Lessons from the Skagit River Bridge Collapse


Last week a span of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River collapsed after being struck by an oversized load on a truck. The event captured our attention, here and internationally. 


Fortunately no one was seriously injured. Yet the collapse forced reporters, elected officials and Washingtonians to ask tough questions about the state of our transportation infrastructure and what we have failed to fund.

The collapse reminded us we have failed to adequately maintain our bridges. America has 68,000 structurally deficient bridges, including at least 135 in Washington. The Seattle Times has this interactive map of them, and Transportation for Washington compiled this helpful guide to bridge engineering terms.

We are also falling behind in road maintenance. In its 2012 Gray Notebook, WSDOT reported: "Pavement condition has been declining since 2008," and "WSDOT’s pavement rehabilitation backlog increased by $44 million to $220 million from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2012." That's just for state roads; our cities and counties are also failing to keep up with their roads -- as any person who bikes around Seattle can tell you from personal experience.

In an article in GristTransportation for America's David Goldberg reminded us of the underlying politics“The new stuff, the ribbon-cutting, always competes with maintenance." We're drawn to ribbon cuttings, new projects and headlines, while basic maintenance -- the public's top priority -- goes underreported on and underappreciated.

While the need to focus on maintenance and safety is a clear lesson from the bridge failure, the well-heeled highway lobby is trying to use it to push their pet Columbia River Crossing project. The costly mega-project is not mainly about a bridge -- about 25% of the cost is for a new bridge, while half is for five miles of highway expansion, including several huge new highway interchanges. The existing bridge spans are structurally sound and have 55 years of life left in them. So funding the CRC would divert money away from fixing our truly ailing bridges and roadways.

Jonathan Maus of BikePortland.org concluded: "If anything, this bridge collapse should remind us of how ridiculous it is to keep pouring billions into new highway projects [like the CRC] while existing infrastructure gets worse and worse."

Mara Gross of the Coalition for a Livable Future had a similar response: "In poll after poll, the public says their top priorities are safety, maintaining what we have, and creating complete transportation choices... [but we're] spending billions and billions of precious dollars to expand politically-driven highways while our critical needs go unmet."

And The Seattle Times editorialized last week: "Such tendencies are on display in the state Legislature, which is considering an $8.4 billion transportation revenue proposal ... just $900 million of the package is dedicated to maintenance... the plan... is too top-heavy with new projects."

The lesson from the dramatic bridge collapse is simple and undramatic: it’s time to focus on the basics.

We have to fix what we have, and make sure our transportation system is safe for everyone to get around -- from long-haul truck drivers to kids riding their bicycles to grandparents walking in their neighborhoods. If you agree, click here to let your legislators know.

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