Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Help pave the future of the state’s highway system

By Jeremy Jewkes

Did you know that over half of vehicle travel in Washington occurs on state highways? People drive cars and ride vanpools and buses on state highways to reach jobs, schools, recreation destinations and services. Truck operators transport goods to market on state highways. And don't forget those who walk and bike along and across these roads.

The Highway System Plan (HSP) is our 20-year roadmap for preserving, maintaining, improving, and operating interstates, US routes, and state routes in Washington. Planning ahead helps ensure the highway system meets the needs of vanpool and bus riders, freight haulers, travelers in personal vehicles, those who walk, bike and roll, and everyone else using our roads. Our last HSP covers the period of 2007 to 2026 — wrapping up in just a few short years.

It's time to update the plan through the next 20 years, which will bring several challenges for the system, including aging infrastructure and climate change. To create a sustainable roadmap, we want the HSP to address our known needs, anticipate the needs we think we will have, take advantage of the latest planning knowledge and technology, and be informed by people who represent the richness and diversity of Washington state.

In the past, planners and engineers often designed highways, bridges, airports and rail lines to run next to, or right through the middle of, communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, where land was cheaper and the people who lived
there had limited resources or opportunities to challenge the decisions that were thrust upon them. 

How to learn more

Interested in finding out more about the HSP and sharing your thoughts? Check out our online open house and take the opinion poll before the end of May. This is an easy way to walk through the different aspects of the highway system and think about what the trade-offs would be of spending money on, for example, fixing roads vs. building more roads. The poll only takes about 5-10 minutes and gives you a chance to tell us what is most important to you.

If you want to participate in a live meeting, register for one of our regional virtual public meetings. You are welcome to attend any session, but note that each meeting will focus on a particular part of the state. You'll get a brief overview of the HSP and then we'll have a conversation about different possible futures and how they could affect our highways. At these meetings you'll have a chance to ask questions and hear from our staff.

Finding equitable solutions

Planners and engineers of past decades often designed highways, bridges, airports and rail lines to run next to, or right through the middle of, communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, where land was cheaper and the people who lived there had limited resources or opportunities to challenge the decisions that were thrust upon them.

Studies have shown that as a result of those decisions, people who live in communities near major transportation infrastructure are more likely to suffer poor health due to air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution and related stressors. In recognition of these conditions, the state Legislature in 2021 passed the "Healthy Environment for All Act," or more commonly called the HEAL Act (Senate Bill 5141).

For this HSP update, we are specifically reaching out to overburdened communities through workshops designed to make sure their input, concerns and feedback are reflected.

We're looking forward to hearing from you about your priorities for the HSP.

If you have any questions, please feel free to send an email to hsp@wsdot.wa.gov

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

2022 North Cascades Spring Clearing: Assessment Day

By Lauren Loebsack

The spring clearing of the State Route 20 - North Cascades Highway is a highly anticipated event for both the public and  our avalanche and maintenance crews who do the work.  There are many factors that shape the spring clearing plan, from the amount and type of snow in the avalanche paths, to spring weather patterns and balancing the schedule with other important spring maintenance in the area.

Crews assess the North Cascades Highway

The clearing plan takes shape when our avalanche and maintenance crews meet onsite to explore beyond the seasonal closure point.  It's a team discussion, with the two crews reviewing conditions together. The avalanche crew looks at the snow load in avalanche starting zones, which is the area at the top of an avalanche path where the snow accumulates. They measure the depths of the slides and check for debris to determine what equipment will be needed for the clearing effort.

The snow level at Washington Pass

The maintenance crew is also interested in the conditions of the snow in the slides and the depth of the snow "on the level," a term that refers to the conditions on the highway outside of the avalanche paths. Hard packed snow or snow filled with rock and debris cannot be cleared with blowers and requires loaders to remove the snow and materials one bucket load at a time.

A worker checks the snow pack

The crews also identify hazard trees still hanging to the mountainsides above the highway and work with the U.S. Forest Service to safely remove them.

Snow conditions on the North Cascades Highway

Special equipment is rented for the clearing effort, including a Catepillar D8 and Catepillar D6. Depending on the assessment, other equipment may be added to the fleet including a grader, loaders, excavators and blowers.

