I-5 Skagit River Bridge (via WSDOT Flickr)
I-5 Skagit River Bridge (via WSDOT Flickr)

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, gridlockor 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!

33 Replies to “Help Us Prevent Bridge Disasters”

    1. That’s because of an agreement with Oregon. The bridge is jointly owned, but Oregon is responsible for maintenance of the entire span.

      1. Yeah, we should replace it with something the same size if we have a safety issue, not double the width! :)

  1. Makes you wonder if they’ll finally fix all those other “nicks” and “bends” along the remaining portions of the bridge that oversized loads have caused over the years?

    1. If you want to see something that really needed to be fixed years decades ago, check out this story about the Puyallup River Bridge.

      the bridge is still safe as long as drivers and truckers adhere to weight limits that have been in place for the past couple of years.

      Yeah, just like the Skagit River Bridge was fine as long as everyone minded the restrictions. Honestly, I don’t see why that bridge over the Puyallup is still standing.

      1. The Skagit Bridge had a sufficiency rating of 57. The Puyallup River Bridge has the lowest sufficiency rating in the entire state…a rating of *2*. (And incidentally, I owe several sprained cervical vertebrae to that bridge when I crashed my bike there in 2010.)

        Just as an illustration, if we committed to a 20-year bridge improvement program funding fixes to the worst 7 bridges per year, the priority projects for this year would be:

        1. Puyallup River Bridge (Sufficiency Rating – 2)
        2. South Fork Newaukum River Over SR 508 (Rating – 5)
        3,4. Alaskan Way Viaduct (Rating – 9)
        5. SR 520 (Rating – 9)
        6. U.S. 101 over McDonald Creek, Sequim (Rating – 19)
        7. U.S. 97 Satus Creek Bridge, Klickitat County (Rating – 20)

      2. We’d have to do a lot more than 7 per year to make it through our backlog.

  2. As transit advocates our job is to focus on….here it comes….TRANSIT.

    I don’t see how we advance the cause of transit by focusing on roads. Let the road warriors justify their own projects. We should simply be focusing on transit and on transit funding.

    Because we surely aren’t going to gain any friends in Oly by wading into fights we don’t belong in, and even if we do manage to kill a mega-project it doesn’t do anything to increase transit funding or transit support.

    And the odds of winning a fight over mega-road projects is small anyhow. Just witness the DBT fight. How did opposing the DBT advance transit? How is transit better today because of opposition to the DBT?

    1. The problem is, when you focus on transit, a lot of times, that goes hand in hand with roads. Except for LRT and Amtrak, all other transit is pretty much tied directly to roads.

    2. Obviously transit is not better today because we lost the fight against the DBT. Now there will be a tunnel that will completely bypass Seattle and be unfit for any transit. Also, because of the tolling issue, city streets will be more congested without any real improvements to let transit through this congestion. Recall the option many were pushing for: “surface plus transit”. This, in theory, would have handled the additional traffic of 99 by adding enough transit.

      In general, there’s a strong connection between transit and land use, and a strong connection between land use and highways. The more highway capacity our state builds, the more sprawl that’s induced, and the lower quality our transit options are. All sprawl = infrequent, long distance buses. No sprawl = frequent, high-capacity mass transit over short distances, with frequent mid-distance buses connecting to stations. So shifting our state’s focus from road building to road maintenance helps our current long-distance buses, but also helps land use patterns and eventually transit quality.

      1. I see the DBT as better by far than the initial proposals of either a rebuilt viaduct or a waterfront tunnel with significant downtown access.

        The toll forecasts appear to have been ridiculously rosy, of course, but there are a couple of silver linings there too. Where there’s a toll study, there’s got to be some mention of induced traffic. After the Nisqually quake, all we heard from WSDOT was lectures about how 40,000 vehicles a day had to be accomodated lest they spill into the waterfront like syrup from a tanker car. Now they’re wondering if anybody at all will use the silly thing.

        When it’s all done, the viaduct and the freeway will be gone from the waterfront. Would it have been better to have achieved this without pouring a few billion dollars into a large hole under downtown? No doubt. But the state was determined to spend billions on something to replace 99, and they could have done so with far worse consequences.

      2. Why are you ignoring the ST5 proposal that the state’s stakeholder group recommended?

    3. lazarus, the only reason transit doesn’t pay for itself is because we subsidize roads. We need to fight highway expansion or we make our own job for transit much harder.

      1. This is fundamentally flawed reasoning.

        Road building and sprawl are just symptoms of a system that favors new development in the burbs and x-urbs over in-fill development, density, and walkablility.

