Friday, March 29, 2024

Fostering New Wildlife in Seattle's Arboretum

By Jessa Gardner & Nicole Phaysith

Exciting things are happening on Foster Island in the beautiful Washington Park Arboretum! We're seeing vibrant new landscapes and wildlife come to life following efforts to restore habitats in an area that used to be a construction zone.

In the photo, two people are wearing bright blue and yellow construction vests and gear on the dirt ground installing vegetation underneath the SR 520 bridge on Foster Island.

Since the 520 bridge's new eastbound bridge fully opened last summer, a team of WSDOT landscape architects worked with the University of Washington Botanic Gardens and Seattle Parks to select and plant native flora and create habitats for wildlife on Foster Island. The work had been ongoing, with large sections of planting already well-established after several years of growth.

Last summer and fall marked an important moment on Foster Island as the final section of construction zone directly beneath the eastbound bridge underwent a transformation. Crews cleared the ground, while forklifts and bulldozers transported large trees and boulders. Crews established crushed rock paths to mark trails for park visitors. They also installed new irrigation and topsoil to create ideal growing conditions for the new plantings. Soon, the planting establishment period will begin – where they'll monitor the plantings for three years to ensure they thrive. Visitors can take a stroll to see native ferns, Oregon grape, evergreens, dogwood, willow, salal and more on their nature walks.

Pictured in the foreground is an array of brown logs, newly installed vegetation and rocks underneath the 520 bridge on Foster Island.

The new habitat on Foster Island isn't just fostering plants – it has also become a bustling neighborhood for a variety of creatures, big and small! Crews placed habitat logs in the landscape to provide homes for insects that birds and small mammals will feed on. The logs also provide a great home for frogs and salamanders. The logs serve a long-term purpose, providing nutrients as they decay and creating fertile new ground for more plants to grow.

Pictured in the foreground is newly installed vegetation held up by orange plant stakes; in the background is the 520 bridge and Union Bay.

Neighbors have spotted larger animals in the area as well! Anyone with binoculars or a kayak can find great blue herons, green herons, kingfishers, or even, with some luck, a bald eagle fishing in the marshy waters around Foster Island. A family of beavers built a dam near the shore under the bridge, racoon tracks can be spotted in the dirt, and a young buck found his way through the foliage to stare curiously at the humans nearby before retreating into denser trees.

In Photo taken underneath the SR 520 bridge on Foster Island showing a gravel path with logs and rocks, a deer standing directly underneath the bridge, and foliage in the background.

This year, Punxsutawney Phil (AKA the groundhog) did not see his shadow. So, we're in for an early spring – bringing along perfect weather for hiking and animal watching. We'll see you out there on the new and improved trail!

Monday, March 25, 2024

I-90/SR 18 interchange improvements benefit cars, trucks – and fish

By David Rasbach and Kathy Mulady

If you've traveled through the Interstate 90/State Route 18 interchange near the city of Snoqualmie recently, you may have noticed construction on the east side of the interchange. Crews are diligently building walls beneath the I-90 bridge decks, some of which will stand 20 feet tall.

Most of the I-90/SR 18 interchange project is designed to improve traffic flow and safety for locals, commuters and freight. However, this part of the project has a different purpose. It's all about enhancing conditions for salmon, steelhead and other fish species.

Think of it as a sort of aquatic highway.

Aerial view of the future Diverging Diamond Interchange at the intersection of Interstate 90 and State Route 18. The future path of a tributary to Lake Creek is shown in blue. Two fish passable structures under ramps between the highways and a pair of walls under I-90, where a stream channel will be built, are highlighted in orange.
Once the new Diverging Diamond Interchange is complete later this year, a tributary to Lake Creek will cross beneath the I-90 off-ramp to SR 18, flow under both I-90 bridges alongside the new interchange, and head under the SR 18 ramp to eastbound I-90 without barriers to swimming fish.

Along SR 18, we are removing six barriers and installing two new bridges so that fish can swim further up Deep Creek and Lake Creek. These new stream crossings will restore access to 13 miles of vital stream habitat.

Channeling efforts under I-90

Beneath I-90, construction crews are reopening stream access that has been blocked for decades by culverts, making it difficult or impossible for fish to swim under the freeway near SR 18. Obstructions such as these have contributed to a decline in native salmon populations across the region. The walls being built on the east side of the interchange will help form a deep channel in the stream. This makes safe and easier passage for fish beneath the I-90 bridges.

