Skagit River bridge collapse: Not the only one waiting to happen

The collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River is a reminder that thousands of bridges in the US are in serious need of repair or replacement. President Obama proposed a "Fix it First" program, but the budget 'sequester' may have squelched that.

Elaine Thompson/AP
Workers walk past the collapsed portion of the Interstate 5 bridge in Mount Vernon, Wash. A truck carrying an oversize load struck the four-lane bridge on the major thoroughfare between Seattle and Canada, sending a section of the span and two vehicles into the Skagit River.

The bridge that collapsed into the Skagit River north of Seattle will get a short-term patch within weeks, officials say, keeping this busy portion of the I-5 interstate open while the crunched original is replaced.

"We will install a temporary span on the bridge that will restore traffic while we build a safe and durable permanent span adjacent to it," Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement Sunday. That permanent replacement should be ready by early autumn.

That’s good news for commuters and travelers along this busy highway through the Pacific Northwest into Canada now poking their way along other river crossings. But it’s also a reminder that many older bridges around the country are at risk, in serious need of repair or replacement.

“Thousands of bridges around the US may be one freak accident or mistake away from collapse, even if the spans are deemed structurally sound,” reports The Associated Press.

“The crossings are kept standing by engineering design, not supported with brute strength or redundant protections like their more modern counterparts,” the AP reports. “Bridge regulators call the more risky spans ‘fracture critical,’ meaning that if a single, vital component of the bridge is compromised, it can crumple.”

Which is exactly what happened when a tractor-trailer carrying a legal oversized load clipped a girder on the I-5 bridge, sending one span and two vehicles plunging into the river below. No one was killed or seriously injured, and the truck driver (who made it across the bridge and immediately stopped) has not been charged.

Vulnerable bridges carry millions of passengers a day. Some examples: In Boston, a six-lane highway near Logan Airport includes a "fracture critical" bridge over Bennington Street. In northern Chicago, an I-90 pass that goes over Ashland Avenue is in the same category. An I-880 bridge over Fifth Avenue in Oakland, Calif., is also on the list.

There are 66,749 “structurally deficient” bridges and 84,748 “functionally obsolete” bridges in the United States, according to the Federal Highway Administration – about one-fourth of the 607,000 total bridges nationally.

"Since 1989, we've had nearly 600 bridge failures in this country,” Barry LePatner, author of "Too Big to Fall: America's Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward," told CBS News last August. “While they're not widely publicized … a large number of bridges in every state are really a danger to the traveling public."

The Huffington Post notes that in his State of the Union message this year, President Obama urged repairs of "the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country." He proposed a plan called "Fix it First.”

“Investing in infrastructure not only makes our roads, bridges, and ports safer and allows our businesses and workers to be as competitive as they need to be in the global economy, it also creates thousands of good American jobs that cannot be outsourced,” states a White House fact sheet announcing Obama’s infrastructure program. “The President’s plan will immediately invest $50 billion in our nation’s transportation infrastructure, with $40 billion targeted to the most urgent upgrades and focused on fixing our highways, bridges, transit systems, and airports most in need of repair.”

Instead, Congress failed to avoid the "sequester" and transportation repair spending faces a $1.9 billion cut.

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