By guest blogger Summer Derrey
Every year, our avalanche and maintenance crews work to clear the snow from Chinook Pass to reopen this section of State Route 410 for summer travel. It takes the work of crews from both sides of the state. Recently, I traversed the 5,430-foot pass to see for myself how the reopening effort works as crews clear Chinook from the east side.
Step 1. Safety first. Strap on an avalanche beacon, look for signs of potential avalanches like snowballs forming at the top of slopes, listen for the shhhh shhhh sound of snow sliding down the mountain and watch your step.
Step 2. Find the road. This year, it’s buried under 20 feet of snow.
Avalanche specialists knock down loose snow above the highway
Avalanche specialists clear the steep slopes of snow using several methods. Crews ascend to the ridgeline on skis, pushing into the snow intentionally triggering avalanches. They also pack in explosives and set charges. Occasionally, helicopters drop explosives in hard-to-reach areas.
Maintenance crews clear snow on the highway snow
Maintenance crews keep a safe distance behind the avalanche specialists while clearing the highway, using two bulldozers and two snow blowers. The pioneer dozer, led by team veteran Tom Martinson, climbs to the top of the snow pile and methodically carves a path 20 feet above the highway. Using a process called side-casting, Tom rocks the dozer perpendicular along the hill side pushing the snow off the cliffs with the dozer’s blade.
“There is a little less snow this year,” Tom said. “It’s been a piece of cake.”
Tom may have a sweet tooth, but the danger is always bitter sweet. Tom has to keep the snow and his rig level; otherwise, he could slide off the cliff. Meanwhile, Nick Zirkle is in the second dozer and uses a process called spading. He loosens the hard snow and ice with the dozer’s blade, creating a series of heaping piles for the blower to expel off the cliff. Doug Sutton is the veteran snow blower. His blower feeds the snow into the box, launching powder 40 feet in the air then whirling down the steep cliffs. John Rath is in the second blower and he’s like the dish washer, clearing every speck of snow off the highway.
Clearing snow is a slow and methodical process. It’s sort of like peeling layers off an onion one by one. By early May, after weeks of clearing, eastside avalanche crews meet up with the west side Greenwater crew near the top of Chinook Pass.
But the pass is not open yet.
Maintenance crews need to reinstall all the highway signs. The signs are removed each year; otherwise, avalanches would rip the poles out of the ground, pushing the signs to the valley bottom. Crews also monitor weather and avalanche danger. The snow build-up along the rock walls will loosen and topple onto the highway when conditions warm up.
Crews prefer to reopen Chinook once conditions are stable enough to keep it open. That way, drivers don’t get stuck on one side or the other and have to drive all the way around to White Pass on US 12.
Finally, crews unlock the gate and swing it open for six months of recreational travel. When will it open this year? Crews are on schedule to reopen a couple days before Memorial Day weekend, although that could change, depending on weather conditions and safety.
On average, crews clear 5.5 miles east of Chinook Pass using two bulldozers and two snow blowers. Four to six avalanche specialists knock down snow using 1,600 pounds of explosives in a four to six week period. Crews clear a minimum of 602,300 cubic yards of snow from the highway – not including the snow the avalanche specialists knock down from the mountain. It takes approximately 1,280 crew hours to reopen Chinook Pass each year.
By guest blogger Ann Briggs
|Bicyclists enjoying a ride on one of Washington’s|
many bike paths
Governor Inslee has proclaimed May as Bike Month in Washington and May 13 to 17 is National “Bike to Work Week,” culminating in “Bike to Work Day” on Friday, May 17. So here’s an open challenge to you: Pump up the tires, check the chain, dig out your helmet and safety gear, plan your route and give those wheels a spin!
|A bicyclist and vanpooler|
Trying something new can be scary at first, so we asked some of our regular bicycle commuters for advice on getting started and to share their experience. Here are their tips and stories:
Mike, a Web applications developer, has been a bicycle commuter for 16 years. He rides six miles to work nearly every day during the summer and travels by bike about half of the year overall. His tip: “Research your route. Find routes with good lighting and fewer vehicles and look for trails or shortcuts that are inaccessible by car. Exploring is half the fun.” Mike also recommends that you find a bicycle that fits and is comfortable to ride. “It’s much easier to stay consistent and enjoy the commute on a bicycle that fits you properly.” On Mike’s essential equipment list are helmet, patch kit, bicycle pump and side-view mirror, which he notes is especially useful on narrow roads with little or no shoulder to ride on.
