Tuesday, January 24, 2023

With a little luck, we finished Everett I-5 pavement work in January

By Kurt Batdorf

There’s never a good time to close lanes to do road work.

Any day, and any time of any day, we pick to close lanes will inconvenience and annoy a lot of people because there’s just a lot of traffic these days. Weekends tend to be less busy than weekdays and people are typically more able to adjust their plans on weekends than during the work week.

This is why so much of our major work, like this past weekend when we reduced Interstate 5 through Everett to one lane around the clock to replace concrete pavement panels, happens on weekends. We need several days in a row to do the work and allow the concrete to harden, and that is better accomplished on weekends than weekdays when most people need to get to work at specific times.

But isn’t January too cold, too wet, too unpredictable for construction?

Almost always, yes. In this case, we got lucky with contractor availability and weather.

Warm enough...barely

We covered why this work needed to happen in a previous blog but in short, we needed the contractor to replace the panels sooner than this spring – which was the original plan – to avoid another emergency closure like we recently had.

Our engineers and contractor Acme’s project manager mulled options. The weather forecast for Jan. 21 and 22 looked like it’d be just warm enough and not too wet. Acme could work that weekend, but they’d need to work around the clock, night and day, to pour concrete that spread across all lanes of the freeway. That meant we could only keep a single lane open to create space for a safe work zone. The plan firmed up on Tuesday, Jan. 17.

Acme Concrete Paving finish up work on three new concrete panels on I-5 in Everett

The weather forecast was a big motivator and a bigger variable. The type of cement we specified for this project can be poured when it’s raining, which is good, because it rained on Saturday while the work was happening. The challenge is it won’t cure properly if it’s near freezing, and we were awfully close to those temperatures Friday and Saturday nights, but luckily, it stayed warm enough.

Fortunately, Acme anticipated the weather. Crews used heated water in the quick-set concrete mix to speed up the cure time. They then covered each new slab with plastic and fabric to protect the concrete as it hardened, eventually getting strong enough to support full vehicle weight. Under ideal circumstances this takes two to three hours, but Acme wasn’t working under ideal circumstances. While it stayed warm enough to get this done, it was cold enough that it took the concrete longer to set than it would on a warm summer day. This is why it may look like no work is happening when you drive by construction sites: There just isn’t much to see when concrete sets.

The good news is Acme finished the work and had all lanes reopened by 7:15 p.m. Sunday, almost 10 hours ahead of schedule. Acme also refreshed the temporary lane striping to make it more visible for drivers. They’ll install permanent striping after they replace bridge expansion joints in the spring, which will require more lane shifting.

Acme crews smooth new concrete under a covering to keep it dry from the rain on I-5 in Everett

So why not do this on other projects?

So, if we were able to pour concrete and get this done in January, why not do it for other projects rather than waiting until summer?

It’s a fair question.

Construction lead Cody Filley said it’s unusual for us to have temperatures favorable enough over several days this time of year to be able to do a project like this. And while we can do things like using burlap covers, plastic sheets and water heaters to battle the elements, we can only do that to a certain point, and it makes the project more expensive because of the extra materials, time and labor. When it gets too cold, concrete just doesn’t cure fast enough or properly enough to be able to reliably reopen lanes to traffic.

It also helps that, while the scope of this project was big, it wasn’t nearly as large as the work we do in the summer. The largest hole Acme filled was 12 by 47 feet, but most were only 12 by 16 feet. The quick-set concrete can be poured in the rain even when it’s close to freezing. That’s not the case for the polyester-reinforced concrete we use on Revive I-5 bridge decks in Seattle and expansion joint projects, which while a stronger, better option for those bridge decks, we can pour only when the surface is bone dry, it’s well above freezing and there’s no chance of rain.

Acme crews worked night and day over the weekend to get the
concrete replacement work on I-5 in Everett done.

Could we repeat this on a larger scale, say, over several hundred or several thousand continuous feet of new concrete and work through the winter? It sounds appealing, sure, and we would love to. We just can’t count on the weather to be as cooperative as it was this past weekend.

