Thursday, December 28, 2023

Protecting US 2: Project reduces debris flow risk to highway near Bolt Creek Fire burn scar

By David Rasbach

The 2022 Bolt Creek Fire burned nearly 15,000 acres in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. We had to close US 2 east of Gold Bar several times because of the active fire and debris falling onto the highway. The fire also left a burn scar that will take several years to recover.

Even after the fire, there is still a chance that debris, such as rocks and mud, might flow down from the Bolt Creek Fire burn scar. But we have good news! We just finished a project that will make it less likely for debris flows to block travel along US 2/Stevens Pass Highway.

Burn scars and debris flows

Wildfires can change the landscape, turning dense trees and vegetation into large areas with ashes and dry soil, known as burn scars.

If it rains a lot or snow on the ground melts really fast, these burn scars can produce fast-moving landslides called debris flows. These can be dangerous and might harm people and property within their path.

After the Bolt Creek wildfire, our geotechs studied the area and found two areas near the burn scar, about four miles northwest of Skykomish, where there is a higher risk of debris flows that could affect US 2.

Protecting the road: culverts and berms

In one of these areas, there are two culverts under US 2 that might get clogged if debris flows down the stream.

If the culverts clog, water, rocks and even trees could spill across the highway, forcing us to close it to clean up and maybe fix the guardrails and pavement.

To reduce this risk, we built two debris fences – one 60 feet long and the other 110 feet long – above each culvert. These fences should help stop some of the debris that reaches the culverts if a debris flow happens.

A stream channel above US 2 about 4 miles northwest of Skykomish. The channel is filled with rocks, and vegetation grows nearby. A long compost sock sits near the channel to control erosion.
Debris fences were installed along the stream channels above two culverts under US 2 to help
reduce the chances a debris flow could clog the culvert.

concrete being poured into a square wooden frame in the ground. A circular rebar foundation is in the center of the square.
Crews pour a post foundation for a new debris fence along US 2.

A large, blue and yellow drill balanced on a hill side drills an anchor hole for a debris fence being installed along US 2 near Skykomish. A crew member sits above the drill.
Work crews drill holes where anchors for posts that will support a debris fence
along US 2 will be installed.

a worker stringing up a debris fence between two metal posts in the ground. Two circles are suspended on wires, and an orange plastic fence is in the background.
Crews begin hanging a new debris fence along US 2 near Skykomish.

Work crews placing a tan erosion blanket over the earth berm along US 2. A dump truck towing a trailer with construction equipment sits along the shoulder of the highway.
The project installed two debris fences above culverts that run under US 2.

A few hundred feet up the highway, our geotechs identified a second area where a debris flow could slide across US 2.

In this area, our experts thought it would be a good idea to build a 6-foot-tall wall, called a berm, made of natural materials. This berm will guide any potential debris flows away from US 2 to a lower natural “catch” area near the highway. The berm is 94 feet long and required nearly 300 tons of material to build.

A worker on a roller compacting a pile of dirt along US 2 near Skykomish. An excavator sits along the berm next to the guardrail.
Crews began compacting soil that will make up an earth berm that will help protect US 2 from a
potential debris flow from the Bolt Creek Fire burn scar.

A berm made out of dirt along US 2 near Skykomish. An excavator is parked on the side of the road.
The completed earthen berm stands 6 feet tall and is 94 feet long. It will help protect US 2 in the event of a debris flow in the area, channeling the flow to a natural lower “catch” area.

Work crews placing a tan erosion blanket over the earth berm along US 2. A dump truck towing a trailer with construction equipment sits along the shoulder of the highway.
An erosion blanket is placed atop the new earthen berm. The berm will help direct a
potential debris flow in the area away from US 2.

The completed earthen berm with an erosion blanket over the top. An orange construction barrel sits on the shoulder of US 2 near the berm.
The completed earthen berm stands 6 feet tall and is 94 feet long. It will help protect US 2 in the event of a debris flow in the area, channeling the flow to a natural lower “catch” area.

Finishing up work

In order to get all of this work done, we had to make some changes to the traffic on US 2, but most of the work is done now. In spring 2024, we’ll add native plant seeds to help stabilize the area, but we won’t need any lane closures for that work.

Our maintenance crews will keep an eye on the highway along the burn scar, looking for downed trees and limbs, clearing ditches and culverts and looking for any early warning signs of a potential debris flow.

Hopefully, the berm and the fences are never tested by a debris flow, but Mother Nature is uncontrollable. What we can control is that we have taken the necessary steps to reduce the risk and keep US 2 open while the area recovers from the Bolt Creek Fire.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Answering your questions about toll rate changes for I-405 and SR 167

By Chris Foster

The Washington State Transportation Commission — which is responsible for setting toll rates — recently began work to assess and adjust toll rates for the Interstate 405 and State Route 167 express toll lanes. The Commission has released its toll rate proposal, which includes:

  • Increasing the minimum toll rate to $1
  • Increasing the maximum toll rate to $15
  • Extending evening tolling on I-405 by one hour, to 8 p.m.

The goal of the express toll lanes is to provide a reliable trip for transit, carpoolers and drivers who choose to pay a toll. To achieve this goal, the express toll lanes use dynamic pricing to set the toll rates.

When traffic volumes in the express toll lanes are low, the toll rate is low. As lane volumes increase, so does the toll rate which helps avoid overfilling the lanes to ensure a reliable trip for people choosing to use the lanes.

