Thursday, December 29, 2022

Cold, snow and ice aren't very nice for the I-5 express lanes

By Sean Quinn

Winter weather, with its bitterly cold temperatures, snowy skies and icy roads, is both a blessing and a curse. Although it may lead to some fun snow days for the kids and cute pictures of pets, it also creates frustrating and challenging situations for both commuters and our workers alike. It leads to increased collisions and spinouts, challenges our highway maintenance teams and significantly alters travel plans. Freezing weather can also affect the Interstate 5 express lanes in Seattle, disrupting the commute in our state’s largest city.

As we saw with the deep freeze that hit our state just before Christmas, extreme winter conditions mean we have to make adjustments to the operations of the express lanes. This has been our practice for years, though it always seems to catch people by surprise. And the main question is always "Why?" Fair question. To answer, it helps to start at the beginning.

Express Lanes 101

A map of the I-5 express lanes and its on and off-ramps in Seattle.
A map of the I-5 express lanes and its on and off-ramps in Seattle

It is important to know how the express lanes function before you know how weather affects them. The I-5 express lanes are a set of reversible highway lanes that operate either northbound or southbound, changing direction based on traffic volume twice daily. They are designed to offer a faster commute option for drivers by having fewer exits/entrances compared to the mainline lanes of I-5. The lanes are operated on a typical daily schedule that allows for changes on weekends and occasionally for major scheduled events.

To complete the typical reversal process from one direction to another, it takes multiple crews.

  • Our Signals team handles the signs, the gates that close the express lanes to the direction in which they aren’t operating and a safety net that adds an extra bit of security to keep cars from entering in the wrong direction.
  • Our Incident Response Team drives up and down the lanes clearing them of vehicles and debris before the switch is made.
  • Our Transportation Management Center oversees the operation, using traffic cameras to verify that signs are correct and there is no traffic in the lanes.

During a typical weekday, the express lanes operate southbound from 5-11 a.m., northbound from 11:15 a.m.-11 p.m. and are closed to all traffic from 11 p.m.-5 a.m. On weekends, they are open southbound from 8 a.m.-1:30 p.m., northbound from 1:45-11 p.m. and closed from 11 p.m.-8 a.m.

Weather challenges

Snow and ice along the Mercer Street ramp to the I-5 express lanes.
Snow and ice along the Mercer Street ramp to the I-5 express lanes

Sometimes, because of construction, special events, or extreme weather, the schedule changes. The weather forecast plays a big role in determining whether our crews can safely reverse the express lanes and keep the roadway and ramps safe for the public.

It takes a serious weather situation to affect the express lanes. Rain is not a problem, and wind would have an effect only if it led to power outages disrupting our ability to operate the gates, signs, etc. Snow and ice, though, is a different story.

We monitor weather forecasts regularly, but there is a cutoff time hours before each switching of direction to make the call to reverse or not because of a variety of factors:

  • Traffic volume: The closer we get to when the peak afternoon commute starts, the more challenging and potentially dangerous it gets for our crews in the field to be able to safely reverse the lanes, especially in snowy/icy conditions.
  • Temperatures at the time of the reversal
  • Time to address issues that may arise during the switch

It takes about 40 minutes for the process to switch the express lanes, with a 15-minute period where no vehicles are on the road. In snowy, freezing conditions, we need vehicles on pavement to keep roads clear. Keeping traffic moving on a highway helps prevent snow and ice building up on lanes and ramps, which is especially important overnight. It can keep the lanes from freezing over, allowing our maintenance crews to more safely plow and treat the road and keep it open for the morning commute. This is one of the reasons we keep them southbound rather than northbound, as it assures lanes will be open during the busy AM into downtown Seattle.

Stay informed

A screenshot of the I-5 express lanes schedule webpage
A screenshot of the I-5 express lanes schedule webpage

We recognize the daily change of the express lanes schedule can be frustrating. We make these changes for the safety of our crews and the public and a lot of thought goes into the decision. As winter weather continues to come in waves for the next few months, we will continue to provide daily updates on the schedule. You can always find our express lanes schedule here. The schedule remains subject to change. Drivers will also be informed of any changes to the schedule in our mobile app, our Twitter account, and our real-time travel map.

Friday, December 16, 2022

One fish, two fish, three fish passages

 By Adrienne Hatmaker

The 2022 construction season in western Washington was really busy. And sorry to say, 2023 will be even busier.

Because our region’s rainy weather typically leads to a short construction season of just six or so months – if we’re lucky – we look to adjust where we can.

For example, we took three separate fish passage projects from across King County and grouped them together under one contract, the Interstate 90 West Fish Passage bundle. This saves time and money in the long run, as one contractor and WSDOT project office can work together at multiple sites to complete the project. Construction is scheduled to start in 2023 and continue through 2026.

I-90 Sunset Creek

In spring 2023, our contractor Atkinson Construction will start work on four new bridges on I-90 and local roads in Bellevue to remove a long culvert and restore natural stream conditions for Sunset Creek. Before major construction begins, crews will do geotechnical drilling which will require some overnight lane closures starting the week of Dec. 18.

Interior view of the Sunset Creek culvert under I-90.

Situated just east of the I-405 interchange, this upcoming fish passage for Sunset Creek presents several challenges, including the depth that crews will have to drill down. It’s nearly 100 feet under I-90 where the existing culvert crosses. That’s the main reason this project will take several years.

