Highway maintenance - Projects & progress
WSDOT faces a shortage of maintenance employees
It is estimated between 2021 and 2031, 1.7 million people per year will leave their jobs in the transportation infrastructure sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationwide, there has been an increasing demand for drivers with Commercial Driver s Licenses (CDL) and mechanics. For states this has resulted in shortages due to:
- Fewer people are becoming CDL drivers, which translates into fewer people available to fill these positions
- Higher private salaries and signing bonuses, which make states less competitive
- An aging workforce starting to retire
To keep up with the ever-growing demand for qualified employees, WSDOT is hiring more people without their CDLs and providing the training to obtain them. WSDOT has provided CDL training to 129 individuals and has another 22 waiting for a spot in a commercial school or to start an in-house training.
WSDOT Maintenance offers an in-house workforce development program in many different areas to ensure that Washingtonians have a safe, sustainable, and integrated multimodal system.
The different tiers of in-house training consist of entry-level, technical, and leadership-focused curriculums. In 2021-2022, WSDOT started a "High School to Highways program," which directly led to 23 people being hired.
WSDOT's Low Voltage Auto Start system saves time and money
Maintenance employees are encouraged to share and implement ideas or solutions to everyday problems and issues that crews encounter through the department's annual Innovations Program. Many teams across the state bring forward new ideas to save time and resources while increasing work zone and personnel safety.
The Low Voltage Auto Start system took first place at the WSDOT Innovations Challenge in 2022. WSDOT vehicles equipped with beacon lights or message signs need to be left in work zones or near hazard locations for prolonged periods. The system allows the operator to leave a vehicle unattended while it powers devices that communicate information to the traveling public.
When activated, the system battery voltage is monitored, and when it drops to 11.5 volts, the vehicle will start up and run for a predetermined time period to properly recharge the batteries. Once the batteries are charged, the system then shuts off the vehicle. The system will continue to operate in this manner until it is deactivated. It includes safety features for technicians that prevent activation if the hood is open or the doors are unlocked, the engine shuts off when the system is activated and the brake pedal is pressed to reduce the likelihood of the vehicle being stolen.
Benefits of the Low Voltage Auto Start system include:
- A 70% reduction in idle time
- Reduced fuel consumption
- Smaller carbon footprint
- Less maintenance on heavy truck emission components
WSDOT innovations help clear snowy roads
WSDOT—through a partnership with the Transportation Equipment Fund, Eastern Region Maintenance and Henke Manufacturing—was able to develop a plow that clears the traveled lanes and the shoulder on secondary highways with a single pass. The "breakaway" design for a 3-foot extension, which brings the total plow width to 15 feet, was constructed and piloted in WSDOT's Eastern Region during the 2020-2021 winter.
The extendable plow was used on a modified truck, but it can be installed on any truck and used as a standard plow if needed.
In the past, WSDOT Maintenance would install a second "wing plow" on the side of the vehicle to reach shoulders. Doing so added weight to one side of the vehicle and also required more controllers to operate the two, separate plows.
Designed with safety in mind, the new extendable plow is highly visible from inside the cab. With only one blade to monitor, it eliminates the problems associated with using two blades. The extended plows can easily be adjusted when the truck is approaching guardrail or bridges and minimize the time it takes to transition the trucks from season to season.
COVID-19 impacts maintenance activities
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly affected all WSDOT maintenance activities and operations. Due to the Governor's Stay Home, Stay Healthy order starting in March 2020, maintenance crews had to pause planned work activities and shift to items including online training in a telework capacity. Missing the key work window of early spring/summer exacerbated the backlog of needed maintenance activities. Once safety procedures were developed to return to work, crews returned slowly to ensure everyone's safety and to adhere to new guidelines.
The ongoing safety guidelines and personal protective equipment are vital, but also increase the time it takes crews to complete certain jobs. Emergency crews continued to respond during the Stay Home order, and often had to be creative in crewing and equipment to keep themselves and others safe.
Powered Air Purifying Respirators, normally used for grinding or cutting concrete on bridge desks or asbestos inspections, were used by general maintenance crews who could not stay six feet away from each other while completing tasks. The battery-powered devices provide clean air to workers and a higher degree of air filtration than a typical N95 mask.
Throughout the pandemic, frontline maintenance crews did additional cleaning and sanitizing at safety rest areas, knowing how vital they are to the freight community. These efforts resulted in state safety rest area workers receiving the American Public Works Association excellence award.
A hiring freeze due to pandemic-related revenue decreases left WSDOT unable to hire summer temporary crews as well as fill open permanent positions. Mandatory furloughs beginning in July 2020 further restricted the amount and scope of work that could be accomplished. As a result, some time-specific work was not completed during these months. Roadside trash pickup and homeless encampment cleanups were also reduced as WSDOT had to prioritize emergency and safety-focused work first.
WSDOT Highway Maintenance—always answering the call
When the pandemic hit Washington, WSDOT safety rest area crews kept working in the field as essential workers to provide facilities for freight haulers, essential workers and other travelers. They increased the frequency of their cleaning to help keep travelers safe. This meant cleaning all 45 year-round state rest areas at least twice a day. At the most heavily used sites along I-5, I-90 and I-82, all touch points (door handles, faucets, handrails, etc.) were cleaned every two hours. Crews also worked repairing the rest areas to keep them open and in good working order.
The state chapter of the American Public Works Association honored this dedication with their "Empowering Teams Award," announced during their fall conference. Gov. Jay Inslee also recognized rest area crew contributions.