The Washington State Transportation Commission recently proposed
increasing toll rates on I-405 and SR 167.

The Commission has not adjusted toll rates for the SR 167 HOT lanes and the I-405 express toll lanes since the toll facilities opened in 2008 (SR 167) and 2015 (I-405). The decision to increase toll rates is never made lightly and is informed by careful analysis.

With that in mind, we want to provide a chance for you to share your thoughts on the proposed toll rate proposal.  You can get more information on the proposal, the process, the schedule and how to provide comments on the Commission’s website.  The Commission will hold its final hearing regarding the proposed changes at 9 a.m. on January 29. The hearing will be virtual and you can register to attend and comment on the Commission’s website.

We also know you probably have questions about the decision to adjust toll rates. We’ll answer some of the more common questions we receive and share the rationale behind why increasing the minimum and maximum toll rates is needed.

Why now?

With the new Renton to Bellevue express toll lanes scheduled to open in 2025, assessing the toll rates for the current facilities is necessary to ensure consistency for the future 50-mile corridor. However, a couple of different factors play into the updated timing for the rate adjustments currently being considered:

  • Per state law, the Commission is required to periodically review toll rates in relation to traffic performance of all lanes to determine if the toll rates are effectively maintaining travel time, speed and reliability. The Legislature included further direction regarding rate adjustments in the most recent transportation budget.
  • Population in the corridor has increased significantly since these facilities opened, and congestion has continued to worsen. As a result, the express toll lanes are unable to consistently meet their performance goals, and people paying to use the lanes are experiencing slower speeds.

One of the key metrics we use to measure express toll lane performance is how often traffic is traveling 45 mph or more during peak periods (5 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m.). The graph below shows the percentage of time speeds reached or exceeded 45 mph during the past year.

Only the northbound I-405 peak period— which features more capacity with two express toll lanes between Bellevue and Bothell — is consistently meeting the 45 mph metric. The remaining three sections often reach the maximum rate due to high demand, at which point the ability to manage traffic and ensure a reliable trip is limited.

The Renton to Bellevue Widening and Express Toll Lanes project will add two new express toll lanes in each direction. Increasing the maximum rate will provide greater ability to manage traffic when many people are choosing to use the lanes, and help generate revenue for important corridor projects such as the I-405 Brickyard to SR 527 Improvement project and the SR 167 Toll Equipment Upgrade project.

Won’t this price out people who can’t afford to use the lanes for $15?

Most people won’t end up paying the maximum toll rate. In September 2023, the average daily toll paid by drivers with an active Good To Go! account and pass installed in their vehicle was $2.41 for the I-405 express toll lanes, and $3.36 for the SR 167 HOT lanes. During that same time, only 4 percent of trips reached the maximum rate in the I-405 express toll lanes, and 8 percent in the SR 167 HOT lanes.

If and when the toll rate reaches its maximum, that means many people are choosing to pay for a reliable trip, most likely due to heavy congestion in the general purpose lanes. We know some drivers will adjust their travel times, as the maximum toll rate is typically only reached during peak periods. Other drivers may adjust the way they commute (by joining a carpool or using public transportation).

How often will toll rates reach the new maximum?

We don’t know for sure how often the lanes will fill up and slow speeds down, causing the rates to increase. We do know that the current rates are reaching the maximum rate during peak periods more frequently, and when that happens, performance decreases as travel speeds in the lane slow down for everyone. In other words, people are paying for but not receiving the intended 45 mph or better speeds.

We looked at how often speeds were reaching 45 mph during peak periods in September 2023 from Tuesdays to Thursdays — which are generally the days we see the highest traffic volumes — and how often the toll rates were reaching their maximum during that same timeframe.

As you can see in the chart above, sections of the corridor that reach the maximum toll rate more frequently are meeting the 45 mph speed metric less often. In other words, once the toll rates reach their maximums, our ability to manage the lanes is limited and the result is slower speeds and a less reliable trip.

What is the timeline for these changes?

The Commission’s schedule for making changes to the toll rates is as follows:

  • January 17/18, 2024: The Commission will take public comment on the selected toll rate changes.
  • January 29, 2024:  The Commission will hold a final hearing to adopt toll rate changes, and public comment will be taken at the hearing.
  • March 1, 2024:  Toll rate adjustments take effect.

You can sign up to attend and provide comments at the two January Commission meetings on their website.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

The nuts and bolts of keeping our equipment running

By Tina Werner

Winter weather has arrived in the Pacific Northwest and you’ve likely already seen images of our snow plows and other equipment out keeping roads clear and safe. But what you haven’t seen much of is the work of our maintenance mechanics, the MVPs behind the scenes tirelessly working to keep that equipment running. And especially this time of year, that is no easy task. With more than 500 snowplows and many other pieces of equipment, it’s a never-ending challenge to keep everything ready to go for winter.

Earlier this fall our Wenatchee maintenance shop was hard at work preparing snow blowers
and dump trucks for winter operations.

By the numbers

While our named tow plows – Plowie McPlow Plow, The Big Leplowski, Sir Plows-A-Lot and Betty Whiteout – get a lot of attention, they are just four of 565 snowplows/dump trucks we maintain statewide. We also have 36 motor graders and 29 snowblowers, and it’s a lot of work to make sure they run smoothly each year. In 2023 alone, we spent 846 hours of labor on our snowplows, which ran for 18,000 hours. Combined that is approximately 815,000 miles traveled to clear and treat roads of snow and ice across the state – and doesn’t count labor or miles traveled for our graders or blowers, which you can imagine is a lot.

