Off with the studs

The deadline for studded tire use is today, March 31st.

The safety of the traveling public is our number one priority, so we encourage drivers to drive for conditions wherever your travels take you. We do expect that snow in the mountain passes will continue for the next few days, and that we may see some brief, wet snow in the lowlands.

Currently, there is no indication of arctic-type weather that could lead to black ice. The presence of this wet snow in the lowlands and occasional heavier snow in the mountains does not indicate reason enough to extend the deadline.

Our weather forecasters also tell us the weather trend looks to be warming statewide, with the upcoming weekend being dry in almost all areas. We have our staff and equipment ready to provide for safe travel, and will impose chain restrictions if necessary.

We often talk about how studded tires damage the roadways. Are you also aware of how studded tires can make driving more dangerous? On wet roadways, you get less traction with studded tires as the studs decrease your stopping ability and increase your stopping distance. This is because they reduce full contact between a tire’s rubber compound and the pavement.

In case you may be traveling, or live outside Washington, you should know out-of-state drivers are not exempt from Washington's laws. The Washington State Patrol will enforce a $124 fine for those who use studded tires after the deadline. State troopers will use common sense if a sudden storm makes roads icy in a particular area.

You can read more about winter driving and tire options at

Hanging off the side of the Deception Pass bridges

If you crossed the Deception Pass bridges this week, you probably noticed that only one lane was open. Chances are you also saw some trucks parked on top of the bridges and wondered what they were doing there. No, they weren’t purposely backing up traffic. The trucks allow our bridge inspection crews – who you probably didn’t see – to hang off the side and inspect the Deception and Canoe Pass bridges.

Those trucks parked in the lane are very specialized trucks called UBITs (Under the Bridge Inspection Trucks) that allow our crews to safely access and inspect the hard-to-reach places. One of the trucks has a 60-foot wingspan, taking crews to the spots that many of us never want to visit. That’s probably because we have no desire to be dangling 200 feet in air, regardless of how scenic it is.

So why were our crews hanging off the bridges? From time to time we get questions about the age and safety of all our bridges, including those at Deception Pass. We are a national leader in our approach to inspecting and maintaining our bridges and structures. We aggressively inspect and maintain these structures to keep our highways safe and these critical transportation links open for the public and commerce.

Like all our bridges, the Deception Pass bridges are inspected and maintained on a regular basis. Every two years, the bridges are given a thorough inspection. Any changes in conditions and maintenance activities are carefully recorded. Our routine maintenance and inspections mean that the Deception Pass bridges will continue to be safe for you and your families now and into the future.

The Deception Pass bridges were built in 1935. Is 74 really that old? There are 226 other bridges on our state highways that are older. Sure, 74 may be old compared to other large structures on Whidbey Island or in nearby Skagit County, but here are just a few well-known structures that are still in service and celebrate birthdays around the same time (and a few that are much older):

• 208 years old: The White House
• 126 years old: Brooklyn Bridge, New York
• 123 years old: The Statue of Liberty
• 120 years old: Eiffel Tower
• 92 years old: The first Columbia River bridge on I-5
• 79 years old: Lewis and Clark bridge on SR 433 over the Columbia River
• 78 years old: George Washington Aurora Ave. bridge on SR 99
• 74 years old: Deception Pass bridges
• 72 years old: Bonneville Dam
• 72 years old: Golden Gate Bridge

To the top of the Snohomish River Bridge...

I’ve never been known as someone with a fear of heights, but when I was recently offered the opportunity to tag along with our bridge maintenance crew to check out the SR 529 Snohomish River Bridge; well let’s say, the hidden fear quickly came to light.

Upon arriving at the bridge, we began climbing the first of what turned out to be several flights of stairs leading to a never ending spiral staircase. From the bridge deck, we climbed roughly 60 feet to the near top of the bridge (80 feet from the water). My lightheadedness at the top made me wonder if it was a combination of holding on for dear life and/or the bridge vibration as cars passed at 55 m.p.h. below…Who knows?

My fear of heights gradually subsided and was replaced by my interest in learning more about the bridge. During annual inspections, structural engineers found small “fatigue” cracks in the machinery designed to help lift the bridge for large boats passing underneath. The cracks were hidden in the machinery itself, which makes diagnosing and repairing a challenge for crews.
You’re probably asking…”If the cracks are hidden, how did we find them?” Our crews use the most advanced technology available to inspect and track how our bridges are holding up to years of wear and tear. One method is an ultra-sonic test, similar to pregnancy ultrasounds. A liquid chemical is applied onto the machinery and then a scanner searches for sub-surface cracks.

Another method is called wet fluorescent magnetic particle inspection. Crews apply a liquid spray and then use a black light to detect any visible surface cracks. The particle alignment highlights the cracking.

While small and rarely visible to the naked eye, these cracks don’t pose any serious threat now, but swift action is required to prevent a future catastrophic event, such as a bridge collapse. Using advanced technology helps us find small cracks before they become big, costly problems. It also extends the life of the lifting mechanisms significantly.

There are roughly 7,000 bridges on the state, city and county road systems and most are inspected every two years. WSDOT crews inspected 1,909 state and local agency-owned bridges in 2008. This year, crews are scheduled to inspect 2,018 bridges. For more information about bridge inspections, visit

Submitted by Patrick Conrad.

Road Safety and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

The AAA Foundation’s vision of an enhanced traffic safety culture in this country is a social climate where everyone highly regards traffic safety and rigorously pursues it. Unfortunately, all too frequently, we have seen just the opposite – actions reinforcing the current culture of complacency.

Well, I am extremely pleased to highlight one recent bright spot related to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). Namely, under the leadership of Joe Toole, Federal Highway Administration’s new Associate Administrator for Safety, FHWA has done a number of things to assure that highway safety receives high priority in the implementation of the ARRA. For example, on its national website they have identified opportunities to use ARRA funds for highway safety projects, as well as tools that can be used to support and justify those safety decisions. Recognizing that nearly half of all fatalities occur on rural roads, FHWA has put particular emphasis on educating local governments about the details of ARRA and how to work with their State DOT’s to advance projects. Nearly 1000 people participated in two national webconferences that were offered at no charge to local governments. The sessions put a strong focus on safety improvements and the potential impact of ARRA on safety. These same thoughts are being presented to conferences across the U.S.

Personally, I can’t think of any more deserving “shovel-ready” project than a safety improvement project that will not only make jobs but will save lives! Hopefully, the state and local road authorities will take FHWA’s advice!

You can call it ARRA or you can call it 'stimulus' ...

How many of us six months ago would have guessed the word, "stimulus," would come to mean so much to our nation. Raise your hands ... be honest. Right. That's what I guessed.

Stimulus, the investment by the federal government in infrastructure, promises to be a critically important phase in the history of our nation and our state.

To that end, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a., stimulus) promises new standards for how citizens can track their dollars. At WSDOT, we have been working hard for several years to become more transparent and accountable.

Every project we build has a project web page. We publish a quarterly report, called the Gray Notebook, that tracks hundreds of activities and programs throughout WSDOT. We participate in the Governor's Management Accountability Program (GMAP).

We aren't perfect. And this thing we're calling stimulus promises to make us better. But perhaps WSDOT won't have as far to go to find greater public accountability in the ARRA era.