WSDOT uses Bailey bridges to keep traffic moving during projects
WSDOT bridge and maintenance crews recently helped place temporary Bailey bridges to keep traffic moving at two projects (State Route 21 Sanpoil Bridge replacement and Walla Walla County Seven Mile Bridge replacement). WSDOT has used the Bailey bridge system five times in the last nine years (2012-2020) compared to 10 times in the 52 years prior (1959-2011). The increased use of Bailey bridges is a good indicator of the need for preservation funding, as it is a result of aging infrastructure.
WSDOT State Route 21, Sanpoil Bridge replacement
A new bridge was needed after a major support on the West Branch Sanpoil Bridge partially washed out during extreme spring runoff flooding in April 2017. The bridge is located approximately 15 miles south of Republic in Ferry County.
Because the emergency funding needed to replace such bridges can take some time to arrive, a temporary Bailey bridge was put through the area. A new bridge was constructed and opened in fall 2020, and the Bailey bridge was then removed.
Walla Walla County, 7 Mile Road bridge replacement
When a county bridge over Mill Creek on 7 Mile Road in Walla Walla County was damaged by floods in 2020, WSDOT again assisted, helping to end more than eight months of travelers having to take a five-mile detour around the site. The detour was on a steep, gravel road that likely would have had to be closed during winter weather.
Floods eroded the foundation of one of the bridge's piers, making it unsafe for travel and leading to its closure in February 2020. In October, WSDOT installed an agency-owned Bailey bridge while the county continued its work on a permanent replacement.
The Bailey bridge is expected to be in place over Mill Creek until 2024, with construction of the replacement bridge starting in 2023.
Why Bailey bridges are important to WSDOT
Bailey bridges are portable, pre-fabricated truss bridges that do not require special tools or equipment to assemble and can be easily lifted and set in place, especially in areas without much room to maneuver large pieces of equipment. WSDOT keeps a supply of bridge pieces to construct Bailey bridges as needed, often using them for more than one Bailey bridge project over several years.
WSDOT uses its Bailey bridges to keep traffic moving after a bridge has failed or needs to be removed for replacement. Although they often require some restrictions on amount or weight of traffic, these temporary bridges allow most local travelers to avoid longer detours until a permanent replacement structure is built. Bailey bridges serve an emergency function, but their frequent use is also a symptom of a lack of preservation and maintenance funding.
WSDOT crews work hard to keep pavement in a State of Good Repair
WSDOT uses an integrated approach for managing pavement assets. This "one-touch" policy consists of performing planned and coordinated maintenance activities at least once before pavement rehabilitation takes place. While effective at extending life, this has led to increased pavement maintenance activity required to help keep pavement in a State of Good Repair.
Although pavement performance is affected by many factors, insufficient funding for capital preservation construction projects is also having adverse effects on it. As a result WSDOT maintenance crews are increasingly having to respond to emergent roadway needs to help keep pavement in a State of Good Repair. This has a negative impact on the maintenance budget.
With current preservation funding below the lowest life cycle cost needed, and WSDOT maintenance funding being impacted as a result, the backlog of roadway maintenance is growing and beginning to affect the LOS of other activities.
With reduced funding to the capital preservation program it can be expected that the decline of pavement performance and other maintenance activities will continue until funding can be stabilized to meet minimum preservation requirements.
Systematic Preventive Maintenance program extends useful life of assets
Systematic Preventive Maintenance focuses on using planned maintenance to extend the useful life of existing bridges in a cost-effective way. The WSDOT Bridge Preservation program has allocated $6 million to perform SPM on bridges during the 2017-2019 biennium. This additional funding represents a 14% increase in the agency's overall bridge maintenance budget, and a 26% increase in the fixed bridge (bridges with no moveable parts) maintenance budget. Forty-four percent of the existing bridge maintenance budget is allocated to maintaining and operating tunnels and movable bridges.
As of December 31, 2018, the agency had spent approximately $3.7 million on SPM bridge projects, which included sealing over 539,000 square feet of deck area and 6,500 linear feet of joints to help keep out contaminants and debris.
Innovation Challenge leads to Practical Solutions at WSDOT
In 2017, Maintenance Operations started a new employee recognition program (Innovation Challenge). The recognition program cultivates ideas, contributes to the agency's Practical Solutions goals and fosters Lean principles. The challenge is open to all full-time maintenance operations employees. All innovations must be in use and show desired results.
The recognition program seeks to promote innovative solutions to everyday problems maintenance employees encounter. Innovations can range from the development of tools, equipment modifications, technology and techniques that increase safety, reduce costs, improve efficiency and the quality of transportation. Winning innovations for 2018 included:
First place: Hook lift guardrail repair bed attachment (Olympic Region, Port Angeles Maintenance) - This innovation creates an interchangeable truck bed that serves as an easy-access mobile work setup. The setup increases productivity by having all materials and tools and equipment in one spot. It also increases employee safety, as it can be placed behind the guardrail and safely off the roadway.
Second place: Guardrail rake attachment for mini excavator (North Central Region, Bridge Maintenance) - This innovation eliminates the need for three manual laborers to manually clean under guardrail sections, which decreases the probability for strains and sprains. It also increases productivity and allows the operator to complete multiple tasks in one operation.
Third place: Excavator mounting bracket for hydraulic brush mower attachment (Olympic Region, Shelton Maintenance) - This innovation increased productivity by taking an obsolete cutter head and making it adaptable to a new piece of equipment. The tool allows the crew to clear brush and tree limbs in half the time it took before. It also contributes to safety goals by substituting manual labor for mechanical machine labor.