Mudslide blocks SR 20

Mudslide blocks SR 20
Originally uploaded by Washington State Dept of Transportation.

On July 29th a mudslide west of Rainy Pass closed SR 20 in both directions at the east- and west-side closure gates. They had about 300 yards of mud and debris in a 10-foot-deep swath across the highway to remove, and needed to ensure the slope is stable before they reopened the road.

Where is Rainy Pass? cades/map.htm.

The gates were closed on the west side just east of Diablo (milepost 134) and 14 miles west Mazama (milepost 171) on the east side. The gates were manned overnight to make sure anyone camping or hiking in between the gates could get out.

The slide was reported about 4 p.m. Wednesday, July 29, and responding crews began bringing in equipment and working last night. They stopped at dusk because it was too dangerous to work in the area in the dark. Crews were back early this morning. How quickly they can safely remove the debris and ensure that the slope is stabilized will determine when the highway reopens.

This area (nearly a mile high) had been hit with fast moving thunder, lightning, rain and hail storm cells all week. The slide was triggered by a thunderhead that passed through Wednesday afternoon which went on to start some 20 fires from there to Loup Loup Pass, 60 miles further east.

The road was reopened on July 30 at 3:15 p.m.

You can also check the North Cascades Web page for more information -

Working in the heat

When it comes to the weather, sometimes we just can’t win.

During the winter, it’s hard to get much road work done because it’s either too wet, too cold or both. And if you look back at our winter blog posts, we were waiting impatiently for the warm, dry summer weather.

Well, it’s summer. And, depending on the day, it’s either been warm and dry or painfully hot and humid. This week has been mostly the latter. For the most part, we’d rather be working in this weather. But the heat and humidity come with their own set of challenges for our crews.

The most obvious challenge for crews is simply working outside for eight to 10 hours every day on the hot pavement. If it’s 90 degrees outside, it feels even hotter for crews standing on a road that’s just soaking up the heat. And for paving crews…well, you can imagine how scorching that must be.

Needless to say, keeping hydrated is key for everyone. Crews are drinking tons of water before they start their day, during the heat of the day and after they’ve finished work. And everyone stays on high alert for signs of heat exhaustion: disorientation, profuse sweating, nausea or dizziness.

Another less-apparent challenge for crews is compensating for the effect the heat and humidity have on asphalt and concrete. We know what you might be thinking: Aren’t you always worried about bad weather? Isn’t this hot weather a good thing? Yes … and no.

When we pave with asphalt, that asphalt goes down at 300 degrees. And at that temperature, it’s a lot like cookie dough when it gets taken out of the oven: soft and gooey. Naturally, we have to wait until it cools down before we can let traffic drive on it. That’s where the heat and humidity come into play.

When we put down hundreds of tons of 300-degree asphalt, it’s a very concentrated mass of heat. Consequently, it takes a long time for that heat to dissipate and the asphalt to reach a temperature suitable for traffic – 150 degrees or cooler. When the surrounding air is 80 or 90 degrees, it’s much harder for that heat to dissipate. Add in the humidity, which makes the ambient air temperature feel even warmer, and the asphalt will take even longer to cool.

Concrete has exactly the opposite problem: It cures too quickly in the heat. Unlike asphalt, concrete needs humidity to cool and cure properly. When it’s too hot out, water evaporates out of the concrete too quickly and can lead to cracking. Typically, crews blanket the fresh concrete with visqueen (they look like giant white tarps) to help trap the moisture. When it’s extra hot, crews have to work at warp speed to cover up the concrete before it gets too hot. They’ll also layer burlap rags soaked in water atop the fresh concrete and then cover it with visqueen to trap even more moisture.

So while we may have to do a little bit of extra planning when it’s this hot out, we’re taking advantage of the summer weather to get as much work done as possible.

Yes, you can shrink-wrap an entire bridge

No, we’re not kidding. We’re shrink-wrapping an entire bridge on SR 542 (Mount Baker Highway) in Whatcom County. It looks a bit like a giant Twinkie.

Before you start thinking that we’ve lost our minds, there’s method to the madness. Crews will spend three months cleaning, repairing and repainting the Nooksack River bridge on Mount Baker Highway just west of the town of Glacier. Built in 1931, the bridge gets repaired and repainted every 15 to 20 years.

The giant sheets of shrink wrap swaddling the bridge help keep any debris from falling into the river and keep crews on schedule, regardless of the weather. Plus, it looks really cool. This is the first time we’ve used the industrial-strength shrink-wrap method as a way to contain debris.

Wrapping up two years of construction on SR 20 near Burlington

Crews are wrapping up two years of work between SR 536 (Memorial Highway) and the SR 20/ I-5 interchange in Burlington. Last week, local officials and electeds celebrated completion of construction on the project, while crews continued completing minor tasks throughout the project zone.