In preparation for this winter, we purchased just about 1,000 new plow bits – disposable parts that ride on the ground, shave snow and ice from the road and need to be replaced to keep equipment operational – to the cost of $976,380. Plow bits can be replaced monthly if they’re used in moderate snow and as often as every week in heavy snow, while maintenance shops that see little snow may only have to replace them every year.

And you thought maintaining your vehicle was expensive!

Getting and keeping our vehicles ready for winter is no small task, and includes installing and
replacing plow bits (left) and putting tire chains on some pretty big tires.

Our plows cover more than 20,000 lane miles and travel at slower speeds to clear snow properly, right around 25 to 35 miles per hour. Our snow removal equipment needs constant maintenance, and sourcing to find the right part in the event it wears out or is damaged in a collision is vital. Occasionally, our mechanics are able to piece various parts together and create one-of-a-kind repairs because some of our trucks are so old they don’t make parts for them anymore.  

Switching to winter

There is a lot that goes into a well-oiled maintenance shop and we aren’t just talking greasy hands and classic rock music. Our mechanics service dozens of vehicles every week and during storms they work both day and night to turn equipment around as quickly and as safely as possible to get snowplows back on the roads.

“It takes on average up to six hours to transition our dump trucks to operable snowplows during the winter,” said Bryan Dean, one of our equipment technician supervisors.

One of our Wenatchee mechanics works under a dump truck to prepare it for winter. It takes on
average about six hours to switch a dump truck into a snowplow.

Our mechanics remove the dump body from the truck (which is used to haul dirt and other debris during the spring and summer) and add the salt body container to the back (which holds salt for treating the roads). Then we add the actual plow to the front of the dump truck and do a full commercial vehicle inspection before we give them the green light. Our mechanics are checking things like the brakes, windshield wipers, hydraulic hoses and air lines. Additional time may be needed if other repairs are discovered.

We recently honored one of our hard-working maintenance mechanics, Perry Chappelle, with our agency’s Fleet Administrator of Excellence Award in Leavenworth, where he works. Perry has transformed the Leavenworth parts room into a well-functioning program while creating a positive team environment for his other technicians servicing equipment. He has made the procurement of hard-to-source parts easier for his team, which in turn puts big trucks and plows back onto the road faster. Without folks like Perry sourcing equipment parts and making critical repairs to our plows, it would take longer to clear the roads and longer for drivers to get where they need to go. We’re so grateful to Perry and all our mechanics for their fantastic work.

Perry Chappelle (left) is presented with our Fleet Administrator of Excellence award for his service
keeping our equipment running by Fleet Administrator Ernie Sims

We wouldn’t be who we are without the dedication of our employees – and especially this time of year - our mechanics.

Join our team + we will train you to succeed!

We are always looking for great people to join our team and that includes mechanics. We also provide ongoing training to our current staff so they can learn the ins and outs of equipment sourcing, repairs and to maintain their commercial drivers license to operate a snowplow. If you are interested in working on some mighty machines where your work helps keep travelers all over the state safe, check out our employment page and search “equipment technician, mechanic or highway maintenance worker” in the field bar.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Despite extra work caused by cold winters, regional repair project creates smoother ride on 17 bridges

By David Rasbach

If the past two winters seemed a little more harsh than usual to you, our bridges felt it, too.

Earlier this month, we wrapped up construction on our Northwest Region Strategic Concrete Bridge Deck Preservation project. The original design called for repairing or replacing 6,960 square feet of damaged concrete sections along 17 bridges throughout King, Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties.

Crews smooth a new section of concrete on westbound South Columbia Way bridge over I-5 in Seattle.

When our contractor, Combined Construction Inc., completed work in mid-November, the area repaired had grown by more than 75 percent to 12,204 square feet. The biggest reason for that increase was the damage to the concrete caused by the cold temperatures seen during the 2021-22 and 2022-23 winter seasons.

Before the project made repairs, many of these concrete bridge decks had temporary patches covering old potholes and ruts. Removing damaged and patched areas and replacing them with new slabs of concrete helped preserve the bridges, extend their lifespan and provide a smoother ride.

Crews repaired damaged sections of 17 bridges across four western counties including the South Spokane St. on-ramp to southbound I-5 in Seattle.

Despite the increased workload courtesy of Mother Nature, we were able to make repairs in less than half the 87 work days allotted, lessening the inconvenience to people who use the bridges we repaired. Combined Construction lived up to its name, combining with us and a local concrete design specialist to create a concrete mix that would cure in just 12 hours. That allowed us to reduce the number of weekend-long closures needed from the 17 originally planned to just nine.

Some of the bridges we repaired included:

  • The Cornell Creek and Glacier Creek bridges along State Route 542/Mount Baker Highway in Whatcom County.
  • The Baker River bridge along SR 20/North Cascades Highway and the SR 9 bridge over the Skagit River in Skagit County.
  • The Interstate 5 and Alderwood Mall Boulevard bridges over SR 524 in Lynnwood, along with the SR 203 bridge over the Skykomish River and the US 2 bridge over the South Fork Skykomish River in Snohomish County.
  • The I-90 bridges over Raging River and East Fork Issaquah Creek in King County.
  • Several bridges over I-5 south of Seattle, including the Spokane Street Viaduct/South Columbian Way bridges and ramps.

