Two lanes of Interstate 90, closed by Sunday's major rock slide, could open as early as tonight, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Two lanes of Interstate 90, closed by Sunday’s major rock slide, could open as early as tonight, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.
But when the rest of the freeway will open is unclear, with as much as 400 cubic yards of rock, or 40 dump truck loads, poised to fall onto the roadway.
Don Whitehouse, regional administrator for the DOT, said a rock fence is being installed today at the center of the freeway to contain the falling rock. The 160-foot long, 12-foot high steel mesh fence is bolted to the pavement.
Whitehouse said if Wilder Construction, the company hired to clean up the slide and install the fence, determines it’s safe, two lanes of I-90 will reopen tonight, one in each direction on the east-bound side of the freeway.
Motorists trying to cross the Cascade Mountains can take either Highway 2 over Stevens Pass to the north, or Highway 12 over White Pass to the south. Another alternative is Highway 97, although highways 97 and 2 had long delays yesterday. The state will post updates on delays at wsdot.wa.gov.
Complicating things is the heavy snow falling in the pass today, and Whitehouse said opening just one lane would make it hard for the snowplows to maneuver.
Stan Suchan, a DOT spokesman, said he doesn’t know yet how the state will deal with the threatening rock above the pass. The rock could be pried or blasted away, or bolted to the hillside.
According to Whitehouse, about 100 yards of rock fell on the road and some of the rocks weigh 10,000 pounds. “We will bring down the loose material and then evaluate the slope to see if we need to take more down or bolt (the slope) back,” said Whitehouse. He said the state needs to use the west-bound lanes as the “containment” area for the loose rock so it will be behind the fence.
The slope that fell was one of seven that have been looked at by geologists, but was not seen as a top priority, said Whitehouse. Work to stabilize it was scheduled for next year. “It was a surprise, the quantity that came down,” he said, “and the fact there is more above is of extreme concern to us.”
The state will decide late this afternoon whether to reopen the two I-90 lanes.
As part of the new 9.5-cent gas tax approved by the State Legislature this year, $388 million is earmarked for a new six-lane I-90 highway from Hyak to Keechelus Dam that would bypass the rock slide areas. The highway would be built in 2011, but the state is now looking at all seven rock slide areas on the pass to see if the state can wait until then.
If voters repeal the tax Tuesday, the money for the new highway evaporates.
Linda Mullen, spokeswoman for the DOT, estimates that the closure of I-90 is costing about $1 million a day in economic damages by calculating the amount of extra time it takes to travel across the Cascades. She said that doesn’t include extra fuel costs or the impact to freight carriers.
In an average winter, Snoqualmie Pass is closed a total of 120 hours, 80 of them due to avalanche control.
Snoqualmie Pass has been closed 48 hours for rock slides this year. 14.5 hours in September, and 33.5 hiurs so far for the current slide as of midday today.
This latest slide left thousands of travelers stranded on both sides of the pass.
Among them was Jim Crocker who has gotten to know Cle Elum better than he’d like in the last few months.
First came September’s rock fall on Interstate 90 near Snoqualmie Pass, which killed three motorists and forced Crocker, a trucker, to park his rig in Cle Elum for three days waiting for the road to reopen to wide loads.
Sunday, the Spokane man again settled in for the long haul at Cle Elum’s Cottage Cafe, after another rock slide sent tons of debris crashing onto I-90 high in the Cascades, prompting the state Department of Transportation to shut the freeway to all traffic at least through this morning, and possibly for longer.
The rock slide early Sunday morning stranded some like Crocker, forced many others to seek routes through the mountains to the north or south, and sent state transportation officials scrambling for an emergency fix of a rock wall already slated for repairs in 2006.
Those affected included fans and families returning from Washington State University in Pullman, which hosted Dad’s Weekend and a Saturday football game between the Cougars and Arizona State University.
“We’re stuck here ’til tomorrow sometime at least,” said Crocker, who was hauling half a house from Rathdrum, Idaho, to Warrenton, Ore. “I make pretty good money. But on times when I’m not moving, I don’t make nothing.”
The highway might open today, according to the state Department of Transportation. “It’s too early to tell, so it could be even longer than that,” said department spokesman Greg Phipps.
Traffic jams five to six miles long greeted motorists between I-90 and Leavenworth as people tried to detour onto Highway 2, Phipps said. Delays were also long on Highway 97, and traffic on Highway 12 over White Pass was heavier than usual.
Traffic was further stalled on Highway 2 when an accident closed it for several hours last night following an accident near Sultan.
The slide occurred on a slope that had been marked for repair work in 2006 after state inspectors determined earlier this year it was at high risk of failing, said Stan Suchan, another department spokesman. It had previously been slated for repairs as part of a road project scheduled to start in 2011.
A state highway-maintenance crew reported the slide around 3:30 a.m. Phipps said the department was not aware of any vehicles being hit by debris.
It was not known what had caused the rock slide.
About seven inches of snow fell on the pass the night before the slide and the temperature hovered around freezing, but “it doesn’t seem like it’s an unusual storm,” said Julie Holcombe, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Today’s mountain forecast calls for two to five inches of snow with the freezing level near 2,000 to 2,500 feet. At the pass, high temperatures are expected to be in the upper 20s to low 30s with lows in the low to mid-20s.
Westbound traffic was halted at Easton shortly after the slide onto westbound lanes was discovered six miles east of Snoqualmie Pass. Eastbound traffic was turned around at North Bend starting at 9:03 a.m., after a department expert determined the slope above the road harbored more loose rock that could fall.
The eastbound closure was later moved to the summit of Snoqualmie Pass. The Summit at Snoqualmie ski area has not yet received enough snow to open.
The closure is the second since the September rock slide, which happened roughly eight miles west of Sunday’s incident. That first accident triggered a closure for part of the freeway. A day later, the department shut several lanes after another rock fell onto the road.
“We know closing I-90 creates hardships for drivers, but we will keep the highway closed overnight because material above the roadway could come down at any moment,” Doug MacDonald, state secretary of transportation, said in a written statement.
Leslie Lanthorn was planning to try her luck over Stevens Pass, after stopping at a Cle Elum gas station Sunday and learning of the closure. The 46-year-old Winthrop woman was driving from a sister’s home in Yakima to visit another sister in Seattle when she encountered the unexpected detour.
She took a stoic approach to her situation. “You’re on the road, you’ve just got to hang with it,” she said.
The department dispatched Everett-based Wilder Construction to repair and stabilize the rock wall.
Today, Wilder workers are expected to meet with state transportation officials to determine what’s needed to make the repairs, and when the road might open.
Crocker said his work is particularly vulnerable to such delays, because the manufactured homes he carries are wide loads that demand special treatment. Stevens Pass isn’t an option, and White Pass was too icy Sunday. Even when part of a road is reopened, wide loads like his often aren’t allowed through, he said.
Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or email@example.com