That said, we know it was challenging for many of you. While we did a full-court press in terms of getting the word out through our various communications channels, it’s impossible to reach everyone and we know some of you were surprised. We appreciate your patience while we got this work done and we’re happy there is fresh new concrete and lane striping for drivers through this busy section of Everett.

Monday, January 23, 2023

A new approach to winter guardrail repair

By April Leigh

When it comes to winter maintenance needs on state highways, the words “weather dependent” take on a whole new meaning. Starting in November, when road crews split into day and night shifts, they balance their time between responding to severe weather events and tackling maintenance needs.

Even for the most skilled professionals, it’s a race to get all the work done. Especially when it comes to the repair and replacement of guardrail on state highways.

Guardrail is a critical safety component of the state highway system. It’s used in areas where leaving the road presents a significant hazard to travelers. For example, you will often see it placed in areas with steep slopes. It’s also used as a barrier to protect things near the road from getting hit. It’s very good at doing its job but unfortunately repairs are needed regularly because of crashes.

Crews removing nuts and bolts from damaged guardrail before
replacing it on SR 161 at Edgewood Hill

“We prioritize the most important repairs and complete as much as possible during the winter. But with split shifts and weather, it can get very tough to manage,” said Michael Gauger, one of our maintenance superintendents.

Challenges keeping up with guardrail work led Gauger to propose a new idea this year. Why not keep some of the seasonal staff hired to help keep up with summer work like paving, and teach them winter guardrail maintenance? It makes sense, given they’re already training in safety and traffic control and other procedures.

To the untrained eye, repairing and replacing guardrail may seem like a straightforward task. However, the work takes time and skill. Maintenance teams need to know how to fix and replace the rails, posts, connections to the posts, end terminals, and the anchors. It’s a lot to learn.

Crews pulling damaged guardrail posts anchored to the ground
alongside SR 161 at Edgewood Hill

This winter Gauger was given the go-ahead to carry over seven seasonal employees from the summer to focus on guardrail work in the Tacoma area. The team, trained by senior maintenance workers, have made a big difference in the amount of guardrail work getting done this season. Since November, the crew completed guardrail projects at more than 40 different locations, with more locations scheduled for work through April.

“We’ve been hearing from local folks, they are happy we’re fixing things and praising the crew for doing the work,” Gauger said.

Panels of new guardrail are installed at SR 161 at Edgewood Hill

We’ve also integrated the guardrail team into multi-crew work on roads with high traffic volumes, allowing crews to do several types of maintenance jobs in a single closure while limiting effects to travelers. For example, if there’s a guardrail repair job, we’ll also try to tackle things like vegetation management, clearing storm drains or fixing signs in the same area at the same time.

“Every job the crew is doing is one that probably would not have Agot done otherwise this winter,” Gauger said. “In the end, we’re all better for it.”

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Why we're closing I-5 lanes in Everett again

By Kurt Batdorf

No one who drives Interstate 5 through Everett wants to repeat Jan. 12, when we had to reduce the northbound freeway to one lane to make a weekday emergency pavement repair near Marine View Drive.

When a concrete panel pops up and creates a 3-inch-high ledge that suddenly covers half of the center lane, as was the case that day, we can’t wait. We had to fix it immediately.

There’s never a good time to close lanes on the state’s busiest freeway, but we need to do more work to be sure this doesn’t happen again. So our contractor, Acme Concrete Paving, is returning this weekend to finish pavement repairs on I-5 near Marine View Drive. Northbound I-5 will be reduced to one lane from 10 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20, through 5 a.m. Monday, Jan. 23.

So, here we are again. Kind of.

We know that a weekend-long reduction to a single lane will be challenging and is likely to create long backups on I-5, westbound US 2 and Everett city streets, so we’re asking drivers to plan ahead. Use our real-time traffic app before you hit the road. If you can use an alternate route like State Route 9 to bypass Everett, please do so. If you can’t, you’ll have to allow more time to get through Everett.

When this section of concrete on northbound I-5 near Marine View Drive popped loose earlier this month, an emergency repair required two lanes of the highway to be closed. Crews will return this weekend to continue work in this area.

