Thursday, May 19, 2022

When mariners should – and shouldn’t - request Hood Canal Bridge openings

By Doug Adamson

People who cross the SR 104 Hood Canal Bridge know the feeling all too well. We’re talking delays associated with the bridge closed to vehicle traffic for boats.

It might happen once a day. Sometimes several times a day. That’s especially true in summer. And they can leave people stuck for up to an hour each time.

Why? We are required by federal law to close the bridge for marine traffic. Boats get the right of way.

While we’re required by federal law to open bridges to marine traffic, unnecessary SR 104 Hood Canal Bridge openings lead to delays for drivers including freight traffic as each one can take up to an hour.

But not all boats are the same and not all need the bridge to open. In those cases, the regulations require mariners to navigate under the truss spans of the bridge whenever possible. Mariners should not request draw span passage if their vertical clearance is enough to use elevated areas of the bridge.

But how do you know if you can fit? Great question. All vessel operators must know their mast height.

A look at the elevation portion of the Hood Canal Bridge on the Jefferson County side during high tide.

Truss heights (smallest vertical clearances at Mean High Water) clearances vary based on tides and wave activity.

  • Jefferson County (west) measures 31 feet 
  • Kitsap County (east) measures 50 feet

Requesting an unneeded draw span opening is a reportable offense to the United States Coast Guard and needlessly jams up traffic across the bridge.

Why don’t we police marine traffic?

Well we do. …kind of. While we are not a law enforcement agency, we can record vessel numbers and report violations to the United States Coast Guard. But we’d rather have mariners follow the regulations so we’re using a variety of resources to remind mariners of the federal requirements.

We have a new procedure when mariners call us for a draw span opening through the bridge. They will first hear a message citing the requirement for vessels to use the elevated portions of the bridge if possible.

The elevated portion of the Hood Canal Bridge on the Kitsap County side during high tide.

Why don’t you just build a suspension bridge over Hood Canal?

It would not be practical. The current bridge is about 7,000 feet long. A Hood Canal suspension bridge would be much larger than the 2007 Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which collects tolls. A new suspension bridge that wouldn’t require a draw span would likely be the longest in the world. The total cost? Think several billion dollars and years of construction.

Speaking of being practical, our crews are balancing lots of work to keep existing roads and bridges in good working order. Reducing unnecessary draw span openings also means less wear on the bridge’s moveable parts.

Both ends of the Hood Canal Bridge have elevated sections where boats can travel under.

Going forward

We’re dedicated to keeping people moving. Closures to traffic have a tremendous effect on people who are stuck waiting to get to medical appointments, work, making deliveries and any other reason they might be out and about.

While we’re encouraging boaters to not request openings when they aren’t necessary, the reality is some openings will always be needed. Use our app or to check the bridge’s status and know before you go.


Mr Indy said...

My mast is 47 ft above the water. I would prefer going under the eastern end. It looks like the eastern end is hinged so the 50 ft clearance is essentially the same at all tide heights. Can you confirm I would have more clearance hugging the western side of the eastern passage? Or will I need a beidge opening?

BeauJes said...

are you saying the bridge is over a mile long? where are you measuring from that you come up with 7000 feet?

John Willett/Sports Safety and Ed Assoc. said...

with all the Tech we have now days can't WSDOT use some kind of laser devise that detects the height of a ship and then contacts the vessel captain or sets up a lighted direction indicator to use the east span if they are under the height restriction? That would give them a real time calculation of the height and their ship. WSDOT could also build into the program a safe variant to the calculation so that one could be sure of a safe passage under the east span?

Snowball_InHawaii said...

Very helpful information for those of us who travel the bridge by motor-vehicle. Thanks, WSDOT!

WSDOT said...

BeauJes, yes, it's one of the longest floating bridges over saltwater in the world. From shoreline to shoreline it's even more than a mile wide.

WSDOT said...

John Willett, there's an onus for everyone to follow federal law. Under the law, WSDOT must essentially yield to boats – or close the bridge to vehicle traffic - when boats cannot go through the trusses. In this case, it's the mariner's responsibility to know their mast height. This is also why we are reminding mariners of the Hood Canal Bridge truss heights.

WSDOT said...

Mr Indy, you would have a little more clearance if you go under the middle of that specific elevated truss.

As you already know but it important to reiterate, truss heights clearances vary based on tides and wave activity.

JC said...