Cutting the ribbon

The week of July 20, crews began removing barrels on the last two lanes of the widened highway. A new signal at Pulver Road is yet to be turned on. That is expected to happen in about a week.

The majority of crews will begin packing up their gear and heading to their next job, or maybe some well-deserved time off. Some workers will remain to complete minor “punch list” items for the next month or so. Crews are completing the project almost two months ahead of schedule.

WSDOT’s $118-million project, funded by the 2003 gas tax package, widened a five-mile stretch of SR 20 between SR 536 and the I-5 interchange and transformed the congested two-lane highway with a history of collisions into a wider, safer four-lane highway.

KING 5 TV films paving on SR 20 in Burlington

The project completes a vision that started more than 30 years ago. The stretch of SR 20 from Anacortes to Memorial Highway (SR 536) was widened in the 1960s and 70s.

Crews began in spring 2007, working to widen and improve the highway near its intersection with SR 536. Opening the new I-5 on- and off-ramps in June was the last major milestone for crews.

SR 20, I-5 on- and off-ramps - 48

SR 20 to the west of I-5 serves several communities including Anacortes and its ferry terminal, the main transportation access to the San Juan Islands. SR 20 provides the only road-based access to Whidbey Island. Along the route are many smaller communities and important tourist, agricultural and business interests, such as the March Point refineries, Whidbey Naval Air Station and Deception Pass State Park. On an average day, more than 22,000 vehicles use the highway.

During construction, crews:

- Widened the highway from two lanes to four, with two lanes in each direction from SR 536 at Fredonia to the I-5 interchange (ten lane-miles).
- Installed a new signal at Higgins Airport Way.
- Divided 2.5 miles of the east- and westbound lanes with a 32-foot median and cable median barrier (from SR 536 to Pulver Road).
- Improved the on-ramps and exits at the I-5/SR 20 interchange.
- Permanently closed access to and from SR 20 at the intersection with Peterson Road and Goldenrod Road in Burlington.
- Built new roads to join Peterson Road and Nevitt Road to SR 20.
- Installed a new signal at the SR 20 intersection with Pulver Road in Burlington.

Between 2001 and 2006, there were 384 collisions on SR 20 between SR 536 and I-5 that involved almost 800 vehicles and resulted in eight fatalities.

The True Risk Senior Drivers Pose

A series of recent traffic-related incidents in Massachusetts involving senior drivers have thrust the issues of senior licensing and the danger senior drivers pose on the road into the national spotlight. While these incidents were certainly tragic, the truth is that while seniors may appear to be a threat on the road they are actually less of a threat than you or I. In fact a recent AAA Foundation study that was published in the Journal of Safety Research analyzed government data on fatal crashes from 1999-2003 to estimate the risk that drivers of various ages would be involved in and be partially responsible for a fatal crash. The study revealed teenagers are the most at risk group to be involved in a fatal crash and that seniors, while they do pose some threat, are actually much more of risk to themselves then other drivers or pedestrians. Nevertheless, the study has confirmed that the risk of being involved in a fatal crash increases around age 65, and over 3,000 drivers in that age category are killed each year.

Ideally, getting a drivers’ license should be based on whether an individual has cognitive and physical functional abilities necessary to drive a car. There is no denying some of these abilities are affected with age, but this doesn’t mean senior drivers can’t maintain these abilities at the level necessary to drive. And, given the demographics associated with the baby boom, our society is getting older, and thus, now more than effort we need to emphasize the programs to extend the safe driving experience for older drivers. Fortunately, I am excited to announce that a new computer program (interactive game) called DriveSharp™ is now available that can do just that. The Drive Sharp program uses computer exercises to help seniors improve things such as divided attention, reaction time or “useful field of view” – factors that are directly correlated with being a safe driver. And, from my perspective, the most exciting aspect is that Drive Sharp has been shown to reduce the risk of at-fault crashes by up to 50%. For those seniors who want or need to improve their functional abilities needed to drive this is an outstanding tool. A free screening test and information on the program, including a free is available at

Final journey for massive bridge joints

Photo of I-90 bridge joint inspection
Posted for Jeff Switzer

To be honest, I'm feeling a little jealous of the two new expansion joints bound for the I-90 floating bridge. They've already seen more of the world this year than I will!

They were created in Ohio, painted in Pittsburgh and assembled back in Ohio using special Teflon bearings made in Turkey. They were hauled thousands of miles across the U.S. to the Seattle waterfront where they waited until the big moment.