What happened?

In 2022, Acme Concrete Paving crews replaced about 160 of 200 concrete panels on this stretch of I-5. The panel that popped up Jan. 12 is one of about 40 that Acme crews cut in December in anticipation of replacement. But they couldn’t finish replacing all the panels before the weather got too cold and wet to pour concrete.

As things unfolded Jan. 12, our engineers and Acme discussed options. No one could say if the other panels cut in advance of replacement would remain stable until spring when Acme was scheduled to return. The weather forecast for Jan. 20-23 looks good enough to pour concrete and we all want to get this job done before any more panels pop up. But it will take a full weekend with multiple lane closures to safely replace the 40 remaining panels.

The area of I-5 that was repaired earlier this month in Everett after an emergency closure. Contractors will be out this weekend to finish pavement work in this area.

We didn’t make this decision lightly. The emergency work created a backup on I-5 that stretched south of the I-405 interchange and clogged countless surrounding surface streets. We’re doing this work now to try to avoid further emergencies that snarl traffic with no advanced warning. None of us like how that turned out. We heard the traveling public loud and clear.

After this weekend, Acme will return to this stretch of I-5 this spring to replace expansion joints on four bridges that date to the construction of the freeway in the mid-1960s. We’ll provide more details about that schedule as soon as we have it. In the meantime, we thank you for your patience.

Oh yeah, about the lane striping

We’ve heard lots of grumbling about the temporary lane markers on this project. Good news! We’ve Asked Acme to fix the striping issues while the lanes are closed. Look for more coats of paint separating lanes (if it’s dry enough to paint) or reflective raised pavement markers (if it’s too wet to paint) come Monday morning.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Help us continue to improve our website!

 By Brooke Carlson

More than a year has passed since we launched our long-time-coming redesigned website. Before November 2021, it had been more than 15 years since the site had been majorly updated.

Our overarching goal in redesigning the website was to create a more usable platform than before – one that is now mobile-friendly, accessible for all audiences and less overwhelming to navigate.

Now that you’ve had some time to get used to it, let us know how we’re doing! Take 10 minutes to complete the 2023 WSDOT Web Survey.

When we launched the website in 2021, we made a commitment to the continual improvement of our digital products. In other words – we’re going to keep trying to make the website a better product for you. Here are just a few of many changes we’ve already made based on user feedback:

  • Updated our website search so you can search by city or keyword and get a direct link to the area on a map, as well as camera previews
  • Changed the color scheme of the traffic flow on the real-time map to make it accessible for colorblind users
  • Added a new indicator for closed roads on the real-time map so you can see exactly where closure points start and end

Your feedback will help us guide priorities for the upcoming web updates, so share your thoughts and be specific where possible.

The survey will be open until Feb. 1, 2023.

Long-awaited improvements are ahead for Barnes Creek Natural Corridor in Des Moines

By Heather Hernandez

A popular 14-acre green space along Barnes Creek is on track to receive a much-needed makeover, thanks to a coordinated effort with the city of Des Moines.

The green space between Kent Des Moines Road and South 220th Street is a well-loved unofficial neighborhood trail where people are often seen walking their dogs, running, or enjoying nature with their families. This natural corridor includes a series of wetlands along Barnes Creek that have been degraded over time by invasive plants. To better protect native plant species and wildlife in the area, invasive species will be removed and wetlands will be enhanced. This supports city of Des Moines future plans for trail improvements through this corridor. The Barnes Creek work helps to reduce impacts to wetlands and vegetated areas surrounding streams from the State Route 509/24th Avenue South to South 188th Street – New Expressway Project (Stage 2 of the SR 509 Completion Project).

Significant upgrades are coming to the wetlands areas around Barnes Creek in the city of Des Moines.

Adjusting the plan

The SR 509 Completion Project, which is already under construction, will connect SR 509 where it currently ends at the southwest corner of Sea-Tac Airport to I-5. The original alignment for the new SR 509 Expressway, proposed in 2003, traveled through our right of way adjacent to Barnes Creek. However, a 2018 update to the design moved the road further to the north. We then worked with the city of Des Moines to develop a new plan for the right of way no longer needed for the SR 509 extension. The new plan for the area focuses on wetland preservation and enhancement, with the goal to protect what native plants and soil are already there, plant new native plants, and prevent disturbance of the wetland.

