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.