During the span of this project, we will shift lanes on I-90 and close lanes on local roads so crews can dig down, remove the existing culverts, create a new streambed, and install two new bridges on I-90, one on Southeast Eastgate Way and one on Southeast 36th Street in Bellevue. This project is part of our efforts to remove fish passage barriers and restore access to fish habitat as part of a federal court ruling protecting treaty rights for local tribes.

By building four new fish passages under I-90, Southeast Eastgate Way and Southeast 36th Street, we can return Sunset Creek to its natural stream conditions and open important spawning habitat to help several species recover.

The other fish passage projects included in this bundle are on SR 161 and SR 202 and 203. Because there are multiple locations, our contractor will spread the work over several construction seasons between now and 2026. We will continue to report important project updates on our social media channels and in our weekly traffic news email as the project progresses.

What I-90 travelers and users of local roads can expect

  • Long-term lane reductions and lane shifts for both directions of I-90.
  • A single lane of alternating traffic on Southeast 36th Street for up to 1½ years.
  • A six-month full closure of Southeast Eastgate Way.
Exterior view of the Sunset Creek culvert under I-90 near Bellevue.

What travelers on SR 161 near Federal Way and Milton can expect

  • A reduction of lanes to one in each direction of SR 161 around-the-clock for up to six months. Traffic will be shifted to one side of the highway to build the first half and then shifted again to finish the other half of the new structure.
  • Up to four weekends of full highway closures.
  • Intermittent nightly lane closures.
A map showing the locations of three culverts that will be replaced under SR 161 to Hylebos Creek near Federal Way, Wash.

What East King County travelers on SR 202/203 can expect

  • SR 202 culverts at Skunk Creek: The highway reduced to one lane of alternating traffic for up to eight months or building a short-term bypass route by using Southeast Fish Hatchery Road. We're still determining which will work best for the community.
  • SR 203 culverts: One weekend closure at Northeast Carnation Farm Road; a long duration closure with one lane of alternating traffic at 324th Way Northeast.
This map shows the locations on SR 202 and 203 near Fall City and Carnation where fish passage work will occur.

New fish passages

Replacing these culverts and rebuilding the streams will provide new habitat for the Coho, resident trout, steelhead, and sea-run cutthroat that use these waterways and nearby wetlands. Each culvert has a potential habitat gain ranging from 1,066 to more than 1,300 meters. These improvements and habitat gains will help restore fish runs and increase the population of these species.

When complete, this project will benefit commercial seafood operations, recreational fishers, and provide more food for our declining orca population.

Public outreach

During the design phase for all three fish passage locations, we held a series of briefings to a wide range of stakeholders, including essential services, area school districts, city councils, and members of the public who attended online meetings. As plans and schedules get firmed up, the construction project team will continue outreach efforts and schedule a variety of in-person and virtual briefings.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

What’s the latest on the new SR 3 highway in Belfair?

By Mark Krulish

Residents and commuters alike know about the traffic challenges we have in downtown Belfair on State Route 3. Rush hour traffic clogs up the roadway. Drivers making turns on and off the highway slow down the flow of vehicles. The jams can also affect emergency response times.

We have been working on a project for a few years that will be a great benefit to Belfair – a new freight corridor through the area intended to ease traffic on the main route through the area.

In fact, the SR 3 freight corridor is among only a handful of new roadways that are planned in the entire state.

We understand this idea for a new highway around Belfair has been around for a long time. We also know many folks are wondering when the road will finally be built. We expect construction to begin in 2026 – roughly two years later than first announced – with the road opening in 2028.

A look at the proposed new highway in Belfair

Reason for later than expected start date

As part of the Move Ahead Washington funding package, the project will include two more roundabouts. The connections on these roundabouts will allow for new local roads to be built in the future by Mason County. Adding these improvements to the project means we need more time to work on the design and environmental compliance, to ensure the project looks at Complete Streets.

We fully understand some will be disappointed by this news. Please know that building a new state route is a methodical process with many requirements that need to be met. The addition of two roundabouts requires work that will extend the process.

Although these new improvements represent a later than expected timeline, the good news is the Move Ahead Washington and Connecting Washington funding coming from the state legislature ensures the lion’s share of this project, including some new improvements, is funded.

Two new roundabouts at the end of the new Belfair highway will
connect to SR 302 and reconnect to SR 3.

The main elements of the project have not changed. We plan to build a new 6-mile, two-lane alternate route parallel to SR 3. A roundabout connects the new road at the north end with Southwest Lake Flora Road in Kitsap County. At the southern end, two roundabouts will be built near North Mason High School. One connects the new roadway with SR 302 and the other brings the road back to SR 3. The single-lane roundabouts are built to accommodate vehicles of all sizes with a low, drivable curb on the center island.

The new highway will allow travelers to have a quicker ride through Belfair. There are few intersections, which shortens travel time and reduces slowing or stopping traffic.

This is a complex project with many moving parts. We know regular users of SR 3 through Belfair are hoping for relief from the daily congestion. We’re thankful for your patience as we work to bring this project to life.

If you haven’t done so, please consider signing up for email updates on state highways in Mason County including the Belfair Freight Corridor.