I-5 Bridge Collapse: A Painful Reminder of the Nation’s Misguided Priorities

A bridge on I-5 collapsed in Washington state last night, a reminder of the nation's need to focus more on repair. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/95744880@N07/8799036081/in/photostream/##KRON 4##

In a searing reminder that the nation has to do a better job of keeping its infrastructure in safe working condition, the I-5 bridge between Burlington and Mt. Vernon, Washington, collapsed last night. Thankfully, no one was killed, and the three people whose vehicles fell into the water were hospitalized with only minor injuries.

Interstate-5 runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, connecting most of the major cities of Washington, Oregon, and California. The collapse of a bridge on one of the country’s most important roads reveals the fragile state of the nation’s critical infrastructure, especially coming six years after the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, which killed 13 people.

A truck with an oversize load apparently hit the overhead part of the steel truss bridge at about 7:00 p.m. last night, buckling the bridge and dropping two vehicles about 25 feet down into the cold Skagit River.

Google Maps has already been updated to show that the bridge no longer meets above the Skagit River.

The bridge was built in 1955 and has a sufficiency rating of 57.4 out of 100, according to federal records — well below the statewide average rating of 80. Still, Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said the bridge was inspected twice last year, in August and November, and repairs were made. It wasdeemed “functionally obsolete” — but not structurally deficient — as recently as 2010. 

Functional obsolescence means that the bridge was built to outdated standards but doesn’t indicate that it’s necessarily unsafe. Often, a bridge is deemed obsolete simply for being more narrow than engineers would currently like it to be, given the level of traffic throughput. However, one factor in deeming a bridge “functionally obsolete” can be that it wasn’t built to withstand current vehicle weight loads — or heights.

ASCE’s 2013 infrastructure report card says 1,693 — 21.6 percent — of Washington’s bridges are functionally obsolete. Sixty-seven percent of the state’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition.

Though I-5 is an interstate highway, the collapse occurred in a state that has de-prioritized repair on its state roads. Washington spends just 14 percent of its total state highway budget on repair. Only six states spend less. According to a 2011 Smart Growth America analysis [PDF], the state spends $181 million a year on repair, when it needs to spend $426 million.

The collapse puts out of commission a bridge used by an average of 71,000 vehicles a day at the start of a busy holiday travel weekend.

  • Jack Jackson

    “Washington spends just 14 percent of its total state highway budget on repair”

    I thought Streetsblog would love this gem, considering how much you love highways

  • Anonymous

    Taking care of what we have means better highway safety, and it means building fewer new ones so that we can grow cities in a more sustainable way. Everyone wins—suburban drivers and urbanists alike.

  • That’s of the total state highway budget. Which means they’re spending probably upwards of 70% on new and widened roads, neglecting the accumulating maintenance debt we’re incurring. What’s to like about that?

  • Anonymous

    Clearly, it is a symptom of male traffic engineers…

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think the bridge collapse had anything to do with maintenance or repair – as Tanya wrote, when deeming a bridge “functionally obsolete”, it “can be that it wasn’t built to withstand current vehicle weight loads — or heights”, which sounds awfully close to being vulnerable to the hit the bridge took by the over-loaded semi.

    This was an issue of bridge replacement, not repair – and frankly, I don’t think that the funds were there for that. But the question is – should they have been? This goes to the problem of underfunding transportation infrastructure – including repair, maintenance, and replacement.

  • Dennis McClendon

    No need to mention the oversize truck load that struck a structural member when you can leap to conclusions about budget priorities.

  • Anonymous

    Washington, My lovely home-state has some really misguided policies in some areas. For some reason they still think building more freeways is good, while literally letting the existing ones crumble around drivers. Not to mention our horrid history with bridges (I-90 Lacey V. Murrow I, SR16-Tacoma Narrows I, Hood Canal I) Currently the state is working on raising the gas tax quite a bit to pay for…. More new roads. That we really don’t need. They still haven’t (fully) funded the replacement of the near-collapse SR520 Floating bridge, which is really close to making it so every one of our floating bridges will have collapsed at one point or another… They’ve pussy-footed around for years and years with the Alaskan Way Viaduct, And The columbia River Crossing (one span which has a sufficiency rating of 14.7 IIRC….. And carries a ton of people. They want to build more and more freeways, they refuse to fund our bus system which is being gutted more and more every year (will have to make 17% cuts if the state doesn’t do something in the next year) The suburban bus systems have already been defunded to practically useless (no sunday service in the north, no service after 7PM in the south, and barely better than hourly service (Even in Tacoma which has in the past well-supported 15 minute service, and perhaps even deserved better headways than that on some routes)

    The state government won’t give King County the authority to vote to raise taxes for Metro. We are dependent on the state, (People who love transit’s best guess is that the state is afraid of giving us the power to vote for what we want, because if we do we will stop voting for money for their stupid freeway projects – which probably would happen. I mean, last time we expanded transit, we tried in 2007 to set up a roads and transit measure, and it got voted down, it would have extended the light rail system a ton and built new freeways, So the next year they came back with Just sound transit 2 – no new freeways. It passed)

    Washington is a mess and it makes me really angry. I love it, its my home that I can’t wait to return to, but MAN do they do stupid crap.

  • Matt

    If only all the bridges in Washington State could be above average.

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