Thanks for your patience on I-90 near Easton

By guest blogger Bob Hooker, WSDOT Assistant Project Engineer

Snow, isn’t it spring time?  I asked myself that question earlier this month while I was driving to Easton where WSDOT and contractor crews were hard at work on our I-90 Lake Easton to Bullfrog Project.  We hit the ground running in April and were preparing the ground for new concrete when a snow and rain storm rolled in.  If you’ve ever seen a concrete pour for a new driveway, or someone placing hot mix asphalt for a new parking lot, you know rain can cause big problems for crews trying to get a high quality, smooth product.   So, for a few days we had no choice but to go home and wait out the storm.  We went back to the drawing board with our contractor, Gary Merlino Construction Co., of Seattle, to devise a new plan to complete the concrete replacement work and have all lanes on I-90 east of Snoqualmie Pass open by the busy Memorial Day weekend. One important piece of the plan was how we were going to make up for the lost time caused by unseasonable weather.   The answer was simple, crews had to put in some very long days, extra crews and equipment were brought in, and on a few occasions, worked around the clock to complete the work on time. 

All those long hours paid off. On May 19, we poured the last section of new concrete roadway and the following week on May 27 we hit our goal!  We had the newly constructed lanes open to traffic for the busy Memorial Day Holiday weekend. 

I know the added travel times were difficult to deal with during your travels over the pass.  I too was stuck in the backups and understand it’s frustrating to plan for an extra hour or two added travel time. That’s why I want to personally thank you for your patience and support.  It wasn’t easy, but I’m proud to be a part of a project that provides a smoother ride, will increase the life of the roadway, preserve the road surface to handle heavy traffic and freight trucks on I-90, and supports 135 jobs.

Warm weather plus cool events equals stormy interstate travel on I-5 in Clark County

by guest blogger Heidi Sause

I know I’m not the only person in Southwest Washington who longs for warm weather. When the weather forecast displays five little yellow suns lined up in a row, I want to throw my hands in the air, skip around like a fool and call out: “jackpot!” 

Maybe not everyone expresses warm-weather enthusiasm with the same dramatics that I do, but I’ve noticed that local outdoor venues in Vancouver take advantage of the sunny season and fill their summer schedules with concerts and events. Every year popular acts come to town. Every year people buy tickets and pour into the amphitheater and flock to the fairgrounds. And every year, traffic slows to a crawl.

Why? Because big-name acts and events bring large groups of people together. But when the thousands of concert-goers and fair-attendees pour onto the same highways all at once, they often wind up parked on a jam-packed interstate with the AC cranked instead of enjoying themselves at their destinations.

Two of our top priorities are to keep people safe and moving on our state highways. Each season presents unique challenges to these priorities, and the summer season is no exception. As a driver, one way you can protect your speedometer and keep the little red needle off of “0” is to know before you go. We say it often, because knowledge and preemptive planning are the best ways to avoid traffic delays.

We keep the travel alerts page updated 24-7 with current information on highway conditions, and you can always dial 5-1-1 to hear up-to-date traffic reports. It’s also a good idea to pay attention to the events planned for your local area. Whether you’re headed to the Clark County Fair, going out to see the Lilith Fair girls or getting ready to rock with Crosby, Stills and Nash – remember that traffic congestion increases when large events take place and plan for a longer drive or take alternate routes when possible.

And while you’re at it - don’t forget to wear sunscreen.

Upcoming events at the Sleep Country Amphitheater and Fairgrounds in Clark County:
June 11:  Crosby, Stills and Nash concert event – Sleep Country Amphitheater
July 2:  Lilith Fair concert event – Sleep Country Amphitheater
July 23:  Toby Keith concert event – Sleep Country Amphitheater
August 6 – 15:  Clark County Fair – Clark County Fairgrounds

Event Locations:
Sleep Country Amphitheater
17200 Northeast Delfel Road
Ridgefield, WA - (360) 816-7000

Clark County Fairgrounds and Event Center
17402 Northeast Delfel Road
Ridgefield, WA - (360) 397-6180

Talking and texting while driving is illegal, yet we still do it

It’s been illegal for a year now to talk and text while driving, yet we continue to do it. Just last night, on my way to a soccer game, I saw a surprising number of drivers with their hands and phones pressed against their ears illegally. The fact that it’s a secondary offense hasn’t stopped us. And even though June 10 looms on the horizon - when it becomes a primary offense - I’m worried that we’ll continue to do it.

I think we’ll continue to do it partly because of how the smart phone has revolutionized our lives. With camera, video and web access from virtually anywhere, we’ve all essentially become amateur reporters. We can report on anything, anytime. You wouldn’t believe how many tips we receive from drivers nowadays alerting us to problems on the road – crashes, congestion, storms, etc. A lot of it even appears to have come from behind the steering wheel. Take this picture for example, which we received through Twitter, of a crash on I-5 near Bellingham that happened when a freak hail storm slammed I-5.

