Tag Archives: I-5

Mistaken “Blue Alert” seen (briefly) on I-5

The in basket: I was passing through Fife on I-5 at 8:30 a.m. on April 26 when the traffic suddenly slowed in all southbound lanes, the ones I was in. Nothing new there, I’m almost never on I-5 between Tacoma and Seattle when that doesn’t happen at least once.

The slow motion processional crawled beneath one of those overhead electronic signs that had just two words on it – Blue Alert. A short time later, traffic returned to normal speed.

I’m also used to seeing nothing on the roadside to explain the various slowdowns. If “Blue Alert” was intended to be an explanation, it was lost on me.

When I got home I asked Google what a Blue Alert is.

It said it is to  “help Law Enforcement speed the apprehension of violent criminals who kill or seriously injure local, state, or federal law enforcement officers.”

Whoa, I said to myself. What had happened? There was nothing on the news about an officer being killed or badly hurt.

The out basket: Claudia Bingham-Baker, spokeswoman for state highways, said, “Today’s blue alert message was posted in error. It was immediately removed, but apparently not quickly enough for you not to see it.”

I asked if it had ever been posted intentionally, and she said that would be better answered by the State Patrol.

Trooper Russ Winger, my contact for all thingsWSP, said RCW 10.108 authorized creation of “a voluntary, cooperative system to quickly disseminate crucial information through broadcasters, cable systems, the Department of Transportation, local, state and tribal (police) and other interested participants to enhance the public’s ability to assist law enforcement  in the apprehension of person(s) suspected of killing or seriously injuring law enforcement officers. There is no requirement to send a Blue Alert and the decision to activate a Blue Alert rests solely with the investigating agency or its designee.”

He said it appears that no actual valid Blue Alert activation for its intended purpose has occurred here yet. “This in no way means (to us) it is not a valuable asset for Law Enforcement to have at disposal if and when the need arises,” he added.


Road Warrior’s tragedy leads to some answers

The Judybaker, my wife of nearly 20 years whose observations and questions often enhanced the Road Warrior column, won’t be gracing it any longer. She was taken from me June 20 by a grotesque abdominal infection that grew out of a June 9 surgery.

Her suggestions and contributions to Road Warrior are just a tiny part of what I miss about her.

I want to thank all of you who learned of her death and sent expressions of condolence and sympathy.

A couple of columns I had finished before she died have appeared since her death but this is the first one I’ve tried to write with her gone.


The in basket: My visits to the hospital the week following the initial June 9 surgery, done in Federal Way, made me realize how much harder getting around is between there and Tacoma compared to what we Kitsappers imagine to be traffic congestion. Every day, seemingly at any hour, from the Tuesday of the surgery to the following Saturday, it was miles of vehicles crawling southbound on I-5. Fortunately, I mostly got to see it from the northbound lanes after fighting my way past equally bad backups of those trying to get from Highway 16 onto northbound I-5.

I wondered if what I saw is just the day-to-day norm there, or if something unusual caused it all. And while all the construction on I-5 near the Tacoma Dome certainly will make it easier to get from Highway 16 onto northbound I-5, it isn’t obvious how it could help the southbound jams.

I asked State Trooper Guy Gill of the Tacoma my first question, and Claudia Bingham-Baker of the state Department of Transportation my second one.

The out basket: Guy told me the southbound congestion comes and goes and it doesn’t take much to get it started.

“We have our normal little fender-bender crashes, and when we have one in that corridor past the Tacoma Dome down into Fife, we are seeing people going to the shoulder with tow trucks and everyone likes to look at that stuff. (Backups) will set in from a crash like that and it will take hours to filter out.

“We ask folks to move both vehicles completely off the freeway, find a parking lot or and let us know where you are. If you can steer it, clear it.

“At least clear the lane. It’s up to the trooper to figure it out. Troopers will ask you for a written statement.”

He also put in a pitch for keeping the smart phone out of sight when driving, or you might cause one of those fender-benders.

Claudia replied, “The HOV lanes we are building will help both directions of I-5 traffic. We have two construction projects underway at present; one will add an HOV lane in the northbound direction between Portland Avenue and the Port of Tacoma Road; the second one will add HOV lanes in both directions between M Street and Portland Avenue.

“We have yet more construction coming down the pipeline after these two projects are complete that will add a southbound HOV lane between Portland Avenue and Port of Tacoma Road and an HOV roadway and ramp connections at the I-5/SR 16 interchange.

“These projects are all very large and take several years to complete. We are using the opportunity to not only expand I-5, but to rebuild all lanes of I-5 within each project. I-5 was built in the 1960s and the concrete needs to be replaced. The result is many traffic shifts and realignments that cause construction-related slowdowns.

“So the answer to your question is yes, the current construction will help traffic flow better through Tacoma when it is complete,” Claudia said.

