(WSB video of the entire WSTC appearance by WSDOT’s Secretary Lynn Peterson and Todd Trepanier)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
The West Seattle Transportation Coalition usually has something topical to discuss at its monthly meetings, with no shortage of transportation-related challenges lately.
For example, last night, the southbound Alaskan Way Viaduct had been closed for five hours because of a crash investigation when the WSTC meeting began. Coincidentally, the long-scheduled guest was the woman in charge of the Viaduct and other state highways – Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson.
In her second year on the job, she offered lots of background information and big-picture observations, but the discussion invariably turned its most intense focus on the Viaduct Replacement Project and the present/future of the stalled tunneling work. In Q&A, she also addressed other topics such as whether any Fauntleroy-bound ferries would be diverted downtown, since much of the vehicle traffic heads that way anyway.
Peterson, who came here from Portland, introduced herself by explaining her background as a traffic engineer who found herself organizing her neighborhood to get a traffic circle installed, and then “suddenly I was running for City Council” – listing achievements including getting light rail extended while she was on the County Commission in the Portland area. “I’m very multi-modal,” she summarized. “I don’t see the world as one mode or the other, I see land use as the need to be served (otherwise) we’ve lost sight of the job we’re supposed to be doing.” She also said: “We will always have cars” – whether they are small and electric, or something more.
“Modal integration” is vital, she said, making sure there are not gaps between transportation modes “so the system works.” She talked about modernizing WSDOT – “we just haven’t been training our people,” and with many WSDOT workers in mid-career, “things have changed since they were in school.” Community engagement, in particular, is big, she said – “one of the ways that’s very public right now is the ferry director hiring process,” noting that the two finalists are in Bremerton at a “meet-and-greet” event right now. She says she believes in getting stakeholders involved in the beginning, rather than getting to the end and having people wonder how whatever happened, happened. “You have to represent everybody who’s in the room and everybody who’s not in the room,” she said.
Also high on her list – “smart technology … we still need to find efficient ways to move people,” and that involves getting lots of data out, and adding more technology into WSDOT operations. “.. Maybe we’ll be one of the states that gets the automated vehicles out there faster.” Those cars will be able to travel with less of a gap because they’ll be able to “react faster,” she noted.
As you know if you were there, or you’ll see if you watch our video above, Peterson is clearly a storyteller – bringing up anecdotes from her past, talking about technology that could even change the lane structure of a road or dock, through LED changes – “endless opportunity … that’s what keeps me going every day. … The biggest thing I thought I would let you know is 10 reforms that go along with strategic goals we have … ‘how do we not make the mistakes of the past’….” She also expressed enthusiasm for “practical design” such as using safety data to plan roadway features. And she showed a “strategic plan” that fits on a card (we tweeted the photo during the meeting, after it was handed around):
— West Seattle Blog (@westseattleblog) June 11, 2014
Twenty minutes in, she was speaking about how speeds were set for curves – based on testing many decades ago with the Model T Ford. “As technology moves on, so should we.” … “When we go out into the public right of way, we want to feel safe.”
Then it was on to current specifics. Todd Trepanier, who’s in charge of the entire Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project – which, keep in mind, is more than the tunnel – had joined the meeting, and she handed it over to him for most of the questions about the project, after a qualifier: “I came in just over a year ago,” she qualified, talking about the differing opinions with which she met. “(The tunnel) was controversial, I get it.” (but) “It is our duty to carry out (the) direction (of voters and elected officials).” She noted the “land-use tension” with the port right nxt to downtown.
“The machine is the contractors’, and they need to fix the machine.” The contractor still has an obligation to provide a tunnel, she said – (but) “we don’t know exactly what date we’re going to be opening that tunnel now.” There are deadlines for the contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners, she explained – “for every day after January 2nd, 2016, we will be deducting $50,000 a day from any bill they send us and from every day after November 9th, 2016, we will be deducting $100,000 a day.” That latter date is when they expect the tunnel to be open to traffic – that’s why the bigger fine, if it’s not.
But, she insisted, “We are confident that they are going to come through” because they have reputation and it’s in their best interest to continue to attract other customers “with this kind of technology.”
Even while the tunneling machine remains stalled beneath ground, Peterson noted, “In the meantime there’s a lot of good stuff going on (above ground) and a lot of congestion that results from all that work.”
Trepanier said they are also focused on “keep(ing) the Viaduct operational until the tunnel is completed.” Asked about the new cracks that appeared recently, Peterson:vowed, “If it’s unsafe, we’re going to shut it down.”
