afternoon northbound commute the previous congestion disappeared, while the morning commute is not as heavy.

Southbound I-5
The story for southbound I-5 is encouraging.

In 2019, morning commuters on southbound I-5 saw very little congestion. If slowdowns happened, it was often seen approaching Berkeley Street and JBLM Main Gate. The afternoon commute painted a different story. Heavy traffic volumes typically would begin at 3 p.m. near SR 512 and continue south eight miles into DuPont.

The new southbound HOV lane made previous morning congestion disappear. The afternoon commute has been shortened. The congestion naturally moved further south. The graph above shows an afternoon commute starting at 4 p.m. near JBLM Main Gate. We still see some congestion during the afternoon commute near Berkeley, but it's for a shorter duration than before.

The congestion moved
Yes, in the afternoon on southbound I-5, the location where we see heavier traffic volumes has moved further south. One big reason for this is because the HOV lane and new auxiliary lane ends just south of 41st Division Drive – for now. The next phase of construction, scheduled to begin in 2023, will finish widening I-5 to Steilacoom-DuPont Road and extend the HOV lane a few miles south.

Many people ask why not widen I-5 further south past Mounts Road. It's something we are looking at, but right now there is no construction funding for it. We are aware of the congestion through Nisqually. In fact, these heat maps capture it. The cost to modify I-5 through the Nisqually Delta would be significant and require legislative action.

Project history
The I-5 Mounts Road to Thorne Lane Corridor Improvements Project was funded in 2015 by the State Legislature for $485 Million. That funding was spread out over 10 years and broken up into four separate construction projects. Traffic patterns, volumes and populations can easily fluctuate over 10 years. Just as the price of land has gone up for developers and homeowners, it goes up for construction projects too. It's a big reason why we look at the resources available to us. We use practical solutions, which is a process that solves problems and needs as quickly and inexpensively as possible, to help solve traffic problems. We made the choice to build HOV lanes – a traffic management tool that moves people rather than individual vehicles.

Some of our earliest traffic studies from the 1990s told us that HOV lanes on I-5 were going to be a necessity in the years ahead through Pierce County. Finding funding for improvements like this isn't easy, which is why when it is allocated, we have to design and build something that will take us as far into the future as we possibly can see.

Traffic patterns and data are always changing
We think it's important to mention that traffic patterns and volumes fluctuate daily. It may not be obvious to you when you're behind the wheel, but our traffic engineers see it. For example, weekdays see heavier traffic volumes at different times of the day than the weekends. Anyone who has endured a Friday afternoon commute on southbound I-5 knows just how difficult that journey can be. Likewise, traffic patterns change in the summer months when schools are on break and the summer travel season is in full swing. It's important for us to monitor this because it will help determine when a contractor can close lanes for a construction project, or when a good time is for maintenance crews to go inspect a bridge and not have a lane closure cause long backups tor travelers.

Monday, November 1, 2021

New WSDOT website goes live Nov. 7

By Mike Allende

A lot has changed with how we get and consume information in the past 15 years. Twitter was born. Streaming services blew up. Mobile devices became a regular part of our wardrobe. But one thing that hasn't changed in that time is our website.

Until now.

Starting Sunday, Nov. 7, people who log on to wsdot.wa.gov will find a new, refreshed website that makes finding information easier than ever. Whether you want mountain pass conditions, road closures, ferries schedules or anything else you might need, you'll find it in a simpler, more useful way than ever before.

Why now?
It's been more than 15 years since our website has had a major update. That's a long time in today's world. How people get information has changed significantly, and we needed to meet those needs.

We started working on the redesign three years ago. At 14,000 web pages on the site, we knew we had to do some serious spring cleaning to make it easier to navigate. We did extensive testing with a wide range of website users to see how they go about finding what they're looking for, and what information was most important to them.

On average, we have 75,000 website visitors a day and more than 60 percent of them access our site from a mobile device. So, we knew we needed to make the new site much more mobile friendly. Ninety percent of website visitors are looking for travel-related information. That obviously needed to be a huge focus of the redesign.

We think we've done that. We've narrowed the site down to about 2,000 web pages and re-written the content to make it easier to understand. Our new Travel Center feature will make it faster and more convenient for people to find what they're looking for regardless of their mode of travel. And we've made the site much more accessible so that it's a useful tool for everyone.

Our new website home page makes finding the information you need for whatever your mode of travel much simpler.

Tell me about the Travel Center
Don't mind if I do.

Whether you drive, bicycle, walk, ride a ferry, ride a bus or deliver goods, you'll find what you're looking for in our Travel Center – and you'll be able to personalize that information for your own needs.

  • Real-time travel data: You'll be able to click on this to get any travel alerts for whatever route you're traveling. Going on US 2 between Monroe and Wenatchee? Click on it and you'll be able to find lane closures, cameras, truck restrictions and mountain pass reports all in one place. You can get this information in list form, or on a real-time travel map.
  • Commercial vehicles: Truck drivers who deliver our goods will find it a lot easier to map their trips, find any restrictions and get information about permits and weigh station e-screening.
  • Ferries: With one click you'll find the ability to buy tickets, make reservations, find schedules, get real-time status updates and more.
  • Active Transportation: Looking for information and maps for bicycling, walking, running or rolling across our state? It will all be there, easy to find.
  • Riding the rails: Interested in riding Amtrak Cascades? You'll be able to find schedules, buy tickets and plan your trips right on the site.
  • And more: The travel center also has tolls info, information about border crossings and park & rides, maps you can print out, holiday weekend travel charts, information about local airports and lots more.
Our Travel Center map makes planning trips easier by showing real-time issues for whatever route you’ll be taking.

What about that project I've heard about?
Some people visit our website to find out information about a project happening near them. Our Construction and Planning section of the site will make finding a specific project easy by allowing searches by road or county. Studies? Funding? Future plans? Environmental steps we've taken? It's all there for simple browsing.

Working with WSDOT
Besides travelers, one group that regularly turns to our website for information are people and companies looking to work with us. We want to make getting that information as easy as we can so we have a Business With WSDOT section to find all our contracting opportunities and the requirements that go into bidding for work. You'll also find information about grants, highway sign advertising requirements, and more.

Anything else?
Yes, lots of stuff. Particularly in our About section, where people can find job listings, all kinds of data like traffic and crash statistics, research reports and contact information.

These are the highlights, and we invite everyone to check it out, scroll around and see what they think. We're confident website visitors will find a much more valuable, simpler to use experience where the most important information to you is just a click or two away, whether you're accessing it on a desktop or mobile device. We're excited to roll it out and hear what you think!