A look at some of the plans for the Barnes Creek wetlands project in the city of Des Moines

The goals of our work include:

  • Removing noxious weeds and invasive species
  • Preserving native soil
  • Preserving and enhancing Oregon Ash tree plant communities
  • Discourage human disturbances of wetland areas using CPTED principles (crime prevention through environmental design)
  • Coordinate wetland enhancement work with the city of Des Moines trail planning
  • Provide erosion control on steep slopes

Wetland preservation and enhancement at Barnes Creek will revitalize wetland habitat for wildlife and native plants like Oregon Ash trees and slough sedge plants. To preserve the wetland area, the Barnes Creek natural corridor includes four types of restoration ranging from simple invasive species removal to habitat enhancement and planting new native species.

OK, so when’s it happening?

The stage of the SR 509 Completion Project that includes the Barnes Creek restoration work is scheduled to be awarded to a contractor in 2024. At that point, the contractor will develop a detailed timeline for construction and once construction is done, we'll turn the site over to the city.

When the Barnes Creek wetland preservation and enhancement work begins, which could be as early as late 2024, trail users, nearby residents and property owners can expect to see light weight vehicles and landscaping tools (chainsaws, weedwhackers, etc.). While you may occasionally hear construction noise, we'll be getting a noise permit from the city that we'll follow and are committed to keeping noise levels as low as possible for the surrounding community.

While 2024 or 2025 seems far away, with how the last few years have gone it will be here before you know it. Stay informed by signing up for construction updates, visit the project webpage, or call 206-225-0674.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Public input needed for PEL study that shapes the future of I-5 over the Nisqually River Delta

By Mark Krulish

Interstate 5 and the Nisqually River Delta are both important for multiple reasons. I-5 is the main mover of people and goods along the west coast, from Mexico to Canada. The Nisqually River is the traditional home to the Nisqually Indian Tribe, the local fish species and ecosystems that support it.

This month, we are meeting with advisory groups to begin identifying elements of a project that looks at improvements to I-5 across the delta. The first step is reviewing what is known as a Purpose & Need statement, and we need you to weigh in on this.

What is a Purpose and Need statement

Quite simply, a Purpose & Need statement lays out why a project is necessary. It is the foundation of any environmental review process. We will use it to look at different design alternatives for the I-5 corridor from Marvin Road to Mounts Road.

We may choose to adopt this Purpose and Need statement. Our goal is to not have to revisit the Purpose and Need during the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process. This is why we need your input now. This work will hopefully cut down on the amount of work needed as we eventually move into a NEPA review this summer.

Your comments will be incorporated into this process and will help shape our final outcome and, ultimately, what will be built.

A look at the Nisqually study area

How to participate

You can find the Purpose and Need statement several different ways. Our link on our Engage page has the statement and an easy way to leave feedback through our form. You can also find a link to the document on our project website. The contact tab on our project page has a phone number and email address at which you can also leave comments.

If you’re interested in staying in touch with us and hearing about the latest information on the project, we have a newly created email list specifically for this project. You can subscribe here. Click on the link and enter your email address.

Don’t miss your chance to let us know what your need is on I-5 in this area. Please note that we will respond to comments through our incorporation of feedback into the draft PEL Report rather than responding to individuals. The report will be available for comment early this summer.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Tumwater Canyon: Avalanche Alley

By Lauren Loebsack

If it seems like Tumwater Canyon on US 2 has been closed more often than usual this winter, well, your instincts are right. We’re seeing weather conditions that happen every several years that lead to increased avalanche hazards. But why can’t we just blast the snow down ahead of time, and what is different this year than last? Great questions! Let’s start with just what Tumwater Canyon is.