        I.e., the problem isn’t the new road; the problem is the bias in the incentive structure. Change the home mortgage deduction, change the zoning laws, make the road system self funding, move toward tolls, all those things will be more effective in reducing sprawl than trying to stop a project without touching the underlying system that is creating the need for the project.

        But beyond that, there is NO connection between stopping any given road and increased funding for transit. None.

        So we should instead be focused on removing restrictions to density and TOD, obtaining stable funding sources for transit, and improving overall performance – and leaving the road system do deal with its own unsustainability.

      2. So Lazarus, funny you should say there is no connection between road building and sprawl when there have been studies( http://www.useful-community-development.org/effects-of-urban-sprawl.html )showing the very connection. Build roads, you build demand for them by the ability to build sprawl at the end of those roads. The incentives that are built in are to the advantage of “Road Builders” and mega developers who would rather develop on cheap land in the boonies than do infill development.

        There are fundamental environmental and economic imperatives that are coming to play in the form of $7/gal gas and the critical contributions millions of cars make to climate change that in turn is affecting our habitat, extreme weather events, food supply, exposure to bio hazards, and destruction of bio diversity. The consequences include famine and dislocation of millions of people.

        We have a system that favors the powerful that corrupt public policy decisions. If we had made “correct” public policy decisions, the DBT would be dead and collecting dust in the Municipal archive someplace. If we made “correct” decisions, we would be tolling our roads to manage traffic and congestion and incentivising people to live closer to work, or take more efficient transportation modes. Living densely is the main way we are going to reduce our carbon footprint by not requiring the production and operation of millions of cars, the heating and cooling of millions of separate housing units and other efficiencies that urban living bring.

      3. Yeah, lazarus, as Charles says, roads are the system, sprawl is the symptom. This all started because oil was essentially free to oil prospectors – so they had a lot of money to lobby for infrastructure that would increase sales of their oil. They got that infrastructure. Now we have to fix it.

      4. The battle against the automobile is not going to be won at the level of the road. You are focusing just on one symptom of a system that fundamentally incentivizes sprawl.

        Want to win the battle against the car? Raise gas prices to the level required to make the road system self sufficient. That one thing will do more for transit than your jihad against roads and the car.

        But we had better be ready with a transit system that works and a plan to expand it and retool our cities.

      5. lazarus, if you want to be ready with a transit system, show up and help. :)

    4. Google/define transit/

      The carrying of people, goods, or materials from one place to another: “a painting was damaged in transit”.

  3. Whats truely frustrating is that if we actually taxed and tolled ourselves correctly we’d have money to do all of the maintanace and big projects and fund transit. Polititians are always too afraid to do the right thing. Ben, does STB have a manifesto on how it would like the state, counties and cities to raise the money to pay for the transit it wants? Id love to see it.

    1. Isn’t it supposed to be politicians’ JOB to do the right thing? The more time passes the more convinced I get the design of our democracy is broken. You see the results of this mindset in how effective the other Washington is.

    2. Fil, if roads were forced to pay for themselves, transit would be paying for itself already. My manifesto is that we should get them close to balanced – at that point there’ll be a lot more money for transit. :)

  4. I recall Ed Murray, long ago on the campaign trail, giving his stump speech that some accused him of being a single-issue candidate. He would then go on to say that transportation is that single issue.

    Where are the results? Oh yeah, he is proudly trumpeting his role in getting the DBT funded.

    He is now portraying himself as the better coalition builder than Mayor McGinn. Does ticking off fellow Democrats enough to create a coalition with the Republicans count? (All he had to do was say, “Fine, Rodney, you can be majority leader this time. I won’t let my ego get in the way of doing what is best for my constituents,” instead of publicly daring him to join the Republicans.)

    If he doesn’t come back from Olympia with a transportation package that focuses on safety, with a local option for saving bus service, then his mayoral ambitions will sink like that span of the Skagit River bridge.

  5. Here’s my question: does the trucking industry pay for the damage that their trucks cause to bridges and roads? Or do they get a free or subsidized ride?

    Because for long distance freight moves (and I think this equipment was coming from Alberta) wouldn’t it be more efficient for the freight to move on rail? Instead of the public paying to rebuild bridges to accommodate bigger trucks (which damage the roads to a great extent too) wouldn’t it be more efficient to provide incentives to get more freight onto trains? Where the trucks also present less deadly accident risk to the rest of us?