When our crews went out last week to begin the assessment, the weather was underwhelming with a low fog that scuttled plans for a drone flyover of some of the starting zones that cannot be seen from the highway. The avalanche crew determined the snow depth in the avalanche paths is normal to below average and the condition of the snow is soft, meaning the work can start soon.

Crews started clearing this week, beginning with grading out the berm at Early Winters campground at milepost 178 and will work west. The assessment is our starting point, but it is still difficult to know exactly how long the clearing effort will take and each year is slightly different.  Spring storms could redirect crews back to plowing snow elsewhere and avalanche slides may be dirtier than expected. The spring clearing effort typically takes between 4 and 6 weeks.

In addition to regular spring clearing, expectant travelers should be aware of work on the west side of the North Cascades between Marblemount and Newhalem. This work is necessary following the November 2021 flood that washed out the roadway near milepost 113 and has kept traffic reduced to a single lane with a signal. This is expected to cause some delays during peak summer travel. In December, crew collected extensive core samples for geotechnical analysis. We are now working with our bridge designers on a repair plan, which will include constructing a new stabilizing wall in this area. This project is in the design phase where our engineers work to put together the plan to build the wall. Our crews and contractor will make every effort to expedite this work and return the road to normal operations, however some of our work is dependent on variables beyond our control such as cooperation from the weather. We know that these types of delays are inconvenient, so we want you to be able to plan ahead for your travel over the North Cascades Highway this year. And please know how much we appreciate your patience with us as we work on these repairs.

In the meantime, there's several ways you can follow our progress on the 2022 spring clearing work.  You can follow us on social, check out pics from the clearing work on Flickr and sign up for the North Cascades Highway Newsletter through GovDelivery.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Time to name the newest member of our Fab 4

By Ryan Overton

One of the toughest decisions many of us will face is naming something. Whether it be a pet, a child, perhaps you may even name your own vehicle (my wife's Nissan Xterra was named Ruby), or like my kids, a stuffed animal. It's a big responsibility!

But it's a responsibility we trust you with. With our first three Tow Plows – Plowie McPlow Plow, The Big Leplowski and Sir Plows-A-Lot – we've left the naming up to you, the public, and you've come through! So the ball is again in your hands.

Our fleet of three Tow Plows – Plowie McPlow Plow, The Big Leplowski and Sir Plows-A-Lot –
will soon have a fourth member of their squad.

So starting today, Friday, March 11 through Friday, March 18, we are going to be asking for your suggestions to name the state's fourth Tow Plow! Send your suggestions to Ryan.Overton@wsdot.wa.gov (we'll also be collecting ideas on our social media platforms).

From there, a group of us will go through the names suggested and filter out any duplicate or inappropriate names. Then we will start a March Madness style voting contest through our @WSDOT_East Twitter account and our Facebook page! There will be four polls with four names in a Sweet 16 the first week starting Monday, March 21, through Friday, March 25, for the first round of voting. The winner of each of the first four polls, will move on to a final four starting Monday, March 28, to decide a winner on Friday, April 1!

Plowie McPlow Plow was chosen as the name of our first Tow Plow.

What is a Tow Plow?

The Tow Plow is a towable trailer that attaches to the back of a snowplow truck. The driver of a snowplow truck can then operate the Tow Plow by using a hydraulic wheel system to slide the Tow Plow out to the right side of the truck at an angle of roughly 60 degrees. Once extended out to the side of the truck, a 26-foot plow blade attached to the Tow Plow can be lowered onto the road to clear snow and ice from a second lane of travel at the same time as the plow truck. The Tow Plow is also fitted with a granular hopper with a small liquid tank to dispense deicing material onto the road.

The Tow Plow is an attachment that goes on the back of a plow truck and can extend out to clear two lanes with one vehicle.

Benefits of a Tow Plow

The biggest benefit is allowing one driver to clear two lanes of travel during snow and ice at the same time. Before the Tow Plow, two drivers and two trucks would have to work in tandem to clear the same amount of roadway. By adding the Tow Plow to our fleet, we can use the second truck and operator on a different route that would have taken longer in the past to be plowed or treated. Or a single truck would have had to make multiple passes of one route which would have taken a significant amount of time and resources.

Using Tow Plows allows our crews to clear multiple lanes using just one truck,
helping us deploy other plows to other areas to cover more ground.