Under a bridge carrying the westbound lanes of Interstate 90 over State Route 18, crews are clearing an area and building support structures for walls for a new channel that will run under the freeway. Dirt and rocks cover the ground and plywood separates the work area from SR 18, while a yellow excavator is in the background.
Crews are building walls under I-90 bridges that will eventually form part of a stream channel under the freeway along SR 18. The channel will replace barriers to fish migration along a tributary to Lake Creek. (Photo courtesy Aecon)

Figuring out how to build these walls turned out to be a bit tricky, especially since parts of them needed to fit beneath the existing I-90 bridges. There isn’t room for standard 40-foot-tall supports, so crews opted for 51 “micro-piles,” each 25 feet tall. These smaller columns are tied together in groups of two or three to support the walls.

When finished, the concrete wall faces will be covered with a stone finish to give them a more natural look. Sand, gravel, boulders and other materials will be added to turn the three-sided stream channel into a welcoming environment for salmon returning to spawn.

Graphical representation of what the new Diverging Diamond Interchange will look like from southbound State Route 18 under Interstate 90. A stream channel with logs and other natural features is shown at the left running beneath a bridge.
The new stream channel will allow the Lake Creek tributary to flow along SR 18 under both directions of I-90 next to the new Diverging Diamond Interchange.

The reconnected waterway is expected to be ready for fish at the end of summer 2024. The channel has a secondary benefit of providing capacity for high stream flows during heavy rains. These new water crossing structures are built to last at least 75 years – helping reduce road closures during floods and providing more reliable transportation routes for the communities we serve.

This work is part of our ongoing effort to improve fish passage and reconnect waterways in Washington state that have been blocked by roads. We have worked for nearly three decades to improve fish passage and reconnect streams to help keep waterways healthy. A 2013 federal injunction also directed WSDOT to significantly speed up efforts to replace fish barriers.

The new channel for the Lake Creek tributary is also part of the $190 million I-90/SR 18 Interchange Improvement project being designed and built by Aecon. Once the project finishes in early 2025, we will have built the diverging diamond interchange and widened about two miles of SR 18 south of I-90 to improve safety and traffic flow in the area.

Crews work underneath the eastbound lanes of Interstate 90 over State Route 18. Concrete barrier separates the work zone from SR 18.
Crews build a bench to install columns that will eventually support a wall
beneath the eastbound lanes of I-90 over SR 18
Crews build support structures near the I-90/SR 18 interchange. Crew members and machinery work atop a slope that leads to State Route 18 beneath an I-90 overpass.
Construction crews are in the early stages of building a wall along the east end of the I-90/SR interchange. The wall will help form and a stream channel under the I-90 bridges, helping to open fish access along a tributary to Lake Creek. (Photo courtesy Aecon)

Friday, March 15, 2024

Paint Maps: The Origin Story

By Sean Quinn and MJ Johnson

Back-to-back Taylor Swift concerts at Lumen Field, Seattle Mariners vs. Toronto Blue Jays, Bite of Seattle and the Capitol Hill Block Party plus closures on the I-5 Ship Canal Bridge, SR 520, and SR 18 - all in the same weekend. The question for us is how do we help the public comprehend the volume of people moving through Washington state, and get where they need to or want to go? Enter, Paint Maps.

For a little less than a decade now, a summer tradition has both entertained and informed our social media followers to plan ahead and know before they go. These artistic masterpieces, affectionately known as our Paint Maps, are made by our Communications team to prepare travelers for most busy summer weekends. We’ve been asked what goes into makes these and why do we do them?

It’s a simple recipe really: A Google map base layer, some detailed but straight-to-the-point text boxes, and of course, the doodles. The not-so-perfectly drawn, but good enough combination. All to reach as wide an audience as possible to keep folks aware of what’s happening each busy summer weekend. But a lot of behind-the-scenes work goes into getting them from the planning stage to the eyes of tens of thousands. While it’s still winter, why not start thinking of warm sunshine while we take a deep dive into the creation of our weekly summer Paint Maps!