We recognize that even though crews were able to get a lot of work done in a shorter amount of time, anytime roads are disrupted it can be a hassle. We appreciate everyone’s patience and cooperations as we were able to get so many bridges repaired!

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Finding salmon in Purdy Creek and opening the new SR 302 Spur bridge

CORRECTION: 4:15 p.m. Nov. 29, 2023
The SR 302 Spur is scheduled to reopen on Saturday, Dec. 2.

By Angela Cochran

As Gill said in Finding Nemo, “Fish aren’t made to be in a box, kid.” And even if many drains do lead to the ocean, fish may not be able to swim through some culverts along the way. Now, fish won’t struggle to pass under the State Route 302 Spur in Purdy.

Fish recently spotted swimming from Burley Lagoon into Purdy Creek and upstream under the SR 302 Spur

Our contractor closed the SR 302 Spur in April. The closure allowed crews to start building a bridge to replace an old culvert that was a barrier to fish. This past summer, we relocated the stream and blocked off the old culvert. Now, fish can swim freely between Burley Lagoon and Purdy Creek. And very soon, people will no longer have to detour around the construction. On Saturday, Dec. 2, crews will remove the detour and open the new bridge to traffic.

Getting back to normal on Purdy Lane Northwest

Once crews remove the detour, they will work to return things to the way they were before construction. This includes removing extra asphalt along the shoulders of Purdy Lane Northwest. Travelers can expect some nighttime lane closures while this work takes place. Then, crews will remove the “no parking” signs, and students and staff at Peninsula High School will be able to use that area as overflow parking again. We greatly appreciate the community’s patience and understanding while these temporary changes were in place. Our contractor also picked up trash throughout the area to leave a cleaner and safer route behind.

Before the cold weather and rain, crews paved the road leading up to the new bridge
and a portion of 144th Street Northwest.

More work to do

Even though the bridge will be open, we aren’t quite finished with the SR 302 Spur portion of the project. Crews still need to complete more paving work.  

While we’d like to pave now, the weather isn’t cooperating. If we paved now, we wouldn’t have a quality and long-lasting driving surface. This is due to temperatures and why you see most paving work during the spring, summer and early fall.

That means we will be back in the spring to finish paving the SR 302 Spur, Purdy Lane Northwest and some of 144th Street Northwest.

After that happens, crews will apply the final pavement markings. We’re also thrilled to open the new shared-use path on the new bridge at that time. The community asked for this, and we listened. We changed plans to create a protected shared-use path for people who walk or roll.  We are excited to offer this solution and greatly appreciate the community working with us.

People who walk and roll will have a protected path on the new SR 302 Bridge
when crews return in the spring.

Planning, designing and building a transportation system that includes access for all people including pedestrians and bicyclists is part of the Complete Streets requirement that was passed by the Washington State Legislature in 2022. However, this project was designed, advertised and awarded before the legislation was enacted.

Adding to the design is not something we are normally able to do during construction. But in this case, there is enough room on the new bridge to create the new protected shared-use path.

SR 16 update

While work is almost complete at the SR 302 Spur, there is another year or so left on the SR 16 portion of the project. Crews started working on the new bridge after moving eastbound traffic into the median lanes. They finished drilling the shafts a couple of weeks ago. The shafts provide the foundation for a new bridge. Workers are now building the walls, girders, and road features of the new bridge.

After moving eastbound traffic into the median lanes, crews started drilling shafts
that will support the bridge girders.

We expect to hit the next milestone sometime in the spring when we plan to set the bridge girders. The girders are the backbone and support the bridge deck. During girder setting, crews will close eastbound SR 16 to travelers for several nights with a detour around the work zone.

We’ll also be able to work in the water during the summer. That work will include relocating the stream and blocking off the culvert. It’s a similar approach to what we did at SR 302.

We expect to open the new eastbound bridge towards the end of 2024. We’ll be able to wrap up any remaining work after that to complete the project.

In the meantime, we will keep sending email updates on any traffic or schedule changes. People can also get real-time traffic information on the state-wide travel map or by downloading our app. Please remember to slow down and pay attention in the work zone. A lot of this work takes place at night, and our crews want to get home to their families safe and sound.

Climate mitigation and the Highway System Plan

By James Detke

We seek to balance our policy goals of preservation, safety, stewardship, mobility, economic vitality, and environment when making decisions. Under limited funding this leads to difficult tradeoffs. The draft Highway System Plan (HSP) addresses many diverse and complex issues, one of which is Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG). To ensure the final funding recommendations balance policy goals and public preferences, the HSP includes GHG analysis of several investment scenarios.

Expanding infrastructure for people walking and biking on all roads including state highways can increase the number of people using low-emission transportation.

Modeling the outcomes of our options

We used state of the art analysis to test and compare the performance of different futures to inform decisions. This analysis examined how changes in funding would lead to changes in the transportation system and how people use it.

The final scenarios we considered provided between 2.3 and 3.7 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions when compared to the baseline scenario. The baseline uses estimated 2040 emissions with no changes to future funding.

