Why we spend millions to repaint bridges

Monday, December 15, 2014

The North Fork Lewis River Bridges
after their $12 million paint jobs.
By Tamara Hellman

Painting a bridge is a lot different than painting your house. Sure, it’s nice to get a touch-up to improve your home’s curb appeal. But for a bridge, it’s more than just making it look pretty.

Painting helps preserve the roughly 3,500 bridges we manage around the state. The paint helps protect our bridges from the elements so everyone can use them for a longer period of time.

Here’s an example. We just finished painting the North Fork Lewis River Bridges on I-5 south of Woodland. Both spans carry 65,000 vehicles a day on our state’s primary north-south interstate highway.

Decades of wear, including rust and
peeling paint, on one of the bridges’ trusses.
If we didn’t paint these bridges, they would rust and deteriorate faster. The last time the North Fork Lewis River Bridges received a fresh coat, it was 1990. Since then, its “Cascade Green” color has worn off in spots and rust has formed on sections of the steel. Without a proper touch-up, the rust would spread and deteriorate the steel structure, causing it to weaken. Eventually, the bridge would not be able to carry the load it once did. As a result, freight haulers would have to make long detours, putting a crimp on interstate commerce.

We try our best to paint bridges every couple decades to ensure they’re properly protected. While it’s cheaper to paint a bridge than it is to build a new one, it still costs a decent amount of money. For the North Fork Lewis River Bridges, the final bill was around $12 million– about 20 percent under budget, paid for by both state-gas-tax and federal-preservation funds.

Why so much?
Several factors contribute to the cost of a bridge-painting project, two of which are the most important:

1. Keeping people safe
With any project, we need to keep traffic moving while ensuring the safety of both the people traveling through our work zones and the crews working in them. A good portion of the cost covers safety measures, such as temporary barriers, traffic control and scaffolding. Lane closures are expensive and limit the times when contractors can do their work.  If we have to close lanes, we do it mostly at night or on weekends, when people travel less frequently. Temporary barriers also provide a safe work area for crews, as well as safe lanes of travel for drivers. Scaffolding is used so workers can get access to high and low points on the bridges, and cable systems are used to protect the workers from falling. Keeping everyone safe is our number-one priority.

Barriers provide safe lanes of travel for drivers and a safe place for crews to work.

2. Keeping the environment safe
We work to be good stewards of the environment– not simply because it’s required as part of the permitting process, but because it’s the right thing to do. During the North Fork Lewis River Bridges repainting project, contractor crews installed a containment system of tarps, collection tubes and vacuum systems to prevent the many layers of deteriorated paint, rust and other debris from falling into the river. They sandblasted the old lead-based paint off the steel and cleaned the rust and dirt off the bridge. The environmental-protection systems collected all the material so crews could dispose of it properly. This was done in sections to keep the metal from exposure to the elements for too long, preventing new rust from forming before each section could be painted.

Environmental protection
systems prevent debris
from falling in the river.
The end result
The new coats of paint are expected to help preserve the bridges for about 25 years. We maximize the life of the paint by cleaning our bridges between paintings to remove debris that can make them deteriorate faster.

We have a significant backlog of steel bridges that need to be repainted throughout our highway system. With less funding and the list of bridges growing, we have to make some tough decisions on prioritizing which ones get painted next. We are constantly exploring practical ways to maintain and preserve our bridges, and we do it with safety, cost savings and the environment in mind.

During floods, better safe than sorry

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

By Barbara LaBoe

With heavy rain forecast for Western Washington this week, there’s a good chance of minor and even major flooding of rivers. With that in mind, we thought we’d share some flood preparedness tips. We hope none of you have to leave your homes, of course, but with the amount of rain we get in our fair state, these are good tips to review at any time.

The main tip? Pay attention to weather reports and warnings and do NOT drive through standing water. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that’s the cause of most flood-related deaths in Washington.  It only takes six inches of water to stall a vehicle and a foot to float most vehicles, so never take the chance that you’ll be able to make it across a flooded road.

Here are some other tips from FEMA’s www.ready.gov about things you can do before and during a flood to keep you and your loved ones safe.

