Live chat transcript: Transportation departments

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Spring is here, and summer is on the horizon, which means it's time for flaggers, detours, and road construction. Along those lines, we invited representatives from local and regional transportation agencies to chat with Columbian users.

They joined Columbian.com users at 4 p.m. Thursday. Click here for a replay of the chat.

Chat participants included Jeff Mize, public information outreach manager for Clark County Public Works; Loretta Callahan, public information officer for the city of Vancouver's Public Works Department; and Abbi Russell, communications manager for the Southwest Region of the Washington State Department of Transportation. (Note: Some of the participants had technical difficulties, so they did not answer some questions.)

The transcript -- edited for clarity -- is below:

Abbi Russell: Hi, Abbi Russell with WSDOT here.

Jeff Mize: Hi. I am Jeff Mize, Public Information Outreach Manger for Clark County Public Works.

I can provide information on a number of county road projects coming up this summer, including:

  • Widening and improving NE 88th Street in Hazel Dell.
  • Replacing Cougar Creek Bridge at Mile Post 5.1 on NE Washougal River Road.
  • Stabilizing Pacific Highway where there has been a longstanding slide west of NW Bolen Street just outside the city of La Center.

It will be a busy summer for all of us.

Loretta Callahan: Hi, Loretta Callahan, Public Information for the City of Vancouver's Department of Public Works, online to talk about the construction and paving projects we're doing this year around our community.

John Hill (Columbian Web Editor): Welcome Loretta!

Matt Wastradowski (Columbian Social Media Coordinator): So let's start with a quick overview. Tell us about your department and any projects of note in Clark County -- happening either now or in the near future. Abbi, you joined us first, so let's start with you.

Abbi Russell: I work for the WSDOT Southwest Region, which covers seven counties in SW WA. Clark County is arguably our most urban area, and we have tons going on this summer.

We're building a new interchange at SR 500 and St. Johns, new interchanges at SR 14/Union St. and Second St.

Building new lanes on I-5 in Salmon Creek, and getting ready to build a whole new interchange in SC at 139th

[We're also building] the new roundabouts at SR 501 and I-5 in Ridgefield.

Matt Wastradowski: Great, thanks. Jeff, anything you wanted to add to your brief intro?

Jeff Mize: It will be a busy summer. We will be out doing a lot of routine road preservation projects as well. Residents who live near these projects should be getting information in the mail or left on their door steps in the form of hangers.

Jeff Mize: We do this work -- slurry seals, chip seals and overlays -- for one primary reason: to protect the public’s investment in its transportation infrastructure. It also makes financial sense because for every $1 we spend to preserve a road today, we avoid spending up to $15 to rebuild a road tomorrow.

Matt Wastradowski: Great, thanks. Loretta, what does the city have going on or coming up?

Loretta Callahan: Like the county and state, there are a number of things happening around the city this year. Capital construction projects like SE 164th Avenue intersection improvements and 137th/138th Avenue work expected to get under way later this year.

Other coming paving:

  • Cascade Park Project: Paving streets near and along SE McGillivray Boulevard, between SE 118th Court to about SE 125th Avenue
  • Overlays on:
  • NE 97th Avenue, from Mill Plain to Ninth Street.
  • Stapleton, from Fourth Plain to north of 34th Street
  • NE 18th Street, from 172nd Avenue including intersection to 192nd Avenue

And Utility projects, like the Wiegel Avenue Water Project in Fruit Valley where we'll also be paving West 27th and 28th Streets, Yeoman, Xavier and Unander Avenues when the water line installation is complete and tested.

Matt Wastradowski: Thanks, Loretta. We'll go to the first question.

Comment From Allen Anderson: Like to ask about the big project on hyy 14 in Camas.. such a huge project and in my mind kinda half complete with the Lady Island Bridge only 2 lanes.. any guess when hwy 14 will be 4 lane across the lady island bridge?

Abbi Russell: Good question, and we get it a lot. We originally planned to widen the Lady Is bridge to four lanes with the rest of the project, but it came down to funding. We didn't have enough money to widen SR 14, build the interchanges, AND widen both bridges...

