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Renewed attention is being given to the state of the nation’s roads and bridges following a terrifying incident outside of Seattle on Thursday, with critics arguing the event proves the danger in putting off crucial fixes to America’s public infrastructure.
A highway bridge carrying lanes of Interstate 5 over the Skagit River in Washington state crumbled late Thursday night, sending cars and their trapped occupants into the water below. Initial blame is being leveled at an oversize truck that may have struck a portion of the structure’s girders and destabilized the bridge section that subsequently fell apart.
Miraculously, the accident left no fatalities and only minor injuries to the three motorists that happened to be driving on the bridge when it collapsed. Emergency officials say they have accounted for everyone believed to be in the area at the time of the disaster, and that everyone is safe.
The safety of all victims assured, focus has shifted to the transportation nightmare that the bridge failure is already causing. I-5 is a major roadway in the greater Seattle metropolitan area and carries vital commercial and commuter traffic. Thursday’s event has “totally disrupted” the highway corridor and will likely do so for weeks or months as plans for replacing the bridge are finalized.
An Interstate 5 bridge over a river collapsed north of Seattle Thursday evening, dumping two vehicles into the water and sparking a rescue effort by boats and divers as three injured people were pulled from the chilly waterway.
Authorities said it appeared nobody was killed in the bridge failure that raised the question about the safety of aging spans and cut off the main route between Seattle and Canada.
“We don’t think anyone else went into the water,” said Marcus Deyerin, a spokesman for the Northwest Washington Incident Management Team. “At this point we’re optimistic.”
A man and a woman were reported in stable condition with non-life-threatening injuries in the emergency room at Skagit Valley Hospital, hospital spokeswoman Kari Ranten said. Another man was reported in stable condition at United General Hospital in Sedro-Woolley, hospital CEO Greg Reed said. He said he didn’t know whether the man would be admitted.
Survivor Dan Sligh and his wife were driving their pickup truck when he said the bridge disappeared before them in a “big puff of dust.”
Traffic along the heavily-travelled route could be impacted for some time.
“The I-5 corridor is totally disrupted,” said Gov. Jay Inslee, who went to the scene Thursday night.
He said work has already started to design detour, but state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson asked people to avoid I-5 in the area for the next several days.
Being that bridges crumbling under travelers on major highways is an unsettling prospect, authorities have quickly moved to determine the exact reason the Skagit span came down.
Most signs pointed to a single “oversize” truck that clipped a section of the girders holding the bridge together, sending a considerable chunk of it immediately crashing into the river. So far, nothing points directly to an independent structural failure due to disrepair or neglect. However, several factors shed light on how delays and reduced funding for infrastructure projects such as bridge repairs did play a significant role in Thursday’s near-tragedy.
The Skagit span was built in 1955. This means that, in addition to operational age, the span lacked modern safety features and construction techniques that would have likely prevented such a catastrophic mass failure when struck by a vehicle.
The Skagit River Bridge wasn’t particularly worrisome to state engineers. Structural inspections showed its condition to be average. But bridges of its generation, circa 1955, often were designed in a manner described today as fracture-critical — meaning a failure in a key location can ruin an entire span.
Which is apparently what happened Thursday night.
Officials believe an oversized truck traveling south on Interstate 5 hit the bridge and triggered the collapse, said Bart Treece, state Department of Transportation (DOT) spokesman. One of the bridge’s four spans fell into the water.
Though officials insist there was nothing “bad” about this particular bridge, its age and archaic construction make it possible that “complete collapse” would occur with the failure of any single component.
“It doesn’t imply anything bad about the bridge. It just means that if a certain component fails, it can lead to the complete collapse of the bridge,” said Jugesh Kapur, former head of bridges and structures for the DOT.
Kapur said a truck hitting a vertical or diagonal part of the truss certainly is capable of causing a failure. Guardrails or similar barriers are supposed to prevent strikes.
But besides its basic age and how it was put together, there were actually a considerable number of safety warnings about this specific bridge and detailed reports of its considerable “deficiencies.”
The Skagit River I-5 bridge was labeled “functionally obsolete” and “structurally deficient” in various federal and state reports — one of them more than twenty years ago. While having little meaning to the general public, these terms are important distinctions for architects and public officials charged with overseeing roads and bridges.
As early as 1992, the bridge that fell apart on Thursday was deemed “structurally deficient” and in immediate need of at least $8.2 million in repairs. Two years later, it was deemed “functionally obsolete” because of its age and not “adequate for modern traffic.
The Skagit bridge was rated “structurally deficient” in 1992, needing $8.3 million in fixes, according to a report by uglybridges.com, which cites the National Bridge Inventory data for that year. There was erosion on the stream banks below, and serious road-deck damage or wear. By 1994, the federal database listed the bridge as “functionally obsolete,” an improved rating but an indication it still wasn’t adequate for modern traffic.
The “sufficiency rating” of the Skagit bridge was also quite poor; a 57 rating out of a possible 100. Most alarmingly, that score actually bested nearly 800 of Washington’s other highway bridge structures, which were given a “C-” grade just days before Thursday’s incident by the American Society of Civil Engineers.”
In other words, the bridge that fell down was actually in better shape than most of Washington State’s bridges or even other bridges along the same I-5 corridor.
The bridge was built in 1955 and has a sufficiency rating of 57.4 out of 100, according to federal records. That is well below the statewide average rating of 80, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal data, but 759 bridges in the state have a lower sufficiency score.
According to a 2012 Skagit County Public Works Department, 42 of the county’s 108 bridges that are 50 years or older. The document says eight of the bridges are more than 70 years old and two are over 80.