A collage of many Paints Maps that we’ve put out on social media the last eight years (2016-2023).
A collage of many Paints Maps that we’ve put out on social media the last eight years (2016-2023)

Simply doing a text post for every project with some basic pictures can get stale. During the summers from 2014 to 2016 we would occasionally go live on Facebook, showing the various big impact events and construction/maintenance coming across the entire state using a handy-dandy whiteboard with illustrations drawn with expo pens. We also started adding some silly drawings to the mix. It got folks’ attention, and ultimately that’s a major goal. A more informed traveling public is a better traveling public.

A WSDOT communicator using a white board and drawings on a hand drawn Washington state map to show impactful events and construction taking place during a busy summer weekend back in 2015.
A WSDOT communicator using a white board and drawings on a hand drawn Washington state map to show impactful events and construction taking place during
a busy summer weekend back in 2015

Back in June of 2016, ahead of a jam-packed summer weekend (Pride weekend, Sounders and Mariners games, a car show, etc.) we wanted to come up with a new and creative way to get our message across, and one of our communicators did a quick doodle in Snipping Tool. All it took was a map and some pretty colors, and voila.

A screenshot from the first ever WSDOT Paint Map, from the weekend of June 24-26, 2016. On the Paint Map, events include Hoopfest, a busy I-90 weekend, Mariners and Sounders games, Capitol Hill Pride, and a car show in Greenwood, Seattle.
A screenshot from the first ever WSDOT Paint Map, from the weekend of June 24-26, 2016. On the Paint Map, events include Hoopfest, a busy I-90 weekend, Mariners and Sounders games, Capitol Hill Pride, and a car show
in Greenwood, Seattle

You never know how some of these outside-the-box ideas will go over, but to our delight the picture got a lot of admiration on the platform formerly known as Twitter (now X). While the map wasn’t exactly a masterpiece, comments at the time called it a “beautiful piece of art.” No sense in re-inventing the wheel, we made it a weekly thing every summer weekend for the next seven years. Typically, that means once a week every Thursday/Friday from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekends (with a few exceptions here and there). Why summer? That’s when the busiest weekends are for construction, maintenance, and special events!

The process – Data collecting

What is the process of making the Paint Maps? First comes getting the information, go straight to the source.

First things first, a group of about 50 of our statewide communicators meet at the beginning of each week to discuss work crews have planned for the week and the weekend ahead, along with any noteworthy major events taking place. Throughout the week, as work plans change and weather forecasts come in, we keep each other updated.

An example of an email sent from the writer of the Paint Maps to our Communications team, noting the events and construction we have Labor Day Weekend, 2023.
An example of an email sent from the writer of the Paint Maps to our Communications team, noting the events and construction we have Labor Day Weekend, 2023

Whether it’s through a virtual meeting, phone call or email, all of this information makes its way to two communicators: the designers of the Paint Maps. Yep, it’s a two-person crew that turns a whole lot of text into digital artwork (oh, and before you ask – they do lots of other work too, not just the Paint Maps).

Trust the process – Creative writing

One communicator takes all the information and filters it into a hefty bullet point list with: What the work is/name of the event, where it’s taking place and the timeframe. Some weekends, the list is as small as 6-8 items, others it’s more than 16 and requires some adapting like removing some of the less-impactful ones or making two Paint Maps for one weekend. In most cases, it’s not that we forgot about a particular event, it’s that we just can’t fit EVERYTHING on the map.

Once the team filters the list of items down to a manageable load, typically 15 or less, the writer finalizes their work in the text blurbs that later go on the map. The blurbs are written in the same style: Name of the event/what’s closing, location of the event/work, and the start time (event) or duration of work (construction/maintenance). The written blurbs are then sent to the artist.

Trust the process – The doodling

Now for the magic, the doodles. The artist takes the information and chooses drawings that are appropriate for the work being done. If there’s a festival or concert, a logo or portrait of the musician/event may work. If it’s construction on a bridge, maybe a drawing of a bridge, maintenance vehicle, or traffic cone. The possibilities are endless.

Now, it’s time to reveal the sources behind the magic. Although Microsoft Paint served us well for many years, we switched over to using Canva in 2022. This speeds up the process and allows for more detail in the drawings such as Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and even Seattle Kraken mascot, Buoy.

Okay, what’s next?

Next comes the actual artwork. Here’s how it works:

Step One: The first step is to go to Google Maps and take a snapshot of the state that includes where all the work and events are happening. Then we add the WSDOT logo at the bottom right, weekend dates at the top right, and identify which direction is north (we love geography).