The Lady Is bridge needs to be completely retrofitted to meet seismic standards, which requires work in the water, etc. etc. I could go on and on, but basically, it would cost about half of the entire project budget...

So we had to get the most bang for the buck, and found that eliminating the signals at Union/Second actually alleviated congestion more than making the Lady Is bridge four lanes.

We still plan to widen the bridge, but need about $25 - 30 million to do so. We're looking into it, and it's a top priority for this area.

The bridge does get median barrier as part of the current project.

Comment From Allen Anderson: The lady Island Bridge being 2 lanes is the one of the main reasons I go thru Camas to get home.. do you plan to keep the speed limit down until it can be 4 lanes?

Abbi Russell: Not that I'm aware of. The speed limit will go back to what it was before once the project is complete, but the median barrier will eliminate crossover and head-on collisions.

Oh, and an aside for those who drive the bridge all the time - we are widening it slightly to be able to put in the barrier. It would be too narrow if we didn't, and it's already narrow enough!

Comment From Allen Anderson: 2nd question maybe when might we see the hwy 14 project finished?

Abbi Russell: It's scheduled for completion late this year or early next year. Our contractor is making great progress, and is on schedule at this point.

You're really going to see changes this summer as they build the interchange bridges over SR 14!

Correction - SR 14 bridges over the cross streets

Sorry, too many projects rolling around in my head. I get mixed up from time to time.

Comment From mrdennmann: I have concerns about pedestrian/bicycle access over the finished Saint Johns Road overpass, as well as the incredibly steep incline may trap vehicles at the bottom, once winter weather hits.

Abbi Russell: Hmmm...can you clarify what you mean about the steep incline? Which side are you referring to?

The interchange has full bike/ped access with sidewalks on both sides of the new St. Johns bridge.

Comment From mrdennmann: The north side, has always been steep, however now that the curbs have been poured, I can see that the south approach is much steeper.

Abbi Russell: Once it's complete, it shouldn't be that steep. We have to meet engineering standards, which do take bike/ped access into consideration. Things look a little rough because we're still in the middle of construction.

Everything will tie together nicer when it's all done. But I will put a bug in our engineers' ears about this, just so they're aware of your concern.

Comment From mrdennmann: previously, the grade, toward Rosemere neighborhood was fairly gradual, it seems a lot steeper now. Just as an observation

Jeff Mize: I will chime in and say that building bike lanes and sidewalks are part of almost every road project Clark County builds. Our upcoming NE 88th Street project, from Highway 99 to NE St. Johns Road, is a prime example. This is an area that gets extensive pedestrian use but where I have personally seen kids getting off school buses and then trudging through high grass because there is no where else to walk. When construction is complete, it will create a safer environment for everyone.

Comment From mrdennmann: I appreciate that Jeff. Bicycle use is up in Vancouver, especially in areas like the Minnehaha neighborhood

Abbi Russell: Good point, and if gas prices keep rising...

Jeff Mize: We hope cyclists are enjoying what we have put in unincorporated portions of the county as well.

John Hill: Hey there. Don't mean to barge in, but I am wondering if we can switch gears a bit. Loretta, you mentioned some capital construction projects "like SE 164th Avenue interchange improvements and 137th/138th Avenue work expected to get under way later this year." Can you tell us more about those and when they might start?

Loretta Callahan: Sure. SE 164th, from Hwy 14 ramp up to about Mill Plain is already under way. Majority of demolition is already done on the 164th intersection improvement project. (They worked fast!) Next they'll tackle the intersection curbs and ADA ramps, probably next week. That will be followed by signal work, then paving of the new turn lanes that are being added. Overall paving of 164th will follow when all the improvements are in.

137/138th Avenue work is expected to begin this summer.

Jeff Mize: I was out there just yesterday on 164th and saw the work proceeding

John Hill: Thanks. Appreciate that, Loretta.

Jeff, can you tell us a little more about the big projects on the county's plate? You mentioned you'll be busy and there'll be some paving going on. How about a few highlights? ;-)

Jeff Mize: Sure, I will start out with NE 88th Street, from Highway 99 east to NE St Johns Road

John Hill: What's going to happen there? Paving, widening?

