Bridge Safety & Infrastructure Investment in the Spotlight Again After I-5 Bridge Collapse

Here’s what should scare anyone concerned about the state of the nation’s infrastructure after last week’s collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River north of Seattle: that wasn’t even one of the bridges in particularly bad shape and it wasn’t in one of the states particularly known for bridges in bad shape. And while that incident—and the subsequent collapse of a highway overpass in Missouri—has once again kick-started the calls for additional funding to shore up crumbling infrastructure, analysts believe they are unlikely to have much impact in prompting policy makers to take action.

The I-5 bridge was one of the 84,748 bridges in the country listed as “functionally obsolete” by the Federal Highway Administration. The term means the bridges don’t meet current design standards often because of things like lane or shoulder widths and because they carry far more traffic today than they were originally designed to.

But the I-5 bridge was not in the more worrisome category of “structurally deficient,” which is given to 66,749 bridges in the country with deteriorated conditions on load-carrying bridge elements. That term does not mean the bridge is likely to collapse or that it is necessarily unsafe, FHWA notes. But such bridges often have weight limits and may require significant maintenance and repair to remain in service. Regular inspections are required and eventual rehabilitation or replacement is often needed to address deficiencies. If such bridges are determined to be unsafe, they must be closed.  

In Washington state, 21.6 percent of the bridges are considered functionally obsolete and just 4.7 percent are considered structurally deficient. That compares to Pennsylvania, where 24.4 percent of bridges are considered structurally deficient.

Authorities say it was a truck with an oversized load that hit an overhead support on the steel truss bridge last Thursday causing the bridge to buckle. According to the National Bridge Inventory Database, the Skagit River I-5 Bridge was built in 1955. It was open, with no restrictions at the time of the collapse and regularly saw an average of 71,000 vehicles a day. A structural evaluation deemed the bridge to have “somewhat better than minimum adequacy to tolerate being left in place as is.” Both the bridge’s deck and substructure were deemed in satisfactory condition and the superstructure was deemed in fair condition. Federal records show the bridge had a sufficiency rating of 57.4 out of 100, The Seattle Times reported. While that’s below the statewide average rating of 80, 759 bridges in the state have a lower sufficiency score.

Tanya Snyder at Streetsblog writes that the bridge collapse is a reminder of misguided transportation priorities around the country. She notes that Washington is a state that has de-prioritized repair on its state roads (although I-5, an Interstate, is part of the National Highway System), spending just 14 percent of its total state highway budget on repair. The state spends $181 million annually on repair, when it needs to spend $426 million, a 2011 Smart Growth America analysis found. Only six states spend less.  

But former Washington Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond tells Governing magazine’s Ryan Holeywell that even if the state had more resources to spend on repairs, the I-5 bridge still would not have been a priority.

“I resist the notion that everyone says ‘this is why we need more revenue,’” Hammond said. “There’s a lot of reasons to invest … this isn’t the example.”

Hammond tells Holeywell the collapse will likely be a wake-up call for state DOTs to look at the types of over-sized loads permitted and whether steel truss bridges like the Skagit span can accommodate them.

But many are still calling for an increased focus on infrastructure in the wake of the bridge collapse.

“The shocking collapse of a busy Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington State highlights the issue of our country’s aging bridges and what we’re doing to address them,” read a press release from the organization Transportation for America.

Janet Kavinoky of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce told Politico that "we should turn attention to the impending collapse of the Highway Trust Fund and take this time to get focused on how to increase investment so that we can replace functionally obsolete and structurally deficient bridges."

Deborah Hersman, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said after visiting the site of the collapse “this is a really significant event and we need to learn from it, not just in Washington but around the country,” the Associated Press reported.

U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn (D-CA), a member of the House Transportation Committee, in a letter to committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) this week calling for a hearing on bridge safety writes that the Washington accident should prompt Congress to provide more funding for infrastructure: “With over 70,000 bridges that have been classified as ‘structurally deficient’ nationwide, it is clear we have an infrastructure crisis in this country and it is only a matter of time before another bridge collapses and lives could be lost. … While thankfully no one was killed in the collapse of the I-5 Bridge, the event was a stark reminder that our country has to get serious about addressing its ever increasing infrastructure needs."

But Joshua Schank, President of the Eno Center for Transportation, a D.C. think tank, tells The Hill he thinks it’s unlikely the bridge collapse would convince Congress to work to increase transportation funding when the 2007 bridge collapse in Minnesota—which killed 13 people—didn’t. Schank also notes that the Minnesota collapse was the result of an actual structural flaw while the Washington collapse appeared to be a freak accident.

Ken Orski, a public policy consultant who publishes a transportation newsletter and who was a mass transit official during the Nixon and Ford administrations, agreed that the incident won’t have a lasting impact.

“I think the unfortunate incident in Washington state should not be used as an argument for spending more money,” he told E&E Publishing. “This will remain in the headlines for the 24-hour news cycle, then softly disappear from the front pages of the papers.”

In Washington state, life is moving on quickly following the accident.

On Sunday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a plan to replace the bridge first with a temporary structure with reduced speed and capacity possibly as early as next month followed by a permanent span to be completed by September.

The nation’s bridge woes will of course take much longer to tackle. But there is no shortage of ideas about what needs to be done. The American Society of Civil Engineers in its 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure offers a series of strategies for raising the grades of America’s bridges (which got a C+ in the report card). They include:

  • Making the repair of structurally deficient urban bridges a top national priority through the implementation of a risk-based prioritization model;
  • Increasing annual investment levels for bridge repair, reconstruction, and renovation by approximately $8 billion annually from all levels of government to a total annual funding level of $20.5 billion;
  • Developing a national strategic plan for addressing the nation’s structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridges in the upcoming decades, including long-term transportation research in order to develop more resilient bridges; and
  • Setting a national goal to decrease the number of just structurally deficient bridges to 8 percent by 2020 and decreasing the percentage of the population driving over all deficient bridges by 75 percent by 2020.

But such a commitment may be more difficult to pull off in the years ahead. The Transportation for America press release notes that in MAP-21, the federal surface transportation authorization bill passed last year, Congress eliminated dedicated funding for highway bridge repair.

“Now bridge repair is forced to compete with other transportation needs for funding,” the organization noted. “At the same time, our chief source of repair dollars—the federal gas tax—is declining as Americans drive more fuel-efficient cars and fewer miles. Congress urgently needs to address both our funding priorities and how we will pay for them in the face of an aging system and growing population, before the next preventable bridge collapse strands commuters, cripples a local economy and claims lives.”

Additional Reading

  • The Seattle Times reported that seven other highway bridges in Washington state have clearances as low as the Skagit River crossing.
  • Governing magazine data editor Mike Maciag writes that some of the states with bridges in the worst shape, including Pennsylvania, face huge challenges in making the needed repairs. Even though the Keystone State was able to step up efforts to fix and replace bridges in recent years and knock 700 structurally deficient bridges off the list, other bridges are continually added to the list as they age and are subjected to harsh winters and increasing traffic. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and the legislature are still in the midst of discussing potential transportation revenue options including a possible gas tax increase, which would be the first since 1997.