Step two: Next is adding in all those written blurbs to the areas where the work or event is happening.

Step three: Then we add all the transparent circles and arrows that point to where the work/events are taking place.

Step four: Now that the basics are done, we get to the fun part, the doodles.

You may be asking, with all that detail, are you really free handing everything? The simple answer is no. Not everything is free-handed, but a majority are! The traffic cones, bridges, cranes, maintenance vehicles and so on are generally all drawn by hand. It’s the more detailed drawings where we get a little help. For those, the communicator uses tracing methods for more inspiration and guidance.

Once the doodles are completed, they’re placed onto the map next to the blurbs. A lot of moving around of blurbs and doodles is done to make sure the map is clean and readable. Sometimes if there’s not enough room, we may have to cut an event or two and do more re-arranging until it all looks pretty.

The final product – The post

Once the Paint Map is finished our team posts them on our social media channels including X (formerly Twitter), Facebook, Instagram, Threads and Reddit. And sometimes, even TikTok if we’re feeling cheeky! Then it’s rinse and repeat the same formula every week until the summer ends.

A tweet from the WSDOT Traffic X/Twitter account with the Labor Day 2023 Paint Map attached. The tweet says the Labor Day paint map is here, and there’s a lot of events happening which means increased traffic all around so good to keep the Paint Map close by. It also says that at the time of the tweet, SR 20 North Cascades Highway was an active fire area and was subject to unplanned closures.
A tweet from the WSDOT Traffic X/Twitter account with the Labor Day 2023 Paint Map attached. The tweet says the Labor Day paint map is here, and there’s a lot of events happening which means increased traffic all around so good to keep the Paint Map close by. It also says that at the time of the tweet, SR 20 North Cascades Highway was an active fire area and was subject
to unplanned closures.

The future

As the popular expression goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” As long as the public continues to (for the most part) like them, and they’re getting the vital traffic information they need, we’ll keep doing them! As for the future, the looks of the Paint Map may change here and there, but the formula will remain the same. Whatever it takes to get the word out about our busy summer, we’re doing it. The Paint Maps are not meant to be perfect creations, but useful infotainment. We’ll keep painting pretty little trees and traffic cones, as long as the public continues to appreciate them!

Paint maps from years past

The Paint Map from the weekend of Sept. 15-18 2017.
The Paint Map from the weekend of Sept. 15-18 2017

The now-infamous Taylor Swift-themed Paint Maps from the weekend of July 21-24, 2023.
The now-infamous Taylor Swift-themed Paint Maps from the weekend of July 21-24, 2023

Want to browse a selection of our favorite Paint Maps from years past? Check out our Flickr album of them here:

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Maintaining momentum: improving fish access and roadway resiliency for every Washingtonian

By Barbara LaBoe

Our Fish Passage Program – restoring access and habitat to salmon that was blocked by previous transportation projects – is massive by any definition.

The number of projects (more than 500), the miles of potential habitat to be restored (more than 1,000 miles) and, yes, the number of road closures or disruptions that accompany this work are all on a large scale. It's work we started statewide in the early 1990s, but a western Washington area emphasis and deadline were added to the mix by the 2013 federal court injunction and subsequent legal rulings.

The challenges also have been massive. No other state DOT or any other organization has ever been tasked with resolving generations of environmental harm in such a short timeline. By the time Legislative funding was ramped up to address the court requirements we had just a little more than a decade until the 2030 deadline. (The federal court injunction requires we restore 90 percent of habitat blocked by state highways within the injunction area by 2030.)

It's taken a lot of work. Through it all we've learned a lot, made good progress and are doing everything within our control to meet the aggressive deadline, though additional funding will play a key factor in that.

So, where are we?

We've done a lot and created great momentum with work stretching from Whatcom to Clallam to Pacific counties and many spots in between.

A map of western Washington shows locations of fish passage projects completed between 2013 and 2022.
This map shows fish passage work completed through 2022, not including work completed in 2023.

As of January 2024, we have corrected 146 injunction barriers, opening 569 miles of potential fish habitat. By this summer, we plan to have more than 200 more barrier corrections under construction contract. Once those additional barriers are corrected, we will have restored 75% of blocked habitat.