Tumwater Canyon is a winding 9 mile stretch of US 2 east of Stevens Pass. The terrain is a steep walled forest canyon bracketing the two-lane highway and the Wenatchee River. Those steep canyon walls are crisscrossed with almost 40 separate avalanche areas, meaning nearly the entire length of the road is directly adjacent to a known slide area.  That’s as many avalanche paths in those 9 miles as in there are in the 41 miles west of the canyon to Skykomish.

Tumwater Canyon has a long history of large, destructive avalanches and the railroad abandoned this route almost a hundred years ago in large part to avoid that impact to railroad facilities and trips.  Now when the risk of avalanche becomes too great the canyon is closed between Coles Corner (junction of US 2 and SR 207) and just west of Icicle Road near Leavenworth.

Tumwater Canyon winds its way between steep mountainsides on US 2 near Leavenworth.

Winter in Tumwater Canyon

This season’s weather pattern so far has included several early snow storms followed by intense freeze and snow/rain mix, creating a base state that worsens avalanche conditions through the canyon. That has already translated into several closures due to snow slides over the road and will likely mean more closures ahead this season. Historically, these heightened avalanche conditions average once every 10 to 15 years.

Unlike the avalanche paths on US 2 Stevens Pass, the narrow canyon and the challenging nature of the avalanche paths in Tumwater Canyon make doing proactive avalanche control almost impossible. During a closure, crews are evaluating conditions, mobilizing resources, and working to clear slides and reopen the road. Blowers and loaders are used to clear snow slides once conditions are safe to do so.

An avalanche that came down in Tumwater Canyon in winter 1997. Every several years we see more extreme winter conditions that lead to more closures due to avalanche danger.

Expect the unexpected

When heavy snow or rain is in the forecast, that means avalanche risk goes up. But slides can happen at any time when there is a heavy snow load in the avalanche pathways, so much like other winter travel, if you plan to drive US 2 east of Stevens Pass, there may be times when the canyon is closed. That means passenger vehicles can use SR 207 to Chumstick Highway but keep in mind that route is a county road that leads through residential areas and is not built for high traffic volumes or freight vehicles.  When Tumwater Canyon is closed the alternatives mean drivers need to be patient. It’s a good idea to add extra time to your travel plans.

A loader equipped with a snow blower cuts through a snowslide in Tumwater Canyon. The layout of the canyon is such that it makes doing avalanche control work nearly impossible.

In the rare event that you encounter a snow slide over the roadway, keep in mind these safety tips:

  • Stay in your vehicle
  • Turn around if you can and head back the way you came
  • If you have cell service, call 911 to report the slide when it is safe to do so
  • Our team is on the way

Know that our crews are doing everything possible to get you to your destination safely. And please, never attempt to pass closure points. The road is closed for everyone’s safety and passing the closure point puts not only you at risk but also maintenance crews and emergency responders.

Maintenance crews learn a new virtual way to plow highways

By Tina Werner

It was a brisk December morning and the snow was beginning to fall. At our Kent maintenance facility, I loaded into the large snowplow, checked the many gears and buttons to be sure everything was in order, made sure I had on my safety gear and then hit the road. Things were going great! And then a giant cheeseburger appeared.

Say what?

OK, no, I wasn’t actually driving a snowplow. As a communicator and not a member of our maintenance team, you don’t want me handling a big rig like that. For the first time, our agency’s maintenance staff along with a random communicator thrown in to tell the tale, was able to learn what goes into driving a plow before we even set foot in the cab of a truck.

This year we tested a virtual snowplow simulator as part of our training program. Our crews work hard to treat roads and clear snow and ice from highways. It’s no easy task and training is a crucial part of our program – both for current employees and new hires. And we’re always looking to enhance our training opportunities with the latest technology and techniques.

For the first time, our maintenance staff was able to train operating a snowplow using a simulator.

The simulator is kind of a really detailed virtual reality video game where the goal is to safely clear the highways of snow and ice. It allows us to show both new and experienced maintenance workers what goes into operating a vehicle like that from the safety of an office trailer.

Check out this TikTok video we did for a quick look at the simulator training.

