When the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River collapsed last week, after hearing everyone was okay, my next thoughts were of prevention. How do we stop that kind of accident from happening again? What’s wrong with our priorities that it wasn’t prevented?
At first glance, prevention seems easy – fund our backlog! There are several categories of unsafe bridges in Washington: “structurally deficient” and “fracture-critical” are the two basic categories in the most need. Structurally deficient bridges are unsafe just sitting there. They’re the highest priority. Fracture-critical bridges aren’t immediately unsafe, but they’re not resilient – they can fail easily in earthquakes or from impacts. The I-5 bridge that collapsed wasn’t structurally deficient, but it was fracture-critical: It could (and did) fail after only a small impact.
The Seattle Times has an interactive map of all the structurally deficient and fracture-critical bridges in the state.
So with a good understanding of what’s needed to prevent disasters like this, what’s the legislature doing? What’s the governor doing? Highway expansion, of course! At the Cascade Bicycle Club breakfast a few weeks ago, Governor Inslee spent much of his time at the podium talking about the Columbia River Crossing project (which Cascade opposes) – a massive expansion, replacing a bridge that’s not on either of those lists. And at the 36th District Democrats straw poll a week and a half ago, Senator Ed Murray touted the SR-99 tunnel project as one of his accomplishments – a project that requires the structurally deficient Alaskan Way Viaduct to be kept open for four years longer than the other (cheaper) options that were on the table – not only increasing risk, but using money that could have been spent to fix dozens of other bridges.
There are legislators who disagree. On Transportation Advocacy Day in February, Reuven Carlyle, one of my two representatives in the 36th, talked about how a majority of the House transportation committee Democrats don’t want to build more megaprojects. But, unfortunately, the current House transportation package is mostly new highways. It barely begins to work on our safety problems.
This isn’t easy to solve. Legislators need to be re-elected, largely by a voting population that doesn’t have the time or energy to pay attention to the details of what their representation is doing in Olympia. Big, flashy projects mean more PR for less outreach work. And when a bridge on an Interstate falls down, the federal government steps in to fund most of the replacement – 90% for the Skagit bridge. This is true for direct votes as well – as Prop 1 in 2011 showed us, a lot of small projects doesn’t do anywhere near as well as a handful of large ones. There isn’t much incentive for legislators in swing districts to get their hands dirty.
However, Democratic legislators in safe seats don’t have good reason to ignore safety issues and support megaprojects. They’re the ones who have the power to take difficult votes and to be more progressive without as much risk. So I was pleased to hear Rep. Carlyle speak against megaprojects – and very disappointed to hear Senator Murray, in possibly the safest Senate seat in the state, speak in favor of the highway 99 tunnel, when it was his leadership of the House Transportation Committee that chose to fund expensive highway expansion projects over replacing bridges like the one that collapsed.
As transportation advocates, our job is to hold our policymakers’ feet to the fire – so that they can’t use safety, gridlock, or transit as buzzwords to push a tiny number of expensive highway expansions instead of making sure the hundreds of unsafe structures in the state are repaired or replaced.
You can help us – without actually going to Olympia. CREDO Mobile reached out to us (I had no idea they were so active) to help us petition legislators to fixing unsafe bridges *before* building new highways. Add your name and we’ll make sure your voice is heard by the governor and House Transportation!