I wish I had greater confidence in the worth of HOV lanes to reduce congestion, but I’ve also learned that the state’s traffic engineers have a good track record in solving problems (not counting the driving surface of the Warren Avenue Bridge in Bremerton) so I’ll take their word for it.

I-5 traffic camera could be more helpful

The in basket: I find radio and TV traffic reports to be more befuddling than helpful, mostly because I rarely know enough about where they’re talking about.

When I tried extra hard recently to divine the meaning of a couple of TV traffic reports about something going on along I-5, they were showing emergency lights (on one occasion) and snow (on the other) “on I-5 at the Pierce County line.” The image was from a state Department of Transportation camera, and the legend didn’t say whether it was Pierce County’s border with King or Thurston county. I recognized the landscape as being at the King County line one time, but the other was at night and I couldn’t tell where it was.

I asked if there is a technical reason they didn’t make clear which Pierce County line they mean.

The out basket: No technical reason, says Claudia Bingham Baker of the Olympic Region of state highways. It’s just that there is no freeway traffic camera at the Thurston County line, only the one just past Fife at the King County line.

“The closest camera to the south of that (Thurston) line is labeled Nisqually, and to north it’s labeled Mounts Road,” she said.

“We will be installing more cameras this summer and next, so we may need to look at more clearly delineating county lines at that point,” she added.

Tim Eyman and Galloping Gertie

The in basket:  When I read the item in Friday’s paper about someone wanting to name the Skagit River bridge at I-5 after Tim Eyman, “dedicated to (his) efforts to reduce Washington state tax revenue and the collapse of the Skagit River bridge…” it wasn’t immediately clear to me whether it was proposing an actual plaudit or taking a tongue-in-cheek swipe at Eyman for depriving projects such as fortifying the aged bridge the money to do it.

Eyman’s response that personal attacks on him are “silly” cleared that up.

But had it been a real plaudit, it would not be without precedent.

I’ve been hanging onto a new release for about a year, announcing that “the state Department of Transportation and the American Society of Civil Engineers have joined in recognizing the collapse of the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge (in 1940) as a major event in the development of building bridges.”

It announced a ceremony at the Living War Memorial Park at the Tacoma end of the existing Narrows bridges last Aug. 11 dedicating the old bridge as an ASCE Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

“Even though no human lives were lost,” the news release said, “the unforgettable images of twisting metal and concrete deck sections crashing into Puget Sound immortalized engineering gone wrong. Galloping Gertie, open for only four months at the time of its collapse, became a powerful symbol of the importance of aerodynamics on suspension-bridge stability.”

The ceremony would “formally recognize the significant effect the failure of the 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge had on advancing the science of suspension-bridge design,” it said.

I didn’t get down to that park on Aug. 11, and during a brief, wind-chilled visit there last fall, I didn’t see any permanent evidence of the honor. I asked if there was one and if the ceremony was held.

The out basket: Claudia Bingham Baker of the Olympic Region of WSDOT, replied to say the ceremony was held.

“The chapter (of ASCE) funded the fabrication of a very nice plaque commemorating the contribution of Galloping Gertie to the importance of aerodynamics in suspension bridge design, which they ceremoniously presented to WSDOT (Kevin Dayton, Olympic Region Administrator).

“They are working to raise more money to build a permanent display in War Memorial Park, in which the plaque would be embedded. But they’ve not achieved that yet.”



Where’d all the idle RR cars go?

The in basket: A couple of years ago I wrote a column explaining the long row of empty container-carrying railroad cars that lined I-5 for what seemed like miles just north of Centralia.

They had been idled by the economic slump, I had learned, and were essentially mothballed until they were needed to resume container shipments from the West Coast to other parts of the nation.

On a trip through that area the second week of July, I noticed they were gone. I decided to find out if they had been put to work, when they were hauled away and to where.

The out basket: Dale King of Tacoma Rail, an arm of the city of Tacoma which owns those tracks, said they aren’t actually all gone. But a lot of them have been removed, some to be scrapped.

“The cars are not all gone but some are just no longer in sight of the adjacent highways,” he said. “The cars have been slowly moving out of storage for rehabilitation by their new owner, Greenbrier Leasing.

“Those that are not repairable are being scrapped at Schnitzer Steel in Tacoma and Portland,” he said. “At the rate they are moving, there is still about two years’ supply hidden in the woods.”

Though Tacoma owns the tracks, he said, “they are currently operated by a new start-up company, Western Washington Railroad, who is leasing the line from Maytown down to Chehalis.

“This portion of the Mountain Division is for sale and the city is currently negotiating a purchase agreement with Lewis County.

“The intermodal flat cars were owned by GATX Leasing when they were put into storage and then sold by GATX to Greenbrier Leasing about two years ago,” Dale said.