Speaking of shutdowns, they revealed that one is coming up later this year:
Trepanier talked about an expansion-joint problem on the Viaduct, saying cracks could/would be filled with an epoxy “actually stronger than concrete.” But a major repair closure is coming up in the fall – no date yet – but likely a time “when we’re already closing it because of something in the north end – (it will be closed) over a four- to five-day period.” This will be announced well in advance, with a major publicity campaign, and “people will be encouraged to take alternative modes,” he promised. He also reiterated that it is not urgent, and they’re working on the contract for this repair work now.
Overall, Trepanier said he believed nothing would take the Viaduct permanently out of commission before it’s ready to be retired – WSDOT believes “we’ll be able to nurse (the viaduct) along until we get the tunnel open.”
But what happens if, for example, another major earthquake renders it unsafe? “Then we just have to implement other plans … those plans are in existence. … It’s a pretty comprehensive plan; everyone is involved; everyone’s a player in this – knock wood, that’s not going to happen … we don’t dwell on it every day because we’re also trying to make sure STP’s getting that machine going.”
Moderating the discussion, WSTC’s Michael Taylor-Judd asked if the plan/status reports are available for public inspection, so that people are truly informed about the structure’s status and how things would work if it were out of the picture. He talked about the South Park Bridge shutdown order four years ago seemingly coming out of nowhere. “What happens if (the tunnel project) gets longer and longer and an inspection happens and” the Viaduct has to be taken fully or partially out of service?
Peterson asked Trepanier if they could put together a one-pager explaining what those steps would be so that people would be forewarned (he noted some elements are visible day in and day out, such as the “earthquake gates“). “We interact so routinely with the county and city on everything, that it would happen pretty quickly.”
Also mentioned: As first reported here, a closure is expected once the tunnel machine goes beneath the Viaduct. Trepanier said it would likely be about 10 days long, and they expect they would have/give at least two months’ warning.
The tunnel project came up one more time before the meeting was over, with Trepanier confirming that WSDOT is closely monitoring the machine-repair process: “When they get to (the point of) restarting the machine, we’ll be asking a lot of questions .. asking them to submit a lot of things to us” so that WSDOT is confident it’s good for the rest of the way. (But) “This is their (STP’s) nickel, so they get to decide how to do it.” And after the tunnel project is over, the machine still belongs to STP, not to WSDOT, so its future will be up to that group – it might be usable for some other project the partners seek.
Asked when the Viaduct would come down, assuming the tunnel is indeed completed, the WSDOT reps said “within 18 months” of the tunnel’s opening – that would be May of 2018, if the November 2016 opening-date expectation is indeed made. (Side note: Trepanier declared, “This machine is not stuck” – it can move.)
From the Q&A on non-Viaduct topics:
Another question of major West Seattle interest, regarding the traffic through West Seattle going to and from Kitsap County and Vashon Island via the Fauntleroy ferry dock: With Colman Dock remodeling, “are there any plans to move some or all of those ferry runs … into downtown?” asked Taylor-Judd, “or divert peak-hour ferries into downtown?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” said Peterson. She cited cost. She said that a coordinated conversation with King County (regarding the Vashon Island Water Taxi‘s role) would be in order to address the overall concerns: “How do we make sure the transit connections are working?”
WSTC’s Marty Westerman brings up trains at rush hour, blocking key vehicle routes. Trepanier said they “don’t have the answer to that.”
The topic of 99 getting bollixed up by even seemingly minor incidents, like one a few months back, came up as well – couldn’t an Incident Response Team crew be stationed on the Viaduct? There was no simple answer. Or, WSTC’s Deb Barker asked, could WSDOT take over Highway 99 traffic coordination until the project is over? Peterson said they would have to check to see “what the protocols are now.”
(Side note – As of publication time for this story, we are continuing to follow up on the specifics of Tuesday’s decision to close 99 far to the north of the crash-investigation scene – we have several responses and interviews already but are awaiting one key point of information before finishing the report.)
Again, to see and hear the entirety of the hour-plus conversation with Peterson, Trepanier, and WSTC, watch the video clip above. The WSTC meeting adjourned shortly thereafter; other business included the announcement of which board members hold which leadership positions, following the recent election of a permanent board:
Chair & Communication Chair: Joe Szilagyi
Co-Chair & Action Chair: Amanda Kay Helmick
Co-Treasurer: Alon Bassok
Co-Treasurer & Research & Solutions Chair: Tod Rodman
Co-Secretary: Martin Westerman
Co-Secretary: Vicki Nelson
We are still looking for an Outreach Committee Chair!
Next month, the centerpiece topic for WSTC is Sound Transit; they’re still awaiting confirmation of who ST will send, but you can mark your calendar for the meeting, second Tuesday in July, 6:30 pm July 8th, at Neighborhood House’s High Point Center.