Skagit River Bridge Collapse Not an Example of Crumbling Infrastructure

The Washington bridge that collapsed and sent two cars into the river may have been too small for today's traffic, but experts say it wasn't an investment issue.
by | May 24, 2013
"This will probably be a wake-up call for DOTs everywhere to look at the types of over-sized loads they're permitting and whether or not they have these kinds of bridges," said Paula Hammond, the former head of the Washington State Department of Transportation. (Photo: AP/Francisco Rodriguez)

The partial collapse of the I-5 bridge in Washington state Thursday is already being cited by some as a perfect example of the 'crumbling infrastructure' narrative that transportation advocates have touted for years.

If the country doesn't spend enough on infrastructure, the thinking goes, not only will the U.S. suffer economically, but safety will be put at risk. Dramatic images of pieces of bridge in the Skagit River with survivors sitting atop sunken cars would seemingly illustrate that point.

They don't.

Governing spoke with Paula Hammond, the former head of the Washington State Department of Transportation Friday morning. She led the agency from 2007 until February, when newly-elected Gov. Jay Inslee replaced her.

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She says even if the agency had vastly more resources, that bridge still wouldn't have been a priority because it wasn't in poor condition. "I resist the notion that everyone says 'this is why we need more revenue,'" Hammond says. "There's a lot of reasons we need to invest... this isn't the example."

The bridge was rated 47 out of 100, according to the state transportation department, the Associated Press reports. But Hammond says that's not a particularly bad rating, and the bridge wasn't considered unsafe.

The real problem, she explained, may have been its size: it wasn't designed to carry 70,000 vehicles a day, and it had narrow shoulder lanes. If it was built today, it probably would have had a taller truss span as well.

"Eventually, we probably would have gotten around to replacing it, but what we really were worried about and always were is the structural safety of these bridges," Hammond says. And according to her, that wasn't an issue with this crossing.

State officials are blaming the collapse on a truck with a high load that crashed into an upper part of the span, striking a girder and causing a chain reaction. There are also reports that the load was too wide for the bridge as well.

Joshua Schank, head of the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington-based think tank, says it's clear that whatever reason the bridge collapsed, that truck shouldn't have been on it. Now the question is how, exactly, was the truck allowed to get there?

That question will fall on the state transportation department, the Federal Highway Administration, and state and federal inspectors. The key question is whether the vehicle was operating illegally -- by carrying a larger load than it was permitted to carry -- or if there was an error in the permitting process that allowed a dangerously large load onto the bridge.

"This will probably be a wake-up call for DOTs everywhere to look at the types of over-sized loads they're permitting and whether or not they have these kinds of bridges," Hammond says. Steel truss bridges like the one in Washington are especially susceptible to "fracture critical" accidents, where damage to one component can be catastrophic.

While the bridge was rated as "functionally obsolete," that doesn't speak to its structural integrity. Instead, the term means the bridge is not able to adequately serve the level of traffic trying to use it. Schank says the term "is almost meaningless," since it can be applied to just about any older bridge in a place that has seen population growth.

Importantly, the bridge wasn't rated as "structurally deficient," a term that means elements of a span need to be monitored or repaired but is sometimes inaccurately used to suggest a risk of imminent collapse. Schank says the term "tends to get overblown" too.

In the wake of the accident, some have said it speaks to the need to spend more federal funds  upgrading infrastructure. So far, those efforts haven't been especially successful. Indeed, President Obama in his State of Union address called for federal funds to be used "as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally-deficient bridges across the country." The proposal, dubbed Fix-it-First, went nowhere and was dead on arrival in Congress.

It's worth noting that if Fix-it-First had become law, it wouldn't have prevented Thursday's collapse. The I-5 bridge wasn't among the 70,000 structurally-deficient bridges the president mentioned.

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