The baseline is not the focus of the analysis but provides a common reference point to focus on the effects of the funding scenarios alone. A major feature of the baseline and all scenarios was consistency with the state energy strategy, which calls for all light duty vehicles sold from model year 2030 and beyond to be electric, including transit vans. Additionally, the analysis assumed there would be no changes to the powertrains or fuel sources of heavy trucks or transit buses. Our modeling excluded all marine vessels, vehicles and equipment off the roads, and aircraft.

Effective levers to reduce emissions

As part of our analysis, we created an illustrative scenario that examined the impact we could have when considering more than just highway program funding. The changes we examined in this analysis included tolling, fuel taxes, parking costs, congestion fees and more.

While we did not complete a full analysis due to time limitations, this unconstrained scenario provided a 12.19% reduction to GHG emissions compared to baseline. The meaningful reductions in emissions from changes to highway funding are just one part of the story. Changes in fuel sources and land use systems can lead to substantially greater reductions.

Along with our partners we are involved in larger projects that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our state through methods other than highway spending. The Washington State Energy Strategy outlines two main strategies to reduce emissions – one through efficiency improvements and the other through increasing adoption of electric and low-carbon fuel vehicles.

Moving people and goods more efficiently and equitably will require a combination of strategies that eliminate some trips, reduce the length of some trips, and improve transportation choices to substitute more efficient modes for driving alone. Vehicle travel can be reduced if we can access our jobs, education, goods, and services comfortably and efficiently using transit, walking, biking, rolling, or through online methods.

One big way we are working towards moving people efficiently is through complete streets. Complete streets is an approach to planning, designing, building, operating and maintaining the transportation system that enables safe and convenient access to destinations for all people using all types of transportation. All agency projects costing $500,000 or more are required to incorporate complete streets principles.

Totem Lake Freeway Station provides bus access for people walking, rolling and making transit connections. Active transportation and transit investments support transportation efficient land use strategies.

Another overarching method to limit transportation GHG emissions is to reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels. This means adopting electric vehicles (EV), promoting use of green hydrogen and low-carbon fuels, and reducing the embodied emissions in transportation infrastructure. Increasing EV and alternative-fuel use requires additional policies and programs to reduce the cost of these fuels and vehicles and improve the charging and refueling networks. The state is working on a variety of projects and programs to make electric vehicles more accessible to all our residents through incentives, charging network improvements, electrifying ferries, and other strategies.

An electric car being charged at a West Coast Electric Highway station in Skykomish. Transitioning to electric vehicles is an essential part of reducing emissions.

Incorporating public preferences

Public engagement was a vital part of creating the HSP. Understanding how people use the highway system and how they envision its future allows us to make recommendations that serve residents all over the state.

The public preferred scenario, which is our recommendation, strikes a balance between reducing greenhouse gas emissions, keeping our highway system in a state of good repair, and allowing strategic expansion that focuses on moving people and goods safely and efficiently. This scenario will result in a 2.3 percent reduction when compared to our baseline. Across the state we were fortunate to hear a diverse range of perspectives. Most people supported prioritizing repairing our highway system and funding safety and efficiency strategies while still providing some funding to expand the highway system.

Acting on climate change

We are working to reduce GHG emissions through collaborations, policy guidance, administering grants, and overall planning for a transportation system that has low carbon impacts. Find more information on our efforts to address transportation GHG emissions on our website.

Read and comment on the draft Highway System Plan

The draft Highway System Plan is available for public comment, and we want to hear from you! Your comments help us make recommendations that best serve the diverse communities affected by transportation decisions. Visit the HSP website to learn more, review the plan, and visit the online open house. There will also be a link to join the virtual public meeting from 2 to 3 p.m. on Nov. 30 where you can hear more about the plan and provide direct feedback.

Public comments will be accepted through 5 p.m., Dec. 18.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Opening the next section of the North Spokane Corridor: full completion now in sight

By Joe McHale

Whether you’ve lived in Spokane your whole life, or just recently moved to the Lilac City, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard or perhaps uttered these eight words: “It will never be built in my lifetime.” Sometimes those eight words come in the form of a rhetorical eight-word question: “Will it ever be built in my lifetime?”

This pessimistic perspective regarding the North Spokane Corridor is understandable considering the idea was first conceived by the community in 1946, but it’s no longer warranted. Thursday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony to open a new section, which was the first for the megaproject in 11 years, marked a huge milestone for the NSC that is now more than 70 percent constructed and on the fast track to completion.

Think of this milestone as the moment in which a stone is launched from a slingshot; the lead-up to the event is long and stretched out, but anticipation is building. Then, like a stone being hurled from an elastic band, a fast and furious acceleration occurs until a target is reached. With that in mind, let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at how we got to November 16, 2023, and where we are headed the next six years.

The new link of the North Spokane Corridor opened on November 16

How we got here

The first plans for a north-south freeway in Spokane were adopted in 1958 with an estimated cost of $13 million. However, interstate freeways were prioritized over a north-south freeway and the project never gained traction.

In 1970, the Department of Highways (now WSDOT) released a “Corridor Study for North Spokane and North Suburban Area Freeway.” The recommended route was west of its current location, along Hamilton and Nevada streets.

An environmental statement was completed in 1972 but never approved and, in 1974, funding for a north-south freeway was cut from the state budget.

Between 1985 and 1988 the Spokane Regional Council identified a lack of regional facilities on the north side of Spokane as a major problem and requested a short and long-term “North Spokane Transportation Study.” Those studies were completed along with the recommendation to build a North Spokane Corridor along Market Street with an estimated cost of $400 million.