Jeff Mize: Widening a busy street running through a predominantly residential area creates a different set of challenges, one that is magnified by the number of driveways that line NE 88th Street, as well as the number of homes on adjacent streets that can be accessed only by 88th Street.

We estimate that we will need to maintain access to more than 300 homes during a project that will span two construction seasons

It is widening and improving -- adding sidewalks, bicycle lanes, center turn lane and, in some places, rain gardens to treat polluted storm runoff

Construction should begin in mid-June

Clark County will take several steps to reduce the impact from construction on neighborhood residents.

John Hill: That's a big project. How do you alleviate their pain? Seems like a tough challenge.

Jeff Mize: We address that "challenge" by:

  • Building the project in three phases, with workers concentrating on one road section and, when possible, leaving the rest open to traffic.
  • Prohibiting the contractor from working after 7 p.m.
  • Requiring the contractor to have a community liaison to respond to questions, complaints and concerns.

The NE 88th Street construction zone will be closed to all traffic except for emergency vehicles, school buses and private vehicles for those who have no other way to reach homes or businesses along or near the road.

Drivers who must use NE 88th Street should expect delays and must follow the directions of flaggers at all times. All other traffic should detour to NE 78th Street.

Almost 7,000 vehicles use this street every day so it will definitely be a challenge!

People can get more information and sign up for email updates at: http://www.clark.wa.gov/publicworks/roads/88th.html

And a quick plug for the Clark County Public Works website: http://www.clark.wa.gov/publicworks

Loretta Callahan: Same for the city. We know construction is by its nature disruptive so we do what we can to reduce that as much as is possible. Residents here have been very supportive.

Due to the heavy commuter use of Southeast 164th Avenue, the city is restricting lane closures to non-peak hours. Peak hours are typically 5 to 9 a.m. for southbound traffic and 2 to 7 p.m. for northbound traffic on 164th Avenue. Mill Plain Boulevard peak hours are typically 6 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 6 p.m.

For paving on 18th, from 172nd Avenue including intersection to 192nd Avenue, we shifted the schedule so we didn't impact the nearby Harmony and Pacific schools.

The City of Vancouver has webpages for major construction projects.

Visit www.cityofvancouver.us.

Plus, you can connect with the City of Vancouver Department of Public Works on Facebook at www.facebook.com/VancouverPublicWorks. That's a good place to get the latest up-to-date potential traffic impacts.

John Hill: Let's talk everyone's favorite subject: money. ;-) How much will some of these bigger projects cost?

Jeff Mize: Widening and improving NE 88th Street is one of our bigger and more costly projects: $17.4 million

But that is considerably less than our partnership with WSDOT on the Salmon Creek Interchange Project, which is $133 million

I mentioned road preservation earlier. Clark County expects to spend $52.1 million on overlays, surface seals and other measures during the next six years.

John Hill: Thanks, Jeff. John Hill: How about the city's bigger projects? Loretta, could you provide some rough cost figures, please?

Loretta Callahan: The low bid for construction of the 164th Ave intersection improvement project was $1.86 million, which is funded by federal grants and local dollars. Checking on some others. For 137th/138th, we'll have better numbers once a bid is awarded and I don't believe that's occurred yet....

Matt Wastradowski: Abbi, I had another question for you. We ran a story last month about businesses and the difficulties they've faced during the Highway 14 project in Washougal: http://www.columbian.com/news/2012/apr/26/state-highway-14-work-continues-businesses-seek-re/ ... Just curious: Have there been any new developments on that front?

Abbi Russell: We attended another meeting with the businesses and the cities, and listened to their concerns. Directional signs letting drivers know that the businesses are open have been installed on the frontage roads now....

The main thing is that construction on the cross streets, especially Second, is essentially finished. The congestion and flagging was really making access difficult, and people were avoiding the area.

It's no fun - construction is short term pain for long term gain, but this economy makes it even tougher.