Earthwork at Nalley Valley raises reader’s curiosity

The in basket: Bruce Fields of Bremerton e-mailed to say, “I drive by the I-5/Highway 16/38th Street project in Tacoma each day. A few weeks ago they built up the north landing for the new bridge section, put big blocks on top and marked it with survey stakes.

“A few days later they lowered the staked spot 30-plus feet and moved it southwest by about the same.

“Was this for compaction of the bank for the piling bore holes or did they make a mistake and had to relocate the ‘spot?'”he asked.

The out basket: Claudia Bingham-Baker of the Olympic Region of state highways says “What the driver is seeing is a ‘pre-load’ of weight to purposefully compact the ground in that area.

“The pre-load material has been on-site for about two weeks, and twice daily surveyors have checked for settlement. Once the area settles to our geotechnical engineers’ satisfaction, the material will be removed,” she said.


Nalley Valley work impacts speed limits, but not one scary merge

The in basket: Bill Howell wrote Wednesday to say, “I drove Highway 16 today on my way to Seattle and noticed that the speed limit has changed. Eastbound the speed limit is 60 until just before Pearl (in Tacoma). Westbound the speed limit is 60 starting at I-5. Yea!!!”

It’s still 55 eastbound from Pearl Street until you get to the 40 mph construction area at Sprague, he said.

The out basket: That increase from 55 to 60 mph has been on hold at the State Patrol’s request until the work where Highway 16 joins I-5 at Nalley Valley is complete. That milestone was reached almost exactly a year ago for westbound traffic, so the speed limit has just been raised in the entire westbound direction.

Work remains to be done in the eastbound direction, but Lisa Copeland, spokesman for the Olympic Region or state highways, says, “We have begun to raise the speed limit on SR 16 at the request of the public and with support from the WSP.

As I worked on Bill’s e-mail, I came across an earlier inquiry about the Nalley Valley work from Michael Drouin of Bremerton, sent in February. He said, “The on ramp for I-705 and Pacific Avenue to I-5 South merge at the same point that southbound I-5 drivers are attempting to exit I-5 to SR16. This location is always extremely dangerous to navigate. Are there plans for the Nalley Valley interchange (work) to eliminate this hazard?”

I share Michael’s unease when trying to move right into traffic entering I-5 from downtown Tacoma, especially if it’s dark and rainy. I hadn’t occurred to me until I was talking with Claudia Bingham-Baker of the state DOT’s public affairs staff, but it’s probably just as scary for those coming up that on-ramp wanting to merge left and continue south on I-5.

Alas, that “weave,” as engineers call it, will remain as it has been after all the Nalley Valley work is done, Claudia said. Work scheduled for 2020, however, will provide a safer route from I-5 to westbound Highway 16 for one stream of traffic – high occupancy vehicles traveling southbound on I-5..

HOV lanes will be built there in both directions on I-5 in 2020, and a flyover bridge will be built to provide a protected route for those HOVs southbound to Highway 16, she said. Otherwise, any driver in the southbound HOV lane would have to merge right across both general use southbound lanes to get to the flow heading to Highway 16 and then merge into that.


Who pays for innocent drivers’ tires flattened by spike strips?

The in basket: Larry Mixer sent me the following inquiry after seeing what I’m sure will be a favorite story for his acquaintances for years to come.

“On Friday 9/16/2011, I was coming back from Northern California passing by Yreka,” he said. “I witnessed a pursuit of a truck-tractor without the trailer by several police cars.

“This pursuit went on for probably more than 50 miles, ending up near a rest stop by the Klamath River.

“In at least three places, I saw the police put down spike strips to stop the truck-tractor. It did not work, but they they did manage to flatten several other vehicles’ tires. Some that I saw had all four flat tires, others maybe one or two, and at least one truck-tractor rig with a trailer that had one front tire and maybe a couple on the trailer.

“I am wondering who is responsible for repair of the vehicles? These people were left with flat tires maybe 30 miles from the nearest repair place,” Larry said.

The out basket: I didn’t check with California, but in this state the state pays for the damage.

Trooper Krista Hedstrom of the Washington State Patrol office in Bremerton sent me the portions of the WSP regulation manual dealing with this.

“Every effort should be made to avoid uninvolved motorists running over the spike strip,” says the policy. “If an uninvolved motorist does run over the strip, the driver should be contacted as soon as possible to explain the situation. They should be assisted in obtaining tires (at state cost).”

Krista added, “Often, tire repair businesses can send a truck out to the side of the road where it would be fixed and the driver (sent) on their way.”

It bypasses the usual claim process, she said, with WSP handling all the paperwork.