Logistically, this is really helpful. Think back to when you were learning to drive. There was always that chance you might do some damage to the vehicle as you were figuring things out. Learning to operate a snowplow is no different, except that there are dozens of gears and switches to learn. One wrong move and you’ve applied the wrong amount of deicer or not lifted a wing plow when you needed to or simply misjudged the size of your vehicle and - DING - a truck is damaged and potentially out of service for repairs. The simulator also allows us to train a lot more people in a shorter amount of time.

What was it like?

Glad you asked.

The training was about two hours long and consisted of classroom and virtual exercises. Participants hopped into a mobile trailer where two operator seats were available.

I am no plow driver but walking into the simulator trailer (which was held behind our maintenance facility out where our team stores trucks and salt for winter) was cool. If I was going to a virtual reality conference with my 5-year-old, I imagine it may feel like this. You sit in a large bucket seat with three large plasma screens in front of you. You’re told to sit down and strap in and wait for instructions by the trainer. The trainer queues you up for the first exercise and you must turn the key in the ignition, release parking brakes and make sure headlights and windshield wipers are on to proceed. The rest of the trailer is dark and other participants stand behind you observing.

The simulator is able to change weather conditions, traffic patterns and throw all kinds of complications at the person who is sitting at the virtual controls.

That’s when things really get interesting. The trainer can change weather environments in the simulator to make operating the plow more challenging. In some cases, visibility was poor and I could not see the roadway at all. In my exercise, the trainer forced an oncoming vehicle to not stop at an intersection and I had to adjust. We were instructed to use horns to alert other vehicles as it’s more difficult for a plow to stop abruptly than a small sedan, so that’s what I did.

Oh yeah, back to the cheeseburger. The biggest distraction during my exercise was when a text message from “mom” appeared on screen alongside a greasy cheeseburger, blocking most of my view of the road. The trainer reiterated how difficult and unsafe it is to operate any vehicle with distractions in the way. So I ignored mom – sorry mom – and the burger and focused on what I had to do.

The experience put things into perspective how difficult it can be to see from the driver’s seat. Like a video game, there was a level where my front tire blew out and I had to maneuver the plow off the road without hitting a tree or pedestrian during an ice storm. The entire steering column shook and I thought I had broken something. My training partner, who had driven plows for more than 20 years, said the exercise he participated in with a blown out front axle was lifelike – he experienced something similar early in his career. The exercise was eye-opening for me as someone who has zero experience operating a snowplow. Many of my classmates passed with flying colors and said it felt like they were out driving the real thing.

Just like when operating a plow in real life, the simulator may have other vehicles crowd the plow, speed through intersections or can simulate other distractions and hazards.

Saving money by safeguarding employees and costly equipment damage

In all, we had 64 people go through the simulator training. Hiring our training vendor and hosting their simulator trailer for a week cost around $30,000.

Ernie Sims, our Fleet Administrator, says we spend more than $1.2 million a year to repair or replace rigs and other plows that are damaged. Much of the damage has been due to drivers trying to pass our plows or following too closely and crashing into our trucks. Safety is always our main priority – for both our crews and the public – and using the simulator provides a fantastic way for us to train while in a safe environment.

Of course, simulator training isn’t the only way our crews train to operate plows. They also get plenty of time behind the wheel of actual plow trucks, learning how they drive, maneuvering through courses in our maintenance yards and then, of course, taking them out on the road for real-life experience. And while our workers are well-trained, we also need everyone’s help to ensure safety. So be sure you give plows plenty of room, slow down, stay alert and let them help clear the way for you.

The simulator is in a trailer and allows maintenance staff to get instructions before jumping into the driver’s seat.

Future trainings

While I did not pass both exercises and won’t be driving a plow anytime soon, our crews agreed this was a valuable experience. We are exploring other ways we could incorporate a fail-safe learning environment into other departments like future commercial driver’s license trainings or to learn vegetation management techniques.

But when it comes to our snowplow simulator training, our team thinks it was a success.

“We will never be able to simulate the real-thing,” said Jim Andersen, our Winter Training Manager. “But this is pretty darn close and a whole lot safer.”

Did I make operating a snowplow sound interesting? Great! We’re always looking to add great people to our team, and maintenance job openings are available online.