How does WSDOT balance the importance of keeping traffic moving while completing construction activities?
Keeping traffic moving during construction is a top priority at WSDOT, but there are several other factors that are considered when planning our highway construction projects.
While working on the highway, WSDOT and our private sector contractors must:
- help keep people and goods moving
- help keep drivers and construction workers safe
- deliver projects on time
- deliver projects within budget
- deliver high quality work
- protect the environment
- coordinate with interest groups like local communities, neighbors, freight, bicyclists, pedestrians, businesses, neighborhood groups and event organizers
- minimize noise, particularly at night when working near neighborhoods or hotels
- coordinate with other agencies like cities, counties, transit agencies, ports and environmental regulators
- coordinate with other state and local transportation construction projects
Highway construction projects are complex and it’s not easy to meet all of these goals. Our project engineers and contractors are experienced and do their best to find workable solutions to address competing interests. However, meeting all of these goals is a difficult balancing act.
Who decides when and where roadway closures are allowed?
Permits or other permissions are required for roadway construction and special event closures. On freeways and many state highways, WSDOT has the authority to approve closures. On local streets and some state highways, cities and counties have the authority to approve closures. Law enforcement officials and some emergency responders can also authorize closures for emergencies and incidents. Local noise variances are often required when we need to conduct noisy construction work and may limit working hours for noisy work.
The state, counties and cities typically set limitations on construction closures to help keep people and goods moving, but we also allow construction contractors significant flexibility so they can complete construction work.
Why does WSDOT allow construction contractors some flexibility? Why don’t we require more stringent advance notification requirements?
Constructing highway projects is a complex process. WSDOT and our contractors use our best skills and experience to manage variable conditions like weather, skilled labor availability, underground soil conditions driver behavior; traffic; incidents; equipment and materials availability; and neighboring residents and businesses. However, there is always some risk involved in any major construction project. Severely limiting closures and enforcing more stringent advance notice requirements would tie our contractors’ hands and effectively force them to request closures that would accommodate worst case scenarios. This would decrease the accuracy of our construction closure information, reduce our ability to realistically plan and manage construction closures, reduce contractors’ ability to respond to variable conditions and increase costs and timelines for our projects.
WSDOT and our construction contractors do our best to anticipate and manage traffic risks and balance the need for construction closure flexibility with the need for advance notice.
How accurate are construction closure estimates? When does WSDOT know what highways will be closed?
Construction closure schedule estimates become more accurate as the closure date approaches. However, the estimates remain fluid until the last minute due to the variable nature of roadway construction. Despite uncertainties, we work with our contractors to refine closure estimates and strategically manage and coordinate closures on an ongoing basis. Our construction traffic management efforts can start years before construction begins, particularly for complex projects.
Often years before a contractor has been hired, WSDOT is strategizing and coordinating about ways we can reduce effects on traffic while building a project. Our design engineers consider construction traffic impacts and coordinate with local communities in the early phases of their work.
As construction approaches, contractors typically propose plans which summarize how they plan to keep traffic moving during construction and sets general parameters for construction closures within the limitations WSDOT included in our agreement with the contractor. These plans include: times, locations and types of closures allowed during various phases of construction; restrictions like Seahawks or Mariner’s games or major holidays; incentives if they complete work and get highways open to traffic faster than planned and disincentives if they keep highway lanes closed longer than planned. WSDOT must review and approve the plans, which then allow the contractor to manage their work within clear parameters while maintaining flexibility to adjust their work as needed.
As construction proceeds, contractors work closely with WSDOT staff on an ongoing basis to discuss estimated upcoming traffic impacts and approaches. Contractors typically must provide WSDOT more definitive and specific information about their construction closures on the Thursday that precedes the closure – a minimum of a week before the closure occurs.
Despite all of the advance planning and contingency planning, construction crews sometimes must adjust their traffic closures at the last second in response to surprises – for example, unexpectedly wet weather or equipment break-downs. WSDOT works closely with our contractors during these situations.
What tools does WSDOT use to manage and enforce construction closure schedules?
- Project management: experienced project engineers engage with staff, contractors and communities to oversee maintenance of traffic plans for construction projects. They also oversee construction and can levy fines or issue bonuses based upon a contractors’ skill at managing traffic while completing construction.
- Traffic management: experienced traffic engineers oversee traffic operations and review and approve (or deny) the contractors plan to keep traffic moving during closures.
- Coordination: we routinely coordinate construction closure schedules with local communities and jurisdictions, transit agencies, emergency responders and others at the project and regional level. WSDOT does not have the authority to dictate local street closures nor do local jurisdictions have the authority to dictate freeway closures. When unanticipated construction closure traffic conflicts arise agencies work collaboratively to determine what, if any, solutions are feasible and reasonable.
- Financial incentives and disincentives: bonuses for reducing the expected impacts on traffic and fines for increasing the impacts.
Why doesn’t WSDOT just do all of our construction work at night, when traffic is lightest?
WSDOT and our contractors do a lot of construction at night. However that’s not always the best option. Here are a few of the reasons why:
- It is often safer for drivers and workers if crews complete some types of work during the day, when visibility is better.
- Some materials, like certain types of pavement and pavement markings, are not as durable if they are used at lower temperatures. Overnight temperatures are almost always lower than daytime temperatures.
- It takes a significant amount of time – sometimes hours – to safely set up and break down a construction work zone on a highway. In addition, it can take a significant number of hours to set up heavy construction equipment and supplies. When we limit crews to overnight work we increase the work hours spent on these activities and limit productive work hours. This extends the project timeline and increases project costs.
- Sometimes crews can complete a huge amount of work with brief and intense traffic closures. For example, closing a highway ramp for an entire weekend may eliminate the need for weeks of overnight closures. This “pull the Band-Aid off fast” approach can be more convenient for drivers and allow crews to complete the job faster, deliver high quality results and lower costs.
- Construction work can be very noisy, despite significant efforts to minimize noise. Night work can be disruptive for nearby businesses and residents.
- Often construction workers are paid a premium for working the graveyard shift. As a result, night work can increase costs.
- While overnight traffic is lighter than daytime traffic, significant numbers of trucks carry freight at night. Cumulative overnight closures could affect trucking schedules.