Picture received from Twitter letting us know of crash on I-5
Something else I’ve noticed that concerns me is the alarming number of people checking into Foursquare while driving, like on the I-90/SR520 floating bridges, or at the Peace Arch border crossing. The list of check-in locations on our highways and ferries seems to grow by the day. If you’ve never heard of Foursquare, just know that it’s not the schoolyard game from elementary school.

While I’ve never used Foursquare, I’ll admit that I am guilty of talking/texting while driving (in my personal car and on my own time). I can think of two specific times last week when I answered the phone – once when my wife texted and another when the granite installers called. That doesn’t include the several times I checked e-mail at a stoplight. I know, shame on me.

Up until yesterday, I had assumed that it was okay to check my phone at a stoplight or while sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. That was until I saw an article from the Seattle PI that said it was illegal. Even though your tires aren’t physically turning, you’re still behind the wheel and not paying full attention. Oh, and don’t assume that you can just pull the car over to the shoulder of the highway and answer the phone. It’s illegal to do that too.

Personally, I’m resolving to hang up and drive for your safety and mine. Unless I have a hands-free device, I’m not going to talk or text while driving. I’m just not going to do it, it’s not worth it.

From the agency’s perspective, we care more about your safety than the breaking news you send us from behind the wheel. We like to say, “Know before you go” to reinforce the idea that talking, texting, eating, drinking – all of it contributes to distracted driving. Do everyone a favor and please make sure that you’re using a hands-free device.

So what’s it going to take to convince us that we need to hang up and drive? I saw a compelling tweet not too long ago that encouraged people to look up their last call/text and question whether it was worth their life. I mean, really, what call is worth risking our life for?

So, will you join me and go hands free?

Website maintenance May 22...

Just a quick note to let you all know that the website and 511 system will be out of service Saturday night (May 22) between 11pm and 4am for some much needed maintenance.  

If any major events or incidents occur we will use this blog to keep you up to date.

Why ‘Bike to Work Day’ is every day for me

by guest blogger Noel Brady

Noel Brady on his bike in Seattle.
There are two things that get me excited this time of year – one, it’s music-festival season and time to break out my 3-year-old son’s protective, DJ-style earmuffs; and two – the days are longer, the mornings are warmer and drier and there’s a quiet hill between my house and my office that makes riding my bike feel like flying an F-16.

Friday is Bike to Work Day across the country, but nowhere is it such an auspicious occasion than right here in Washington State, which for the third year in a row was named the nation’s most “Bicycle-Friendly State” by the League of American Bicyclists. Let’s face it – two-wheel travel is as much a part of life in the Northwest as soy lattes, megabytes and power-chord distortion. Last year, WSDOT volunteers counted 4,158 cycling commuters in a morning rush hour in 25 towns and cities across the state. It was the second annual bike and pedestrian count for the Washington State Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project.

So why are so many people burning their thighs instead of gasoline, you ask? Where should I start? When I wake up half alive and head out the door to my WSDOT office in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, exercise is about the last thing on my mind. But after I click into my pedals and cruise just a couple blocks, I feel my blood begin to flow. When I pass the fruit stand, I’m in the zone, and my legs are pumping themselves. By the time I clear that hill, make it across the railroad tracks and past the stadiums, I’m fully charged – and I’m not even a morning person.

I spent years riding bikes in high school and college. I even served time as a messenger in Richmond, VA. But seven years ago, I hung my bike from the basement ceiling and bought a motorcycle. I rode that old 750cc Honda to work every day until a few months ago when the engine finally blew. It was tough to let it go, but I don’t think about it much anymore. These days my ride to work is as important, if not more, than my first cup of coffee.

But energy and exercise aren’t the only reasons I became a true believer. The more people bike to work, the fewer vehicles in the rush-hour mess. And it’s great for the planet, just about the best way to get from place to place without spraying CO2 into the air. It isn’t bad on your wallet, either. In large urban areas, the League of American Bicyclists says, you can save more than $200 a month on parking alone, not to mention the arms and legs you save at the pump.

Why not consider this Bike to Work Day the first day of the new and improved you. Turn your commute into your passion and do something for yourself and the planet.

Local Bike to Work Day events

Commuting with your bike

SR 99 Aurora Bridge Fence project delayed, but still on track

by guest blogger Greg Phipps

If you’ve been paying attention to our Aurora Bridge Fence project in Seattle, I can understand if you’re a little confused.

