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Why not speed up road construction while roads are so empty?

Sound Transit construction site in Bellevue. (Chris Sullivan/KIRO Radio)

Our 97.3 KIRO FM listeners have been asking about road construction, large regional projects, and what will happen with these projects because of the current health crisis.

Those questions fall into two camps. The first is when will construction projects stop to protect workers? And second, why doesn’t the state begin projects while the roads are so empty?

Is coronavirus clearing the roads for Puget Sound commuters?

Many workers on the Sound Transit light rail expansion projects are worried about their health. They don’t want to go to work and be around so many people. They ask me why the projects haven’t been shut down.

I spoke with Sound Transit and this is the answer: It is up to the individual contractors and subs working on these Sound Transit projects to make that call.

That said, Sound Transit is working with all of its contractors to make sure public health guidelines are being met.

In regards to why the state just doesn’t start paving, widening, or building ramps while the roads are so empty, on it’s face, it seems like a logical idea. The impact to drivers would be minimal because of the current road conditions.

But it just doesn’t work this way. The state can’t start the projects on a dime.

“Think about doing a renovation on your house,” said Bart Treece, Northwest Region Communications Manager for the Washington Department of Transportation. “It takes time to get the right contractor. Same thing for heavy highway construction.”

Treece gave me this example: There is a project to pave I-5 and do some expansion joint repair through downtown Seattle next year. He said you can’t just move that up.

“We’re still doing some of that design work, and it needs to go out to the industry later this year,” he said. “We can’t move that up earlier and expect them (the contractor) to have their crews available to do the work now.”

Even if there is work that the state would love to do, it takes years to get a project from tabletop to turning dirt.

There is also a financial aspect to this, as most of the projects are not funded to start today. They are set on the schedule, years out, so that the Legislature can plan for their funding. The Legislature would be needed to approve and allocate the money ahead of time.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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