Current Tow Plow Fleet

There are four in the fleet located mainly in Spokane. The locations were chosen where there are two travel lanes in the same direction to maximize the Tow Plow's efficiency. Sir Plows-A-Lot is staged at the Wandermere maintenance facility in North Spokane and covers US 2, US 395 and the North Spokane Corridor. Plowie McPlow Plow lives at our Geiger shed in west Spokane that covers I-90 west to roughly the Fishtrap interchange. The Big Leplowski is the main dude at our maintenance facility off SR 27/Pines Road in Spokane Valley and covers I-90 in the Valley to the Idaho State line. The newest member of our now-fantastic foursome will be headed to Ritzville where it will serve I-90 and US 395.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Swift action by Aberdeen maintenance worker prevents possible US 12 rail emergency following washout

By Tina Werner and Janet Matkin

On March 1, following a heavy rainstorm in the Pacific Northwest that closed multiple highways in Pierce and Thurston counties, Shannon Buchanan’s quick thinking made a big difference. After the storm settled, Shannon was completing routine culvert and catch basin inspections in east Grays Harbor County along US 12 between Elma and Oakville. As an experienced highway maintenance worker, he spotted a problem that wasn’t part of his responsibilities, and he sprang into action.

Seeing the ground washed out under the railroad track at Porter Creek Road, Shannon realized it was a serious issue and alerted his supervisor, Lance Valley, and they began devising a strategy.

Shannon Buchanan (left) and his supervisor Lance Valley (right) work out of our Aberdeen maintenance facility. Their quick actions recently helped prevent a potential railroad derailment.

Sounding the alarm and preventing disaster

Shannon, who has worked out of our Aberdeen shed since 2013, knew the first and most important step was alerting the railroad to the situation. But before that could happen, he and Lance heard something alarming: a faint whistle from an oncoming train.

Shannon knew he had to contact the train conductor immediately and stop the locomotive ahead of the compromised location. He took off in his pickup truck down US 12, flipped on his flashers and got out of his vehicle to get the attention of the engineer. With success, Shannon and Lance were able to connect with the operator and stop the train.

While doing routine culvert inspection, maintenance worker Shannon Buchanan spotted this area washed out under railroad tracks following a major rain storm in late February.

Shannon said he and Lance were just lucky – they were where in the right place at the right time. The truth is that we all were the lucky ones. By first recognizing the concern and then acting quickly in a potential emergency, they likely prevented a train derailment. It was truly heroic actions, and we couldn’t be more proud of them.

After discovering a washed out area under railroad tracks near Porter Creek Road, Shannon Buchanan raced down US 12 – which the rail line runs parallel to – to alert and stop an oncoming train.

Genesee and Wyoming Railroad Services, which owns Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad (which operates the short line railroad where the situation occurred), was also grateful.

“We are always appreciative of residents reporting apparent hazards along our rights-of-way,” said Jerry Vest, Senior Vice Presidents of Genesee and Wyoming Railroad Services. “The (WSDOT) employee absolutely took the correct action.”

How you can help

What should you do if you find yourself in a similar situation as Shannon and Lance? Great question. Next time you’re near a railroad crossing, you might notice a blue sign. That sign provides information, including an 800 number, to call to report an emergency on any track.

An 800-emergency number and intersection ID is on blue signs near railroad crossings to allow people to call and report potential rail hazards.

Vest said after significant weather events, the railroad company undertakes additional inspections of lines to identify any issues. But it never hurts to have the public chip in with information if they see a possible problem. In this situation, Genesee and Wyoming had crews on site immediately and stayed overnight to repair the culvert and patch the location before completing necessary inspections and resuming operations.

Our Rail, Freight and Ports Division works with rail companies throughout the state to collaborate on capital improvements, funding opportunities, rail crossings, and maintenance concerns. We own the largest short line railroad in the state and understand the risks associated with washouts and potential derailments.