Jenna, a construction analyst, has a goal to commute the 11 miles to work, twice a week, from May through October. She advises, “Keep it fun when you’re starting out. You don’t have to bike to work every day, just do it when you feel the urge.” On her essentials list are waterproof shoes, fenders and rain suit, along with a watertight container for rainy weather. “Everything that isn’t covered in a waterproof container will be wet – your change of clothes, wallet and other personal items that are along for the ride.” Trust her on this one – she speaks from experience.
|Bicyclist utilizing Sound Transit|
Anna, a transportation planning specialist, started commuting the five miles to work for the exercise and to use her birthday gift – a “beautiful bicycle.” She explained, “I really love how stimulating it is – the physical movement, the smells, the feeling of a misty morning, the quietness when you’re riding on a path at 7 in the morning – and I love the feeling of accomplishment when I arrive at work under my own power!” On her essentials list are a U-shaped bike lock (her cable lock was cut and her original bike stolen); strong, bright bike lights; biking gloves and a waterproof biking jacket. Her advice: “Ride as if you are invisible and obey all the rules of the road. Don’t assume drivers see you until you see them respond to your presence – make eye contact.”
Long-time cyclist, Streator, an administrative risk manager, has been pedaling to work for about 14 years. For him, bicycling the 2.5 miles to work is an everyday occurrence. “It just seems to be the right thing to do – for my health, for my pocketbook, for the environment.” His advice: “Just do it!”
So give bicycling to work a try. Let us know how it worked for you.
By guest blogger Ann Briggs
|Kelsey Creek, I-405 wetland, 2008|
It has me thinking about my own views on the environment and how they have evolved. As a child of the 60s, I remember riding in my parents' car, tossing candy wrappers out the window (sigh!) and my dad dumping the car ashtray on the ground, scattering butts everywhere. We just didn’t give much thought back then about where this stuff ends up…as if it would simply disappear into the wind. We certainly know better now.
Thanks to better science and practices, an environmental awareness and evolution has taken place over the years in the world of transportation too. Much of what we do today to protect the environment and mitigate for the impacts of highway construction is based on lessons learned and a greater understanding of the effects the transportation system has on our surroundings. A significant amount of money is spent fixing the problems that were created in decades past.
|Gold Creek side channel I-90, 2009|
Environmental missteps, like those tossed candy wrappers, can pile up if we keep repeating them. We used to build roadways with drainage systems that funneled highway runoff directly into lakes and streams. Wetlands were soggy ponds that got in the way of progress, so we drained them. We built culverts to let the water through, but didn’t think about how fish would manage. We built highways in places that made good engineering sense, but not necessarily good community sense.
We now build highways with stormwater management systems to filter out oil and fluids from drippy cars before it enters our streams. We know now that wetlands are critical for reducing flooding, recharging groundwater supplies and providing habitat. Between 1988 and now, we’ve built and monitored 194 wetlands covering 942 acres. Since 1991, we’ve been replacing culverts that block fish and have restored fish passage to more than 900 miles of habitat. We conduct environmental studies to determine how our work will affect communities, cultures, habitats, air, water and noise, and find ways to avoid or mitigate for those impacts. And, we work hard to report the results of those studies in easy-to-read-and-understand formats.
|SR 167 Panther Creek fish passage|
culvert installation, 2012
As we celebrate Earth Day on April 22, think about what you know now that you didn’t know then. What changes have you made as a result of your own environmental evolution?
By guest blogger Meagan McFadden
|Drivers traveling on I-90 this summer need to know|
before they go to avoid construction-related delays.