    1. Yes, rail would absolutely be more efficient and safer than trucks. Good rail with enough capacity and efficient transfer points could allow for fast, inexpensive movement of goods, and trucks could take over at the local level. But good luck convincing the thousands of businesses and trucking companies that move goods around to come together and pay for new rail lines and better transfer points. This means the government needs to either subsidize the freight industry by building more capacity (I’m fine with that), or tax trucks to build rail (even better).

      Under our current system, it’s just easier to load stuff on a truck and drive long distances. It would take high fuel prices or cheaper, easier transfers and movement to convince a majority of companies to spend the extra effort to move their cargo onto rails then back onto trucks* at the other end.

      * Of course, the way we used to do things is skip the truck at either end and run rail right up to the sides of businesses. Seattle’s roads are covered in old siding rails. Sadly, with the degradation of our rail system at the same time we build up freeways this business model died off.

    2. The US has the most robust freight rail system in the world so we’re not slouching. Europe ships most of its goods via truck because its freight rail investments have not kept up with its passenger rail investments. Here it’s the opposite. Doubtless there is room for improvement, but there will always be shipments too small or in the wrong place for rail travel.

    3. Trucking has been under priced for decades. We charge among the lowest taxes in the developed on trucks in the world, and the results are pretty clear. Our average fleet fuel efficiency is lower, safety is worse, and if you discount coal transportation, the rail/truck share is very skewed towards trucking.

      We know that roads and highways are not fully funded by user fees. As more and more general fund money is used to repair and reconstruct this infrastructure, the effective subsidy will increase.

  6. Don’t know if anyone caught the news conference last Friday in Mount Vernon with Governor Inslee. One of the first questions asked was about failing infrastructure and were we diverting too much tax money to transit. It was such a loaded question, I didn’t catch the name of the woman who asked it. But good on the governor for saying that mobility in this region requires roads and transit.

    1. I think the “all your eggs in one basket” analogy is appropriate. Apparently for those that want everyone to be car-dependent, the best solution to having a hole in one of your basket of eggs, is to move all the eggs from your other basket into it.

      Kind of like “if we just widened the road, there wouldn’t be any more traffic!”.

    1. I forgot to add this program pretty much replaced every single bridge on I-5 outside of Portland over the last 10 years.

  7. The key word shouldn’t be “cheaper” – as in “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.” Another thing you forget to mention, Ben, is that under the other options, the AWV would be closed for 3-4 years, with those 110,000 vehicles/day having to find new routes…that’s about 50% more vehicles/day than what crosses the Skagit River, and this wouldn’t be for only 3 weeks or only a few months, but a few years. There is a cost to that: to the individual motorist and their passengers, the businesses, air pollution, time lost, even sales tax revenues. Accept it as a done decision and we may find that we like the benefits of an unblocked waterfront.

    Legislators are primarily concerned about re-election, but the population that doesn’t have the time or energy to pay attention also is a population that wants something for nothing, and that’s easy for the legislature to do, as they’re never held accountable for an incident like this. In a recent Elway poll, around 77% opposed raising the gas tax. No doubt, many of those folks were holding a latte in one hand, a cell phone in the other, some even (additionally) puffing away at a cigarette. It’s all about priorities. Right now, the travelers, businesses, and residents of Skagit County are paying the price for following this course.

    P&M needs to be taken out of the political arena. It’s called “tough love.” Roads and their infrastructure cost money to maintain, and voters deserve to know the true costs rather than being used for “Russian roulette,” wherever the next failure happens. Figure out the funding source(s) for P&M, funding rises with costs, legislators serve as oversight, and full transparency to voters. Leave for the political arena: new construction, which this transportation package is mostly, and alternate forms of transportation.

    In the meantime, a front and rear pilot car should be required, which would allow for large loads to drive in the center (highest clearance) of the bridge being crossed, in this case two lanes. Ignoring the law, which according to a recent KIRO report, should draw a heavy fine. It’s my understanding that only the front pilot car is required. I’ve also read where staffing levels vary at the weigh station facility to the north, that the agency is dealing with a personnel shortage, and is having trouble finding qualified people to hire. Lastly, signage should be required for all clearances of 16 feet or less. The permit stated the load was 15 feet 9 inches. The minimum clearance on the southbound portion of the bridge was 15 feet 6 inches.

    The Seattle Times had an excellent story a couple of Sundays ago re: the difference between the categories of bridge condition. We have a problem because – and here’s that word again – legislators have built “on the cheap” vs. paying extra for safety, i.e. reinforced bridges.

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