Before a flood:
  • Create an emergency kit with medical supplies, food and water, dry clothing and important documents stored in a waterproof container.
  • Get a battery-powered radio or a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Weather Radio with tone alert. Stock extra batteries for both.
  • Establish a family communications plan and meeting place. Know where you’ll meet if you’re separated during an evacuation. (For flooding in particular, make sure it’s on high ground). Designate a relative or friend outside the area to check in with if you’re separated and can’t reach each other. Here are some examples.
  • Stash extra charging cords or portable chargers for your cellphones in your vehicles so you have them if you have to leave quickly.
If fish can swim across the highway, don’t cross.
This is a photo of US 101 in 2007.
During flooding:
  • Remember your safety, not possessions, is your main priority. If you’re told to evacuate, do so quickly.
  • Follow weather reports closely and be prepared to evacuate quickly, including having key items ready to grab as you leave.
  • If there’s time before an evacuation -- and you can do it safely -- turn off utilities at the main switches or valves. Disconnect electrical appliances. Do NOT touch any electrical equipment if you are wet or are in standing water.
  • Secure your home. If there’s time, move essential items to an upper floor.
  • Follow WSDOT’s Facebook and Twitter pages for our flood response updates. Visit the traffic alerts page for up-to-date road closure information.
While evacuating:
  • Do not walk through moving water. Six inches of moving water can knock you down. If you have to cross water to get to safety, walk where the water is still. Use a stick to check the firmness of the ground in front of you.
  • Do not drive into flooded areas. You and your vehicle can be quickly swept away. If floodwaters rise around your car unexpectedly, abandon it and move to higher ground if you can do so safely.
  • Do not camp or park your vehicle along streams, rivers or creeks, even if they’re not flooding at the moment. Conditions can change quickly.
Feeling more prepared? Good.
Now, just remember these tips and do your best to stay safe -- and dry --  in the days to come.

Motion-activated camera captures wildlife and an unexpected visitor

Monday, November 17, 2014

By Ann Briggs

They’re big, beautiful and majestic, but when they wander onto high-speed highways the results can be deadly; we’re talking about elk. Weighing in at more than 500 to 700 pounds, elk pose a serious safety risk for drivers and passengers in vehicle-wildlife collisions.

As part of an ongoing project, we’ve been studying wildlife crossings under Interstate 90 since 2010 in the North Bend area, where the number of elk-vehicle collisions has been increasing. On average, 16 elk-vehicle collisions have been recorded in this area each year over the past five years. In addition to tracking a growing urban elk herd, during this research we learned that one of two wildlife crossings in this area had the highest black bear use documented for any highway crossing structure in North America.

We’re developing plans to install an 8-foot-high fence along I-90 in the North Bend area. While a fence is an effective way to prevent collisions, it also blocks normal wildlife migration and may interfere with their access to habitats and food needed for survival. We use motion-triggered cameras at bridges and culverts to learn what species use these safe passages to cross under the interstate and how frequently. The information is vital to developing an effective project design that allows for safe wildlife crossings and addresses fencing needs.

All was well until Nov. 10, when we discovered that nine cameras in three locations had been stolen. The value of the stolen cameras, along with their protective steel boxes, media cards, rechargeable batteries and shielded padlocks, is estimated at $7,000. This is one of the biggest losses the program has experienced. Unfortunately, it’s brought our monitoring of structures in the North Bend area to an end; we’ve taken down all remaining cameras to prevent further loss to taxpayers.

A person of interest
We discovered that one camera, mounted in a tree not far from a stolen camera, photographed a person of interest carrying a long steel bar, his face covered by a bandana. We’d like to know who he is so that we can ask him some questions. If you recognize this person or have any other information, please call Kelly McAllister, WSDOT wildlife biologist, at 360 705-7426.

In the meanwhile, we’ll use the data we’ve gathered so far to move this important safety project forward. The fencing project is currently unfunded.

