SHORELINE, Wash. -- From WSDOT’s traffic management center – also known as “the flow room” – engineers serve as highway watchdogs, keeping a close eye on the morning and afternoon commutes.
How exactly do they fight congestion? A team of KING 5 photojournalists recently documented an entire rush hour, posting one camera in the flow room, another with a WSDOT incident response truck and a third camera with a driver heading home for the day.
Inside the flow room, employees listen to Washington State Patrol scanners and monitor traffic maps, searching for unwanted roadblocks. When they hear about a possible blockage over the scanner or when the traffic map turns black (indicating a major slowdown), they quickly use DOT cameras to find the problem spot and get a sense of what’s happening. Within seconds, they can notify the public through emails, Twitter and the WSDOT website.
If necessary, they can also post a message on digital reader signs to warn other drivers who might be heading to the area.
Incident response trucks are often called to the scene so to clear lanes as quickly as possible. That is important: Every minute a freeway is blocked can lead to at least four minutes of delay for stuck drivers.
During KING 5’s visit to the flow room, a stalled vehicle blocked the middle lane on northbound I-405, creating immediate backups. Matt McNair sends out information to quickly notify the public, alerts the radio dispatcher who calls an incident response truck, then posts a message on the digital reader signs in the area.
But before the incident response truck can get to the scene, a Good Samaritan stops and helps pull the stalled vehicle to the side of the road. While that helps get traffic flowing, WSDOT warns that it can be dangerous to stop and help a vehicle stuck in the middle of the road; it is usually best to leave that to the pros.
At a different station in the flow room, Tim McCall flexes another congestion-fighting tool: ramp meters. He turns on the meters along I-90 before the road gets too clogged, which can help delay the onset of rush hour and prevent a flood of cars from hitting the freeways at once.
“We have limited freeway capacity currently, and we’re trying to manage what we have,” McCall said.
That could bode well for Eleashia Conces, who will take I-90 as she drives from Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood to Newcastle. Conces leaves work at 4:30 p.m. most days and usually faces major congestion throughout the drive home, as she drives through the Mercer Mess, I-5, I-90 and I-405.
“Some days it’s good, some days it’s awful,” she said. “You always learn to keep a bottle of aspirin in your car.”
Conces became an anxious driver two years ago after a bad car accident on the freeway.
“Since then, I don’t drive the same,” she said.
Just a few miles north in the I-5 express lane, another driver learns how Conces felt after her freeway accident. Incident response truck driver Ray McLeod is helping two drivers who were hit by a third driver.
“Are you OK?” McLeod asks.
“Yeah,” one driver responds.
“Did you get hit with the airbag?” he asks.
“Yes, I did,” says the shaken driver.
The drivers are not injured or blocking the roadway, but even cars on the shoulder can prompt passing cars to slow down. The goal is to get the cars off the shoulder as quickly as possible, but first a State Patrol trooper must take down the drivers' information.
Despite WSDOT’s vast network of cameras throughout the Puget Sound region, some incidents cannot be seen. In the flow room, engineers receive word of another bad accident through Twitter and other sources, but with no DOT cameras in the area (either Maple Valley or Renton), they cannot confirm the collision and inform the public.
“I feel like no information is better than misinformation,” McNair says.
The team members make numerous phone calls, hoping to get confirmation from someone in law enforcement or an emergency responder. But no one can give them enough information to go with.
Before long, they can see the effects of the incident with traffic backing up for about four miles on I-405. Finally, police from Renton are able to confirm the accident, allowing WSDOT to share the information with everyone else.
Around this time, Eleashia Conces approaches I-405 and runs into a different backup.
“It’s amazing how sitting in traffic can just completely deplete your energy,” she says.
Conces said she realizes that she could ride the bus or live closer to work, but this is a tradeoff.
“You learn to get the job you want and then you just commute,” she says. “That’s part of life, that’s what we’ve learned.”
The flow room folks say they can only do so much to help.
“Ultimately, our roads are too small for our population and there’s no getting around that,” McNair says.
The rest is up to drivers like Conces, who is thrilled to get home before 6 p.m. On this night, her 15-mile drive home takes about 75 minutes. Sometimes, it takes 90 minutes or longer.
“Breathe a sigh of relief because we’ve made it and it’s 5:45,” she says while pulling into her parking spot.