Initially, we expected construction would start this January. Then the start was delayed to February, then, March and April and May. But at the start of April, we learned that construction would start much earlier, on April 21. Now it’s early May and we’re still waiting to start. Why the delays? The best way to explain it is the story of Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C.

Plan A – “The Buggy”
Last fall Massana proposed to install the fence using equipment stationed on the bridge’s sidewalk. This became known as the “buggy”. The buggy would run on rails and was equipped with ladders and work platforms that extend out over the bridge railing and down to the outside of the bridge.

We expected the buggy to be ready in January, but WSDOT bridge engineers were concerned about the buggy’s weight and worked with Massana’s engineers for several months to ensure it met strict safety standards. The safety review process took longer than we expected, but by the end of March we were ready to move forward with the buggy. Bridge buggies don’t come off the shelf, though; they must be custom built and this one would be ready in late spring. While the delay was frustrating, we believed it was worth it. Working on the sidewalk meant daytime work with few lane closures and the added benefit of reducing construction noise effects.

Our bridge engineers also required that Massana install extra supports underneath the sidewalk for extra support. This work would start about a month earlier, on Monday, April 19, and at night until the buggy showed up. News of the start of construction appeared all over local TV, newspapers, radio and blogs and even on the website of England’s most popular newspaper, the Daily Telegraph.

Then we got the bad news. Just 10 hours before construction was to start Massana told us they were abandoning the buggy plan. Turns out the manufacturer of another sidewalk buggy (yes, there’s more than one) raised a patent issue. So it was on to Plan B.

Plan B – Exit the Buggy, enter the Hydra Platform
Massana had a backup plan -- the Hydra Platform, and they’d be ready to go on Wednesday night, April 21.
This was a true bad news/good news scenario. The bad news was the Hydra Platform was much bigger than the buggy and would require closing two lanes on the bridge. Crews would also work at night for the duration of the project. Working at night helps keep traffic moving during the day, but the tradeoff is construction noise while people are trying to sleep. The good news was that we wouldn’t need to add the supports under the sidewalk and could start fence work 4-5 weeks earlier than we expected. Even better, tests of our contractor’s equipment indicated the work would not be nearly as loud as we expected. Things were looking up, or so we thought.

That Wednesday, Massana told us that there was a problem with the Hydra Platform. Once again work was postponed.  We waited a week and on April 28, discovered that the problem was bigger than we thought. The Hydra Platform didn’t have enough clearance with its outriggers extended to reach the work area. So what’s Plan C?

Plan C – Two custom-built work platforms.
Massana is now building two bridge access platforms customized to work on the Aurora Bridge.  Massana says they will be delivered in early June and then assembled on site. Construction on the bridge would start a few nights after that.  The two platforms will allow multiple crews to work on the bridge at the same time, speeding up fence construction.

While Massana is waiting for these platforms they are taking some additional steps that should save time so that they can complete the fence on schedule.

  • Before the new rig shows up, they plan to work from under the north and south ends of the bridge using a boom lift (aka cherry picker). This work will likely start sometime in May after obtaining permission from the city of Seattle.
  • Secondly, they plan to do a portion of the fence assembly off site instead of during fence installation.

Welcome to our fallout shelter under I-5

From guest blogger Bronlea Mishler

When KOMO news first called and asked if they could do a story on WSDOT’s fallout shelter, my first thought was: “We own a fallout shelter?”

A few phone calls and e-mails later, I discovered that WSDOT does, in fact, own a fallout shelter. Technically, it’s also categorized as a bridge, since it holds up part of I-5. And as far as WSDOT historians can tell, it’s the only bridge/fallout shelter/highway combo in the U.S.

Tucked under the southbound lanes of I-5 at north end of the Ravenna bridge is an innocuous metal gate with a graffiti-covered sign reading “Washington State Department of Transportation: District 1 Record Center.” To the casual observer, it’s just another door to just another WSDOT storage facility. But if you happen to know the man with the key (and I do), you’ll quickly find out that this storage facility has an intriguing history.

Forty-seven years ago, it was dedicated as an innovative public fallout shelter. Later, it was used as a Department of Licensing office and a WSDOT records storage facility. Today, it sits empty – a snapshot of Cold War history hidden beneath the highway.

Walking up the stark concrete tunnel into the heart of the fallout shelter is a bit like stepping back in time. It’s also a lot like walking into a refrigerator. This place literally puts the “cold” in Cold War. Of course, had there been a nuclear blast and had I been one of the 200 people the shelter was designed to serve, I doubt I would have cared much about the interior decorating or the lack of heat.

Very little of the fallout shelter is designed for aesthetic appeal or comfort. From the folding metal chairs to the impossibly small bathrooms, to the institutional green and mauve color scheme, the fallout shelter is government utilitarianism at its best. A giant concrete pillar in the center of the shelter supports the 18-inch-thick concrete roof of the 3,000-square-foot room. From overhead, the muffled sounds of I-5 traffic filter into the shelter.