Three alternative North Spokane Corridor options based on traffic studies in 1985

In 1997, the Final Environmental Impact Statement was approved, and the Federal Highway Administration allowed the design and build of the NSC to begin.

In 2000, the Washington State Legislature approved a supplemental biennial budget which paved the road to begin construction of the project.

One year later, in 2001, the NSC broke ground for the first project: Hawthorne Road to Farwell Road.

The community celebrated the first ground breaking of the North Spokane Corridor
program on Aug. 22, 2001.

Work continued with the first 3.5-mile drivable link opening in 2009 between Francis Avenue and Farwell Road. Three years later, in 2012, the entire north half of the NSC fully opened to traffic, completing the first 5.5 miles of road while the adjacent Children of the Sun Trail opened from Freya Street to the Wandermere interchange.

Construction of the Wanderemere Bridge in 2010 (left) and the NSC between
Francis Avenue and Farwell Road (right)

Okay, take a breather. That’s a lot to consume, but it is worth pausing momentarily to mention that funding was available intermittently for the first decade-plus of the corridor’s construction; It was never fully funded, and a significant part of the corridor was constructed with a Federal TIGER Grant. However, that all changed in 2015 when state legislators passed the Connecting Washington package, which fully funded the NSC for the first time in project history. That funding spread out in each two-year transportation budget through 2030.

Construction of the Freya interchange and roundabout

Let’s continue.

Work progressed south of Francis Avenue in 2018 with the construction of a new segment between Columbia and Freya Streets. The following year, we broke ground on a key project that realigned the BNSF railroad tracks to make way for the NSC to be built to the Spokane River.

Crews work through the winter to realign the BNSF railroad tracks in 2021

In 2020, construction continued south from Columbia Street to the Spokane River. The Wellesley interchange was included in this segment of the project, as was the extension of the Children of the Sun Trail. The first segment of the NSC south of the Spokane River near Spokane Community College got underway. The project known as the “Skyway” is also the first elevated section of the NSC to be constructed and was granted substantial completion as of November 1. 

The Skyway project at SCC was completed on Nov. 1, 2023.

Okay, the slingshot energy has reached max potential. There’s no going back now.  

Where we are going

So, what’s next, and when will the NSC *deep breath in* finally be completed?

First, let’s talk about Thursday’s celebration of progress. The opening of the Wellesley interchange adds 1.5-miles of drivable pavement that connects to the Freya interchange to the north. Drivers can now get on and off the NSC at Wellesley Avenue (which also reopens after more than four years of construction), bringing the total section of drivable NSC to seven miles.

Celebrating the completion of the newest section of the NSC earlier this month

Now turn your attention south of Wellesley. The remainder of Spokane River to Columbia project is nearly complete, but the section from Wellesley to the river won’t be drivable for some time because, well, there is currently nowhere to go when you reach the banks of the river.

Speaking of the Spokane River, the project to cross it is already underway. Once complete, it may very well provide the most picturesque section of the NSC with its architecturally appealing twin bridges.

A rendering of the NSC and Children of the Sun Trail crossing the Spokane River

As mentioned, the portion just south of the river at SCC is complete.

In 2024, the next two phases of the project between Sprague Avenue and the Spokane River will break ground.

Drumroll please.

Then in 2025, we will begin work on the final project before completion of the NSC: The connection to Interstate 90. Yes, we are only two years away from starting the final leg of the project. Light is indeed at the end of the tunnel.

The connection to I-90 will take five years to complete. It will require patience from the traveling public while it creates detours and lane closures. Once complete, it will ease the burden of routes like Division Street by allowing freight to flow freely from US 395 to I-90. In addition, moving freight off surface streets will decrease emissions and fuel consumption through direct routing and the reduction of congestion.

Beyond the freeway, the Children of the Sun Trail will continue south by connecting into the Ben Burr Trail, Centennial Trail and others. This also gives opportunity for us, the City of Spokane and Spokane Transit Authority to reimagine Division Street to include Bus Rapid Transit, giving more opportunity for alternative modes of transportation. All of which will coincide with the completion of the NSC.

So, will the NSC be built in your lifetime? If you’ve read this far, you might be convinced. If you’re still not, the thing we like to encourage people to do is to go see it with your own eyes. Drive by the towering twin bridges at SCC. Note the painted concrete stamps on the structure that pay homage to Spokane’s rich history of the river, wildlife, and the Spokane Tribe of Indians. Continue north across the river to Market Street and pay attention to the completed section of the corridor on your right. Then, enter the NSC at Wellesley Ave. and drive seven miles until it connects to US 395 in Wandermere.

The NSC is no longer mythical. It’s here and will be finished!

Replacing the Elwha River Bridge

By Mark Krulish

After serving the Olympic Peninsula for almost 100 years, the beloved Elwha River Bridge has reached the end of its useful life.

A new bridge is a necessity. Over the past several years, the Elwha River has changed its course and flow. This had led to erosion around the bridge’s foundation. In 2016, an investigation into the foundation showed it sat on gravel instead of bedrock. This did not match what the original plans from 1926 showed. We installed large boulders to prevent more erosion.

Building the new bridge

Work to replace the bridge began in 2016. We held six community meetings between 2016 and 2018.  Planning, designing and an environmental review then took place. Construction finally began on a new bridge over the Elwha River in April 2023.

