OLYMPIA – Under high-intensity lights, crews worked into the night Monday, erecting a steel fence and concrete barrier along a rockslide-threatened stretch of the state’s main east-west highway.
The state Department of Transportation announced late Monday that it was opening one lane of Interstate 90 in each direction at the rockslide about five miles east of Snoqualmie Pass.
There is no telling how many days it will take to restore normal traffic in all lanes, according to a department statement. In the meantime, speeds will be limited to 35 mph, oversized loads will be prohibited and traffic will come to a complete standstill at times as crews continue their work.
And that’s assuming there’s good weather.
“The days ahead will not be easy for anyone,” Don Whitehouse, Transportation Department administrator for central Washington, said in the statement. “We will still need patience.”
State transportation officials are urging motorists to use alternative routes over the Cascade Range.
“We are really wanting people to alter their travel plans,” said department spokesman Mike Westbay. “That’s really the key to make I-90 function at all: to have most people not use I-90 once we get it open.”
Normally, 26,000 vehicles a day travel over Snoqualmie Pass, he said.
“To have 26,000 vehicles a day go through one lane, that would be a backup like we’ve never seen before, he said. We need about 20,000 of those vehicles to go away or to stay home.”
But the situation Monday night was improved from earlier in the day, when eastbound traffic on I-90 could get no farther than the summit of Snoqualmie Pass and Hyak. The road was closed at milepost 54, about 4 1/2 miles west of the rockslide site.
Westbound traffic was being stopped at Exit 70 in Easton.
Sunday’s predawn rockslide pitched boulders into the westbound lanes of I-90, prompting the state to close all lanes while crews set up protection for passing motorists. They still have to remove tons of apparently unstable rock perched above the westbound lanes.
“Several hundred cubic yards of rock – many dump-truck loads – are poised to fall upon the road in the slide area,” the Department of Transportation said in a statement Monday afternoon, “and the removal operation must be done without compromising traffic safety.”
The slide is six miles east of where a Sept. 11 rockslide killed three women in a car.
The slide was discovered at 3:15 a.m. Sunday when two state snowplows, working side by side, came across it moments after a semitruck driver had dodged some of the falling rocks. The trucker did not stop, Westbay said.
“It kind of bounced through the small rocks,” he said.
The state immediately closed the highway, and traffic backed up Sunday for more than 10 miles on U.S. Highway 2, an alternative route over Stevens Pass. Other drivers crossed White Pass on U.S. Highway 12, a narrow, winding road that links with Interstate 5 south of Olympia.
Under an emergency state contract Sunday, crews from Wilder Construction brought in a rockfall fence, 12 feet tall and 120 feet long, from storage in Wenatchee. They were working Sunday and Monday to set up the fence, anchored by large steel plates, I-beams, guy wires and bolts in the ground.
Trucking companies said the problems on I-90 are likely to be more an inconvenience than a catastrophe. Even when the Interstate closes, trucks still can get across the state on alternative routes, including I-84 in Oregon along the Columbia River. But the additional distance will boost fuel, mileage and driving costs, they said.
“It won’t stop; it’ll just be more expensive,” said Ed Vander Pol, president of Oak Harbor Freight Lines.
Consumers aren’t likely to feel the pinch of increased costs, he said, unless the problem lasts for months, which nobody expects.
“There’s thousands of trucks going over that (Snoqualmie) pass every day,” Vander Pol said. “They’ve got to do something.”
The area where the slide occurred is part of a five-mile stretch slated for $387 million in work. The money would come from a transportation tax increase approved by lawmakers this spring. The work originally was slated to start in 2011 but was fast-tracked after engineers evaluated several of the rock slopes.
“It was actually scheduled to be repaired in the spring of 2006,” said Westbay. “But nature had its own timetable and dropped some rocks before we could fix them.”
The biggest chunk of that transportation tax package – a 9.5-cent increase in the state gas tax – is up for a vote today. Initiative 912 would repeal the gas tax increase and cancel or delay many of the projects.
The rockslide “shows us once again that we’ve got to be investing in our infrastructure,” said Mark Funk, a spokesman for the group opposing the tax repeal. Although many Eastern Washington residents have complained that much of the tax money is headed to the central Puget Sound area, Funk said, “I would suggest that some of that money is actually stopping up on Snoqualmie. And that’s a project crucial for the well-being of Eastern Washington.”
The initiative’s backers say the state should be able to cover basic road safety with the other 28 cents in gas tax that Washingtonians already pay.
“That’s kind of a cheap political stunt to use gravity on Snoqualmie Pass to justify raising the gas tax,” said I-912 spokesman Brett Bader.
The timing of the rockslide apparently struck some Seattle talk-radio listeners as suspicious.
“How much dynamite did you need to make that blast happen on I-90 right before 912?” KVI talk-radio host and former Republican gubernatorial candidate John Carlson jokingly asked state transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald on the air Monday afternoon.
MacDonald responded in kind.
“I’m like one of those guys in the Chinese movies,” he said. “I leapt over the mountain and kicked it off.”