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12/4/2013 3:13:00 PM Email this articlePrint this article 
Chain up project on I-90 seeks to keep traffic moving

Ian Dunn

In order to keep traffic moving over Snoqualmie Pass during the winter, the Washington State Department of Transportation is conducting a pilot project this year. When those winter storms hit, that is when traffic gets really problematic going over the pass, particularly involving the semi-trucks, which must chain up.

The WSDOT pilot project aims at managing the chain up area better, in hopes of increasing safety and keeping the traffic moving through the pass.

"What we've found over the course of years when we go to chains required, people park haphazardly and apply their chains. We do have a widened shoulder which have had for years, in the chain up area," said Jim Mahugh, WSDOT Region traffic engineer. "Last year, we opened it to an extra wide shoulder to give more separation with the traffic and people putting their chains on. We found, even last year with the wider area, people just parked all over the place."

This causes trucks to get blocked in, even after putting their chains on. These truckers must wait until somebody moves around them to get out. It causes safety issues with the lack of organization, he said, where some truckers are putting chains on right next to through traffic.

It also kills the capacity of the chain up area, he said. If there are 20 trucks blocking, unable to move for an hour, that means there are 20 spots that can't be used for an hour for anyone wanting chain up.

There were plans to implement this project going back to 2007, but the funding was just not there, especially with all the big construction projects on I-90.

"Now, we have most of the stuff up. We are still not completely built out. The issue is we are starting to implement what we are calling, organized chain up," Mahugh said. "We are going to try to get the best utilization of the chain up area, so we can get more people through. Give them an opportunity to chain up safely and to ultimately be organized and keep the area moving. Our goal is to get more people through the pass and safely do so."

Big trucks must chain up when it is "traction tires required" on Snoqualmie Pass. During those big storms, both trucks and passenger vehicles must chain up, when it is "chains required," except four wheel drive.

Mahugh said they are mostly concerned about the big trucks. On average, traction tires are required on Snoqualmie Pass 71 times per year. Chains are required on all vehicles much less .

"When we have a the real big storms and it's chains required on all vehicles, we're going to still operate the organized chain up. We're not going to worry about it as much because it becomes a totally different ball game up there," he said. "Very busy, people are all over the place, the snow is very, very heavy. We're trying to focus more on the beginning, when storms start to hit and trying to keep people flowing through the pass and improve that for them."

This project only will affect the west bound chain up area on I-90, three miles east of the pass. There are three sign bridges leading up to the area, which go all the way across the interstate. Mahugh said they can put any message they want on these sign bridges.

There are also six cameras, which view every inch of the chain up area from beginning to end. This will allow the chain up area to be monitored. When it is time to chain up, the lights will come on, and the signs will begin saying, "chain up, form single line." The objective is to get all vehicles to pull forward as far as they can.

"Once they nearly fill up the chain up area, then we change the messaging. Each camera we have is related to a zone. If we see space available in zone one, we press a button and all the messaging says space available, X miles ahead," he said. "Giving people directions to where there is space in the chain up area to chain up."

Truckers will pass signs indicating there is space available to chain up ahead. These truckers will bypass the other truckers chaining up to find that empty space in the line. Once the area is full again, Mahugh said they will turn off the messaging and truckers will have to wait to enter the chain up area.

The two times they have tried the system, it has worked pretty well, he said. It is going to be an educational experience. The WSDOT is trying to get the word out to truckers, meeting with the Washington Truckers Association, among others.

"We are trying say, 'We have this tool we are implementing for you. Watch those signs.' If we say there is space available," he said. "We're helping them to get to a spot ahead, where they have to spot on the shoulder to get into the chain up area. They can go past, go to where they need to, and find a spot."

The messaging for passenger vehicles is the same. Mahugh said it does not differentiate between big trucks and passenger rigs. When chains are required, all vehicles will pull forward to form a single line.

As it stands, 89-90 trucks can fit into the chain up area. If these trucks are given 30 minutes to chain up, that means 160-190 trucks can be processed in an hour. From the traffic counters over Snoqualmie on a typical day, Mahugh said there are just under 200 trucks per hour.

"If I can keep those truckers moving, giving them only 30 minutes to chain up. I can get every truck through that pass on a normal day," he said. "I've never been able to do that before."

The max time for chaining up is 30 minutes. The State Patrol will be responsible for enforcing that. From talking to truckers, Mahugh said most say, "If the trucker is good, they can do it in 15 minutes." The state of Colorado has a 30 minute limit as well.

"When we did some research on what we can do up here, we found nobody else doing this. Not in our nation and not in another country," he said. "We're trying something that is not being done anywhere. We're giving it a shot. We'll hang with it for a couple years to see how it works."

Truckers from the southern states may not have seen anything like this before, so they need to make sure they get comfortable with it, he said. If, after a couple years, they find it works well, it could be implemented on other highways across the state.

For more information, www.wsdot.wa.gov/winter/chainup.

Ian Dunn can be reached at 548-5286 or editor@leavenworthecho.com.

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