For the first few months, our crews spent time preparing and clearing the site and building the piers. Over the past few weeks, you have probably noticed these new piers sticking out of the water. And on Saturday, Nov. 11, our crews finally began placing the girders for the new bridge.

Crews work between the girders on the new bridge over the Elwha River

It’s an exciting time for this project. With the girders in place, you can begin to imagine what the bridge will look like once it’s complete.

The next steps

Now that girders are in place, we can move to the next part of the project. Crews will build out the bridge deck, build the abutment walls that attach on each side of the bridge where it meets the land and then tie in the bridge to the existing highway.

The tie-ins will require a 9-day closure of US 101 at the Elwha River Bridge. This is likely to happen in late spring of 2024. While the bridge is closed, travelers will detour using State Routes 112 and 113.

We expect the new Elwha River Bridge to open to traffic sometime this coming summer.

An aerial view of the girders sitting on the piers that will form the new Elwha River Bridge 

Monitoring the old bridge

While the new bridge is being built, the old bridge is still in operation. That means we will continue to monitor it during the late fall, winter and early spring when rainfall is the heaviest.

Heavy rain can cause the river flow to pick up its pace, triggering high flood waters. A fast river can lead to the erosion of the bridge’s foundation. When those flood waters reach a certain level, we close the bridge to traffic as a safety precaution.  Once flood waters recede, structural engineers will inspect the bridge for any sign of scour or erosion at the support structure. The last time we had to close the bridge was in November 2021.

Girders were placed over the course of six mornings over the Elwha River west of Port Angeles

Stay informed

We will continue to share project information at the US 101 Elwha River Bridge project page, and on our social media channels. Real time travel information is available on our statewide travel map and on our app.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Washington state honors World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims

By Hannah Weinberger

For some of us, the story belongs to a friend. For others, a family member. Or maybe you're the one who will find this post difficult to read because you've had direct experience of traffic violence. You've experienced the impact as a driver struck you with a vehicle that outmasses you by at least a ton when you were just walking or biking somewhere. Or you were in a vehicle involved in a crash.

You're definitely not alone. Each day, more than 100 people are killed and thousands more injured on U.S. roads while simply going about their lives. These facts often get reduced to dots on a map or a bar chart. But every crash creates deep personal losses and alters lives forever—or ends them.

A cyclist rides past a roadside memorial for crash victims along Preston-Fall City Road

In our state alone, traffic violence killed at least 745 people in 2022 – the most people in a single year since 1990 – with particular threat to people walking, biking and rolling. In fact, the number of people who died because they were struck by a driver while walking or rolling has increased 141% since 2012 and reached a 30-year high in 2021. Many people are driving bigger and bigger vehicles, which research shows are more injurious to victims in crashes. Some streets and roads don't yet have places to walk or bike or get to a bus stop, but people nonetheless need to use them.

Based on data from the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission

Processing the sheer amount of preventable traffic death we face as a society is more than many people can handle. But for the organizers behind World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims, it's something we can't allow ourselves to become numb to or accept as the cost of modern living. Not when we could do more.

World Day of Remembrance, held every year on the third Sunday of November for the past three decades, draws attention to the human toll of traffic violence and demands solutions that prevent it. Hundreds of ceremonies, performances and marches simultaneously honor the more than 50 million people killed and more than 100 million injured worldwide since the first person was killed in a car crash in 1869. Participants highlight how much more support victims and their families need as they recover or mourn, and the need for accountability and action to create safer roads and save lives.

Our communities regularly come out for World Day of Remembrance, and there were lots of ways to be part of this year's events. In 2023, at least three communities — Seattle, Bellevue and Tacoma — created opportunities for people to mourn and demand action.

Our state not only rejects traffic violence as an inevitability, but through its Target Zero initiative (being updated now), aims to eliminate traffic deaths by 2030. We were the first state in the nation to set zero as the only acceptable number for traffic deaths and serious injuries.

Our agency is recognized as a national leader in its efforts to create a transportation network that works comfortably for everyone, whether they drive, walk or roll. That expectation became a legal requirement for the agency's projects in 2022 through the legislature's Complete Streets mandate.

We also recently adopted the Safe System Approach, a holistic approach that incorporates safe roads, safe speeds, safe vehicles, safe users, and post-crash care. Changing just one of these isn't enough. Like the "Swiss cheese" model of preventing the spread of disease, we need multiple layers of prevention. Addressing each of these aspects of transportation helps us improve safety for all road users.

In honor of World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims, members of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways posted signs around Seattle – like this one near Lake City – at locations where
their neighbors had been killed in car crashes.

What your neighbors did to mark World Day of Remembrance

  • Tacoma residents hosted a vigil for victims likeMichael Weilert, a 13-year-old Parkland resident killed while crossing the street at a crosswalk with his bicycle.
  • Meanwhile in Seattle, members of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways placed physical reminders of our neighbors taken too soon, leaving orange silhouette cut-outs at locations where drivers killed people in car crashes.
  • Bolstered by a new traffic safety action plan, the City of Bellevue recognized WDoR for the first time, including with an official proclamation during a meeting of the City Council.

In these and other places, people are gathering to say together, "Enough! We need action." As the WDoR organizers state on their site, "We do not want more victims to remember, we want to live our lives together."

