Going off-grid with Emma Lance

By Guest Blogger Broch Bender

Combine the patience of ice fishing, a passion for puzzles, and a love for I-405 drivers that would make the @WSDOT_Traffic Twitter Fairy giggle, and you’ve got WSDOT Transportation Engineer Emma Lance.

OK, so there is no Twitter Fairy, however, magic wands and Twitter dust aside, Emma Lance is the mastermind behind the #Take5 detours you use when northbound Interstate 405 through Bellevue is closed for repairs.

“It’s easy to put pen to paper and design something,” said Emma. “It’s another thing to be accountable for keeping drivers out of lengthy backups.”

Emma and her team are traffic-busting heroes. During weekend-long pavement repair shutdowns of northbound I-405, they go where the traffic cameras can’t; patiently combing through backups so that you won’t get stuck in one.

You might be wondering, “Why does WSDOT need people on the ground when you have Twitter?” Good question. Our tweets are generated by information we see on our webcams, traffic sensors embedded in the highway, and occasionally from drivers like you.

Emma Lance
But, what happens when we close our highways completely and all the average person can see are orange barrels and crews working? And what if the detour is on local streets without cameras and sensors (hint: NE 8th St. or 116th Ave. SE in Bellevue)?  Emma says, “It’s kind of a black hole for drivers. It’s like we are telling them, go here because the highway is closed – see you on the other side!”

Last month was her first call to duty, and she’s back again this weekend, August 9 through 12 for the final roundof concrete panel replacement through downtown Bellevue.

Emma and her team are winning the traffic game by shining a light into the detour abyss. When she sees a slow spot in the road, she’s on the phone with the City of Bellevue so they can adjust traffic signal timing before you can say “red light, green light 1-2-3!,” An extra few seconds of “green” time on a traffic light can make a huge difference. And, if the signals suddenly stop working, Ms. Lance is on the horn to the Washington State Patrol so they can direct traffic.

When drivers enter the “detour black hole,” there is no real way to tell what the detour travel time is.
In the past we’ve literally watched cars exit the ramp to the detour and watched the on-ramp hoping to find the same car and timing how long it took them. That’s ok, but not too reliable. Emma’s got wheels on the ground and stopwatch on the dash, rolling through the detours all day long, timing how long it takes from start to finish. Every 30 minutes she contacts the WSDOT traffic tweeters with her findings.  Bottom line: Ms. Lance is a big reason drivers get the latest, most accurate detour travel times possible all weekend long.

Just like any superstar, Emma is motivated to use her congestion-busting powers for good. Since the beginning of her WSDOT career in 2007, she’s specialized in planning out highways that coexist with fish habitat and Bellevue’s growing metropolis. “It’s a challenge trying to balance tight budgets with high environmental standards,” she said. “But it’s totally worth all of the effort to have state of the art highways side by side with nature, instead of having to choose between them.”

During the first round of I-405 pavement repair closures back in July, she noticed drivers were getting stuck at the NE 8th Street area trying to get onto I-405. This time around her advice is to avoid NE 8th Street and instead use other arterials to go north. “You’ll save yourself a nice chunk of time.”
When our best “traffic-un-jammer” is not designing construction projects, detailing detours or out saving drivers from traffic fatigue, you can find her honing her patience and fortitude over jigsaw puzzles, fishing for walleye and being a favorite aunt to her niece.