I have been talking to WADOT leadership (initially John Wyands who is now retired) for about a year on this issue. We have had a seasonal house on the east side of the bridge for over 50 years. We are now looking at moving up here fulltime and the bridge is a significant concern. I learned (as mentioned above) that USCG has full say-so regarding who is accountable to what. While that might be current "law" its arcane and needs to be revisited based on the fact this is the single route (unless you want to add a couple hours through Olympia) to get from Sea-Tac area to the Olympic Peninsula. The "few" cannot have such a massive impact on the far greater majority. Before asking, "how else do we get our boat through" understand the point is about being AMICABLE to all involved based on commerce, numbers, and need/requirement. In my discussions with Mr. Wyands, I focused on the necessity for good information which leads to predictability. Establishing and enforcing reasonable rules of engagement (meaning accountability primarily) coupled with timely, accurate information goes a long way to assuaging the motorists' concerns. In a nutshell, the current notification system needs continued improvement (much has been done since last summer) to ensure notifications are consistently sent and received (right now we still experience - OUTSIDE USN openings - the only notification is that the bridge is closed to traffic vs a projected time preceding the event). Second, the "few" who impact the "many" need to be accountable. When a time is projected and a message sent at least an hour prior to an opening, the requesting vessel should be required to be in place no less than 10 minutes (discussion on time) prior so the bridge opens on time (accountability). If not, then a message immediately goes out to the system announcing the opening will not happen and it will not be opened for a minimum of 30 minutes. Why? This gives reasonable time for folks who have to plan their day around these openings time to adjust and either expedite or delay their movement to miss the traffic jam. This is fair and equitable. I am surely not alone in being in Silverdale or Poulsbo and get a message that the bridge is scheduled to open in the next hour and make their plan based on that. My math goes something like this: bridge opens at time zero, traffic resumes usually 15-25 minutes later, traffic is reasonably flowing 30-40 minutes after that. So, based on what that, I plan to be IVO the bridge NET 45 minutes after the scheduled opening. The rub is that often the bridge doesn't open until 15-20 minutes after the scheduled time and as such our delay is for naught. This brings us full circle back to "accountability leading to predictability". If what I proposed is enacted and the tardy mariner is held and timely, accurate info sent motorists between Port Hadlock/Chimacum and Poulsbo/Silverdale have the option to curtail their activities and proceed to the bridge immediately to miss the hour delay in their daily plans. It's still a pain, but from my vantage point it's reasonable as it provides a course of action that while being inconvenient provides an option other than "roll your dice and take your chances". Commerce is a concern beyond the inconvenience angle. How many hours and as such cost (time is money) is lost with hundreds of commercial vehicles and service providers held up every day (particularly in summer) for an hour? In sum…I commend WADOT for engaging on this and being open to thoughts to ultimately improve the situation. I hope through collaboration and open consideration we can arrive at the “best possible” (nothing is ideal for all parties) solution.

JC said...

Tangentially, I'll hit on the horrible idea of a roundabout at the eastern terminus of the bridge. Again, "the few" (of which I'm one) argument comes into play where the "few" are those of us in the Port Ludlow and Paradise Bay area who have to make the left coming off Paradise Bay Road to cross the bridge. The only reason traffic doesn't back up eastbound like it does westbound (particularly on Sundays in the summer) is because oversize vehicles can roll 40 mph (eventually when they get going) across the bridge and by the time they hit the uphill there is a passing lane. It is glaringly clear/obvious that every oversize vehicle (tractor trailers, dump trucks, and RVs - particularly those driven by inexperienced drivers who have a motorhome towing a boat) will have to slow to a virtual crawl if not stop at a roundabout in order to navigate it. Then these same oversized vehicles (that took 1/4 mile to get from stop at the traffic light to 40 DOWNHILL onto the bridge in the first place) have to try to get back up to speed going up a steep incline. We just took the passing lane out of play because the "faster" dumptruck will try to pass the slower rig and render the passing lane useless. I can't be the only person who sees this catastrophe in the making. This is a different discussion for a different thread, however, I will note that I proposed alternate solutions to Mr Wyands last summer and in my mind they are viable along the same lines of my thoughts on bridge openings. It would involved some inconvenience for the folks like us in Port Ludlow/Paradise Bay but again the few can't have a drastic impact on the lives of a significantly higher number in the "many". Again, I hope that "we" can openly consider alternate courses of action free of the "bias" that "this is what has been decided". Alternatively, I look forward to hearing how my theory regarding oversized vehicles being required to basically stop at the bottom of a steep grade is an improvement to traffic flow for anyone but the fraction who choose to use the Paradise Bay road intersection (we can go up to Oak Bay Road and use a merge with an acceleration lane - assuming everyone learns how to leverage and navigate that to our advantage). Yes, that adds maybe five minutes (from Port Ludlow) and 12 from most places in Paradise Bay but again...few vs many. Fire away my fellow locals!