To get to the 90% by 2030 requires an additional $3.5-$4 billion. The injunction required us to do the highest habitat gain projects first. Many of the first projects were the lowest cost and most straight forward. The remaining sites are both more difficult and more expensive. We've also learned a lot about what is needed in this work and faced challenges such as supply chain issues, workforce and construction industry shortages, and needed design changes as we learned more about each site. We continue working with state leaders, tribal partners and others on solutions to keep making progress without losing the overall project momentum.

Field surveys done by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife confirm fish are returning to many of the restored waterways, and we've also seen it ourselves. It isn't always overnight – sometimes it can take years for fish to return to some locations after decades of blocked access – but they are returning. In September, in just one example, we shared a video on social media of a salmon zipping through Leland Creek near US 101 even before the final work was fully completed.

Three deer walk through the creek under the road. The large culverts are visible as well as logs put in place to help with habitat restoration.
The first Chinook salmon observed returning to the waterway moves through Siebert Creek in 2021 after completion of a fish passage project at State Route 101 between Port Angeles and Sequim.
WDFW photo

Wide ranging benefits

The work to restore salmon to our state's environment, our waterways, our tribal partners and all people in Washington is important in its own right. But our fish passage work has many ripples of additional benefits.

Replacing aging culverts and bridges over waterways also make our roadways more resilient for travelers. Bridges in flood-prone areas may not need to close as often when new structures are designed for higher water flows. Building new structures to current day seismic standards means bridges replaced to improve fish flow also better withstand earthquakes.

The restored natural stream conditions in our finished projects may also provide better and expanded habitat access for wildlife once the fish barriers are removed. Work at Padden Creek and Interstate 5 in Bellingham, for example, included an area with a history of vehicles striking deer on the roadway. The fish passage design at this site allowed enough room for deer to pass under the roadway, reducing the risk of crashes and injuries or death to travelers.

An adult steelhead salmon makes its way up a shallow creek during spawning season.
Deer use new access under Interstate 5 at Padden Creek in Bellingham after a fish passage project improved access for many types of wildlife. Allowing deer better access under the roadway is designed to reduce the number of deer-vehicle collisions on the highway.

Thriving salmon and steelhead also:

  • Provide an important food source for over 100 species of wildlife, including orca whales.
  • Contribute to Washington's economy through recreational and commercial fishing.
  • Support an estimated 16,000 jobs and over $500 million in personal income alone.
  • Create jobs and benefit local economies through habitat restoration work.
  • Have cultural importance to the many tribes who rely on salmon and steelhead as a food source. Washington state must uphold treaty-reserved fishing rights, ensuring that salmon are present and available for harvest.

Aren't there other barriers?

Our work – and the court order – focuses on state-owned roads, culverts and bridges, but fish passage barriers on state-owned roads are only part of the larger picture. Sometimes there also are blocked culverts above or below areas we have projects. We try to partner with other barrier owners whenever possible when we do work.

Our work alone may not fully restore access, but it can help create momentum for overall restoration of the waterway. Previous work makes it easier for smaller agencies, tribes and landowners to obtain grants and funding for their portion of the work because they can point to the benefit of adding to the new state improvements.

The federal injunction directs us to restore habitat – and to measure that habitat from the WSDOT barrier to the first natural fish barrier (such as a natural waterfall) in the system. We contract with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to measure these. Because other, human-made barriers are considered temporary under the court order (and must be replaced by their owners) the injunction measures the potential restored habitat as the length fish could travel within the system from the WSDOT barrier, regardless of the presence of other human-made barriers near our work.

To be clear, the barriers owned by others also need to be addressed – and the owners are required to under state law – but they're not subject to the federal court order or the 2030 deadline. That means we're often the first to do this work, and we're one piece of the overall watershed restoration puzzle.

Our work is not done

This a permanent injunction so our role and responsibilities extend beyond the 2030 deadline. The goal is to ensure fish access is restored and maintained as new barriers are identified – and we remain committed to this work and program.

And while the scope of work remains massive, it's also rewarding. We've seen habitat improved and fish return to waterways. We've also begun rebuilding trust and relationships with Washington tribes through this work. Since the injunction, we have worked extensively with our tribal partners and continue to do so on how best to approach fish passage into the future.

This challenging, massive amount of work takes time. The reward is knowing that repairing generations of environmental harm by removing outdated fish barriers will benefit Washingtonians for many more generations to come.