Crews are scheduled to start work again in mid-April on a dozen projects that add lanes, build bridges, repave bridge decks and repair cracked sections of pavement.
Construction at several locations east of Snoqualmie Pass will require single-lane closures and rolling slowdowns this summer, which will add to travel time. During construction, drivers need to add at least an hour to their east-west trips, especially if trying to catch a flight or make a time-sensitive appointment.
It’s going to be a very busy construction season on I-90 and when we say, ‘plan ahead’, we mean it. We’re letting you know now, so you can take the surprise out of your trip and plan accordingly.
We have a wide variety of resources to help drivers take the surprise out of their trips across I-90 this year. Drivers can find information on multiple websites, including the What’s Happening on I-90, Snoqualmie Mountain Pass and Traffic Alerts pages. Drivers can also follow us on Twitter @snoqualmiepass and @wsdot_passes or sign up for email updates. While on the road, drivers can use our travel time signs to find out how long it will take them to get to their destination.
In mid-April, crews resume work on a $551 million project that builds a wider, safer and more reliable stretch of I-90 from Hyak to Keechelus Dam. Later this spring, crews on this 5-mile-long project will resume blasting along the rock slopes east of Snoqualmie Pass. Drivers need to plan for hour-long closures, Mondays through Thursdays, starting an hour before sunset. Due to the nature of blasting operations this year, some closures may last longer than an hour.
In late April, crews will begin deck repair on five bridges along I-90 between Easton and Ellensburg. Crews will remove a thin layer of the existing bridge deck, repair damaged concrete, reinforce the deck with steel and repave with asphalt. Crews will also begin repaving deteriorating pavement in both directions west of Easton Hill. Drivers could experience delays of up to 15 minutes Monday through Friday through the work zone.
By guest blogger Kelly Stowe
Back in April 2008, WSDOT staff found a friend in Drake Thomas. Drake, who is autistic, was 10 years old, and fascinated by the WSDOT traffic cameras and soothing background music that played during TV Tacoma 12’s “Traffic Watch program.” The program flashed live images of WSDOT traffic cameras focused on I-5, SR 16 and SR 512.
Drake would watch the show daily, memorizing the order in which the camera images were shown. If something was off or a camera image was out, he would ask his parents to call TV Tacoma or WSDOT. He even built his own highway system at home by making traffic cameras with toothpicks, straws, and clay. When WSDOT heard about Drake’s passion for traffic cameras, he was invited to check out the Olympic Region Traffic Management Center in Parkland where he could meet the people who controlled the cameras he watched each morning on Channel 12.
On the day of his visit, Drake got a lesson about all the inter-workings of the TMC by Rich Langlois, Traffic Safety Systems Operator, and was even allowed to operate the cameras where he adjusted the angles and zoomed in and out. KOMO TV also came along for his visit. (See the KOMO segment of Drake’s visit here.)
Drake was in camera-loving heaven and proclaimed the day, “The most special day of my life.”
So almost five years later when WSDOT staff asked if Drake was interested in a return visit, he jumped at the chance. It was almost as time had stood still when Drake entered the TMC, except of course the seemingly 10 feet the now 15-year-old had grown.
Drake walked in and his old friend, Rich Langlois, was right there waiting to put him to work. Drake sat down at a computer that is used to move the cameras – and that’s when a call came in over the Washington State Patrol scanner which is monitored by TMC staff, that there was a disabled car blocking a lane on eastbound SR 512 at I-5. Rich said to Drake, “Well, you better find it.”
As if he had been working at the TMC for the past five years, Drake expertly found the right camera and moved it around until the disabled vehicle was in sight.
Drake spent the next two hours moving the cameras and talking to Rich about how he likes high school, enjoys being a part of the NAVY ROTC, and what he needs to do so he can work at the TMC when he graduates.
Rich’s explanation on what Drake needed to one day become a TMC employee was pretty cut and dry, “Stay in school and don’t do drugs.”
Drake’s mom, Janice, and dad, Bob, both accompanied him on his visit. His mom explained that when Drake arrived that day at the TMC he announced, “Today is the second best day of my life!”