Baz said...

I think the motivation for the proposed roundabout is the substantial number of injury accidents at the paradise bay intersection at the western (JC I beleive mistakenly said eastern) bridge terminus (JeffCo side), rather than making the left turn convenient for the local (of which I am one. )

(I am guessing) The issue for left turning vehicles onto the bridge is that traffic from the left (bridge side) is accelerating, while traffic from the right (uphill) is decelerating. So, if the driver is waiting for an uphill vehicle to go by, it will take longer than expected, and meanwhile, the vehicles coming from the right will take less time than expected to reach the intersection. Should the driver forgets the "left again" part of the left/right/left again, that may be the last thing they ever forget.

One could make a "no trucks/trailers" left lane" on the uphill, along with the roundabout.

Alternatively, make it a flashing yellow/flashing red intersection with a 2 minute smart light which detects a vehicle trying to make a left off paradise bay rd and gives them a left turn signal after the wait.

I am, however, not a traffic engineer and cannot speak to the pros and cons of such alternatives in any authoritative or quantitative way.

JC said...

Hi Baz - I think it's rote there's a perceived impetus for the roundabout exception. I know we can't read tone in writing, so understand I'm not carrying one rather laying out my thoughts in what I think is a logical manner asking for counterpoints to discuss as I hope it's valuable to the ultimate decision makers. What I think is lost a little in Olympia is the engineers that are working this look at is as you stated. 1) there area accidents (more on that later), 2) the state of Washington wants to indemnify itself...the cost (traffic delays) isn't a concern. It is a fact this is driven by WSP and their lawyers w.r.t. the risk of the State being sued for a death is not tolerable. 3) a roundabout will solve the exposure to lawsuit issue. This is true, but my point is the "cost" (traffic back ups). Closing the road altogether would take traffic accidents to zero, but I think we agree that's not reasonable. Still, the "few versus the many" argument remains. I hope you'll introduce some alternative thoughts, suggestions, or facts to juxtapose against what I presented. In the interim, I'll respond to your post.

First - I hear about the number of accidents yet I rarely am aware of them (spent three months up here this summer [June to Sept] and winter [November to January]). I know there seem to be a lot on the bridge itself...wonder how that's being addressed. That said, I'm sure they exist as they do at the other two entries IVO Teal Lake and Beaver Valley Rd. Regarding Paradise Bay, if you, I, or any other locals feel it's overly unsafe, we have options as I suggested previously. It's a choice...convenience vs risk for the "few" and again I am one of those "few".

Second - We aren't addressing "is there a better solution?" Rather most discussions revolve around a regurgitation of the "facts" that lead to the situation: 1) deadly intersection, 2) people travel 75 mph downhill always, 3) therefore a roundabout at Paradise Bay is the only viable solution. Let's open the aperture a little in our problem solving.

My suggestions to John last summer included:

1. Get rid of the left turn to Shine and make it an acceleration lane out of Paradise Bay Road. Impact - a few hundred people on Shine who have to go a few miles and come back. IMO not the "ultimate" answer, but one that would provide some relief at the cost of some striping changes. BL - good "fire for effect" step that is executable nearly immediately.

2. Longer term - if we just have to create a roundabout, how about putting it at the top of the hill and restricting left turns from Paradise Bay Road? That solves another problem tangentially (the downhill speed) at the "cost" of us having to drive up 1/2 mile to turn around which is likely preferable to the long waits and chancing the dangerous merge we have now. Impact - the folks in our area vs the thousands (including us when we return home) who are destined to add much more time than the 1/2 mile up and 1/2 mile back based on a roundabout at the bottom of the hill. If in conjunction with restricting left turns to Shine, a double lane could be extended to almost the western (got it right) terminus making the right turn from Paradise Bay more manageable and now Shine residents only have to go 1/2 mile up and 1/2 mile back to make a safe right turn onto their road. Most importantly, the westbound traffic won't be impacted by oversized vehicles essentially stopping at the bottom of a steep incline.