Looping you in on travel time data

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

by Mike Allende,

The recent run of extra-challenging slow morning commutes – especially southbound out of Everett – has made travel times a big point of discussion. With several commutes topping the 100-minute mark – topped by a 140-minute time in late September – our travel times page has been getting a workout.

Travel times posted on our website let people know what their
commute looks like before they leave their home.
They update every five minutes.
There are a number of reasons why this is happening, from dark and wet conditions, to collisions and breakdowns in the wrong place at the wrong time, to simply a lot of people going to the same place at the same time every day. But that’s not what this blog is about.

Instead, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at just how we compute those travel times. We know people rely on them to plan their trips, and we use technology and data to make them as accurate as we can. It’s important for us to provide useful data to the public. So how does it work? Glad you asked.

Travel times listed on highway message boards give commuters
an idea of how good (or bad) their commute ahead is.
About every half-mile or so on highways in the area, we have loop detectors embedded in the pavement. These loops measure the speed of each vehicle that goes over it, and the amount of time that vehicle is on the loop. It then sends that data to junction boxes nearby which calculate the information and sends it to our website, giving commuters the amount of time it should take them to get from particular points. Our data is accurate about 95 percent of the time and updates on our website every five minutes.

But we don’t just rely on our loops. From time to time, we also have people drive the various routes at different times of the day to calculate travel times. We’ve found that the results are usually close to what our posted travel times are, which gives people a good idea of about how long it will take them.

Each month, we look at data from the previous three months to come up with the average travel time. If you watch our travel time page closely, you’ll notice that the average travel time changes throughout the day. That’s because we come up with averages based on time and day of the week, so the average time for the drive from Everett to Seattle at 8:15 a.m. on a Tuesday may be different than the average time for the same route at 7:35 a.m. on a Thursday.

Loop sensors embedded in the pavement of highways measure
the speed of each vehicle going over them, which are then
converted to travel times.
Something else to keep in mind is that it’s hard to account for poor weather when it comes to travel times. Rain and ice changes driving conditions in a big way and makes commutes much less predictable. A collision or stall blocking a lane can be exacerbated in bad weather and all of a sudden a free-flowing drive can become jammed within a few minutes, though that may not be reflected right away in our travel times. That’s why it’s important to check in with other sources, from our @wsdot_traffic Twitter account, to our Seattle traffic page and the media to get updates on road conditions. If you’re driving, of course, stick to radio traffic reports – please don’t check Twitter or our traffic page on your mobile device if you’re behind the wheel.

Building bridges and engineers of the future!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Bridge testing
 by Tamara Hellman

Earlier this week, dozens of Vancouver-area high school students built and tested model bridges at the Balsa Wood Bridge Competition— but down the road, they just might be working on the real deal.

We played host to the second annual event at the Southwest Region headquarters building Thursday, Nov. 6. Students came equipped with model bridges they crafted out of only two items – wood and glue! In all, 14, two-person teams from Evergreen, Heritage, Union and Mountain View high schools participated in the event. Each team did research on the type of bridge they wanted to build and then documented their findings in workbooks.

Broken bridge
Patrick Gallagher, a member of our bridge-design team, kicked off the event. He shared with the students how he became an engineer after participating in a similar contest when he was in high school. The structure he made for that competition inspired him to become a bridge engineer and 14 years later he wound up building the LeBree Bridge in Chehalis.

Both the bridge and workbook were judged as part of the competition. Bridge models in the competition were judged on structural integrity. Each model was tested by adding sand to buckets attached to the bridge to determine how much weight it could support before breaking. Some of the bridges practically exploded, while others simply broke at the joint supporting the weight. Engineers and our staff judged the competition.

So, who won? Teams from Union High School swept the structural bridge-design competition, winning the top three spots. A team from Evergreen High School won top prize for the workbook competition, followed by Union and Heritage in second and third, respectively.

Winning Bridge
Many of us use bridges daily, but seldom do we see the team behind the design. Exposing these students to engineering as a career path is a positive investment in our future transportation needs.

We are working with the Evergreen School District to host the event at our regional headquarters again next year.

Featured Flickr Photo

Hood Canal Bridge
Hood Canal Bridge

Blog Archive