Jeff Mize: Building infrastructure today pays economic dividends tomorrow

Abbi Russell: Indeed. The SR 14 project makes the area more desirable because of increased safety, mobility and better access to developable lands.

Comment From col_cityhall: Hey, City Hall/CRC reporter here. At all levels, city, county, state, I've heard there isn't enough money for maintenance. Can you explain what standards you hope to maintain, and what your current level of resources is?

Loretta Callahan: To chime in ... Also working to preserve and maintain what we have.

The City of Vancouver will be spending approx. $5 million in 2012 to keep good pavement in good condition. In other words, preserving the assets we have with asphalt overlays, microsurfacing and slurry. The funding comes primarily from previously collected local taxes, such as gas and real estate excise taxes, as well as some general property tax money.

Jeff Mize: City Hall reporter aka Andrea, I just posted $52.1 million over the next six years

Abbi Russell: Preservation is the buzz word around here right now. We've always put a premium on maintaining existing infrastructure, but the majority of our projects after the gas tax projects are complete will be preservation.

John Hill: Jeff, how does that $52 million stack up against previous years? Just curious.

Jeff Mize: I probably can dig for that figure if you want, but I know it is higher than past six-year plans

Matt Wastradowski: Along those same lines ...

Comment From col_cityhall: Is that more or less than you've had? I know a survey just finished here showed that people's satisfaction with the condition of roads has dropped.

Jeff Mize: This is what Clark County Public Works Director Peter Capell wrote in the 2012-17 Transporation Improvement Program (TIP):

"The 2012-17 TIP envisions spending $52 million on overlays, surface seals and other preservative measures during the next six years. That’s more than twice the $23 million allocated for preservation in the 2005-10 TIP."

John Hill: Thanks for digging that up, Jeff.

Jeff Mize: It's important that you maintain your existing streets because of the cost figures I gave earlier for having to rebuild your streets

btw ... the county’s pavement condition index, which uses a numerical score between 0 and 100 to indicate the condition of the county’s road network, remains high at 80. But even with more money being allocated to preservation, the pavement condition index is projected to slowly drop over the next 20 years.

I don't know the figure right off the top of my head, but I believe the county's road infrastructure is valued at more than $1 billion

Abbi Russell: Correct. We estimate the replacement cost for the WA State highway system at $266 billion in 2006 dollars.

Loretta Callahan: One of our goals is to keep “good” streets in “good” condition. Overlays, slurry and microsurfacing extend the life of our streets and get you the most for your tax dollar. When good streets begin to fail, they fail quickly and the costs to repair them increases dramatically. Completely replacing the city’s more than 1,800 lane miles of paved streets is estimated to cost well over $400 million.

John Hill: $400 million. Yikes. How much does the city plan to spend this year or the next few years on road maintenance and projects? It sounds like the county is spending more than it has in the past. Money is obviously tight with the city this year. It must be a big challenge then to fund roads?

Loretta Callahan: To answer your question before, John, Yes, funding streets - both maintaining and preserving as well as building what's needed - is a challenge. It's been an ongoing discussion. You can expect to see some Council workshops coming up later this year.

Matt Wastradowski: Alright, we have one more question before we wrap up.

Comment From col_clarkgov: Jeff, will the county's traffic impact fee waivers for certain businesses directly impact the county's road fund?

Jeff Mize: Certainly it will impact the road fund in the short term. In the long run, it might stimulate enough economic activity - direct, indirect and induced - to cover the tab.

This was a policy decision made by the Board of County Commissioners that reflect these tough economic times.

It is one in a series of initiatives to encourage job creation.

Matt Wastradowski: Alright, I think our hour is up! Anything else that anyone would like to add before signing off for the night?

Abbi Russell: Please drive safely, and give 'em a brake in work zones!

Jeff Mize: Absolutely. Safety is always our No. 1 concern. Both for construction workers and the traveling public.

When you see orange, slow down.

Thanks everybody. You can email me at Jeff.Mize@clark.wa.gov.

Loretta Callahan: What Abbi said. And I'd add, thank you to all the Vancouver neighbors - residents and businesses --who've been patient and supportive of the construction going on around them. You're the best.