To the right, a particleboard wall cuts across the room to form a makeshift office, a relic of the shelter’s 14 years as a Department of Licensing facility. Ahead, the doors to three small rooms stand open, the spaces vacant save for an old rotary phone and a 1969 day planner. In the event of a nuclear attack, the rooms would have been used for food storage and distribution, medical care, and day-to-day shelter operations.
To the left, down the hallway leading to the escape tunnel, are two doors to his-and-hers bathrooms and decontamination showers. For the suggested 200 shelter-ees: Three toilets, one urinal, two sinks, two showers. All of which are accessible through doorways that – at best – might be 28 inches wide. It’s enough to make airline bathrooms seem positively spacious in comparison.

(Historical sidebar)

Adjacent to the bathrooms are the low double doors leading into the escape tunnel. We pried its doors open for likely the first time in 40 years and found it to be surprisingly clean, save for a nest of some sort wedged into a crevice and several decades’ worth of cobwebs. A row of caged lights lines the right side of the round concrete tunnel. At 48 inches in diameter, the tunnel was surprisingly easy to navigate – at least for someone my size. It didn’t take long for me to walk (well, waddle, really) the 85 feet to the gated tunnel exit a few feet up the street from the main shelter entrance.

Down the tunnel from the main room of the fallout shelter, a set of double doors lead into the mechanical heart of the shelter. On one wall, in a glass display case, are the original, meticulously hand-drawn diagrams and typed instructions on how to operate the generator, well, and heating and ventilation system.  The authors clearly assumed most shelter evacuees would be unfamiliar with mechanical operating systems, so the instructions read a bit like a 1960s-era “Fallout Shelters for Dummies” book. Important items noted in the step-by-step directions were labeled with paper tags, many of which still remain.

View more photos of the shelter

Standing on the sidewalk, with the gate firmly closed and locked again, this place is easy to overlook. It doesn’t look much like a fallout shelter, but then again, I guess I don’t know what a fallout shelter is supposed to look like. And I hope I never have to.

North Cascades Highway - getting snow in May!

By guest blogger Jeff Adamson

Hi all,
You probably know the North Cascades is closed.  It snowed all night and when Liberty Bell #3 filled and dumped across the road, the plow truck driver who had been working all night was told to get out of there, and close the gate on his way.  The forecast says we've got another foot or more coming between now and tomorrow, so it's not safe for our crews to be working under unstable avalanche chutes anymore than it's safe for you to be driving under them.  I'm rooting around through the record books and haven't yet found an avalanche closure this late - but I'll keep looking.  I just got off the phone with Mike Stanford, our Avalanche Control Chief.  He will be up there tomorrow doing the assessment of avalanche danger.  He's taking the howitzer along so if some avalanche control blasting can get us open again quickly, he'll be able to do it.  It really depends on what happens to the Cutthroat Ridge chutes - if they're full and unstable - we might just have to wait a day or two for the temperature increase that's coming later in the week to cause them to empty. (Due to the topography, you can't shoot Cutthroat starting zones from the highway with the 105mm.) 
By the way - depending on how much of the forecast' 6 to 10 inches of snow hits Stevens - he may have to deal with some avalanche issues before he leaves his office at Berne Camp (that's our maintenance facility 8 miles east of Stevens Summit.)
Sorry, no pictures (no one better be up there to take any!)  We're manning the gates just in case any back country recreationist we weren't able to contact show up wanting to go home.
Here's what the Highway Alert that went out this morning:
DATE/TIME: May 3, 2010, 9:30 a.m.
DESCRIPTION: SR 20, the North Cascades Pass, is closed from milepost 134 to milepost 170.
LOCATION: SR 20 at milepost 170 North Cascades Pass
START: May 3, 2010, 9:30 a.m.
Est. END: Unknown
OTHER: Due to avalanche danger, high winds, and incoming snow, the North Cascades Pass is closed until further notice.
CONTACT: NCTMC (509) 667-2802

Here's the forecast:
Snow over Washington and Rainy passes will continue through the day today with heavy snow showers and squalls expected during the midday and afternoon hours.  There is the potential for significant snow accumulations over both Washington and Rainy passes (upwards of 12”+), with slush potential as low down the hill as Diablo on Mon afternoon and evening.  Most of the snow concerns remain over the passes, with little cold-moisture making it much further E than Early Winters.  Snow levels may drop as low as 1,500 feet Monday night into Tuesday morning with more snow expected, mainly West of the passes.

Happy May!

(This was sent out via the North Cascades email distribution list this morning. Sign up to get this and much more information sent directly to your inbox. )