JC said...

I presented other ideas to John and in my mind these are solutions, not "it has to be a roundabout at Paradise Bay Road" because until someone can logically show how my argument about oversized vehicles stopping at the bottom of a steep grade IMPROVES traffic flow I'm solidly convinced that's the case. We are creating a traffic nightmare for locals with NO options versus how there is an option now in not choosing to make that merge at Paradise Bay Road. While it's inconvenience to go to Beaver Valley or Teal Lake there's still a choice whereas when you're stuck in traffic backed up east of the bridge trying to get home and oversized vehicles are crawling through a roundabout three miles to the west you have no alternatives.

JC said...

Baz - I failed to address your suggestion regarding signage and a smart light. I apologize for not acknowledging them as newly introduced ideas.

1. On the signage, I think it would only delay the impact as they still have to merge at the top and we will have a much slower rate (due to slowing to a crawl at the bottom and never gaining reasonable speed). The issue I presented is only delayed until the merge (unless we go two lanes for a long while which is a solid idea).

2. Smart light is a decent thought in theory and in this case your statement about not being a traffic engineer holds as I don't feel I would be able to speak to it. I'm inclined to think it would be a potential benefit (more so than a roundabout as proposed anyhow).

Final thought on the not being an engineer angle. I will assume we are all moderately educated and seasoned in life. As such logic can hold. We have lived quite a few years and observed, learned, and considered many things. Stopping a slow moving vehicle at the bottom of a hill and expecting traffic to be improved doesn't require an engineering degree to debunk. I also subscribe to the "liars figure and figures lie" axiom. I think we can all look at today's news and realize that two opposed stations present the same situation in ways we can't even recognize as the same event. I'm pretty sure that if someone bent on a roundabout with a degree wanted to present a case they can cherry pick stats. I'd say that roundabouts are very appropriate and efficient in many cases...just not in this one.

Unknown said...

The round-about debate has been exhausted in many local on-line forums, but since this is the WSDOT site, I would like to leave a thought or two about said subject. Even though WSDOT proposed one on the Jefferson County side based on traffic accident counts but opted to leave the signal on the Kitsap side because of few to no accidents is the rub. The traffic signal causes a lot of the back-up issues on the West side even after the bridge reopens. One can sit up to a half hour and not move even with traffic doing the NASCAR going up the west-side hill. A round-about only makes sense if it were built on both sides of the bridge for traffic flow. I have heard that WSDOT is no longer considering a round-about, but it seems to be the best solution offer so far IF WSDOT does it on both sides of the bridge for the reasons already stated. The Paradise Intersect is a dangerous intersection because people largely ignore that the Westbound traffic is still supposed to go 40mph through that intersection but instead are going way faster. There isn't enough money in the budget for WSP to set patrol there every day to enforce the 40mph speed limit. Round-abouts are designed to slow traffic down and then everybody has a chance to enter the highway safely without feeling like they are in the video game Frogger.

JC said...

As most are aware, there was an accident on SR-104 that caused traffic to be diverted to Paradise Bay Road. I don't know the nature or location of the accident, but my thoughts are with those involved/affected.

For those who didn't just see the traffic on Paradise Bay Road, but happened to experience the westbound "clearing out" from a bridge opening with traffic being slowed at Paradise Bay Road to make a right turn I hope you took note. The accident that precipitated this issue is unfortunate and regrettable, however we can definitely see clearly exactly...literally exactly...the concern I expressed above. After clearing the intersection at the eastern terminus (keep me straight Baz), there was not the "usual" flow across the bridge. Rather, it was stop and go from about 1/3 of the way across until the top of the first grade coming off the 104 on PBR. Why? Because oversized vehicles were slowing to a crawl to make a right turn (imagine navigating a roundabout) then after that deceleration, required to climb a steep grade. We literally couldn't create a nearly exact negative effect as is easily foreseeable due to a roundabout at the bottom of the western terminus.

If you didn't experience it, I hope you talk to some of the other locals who did. This will be an "every day" experience for us returning from destinations east of the bridge on a regular basis and only exacerbated by bridge openings that are prevalent in the busiest seasons/periods (summer and holidays). The ROI simply isn't there for the "convenience" of a perceived easier access to the 104 from Paradise Bay and Port Ludlow.

Again, remember I live here, so I'm not talking about the effects to someone else. Paradise Bay Road affects me as much as "you".

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