Washington state was given a C in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 infrastructure report card and a C- when it came to the state’s bridges. The group said more than a quarter of Washington’s 7,840 bridges are considered structurally deficient of functionally obsolete.
Images of the Skagit accident outside of Seattle may have proven familiar to anyone that remembers a similar, though considerably more tragic, bridge collapse just six years ago. That was in 2007, when an interstate bridge span in downtown Minneapolis gave way and sent dozens of cars into a river, killing 13 and injuring hundreds.
The Minnesota disaster eventually was deemed preventable after information was subsequently revealed showing that span was likewise “structurally deficient” and decades behind in necessary repairs.
Inadequate and potentially dangerous bridges can be found all across the country, meaning tens of millions of Americans likely travel over them every day. The most recent National Bridge Inventory is a sobering document that shows nearly 90,000 bridges in the United States are officially listed as “obsolete,” and more than 70,000 are “structurally deficient” and in need of immediate repair.
An almost unimaginable backlog of bridge repairs and vital fixes has piled up in every corner of the nation. The same civil engineer group that gave a poor rating to Washington state’s bridge infrastructure gave an only slightly better “C+” grade to the entire US network of bridges. They estimate that it would require spending $21 billion every year just to fix the backlog of dangerous bridges in the country.
It doesn’t take a policy expert to understand that not only has such funding not been directed to bridges or any manner of national infrastructure in recent years, but that any future substantive action to combat the documented crisis is almost guaranteed not to happen.
Calculations have determined that it will take nearly three trillion dollars in federal spending by 2020 — many times what the government invests now — just to prevent the worst and most disastrous consequences from an aging and fragile national infrastructure. Without such a “critically important” investment, severe and long-lasting economic impacts will begin to be felt by Americans,.
Ignoring a crumbling infrastructure system means jobs will be lost, prices for almost every consumer item will go up, and the daily commute of millions of Americans in major population centers will become even moe unbearable than it curently is.
“Infrastructure is the most important thing you never think about,” said Jim Hoecker, former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “Infrastructure is a collection of critically important strategic assets, and we generally take them for granted.”
If the problem is not addressed, power outages will become more frequent, prices at the supermarket and department store will inch up, traffic will detour around bad bridges, household incomes will drop and millions of people will lose their jobs.
The challenge of rebuilding a post-World War II infrastructure at the end of its natural life — roads, bridges, the electrical grid, water and sewer systems, ports — has been well documented by myriad experts. One of the most meticulous accounts has come in a series of reports by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which delved into each failing system to calculate not just the cost of restoration but the economic and personal price of doing too little or nothing at all.
The exclamation point on the “Failure to Act” reports came Tuesday in an ASCE paper: An investment of $2.7 trillion is needed by 2020; likely funding available, $1.6 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office says combined federal, state and local spending for roads and bridges now amounts to about $160 billion.
The federal government and Congress appropriate nothing close to the amount experts declare is necessary to repair and sustain America’s vast and economically vital infrastructure network. Even worse has been the prevalence of deep cuts by states to funds and programs meant to keep roads and bridges functioning and safe.
This is a combination that has led to a cratering of spending on public construction projects, with a reduction of more than $50 billion since President Obama’s stimulus plan in 2009. And not since at least 1993 has spending on infrastructure a smaller percentage of overall economic output.
In raw dollars, the decline is obvious. From a peak of about $325 billion in March 2009, the monthly amount has plummeted to $258 billion — a big number to upgrade your house, but less so for the entire country.
But when you compare spending to the entire economic output of the country — how much of what we make that’s spent on public construction — the picture becomes more stark. We haven’t spent this little of our economic output on public construction since before 1993.
Many of the cuts can be attributed to the overall economic stagnation and tighter budgets wrought by the recession. But other factors are at play, including an inability by President Obama to get results on his repeated efforts to boost investment in infrastructure by posturing it as a job-creation program meant to employ millions of out-of-work Americans.
But the president’s lobbying efforts produced few results and largely focused on “shovel-ready” proposals selected for the number of jobs they would create, not based on safety factors.
But nothing has hastened the decline of public investment than the rise of the Tea Party, Republican control of the House, and an overall growing aversion of federal authority. Since the president took office, Congress has allocated even less money than usual for infrastructure projects even as the need for such funds grew exponentially.
Just as in 2007 after the deadly Minneapolis disaster, no one expects the fallout from this week’s Washington State bridge collapse to move the political needle on infrastructure repairs.
It’s almost as if Washington has seen this movie before: a bridge collapses, groups decry the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and Congress does nothing.
Like the tragic Minneapolis, Minn. bridge collapse in 2007 that came before it, today’s Mount Vernon, Washington collapse is unlikely to spur Congress to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into fixing roads and bridges.
The political inertia in Washington around transportation funding and projects hasn’t eased despite President Obama’s nearly constant push for additional funding.
In February, Obama renewed his nearly annual call for $50 billion in additional transportation and infrastructure spending as part of his 2014 budget request. But Republicans said the proposal amounted to an unfunded wish list.
To be sure, Congress did pass a highway transportation funding bill last year, but infrastructure spending advocates say it’s simply not enough. The bill allocated just enough money to keep transportation spending at status quo levels and it only funded projects for two years, as opposed to the usual five or six.
So how much is enough?
For roads and bridges alone, the Federal Highway Administration estimates that every year $190 billion would need to be infused into the system compared to the $103 billion currently being spent.
When you take into consideration all of the country’s infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers says that about $3.6 trillion is needed by 2020 to fix the country’s mounting problems.