As for the chase,the spike strips did flatten one of the fleeing truck’s tires, but that didn’t stop it. The chase ended when the suspect, for no apparent reason, said officers, steered the truck cab down a slope along the Klamath River and into the river on I-5. He waded and swam to the middle of the river, where he sank from view. His body was recovered the next day, when he was identified as 30-year-old Olympia, Wash. resident David Antonio Grier.


Political ads and rest areas in Oregon

The in basket: A couple reflections on Oregon from my recent road trip that took me south and north on I-5.

I learned that hundreds of thousands of Oregonians are afflicted with the nasty political ads in our state’s acrimonious Patty Murray/Dino Rossi Senate race, even though they can’t vote in it.

Portland television, which serves a lot of southwestern Washington, was crawling with the Murray/Rossi commercials and I had to get south of Salem to outrun them. I suppose the same is true of residents of Coeur d’Alene and other western Idaho places, and Canadians too.

We’re often reminded of the many who have fought and died to preserve our right to vote. Given what electioneering has become, it’s a good thing there were other things at stake or the sacrifice would be of questionable worth.

Reg Henry in the Las Vegas Sun had a nice turn of phrase on this issue. “Every ad,” he wrote, “no matter what party is the beneficiary, appears intended for the consumption and confusion of morons.”

I also was intrigued by a phenomenon at Oregon’s I-5 rest areas. I found a panhandler at nearly every rest area as I traveled south. When I returned 17 days later, it was a much chillier day, but there still was a panhandler at about half of the rest areas. Intriguingly, there was always just one. Could someone be scheduling them, I wondered.

I didn’t see any in Washington and the practice stopped abruptly in California.

The out basket: I finally just asked one of them how it works. He was an engaging 21-year-old named Cory Maldanado, who was playing his guitar next to a sign reading “Homeless, Need New Tent” at the rest area just outside Portland on northbound I-5. Most of the others I’d seen just had signs saying they needed money for gas.

Cory said those who “fly signs,” as he says the practice is called, realize that even people willing to help out panhandlers don’t like to choose between them, so having more than one is bad for everybody. Most of them cooperate to avoid that, he said. He also said the Oregon Travel Information Council had taken control of the rest stops to address growing use of them for permanent stays, often in motor homes, and drug problems. It has brought some order and even a bit of scheduling to the rest area opportunities, he said.

The council has set some ground rules, Cory said, including forbidding the use of pets as props. He is able to get around another no-no, signs such as his “Homeless” plea, because he also is a “busker” or street musician, he said.

Cheryl Gribskov, head of the council, says Cory wasn’t completely correct, but said the OTIC took over management of three pairs of I-5 rest areas in Oregon on Jan. 1. Working with social service agencies, they have removed people who were living in the rest areas by imposing the state’s 12-hour limit on stays there.

The no pet policy is simply enforcement of the pets-only-in-pet-areas policy, since the panhandlers want to be where the most people are, near the rest rooms, she said..

The council also forbids smoking against the building’s wall, solicitation of specific amounts of money and impeding the progress of any vehicle or visitor.

They don’t try to schedule them, Cheryl said. The council wants the rest stops of be tourist attractions and panhandlers definitely don’t help with that. But they are permitted to sit quietly (or play guitar, evidently) with signs that don’t state a specific request as long as they leave within 12 hours.

She also says some of the panhandlers “do very,very well.” Some can make $400 an hour, she said.

If you plan to travel through Oregon on I-5 soon, and find rest areas a must, you might set aside a few dollars for the panhandlers you’ll encounter, or practice your  far-away gaze for when you walk past them.

How do I-5 travel time signs help?

The in basket: I first saw the overhead electronic signs telling me how many minutes I am from an upcoming destination in Las Vegas, and now I see them  along I-5 on the other side of the Sound.

“They are a nice amenity,” I wrote to my state highways contact, “but I doubt they would be worth their cost if that was all there is to it. What function do they serve for traffic movement?”  I asked.

The out basket: Jamie Swift, the contact, replied, “Our travel times posted on area electronic message signs change as congestion increases or decreases.  The travel time are calculated by a computer that uses electronic vehicle detectors located underneath the roadway. These are the same traffic detectors that provide drivers, the WSDOT Web site and the media with congestion information.

“How are these tools valuable?” she asked, rhetorically. “They help drivers on the road choose alternate routes.  For example, a driver traveling to Everett has several choices if there is a collision ahead blocking two lanes of northbound I-5 just north of SR 520 during the peak afternoon commute.

Assuming the driver is just south of the I-5/I-405 interchange in

Renton, the driver can choose to take I-405, SR 520 or continue on their

journey on I-5.  The travel times on the highway can show the driver

which route is the fastest way.”

The signs are backed up by a Web site that allows a driver to go online to calculate his commute times to various destinations, offering what it calls an accurate estimate 95 percent of the time based on 2006 travel date. You can give it a try at