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May 24, 2013 at 9:06 AM

I-5 bridge collapse raises questions about Washington state bridges

I-5 bridge collapse over Skagit River (Photo:Rick Lund/The Seattle Times)

I-5 bridge collapse over Skagit River
(Photo:Rick Lund/The Seattle Times)

In the aftermath of the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River, commuters who cross bridges everyday for work and school are taking to social media to wonder about the safety of their travel routes. With all of the work and planning being done on the Highway 520 bridge – a floating span called “earthquake- and storm-vulnerable,” by state Sen. Rodney Tom in a 2011 Times Oped - but also the Alaskan Way Viaduct and other roadways across water, how do drivers maintain confidence in these structures?

Early investigation into the I-5 bridge collapse point to an oversized truck that may have hit a vulnerable part of the bridge, triggering the collapse. Times writer Mike Lindblom lays it out here. But for the rest of the state, the quick answer is our bridges are as safe as regular Washington state Department of Transportation inspections show them to be.

A better question about bridge safety underscores the age, wear and tear of our bridges. Peruse this list of what the state calls “structurally deficient bridges.” Five pages listing bridges around the state, their problems and what’s being done about it. It is hard to know whether the list should be frightening or reassuring. At least we know our bridges need work and are tackling the looming challenges. But it shouldn’t take a civil engineering degree for the average person to get a sense of the scope of the needs and whether long-term plans are aggressive enough to tackle them.

We dodged a bullet with only a few injuries and cars falling into the water.  I still remember the 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis that killed 13, apparently due to a flaw in the bridge’s design. We can appreciate the relatively light impact of the I-5 bridge collapse while also asking pertinent questions about the efficacy of all our structures.

At least money won’t necessarily be a problem, Rep. Rick Larsen, issued a statement this morning saying that he had talked with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Secretary LaHood confirmed that the Department of Transportation has emergency funds available to aid repairs. The Department of Transportation has established an interagency task force to expedite the permitting process for the bridge repair.

Comments | Topics: I-5 bridge, Skagit River, WSDOT


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