And while Shannon and Lance don’t work for our rail division, like all our highway maintenance crews, they recognize the need for safe infrastructure and work hard to keep up with the many needs, whether it’s clearing culverts after a major storm, repairing potholes after a deep freeze, or fixing guardrails after a crash. These two crew members took the time to report this event, flag down the train engineer, and in doing so, prevented a more serious issue from occurring before it had the chance to cross the track. Thanks again to Shannon and Lance for their fantastic response and hard work throughout the year.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Major milestone ahead: All lanes of southbound I-5 traffic shift onto new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge

Update: April 1, 2022

On Friday, April 1, all southbound travel lanes were moved onto the new 1,579-foot-long southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge. In the weeks ahead, crews will remove temporary barrier and restripe the northbound I-5 travel lanes across from East McKinley Way to Port of Tacoma Road into their final configuration. Drivers will see overnight lane and ramp closures as this work progresses.


By Cara Mitchell

For almost three years, both directions of Interstate 5 over the Puyallup River have been using one new bridge. A temporary traffic shift placed both northbound and southbound I-5 travelers on the same bridge, separated by barrier. This allowed us to keep traffic moving while the contractor removed the old Puyallup River bridges. It also created space to build a new southbound bridge.

A 2019 aerial photo shows northbound and southbound I-5 traffic temporarily sharing the new northbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge. The old bridges, to the right, were used for staging equipment and eventually removed. One lane on the
old southbound bridge stayed open for access from Port of Tacoma Road and the exit to Bay Street.

Since the new bridge is complete, northbound and southbound I-5 lanes will soon be on their own respective bridges.

What drivers need to know

In the coming weeks, crews will move all lanes of southbound I-5 to the new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge.

  • It won't happen in one night, and the work to get this into place is weather dependent.
  • Commuters will notice the lane shift happening in a gradual way, over a few nights. Our crews will stripe a portion of the highway on the south-end of the project and move farther north each night as weather allows.
  • Striping or painting lines on a highway is highly weather dependent which means this will take place over three or four non-consecutive dry nights.
  • To safely get this striping completed, crews are reducing traffic to one lane overnight in the area they are striping.
  • Nearby ramps will also close overnight.

How many lanes southbound?

One question we are asked a lot is how many lanes will the new southbound I-5 bridge have?

  • Four general purpose lanes (currently there are three)
  • One auxiliary lane (from Port of Tacoma Road on-ramp to Portland Avenue off-ramp)
  • One southbound HOV lane that will open later this summer.

Once traffic is shifted to the new southbound bridge, the four general purpose lanes and the auxiliary lane will open.

The HOV lane, as we mentioned, will stay closed until this summer. Crews need that lane for a work zone by East L Street to complete barrier and drainage work. There is also additional striping that must happen before the HOV lane can open.

In the coming weeks, northbound and southbound I-5 will be back on their own
dedicated bridges that span the Puyallup River.

Northbound I-5 across the Puyallup River

Once the three southbound lanes are moved off the existing northbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge, crews can begin removing the temporary barrier and restriping the northbound lanes. This will bring back wider lanes and shoulders plus an additional northbound lane. Here is a breakdown of lanes northbound:

  • Four general purpose lanes starting from I-705 and across the bridge (currently there are three).
  • Two new auxiliary lanes from I-705 to Portland Avenue and the exit to State Route 167.
  • An add-lane across the bridge from East 28th Street – currently in place.
  • HOV lane that will open later this summer.

Work to open these lanes in their final configuration will require overnight lane and ramp closures. We will share that information once the schedule becomes available.

What's next?

While our checklist is shrinking, there are still a few final pieces needed to complete this puzzle.

  • Complete the East L Street Bridge
  • Some paving, drainage, and barrier work
  • Work at 27th and 28th streets to rebuild the intersections with East L Street
  • Finish removal of the old northbound and southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge structures
  • Excavation to rebuild natural habitat
  • Landscaping
  • Final striping and permanent lane markings
  • And the grand finale – opening the new HOV lanes on both directions of I-5! That will involve new striping on I-5 from the Fife curve to the Yakima Street overpass in Tacoma, scheduled for this summer. This means you'll be able to use the HOV lane from Gig Harbor on SR 16 all the way to King County without merging.

Weather will be the biggest factor in completing the remaining work. Our contractor and crews are moving as quickly and safely as possible to build lasting infrastructure.

Stay aware

As always, please keep our crews, yourself, and others safe by driving cautiously through work zones. We know detour routes and traffic shifts can take a little getting used to so slow down and stay aware so our crews can get this work done safely.