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North Central Region Newsletter - March 2014

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March 20, 2014

Welcome to the March North Central Region WSDOT monthly newsletter. This issue includes a story about the challenges presented by late season heavy snowfall, avalanches and skiers. There’s also a preview of the effort to reopen the North Cascades and an update on our “delayed” 2014 construction season.

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If you have any questions on items in this newsletter, or other transportation issues, please let me know. Call me at (509) 667-3001 or send me an e-mail at: 
Dan Sarles

North Central Regional Administrator

This newsletter arrives with the first day of Spring. For much of December, January and February, it seemed we weren’t going to have much of a winter. That all changed with two feet of new snow in less than a week in mid-February which turned out to be just the first of a series of storms.

Avalanches and Ski area parking issues came along with the snow, presenting some daunting challenges on Stevens Pass.

President’s Day is a day off for many people including students so the fresh snow began attracting skiers on Saturday (2/15) for the long weekend. The same scenario played out the following weekend as skiers flooded the resort and struggled to find parking or gave up and parked on the highway, which is neither safe nor legal. It is important to remember when the plow-trucks are not able to get through, neither can emergency vehicles, nor anyone else.

By Sunday (2/16), it wasn’t parking, but avalanches that spoiled the day for many who were expecting to drive over Stevens Pass.

Here’s what happened:

We performed avalanche control Sunday morning from 2 to 5:15 a.m. We had planned to do it again Monday morning between 2 and 6 a.m. to deal with the new snow expected over the next 24 hrs. However at 1:10 p.m. Sunday afternoon a natural snow slide came down just west of the Stevens pass summit. We immediately sent our avalanche crew up who determined we needed to do additional avalanche control as soon as possible. The target time was set was for 3:30 p.m. Due to the heavy volume of cars leaving the ski area, traffic was backed up westbound under the avalanche chutes. That forced us to close the highway and ski area exits at 2:55 p.m. to clear traffic from under the chutes. While WSDOT and WSP were clearing the traffic, two more natural snow slides came down, blocking all lanes. We brought in a snow blower to clear the lanes so the traffic could clear and we could begin the preventative avalanche control work. That effort brought down snow up to 20 feet deep onto the highway. In the end it took until 8 o’clock to clear and reopen the highway. The entire event was magnified as Snoqualmie Pass was closed at the same time. As our avalanche control chief says, “We try not to schedule control during the daytime or on the weekends to minimize the danger and the delays for the traveling public, but we don t make the rules, we just play the game. Mother nature is always in control.”

These events beg for some perspective, so here’s a peek into what goes on to keep traffic moving over Stevens Pass:

• By Tuesday the 25th, 138” of new snow had fallen in the previous 14 days. We did avalanche control on Feb. 11, 15, 17, 18, twice on the 20th, once on the 21st, twice on the 23rd and once on the 24th and 25th. That was a total of 11 missions which used 3,500 lbs. of explosives and 19 artillery rounds.
• Stevens Pass averages about 450 inches of snow fall annually. The total by that last week in February had grown to more than 350 inches, with a roadside snowpack over 130 inches (11 feet). By way of comparison, Snoqualmie had 232 inches for the season and a snowpack of 106.

How it’s accomplished:

• When we close westbound traffic is usually stopped at the summit (MP 64.5) and eastbound traffic at Tunnel Creek (MP 60). This keeps stopped vehicles out of avalanche zones and on a shallow enough grade so they have traction and can get going again.
• Avalanche control work may be done using remotely placed equipment for some locations, but for others a crewmember must drive a snow cat to the top of a chutes and drop explosive charges via tram lines or by hand.
• Most avalanche chutes are not visible on our traffic cameras. Thus, to the public while a crew is busy clearing a slide across the highway it often looks like nothing is happening.
• We endeavor to keep those in line updated during the closures, but if WSDOT or WSP personnel are dealing with an accident, or managing road blocks they cannot walk the waiting traffic line.
• A disabled semi-truck requiring a tow can sometimes take hours to remove. WSDOT does not have its own tow trucks.
• Clearing a big slide can take hours. During that time regular plowing stops, so when the clearing is done, the crews still have to clear the lanes on each side before they can open the road.
• When a plow truck runs out of sand, salt, or deicing chemicals it must return to the nearest shed to reload. That round trip can take 30 minutes or more.
• Plow trucks from the west side are sometimes called in to assist our east side crews when necessary.

Who does what?

• The Wenatchee Traffic Management Center (TMC) handles communications for the entire region as well as the passes. A single operator is responsible for all radio dispatch, phone calls, coordination with WSP, updating electronic highway signs and Highway Advisory Radios, the WSDOT websites, 5-1-1, sending out email ALERTS, as well as media updates on incidents and current road conditions and traction device requirements.
• The North Central Region Avalanche crew consists of our Avalanche Supervisor and two technicians. They make up full time winter technical crew and the three of them are responsible for all the avalanche control activities on Stevens Pass. Their number is bolstered by four winter seasonal on-call technicians.
• The Stevens Pass Maintenance crew consists of 4 year-round staff members. In winter they are joined by 3 permanent maintenance crewmembers from other WSDOT summer only crews (such as Striping) plus 5 full time seasonal staff members and as many as a dozen emergency on-call plow truck drivers. Our crews are scheduled to provide 24 hour coverage 7 days a week. So, only 4 are typically on duty at any one time, until a storm hits; then it means overtime for the crew whose shift is ending until on-call operators can get there to replace them.

While we’re talking snow, our Avalanche Control team and North Cascades (Twisp) Maintenance staff finally found a free day last week to go up to Washington Pass and assess the conditions to determine when we can start the spring reopening effort. Our target is to begin the last day of March. Despite the heavy late season snowfall, we’re optimistic it can be open by early May. Last year the clearing began Mar. 25 and was complete in less than 4 weeks. But, there’s twice as much snow at the summit this year and it’s likely to take closer to the usual 6 weeks to reopen the road.

Snow at the summit of Washington Pass measured almost 10 feet compared to 5 feet last year. Snow on the highway below the Liberty Bell avalanche chutes averaged 35 feet deep.

Our first desire is to reopen by the first day of the lowland lakes fishing season on the 4th Saturday in April (the 26th, this year). If that’s impossible, the next target is Winthrop’s “49’er Days” the end of the first week in May. As always, clearing work is dependent on weather. Work to clear the North Cascades cannot begin until avalanche season ends on Stevens Pass when we can send the snow blowers we use on Stevens Pass up to work on SR 20.

While the late snow pushed the avalanche season into the middle of March, the late winter delayed the start of the construction season. Work is finally underway on the NCR Seal written about last month. A paving project on I-90 between Vantage and George starts tomorrow.

A first-of-its-kind project in the region will soon start in Mattawa - a roundabout on a 60 mph. highway.
It builds a single lane roundabout on SR 243 at the intersection with Road 24 SW in Mattawa. That intersection handles an average of 5,800 vehicles per day and is experiencing a significant number of crashes. During the five years from 2007 to 2012 there were 21 collisions involving 43 vehicles. Nine of those crashes resulted in two fatalities and 22 serious injuries. The 12 other wrecks damaged property. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, roundabouts reduce fatalities by 90 percent, injuries by 80 percent and total collisions by almost 40 percent.

Work is now expected to start in about three weeks on April 14.

Until next month,

Dan Sarles