I-5 HOV project in Pierce County aims to reduce bridge strikes on JBLM

By Cara Mitchell

It happened again. On November 3, a semi-truck got stuck on Pendleton Avenue under Interstate 5 in Pierce County. It's the fourth bridge strike this year at this location. Every time it happens, we hope that the damage is superficial because those bridge girders are holding up the lanes of I-5. So far, we've been lucky.

A semi got stuck under I-5 on Pendleton Avenue on Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Nov. 3. This caused superficial damage to the bridge girders that support I-5.

Luck only goes so far, and we have an opportunity to help reduce bridge strikes at this location from repeatedly happening.

The first stage of work for the I-5 Mounts Road to Steilacoom-DuPont Road Corridor Improvements project is underway, and coincidently, Pendleton Avenue is where our contractor is focusing first. In addition to widening I-5 for HOV lanes, this project will increase the vertical clearance on Pendleton Avenue under I-5. The bridge, which is well marked as having low clearance, will rise from the current 12 feet, 4 inches, to well over 16 feet. This means trucks traveling on Pendleton Avenue will be less likely to hit the bridge girders that support I-5 once the project is finished. That will be a relief for all of us.

Curious minds want to know…

So how do you get a large semi un-stuck from under a bridge like that? On the most recent one, crews had to deflate the tires on the semi and disengage the airbags so the truck could be lowered and hauled away.

A semi got stuck on Pendleton Avenue under I-5 on Nov. 3.

Funding for big projects like this doesn't come around very often, so when it does, we try to incorporate practical improvements like this into the design.

Work starting on northbound I-5

In this first stage of construction, northbound I-5 will be widened north of Steilacoom-DuPont Road. Part of that widening includes building a new northbound I-5 bridge over Pendleton Avenue. Traffic on I-5 will be shifted toward the median while crews work on the outside shoulders of the interstate. Three northbound lanes will be maintained during times when we typically see peak travel times. Travelers on Pendleton Avenue will see some overnight closures and alternating one-way traffic while this work is underway.

Pendleton Avenue under I-5 on JBLM is part of a work zone for the I-5 Mounts Road to Steilacoom-DuPont Road improvement project. Crews will soon begin work to expand northbound I-5 in the area.

Work to build new roundabout begins

Crews have also started removing vegetation for the future Steilacoom-DuPont Road ramp connection to I-5 and the new roundabout, located in DuPont. As these photos below show, much of this work will happen away from live traffic.

Crews recently cleared trees and brush at the new roundabout location behind Barksdale Station in DuPont.

The new ramp and roundabout that will connect drivers to I-5 is expected to open in 2026. We will share updated schedule information on the project webpage and in future blogs as the project progresses.

Work zone safety

Please stay alert in all work zones to help keep crews safe. Don't drive distracted and keep your speed in check. We've seen work zone collisions in the past delay the progress of construction projects. We can all work together to help keep this project on track by consistently practicing safe driving through work zones. Most importantly, all our crews want to make it home to their families at the end of their shifts. We appreciate your help on this important issue.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

I-405 overpass replacement in Renton gaining momentum

By Tom Pearce

We took a big bite out of the project to replace the Lind Avenue overpass above southbound I-405 in Renton a couple of weeks ago, and now we're getting ready for the next part of the job.

The big bite – actually many, many bites, were made by demolition equipment that tore down the north span of the overpass. This happened over the weekend of Nov. 4-5, when all lanes of the southbound freeway were closed.

It took about eight hours to rip down the damaged north span of the I-405 Lind Avenue overpass in Renton.

Now we turn our attention to installing the new girders. This work will happen during overnight closures of the southbound lanes, starting at 11 p.m. Monday, Dec. 4, through Friday morning, Dec. 7. The highway will reopen at 4:30 each morning.

The first part of the work, which included restriping both directions of 405 to accommodate construction as well as demolition, went well despite one hiccup. Our first night of striping was rained out. But our contractor, Johansen Construction, squeezed in the striping work during the weekend, thus avoiding more weeknight closures.

During overnight closures on southbound I-405, people traveling will need to use the SR 167 interchange to continue toward Tukwila and SeaTac International Airport.

The next big process is installing the eight new concrete girders that will support the north span of the Lind Avenue overpass. We can't have traffic on the freeway while we're putting up girders, so we'll have about a week of overnight full closures. People traveling will detour via the SR 167 interchange, Rainier Avenue and Grady Way before rejoining southbound I-405 at Interurban Avenue.

Once the girders are in place, we'll begin rebuilding the overpass deck. Some lanes of southbound I-5 will be closed overnight for this work, but we won't have to close all the lanes, so people won't need to detour.

We expect work to finish in spring 2024 and restore a vital connection over I-405 for people in Renton and others who use this freeway.

Girders were damaged by a backhoe

This all started back in June 2022 when a backhoe being towed on a trailer hit five of the eight girders supporting the Lind overpass. It basically damaged every other girder, so it was more cost-effective to replace the overpass than remove some girders without damaging others.

The backhoe damaged the first, third, fifth, sixth and eighth girders of the southbound I-405 overpass.

We are still working with the owner of the backhoe and their insurance to recover the costs to replace the overpass span.

A lot goes into replacing an overpass – design, hiring a contractor, getting materials, scheduling, etc. We appreciate the patience of the people who have had to use detours to get around this site, as well as the city of Renton, which has been a very helpful partner since this all starting in 2022.

It's taken a long time to get to this point, but we'll keep chewing away at this project into spring 2024 when we open the new overpass.