Friday marked the final journey for the joints (pdf 720 KB), each weighing 65 tons and measuring 65 feet long. The two joints got a pretty sweet tour of Seattle before going to work on the I-90 floating bridge. It was no Argosy Cruise past Bill Gates' house, but there's no stopping the barge Los Angeles, tended by the tugboats Crown II and Redwood City. Instead of the longer-than-advertised three-hour tour on Gilligan's Island, the trip was expected to be a more dependable six hours from the Seattle waterfront to the I-90 floating bridge.

Along the way, the joints followed the Duwamish and gave tourists an eyeful as they climbed through the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks to Lake Washington. News helicopters planned to film the trip from high above the city streets. Drawbridges across Seattle saluted as the barge and joints passed beneath at a 4 mph walker's pace.

Like putting a heavy box of holiday decorations away on a top shelf, it’s no easy feat to lift the giant joints from Lake Washington onto the I-90 floating bridge. It takes a massive barge 250 feet long and 75 feet wide to haul the joints and a seven-story-tall behemoth of a crane to the I-90 work zone.

The crane stretched its even longer 173-foot boom to deliver the joints to crews on the bridge. After hours of maneuvering, the joints sit in a cradle of rebar and are locked into place with tons of concrete.

These stronger, thicker joints allow the floating bridge to flex with the wind and water and span the westbound lanes of the I-90 floating bridge and the bicycle pedestrian path. They replace their lesser cousins that began cracking soon after they were installed 20 years ago.

It's a complicated choreography for construction. At the same time, drivers face their own two-step as they slog through the construction bottleneck we put in the I-90 freeway to get 70,000 daily drivers around the work zone.

In about a week, we'll all start pummeling the new joints daily. The road reopens by July 20, and for the next 50 or more years the joints will signal their presence to millions of everyday drivers with the familiar “vrrrp – vrrrp” as they drive across Lake Washington to Seattle.

It took months to create these special 65-foot-long joints for this special bridge. Pieces were bolted, welded and connected with strong rubber gaskets meant to last. Despite their long journey from the Midwest, they never traveled I-90. Instead, tractor trailers opted for I-70 and I-75 out of Ohio, I-80 from Cheyenne to Utah, and later I-5 from Vancouver.

And when the autumn winds pick up, storms again will paint whitecaps across the lake. The joints will flex with every powerful surge, but keep the bridge deck connected to Seattle and Mercer Island, and traffic will continue to flow safely. Whenever I drive my kids across the bridge, I'll tell them, "did you know what it took to get these joints into place? Let me tell you ..."

For updated travel information during I-90 construction, go to

Scheduled Web site outage

We have site maintenance tonight from 11:30 p.m. and scheduled to end at 5:30 a.m. on July 11, 2009.

Ferries and most of the Web site will be unavailable during this outage, however, the 5-1-1 information line will still be available. We will have one page in place which has links to our external sites, like this blog, Twitter and our Flickr account available but that is about it.

AAA Foundation co-hosts traffic safety culture summit…

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and Western Transportation Institute co-hosted the first National Rural Summit on Traffic Safety Culture on June 22 in Big Sky, Montana. Attendees represented a cross section of individuals and organizations in the transportation community.

The goal was to generate dialogue about traffic safety culture, its meaning and the influence it has on public attitudes and behaviors. I was extremely pleased with the issues we were able to address. It is imperative that we consider the cultural factors that define our values and govern our behavior to improve transportation safety. This discussion of traffic safety culture’s role in society among industry professionals is a step in the right direction.

Know before you go to avoid "Are we there yet?"

I have to give some "props" to a reporter at The Seattle Times. He’s working on a story about our Fourth of July travel information and wanted to give the story a bit more depth. So he asked me what I would do if I had a child and we were going to be stuck in traffic.

Well, yes, I do have a little one to entertain. We have our hand-held video games and portable DVD player. Technology today – spoiled kids! Okay, so Transformers was good the first three times, but I really really don’t want to watch it again.

I think back to my own childhood and car trip games like I Spy, the license plate game (oh! oh! I see Hawaii) and find letters on the highway signs (yeah – Z is tough). No video games but we had fun. Don’t forget those “old school” games are still great ways to teach the kids.

Today, with that Internet thingy, we can even get some great information that’s fun and educational about what they will be seeing outside the car window.

Going over Snoqualmie Pass? On our I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East Web page, you can find an award-winning activity book about the wildlife that call Central Washington home.

And you can visit Washington’s tourism site Experience Washington to get information on lots of spots your may be just driving through.

Any other ideas for your fellow travelers? Come on teachers…this is your chance to help us clueless parents and make those “what I did on my summer vacation” reports more interesting.

Hey, great idea Armando…hope your story helps keep those kids busy.