UPDATE: Bridge collapse doesn't sway CRC opponents

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

Updated: May 24, 2013, 9:05 PM

 

While the collapse of a four-lane Interstate 5 bridge into the Skagit River on Thursday fanned the flames on the debate over the Columbia River Crossing, it doesn’t appear to have changed opponents’ minds.

People in favor of the CRC said the collapse should serve as a jolt to those who oppose the project, while those in opposition chastised proponents for using the national headline-making incident to scare people into supporting the CRC.

Washington State Patrol Chief John Baptiste said the bridge collapsed after a tractor-trailer carrying an oversize load struck an overhead girder.

The truck, owned by Mullen Trucking of Alberta, Canada, was headed to Vancouver, according to a special trip permit issued by the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Tom Hunt, a spokesman for Thompson Metal Fab, confirmed the load was headed for Thompson’s yard at the Columbia Business Center, upstream of the Interstate 5 Bridge.

Hunt said Thompson is preparing to ship a barge laden with equipment to an oil-drilling customer in the far north, and that the piece on the truck was to be consolidated and shipped with the load.

CRC opponent Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said Friday that drawing comparisons between the Skagit River Bridge and the Interstate Bridge was like comparing apples to oranges.

“The first point I’d like to make is that the bridge was damaged by a truck,” Rivers said. “It’s not like it randomly fell into the river. It was the result of a structural assault from a truck. We don’t have that situation down here.”

The Skagit River Bridge, built in 1955, measures 14 feet 6 inches from road surface to the lowest beam. The northbound span of the I-5 Interstate Bridge, built in 1917, has a clearance of 15 feet 6 inches while the southbound span, built in 1958, has a clearance of 14 feet 8 inches.

If rebuilding the Interstate 5 Bridge was really about safety, Rivers said, then proponents would drop plans for light rail.

“We’d be digging dirt right now,” she said.

Vancouver resident Larry Patella, who led a group that sued the city of Vancouver this week in an ongoing attempt to get a public vote on light rail, agreed with Rivers.

“I think this was a tragedy, and I’m thankful that nobody got hurt,” Patella said. “I think that there are several people who are going to use this to promote their position; but I don’t think it will, or should, have any impact.” He questioned why the truck was permitted to cross the bridge.

If the Interstate 5 Bridge truly needs to be replaced for safety reasons, it should have the least-expensive design, Patella said, and light rail should not be the controlling factor.

Supporters of the CRC, meanwhile, used the bridge collapse as an example of why the $3.4 billion project should move forward.

“Quite frankly, the Columbia River Crossing was the first thing I thought of” after hearing a bridge had collapsed, state Sen. Tracey Eide told the Bellingham Herald on Thursday. “That thing’s on wood pilings.”

Eide, D-Federal Way, co-chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.

On Friday, she released a joint statement with Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island.

“The collapse of the aging bridge over the Skagit River should be a wake-up call to the Legislature. We cannot delay any longer in moving forward a long-term investment strategy to meet our state’s infrastructure demands, which include upgrading hundreds of bridges all across Washington just as old as this one. We need to ensure that our existing bridges are well-maintained, well-preserved and meet or exceed safety standards so this never happens again,” the statement read in part.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber told The Oregonian on Friday that the collapse underscores the importance of the project.

The two spans of the I-5 Interstate Bridge handle an average daily load of 128,600 vehicles; the Skagit River Bridge carries an average daily load of 70,925 vehicles.

The Oregonian quoted Kitzhaber as saying, “Can you imagine what would have happened if the I-5 Bridge had collapsed at 5 o’clock on a Thursday night?”

In addition to replacing the Interstate Bridge, the CRC project would extend light rail from Portland into Vancouver and rebuild five freeway interchanges. Washington and Oregon are asked to jointly pay about a third of the CRC’s total cost, and to commit that money this year.

Plans call for federal funding sources and tolling to cover the rest of the project.

Oregon lawmakers have approved $450 million, but members of the Republican-led Senate in Washington have raised concerns about committing $450 million for a variety of reasons.

“We just need to get this moving,” Kitzhaber told The Oregonian. “I hope my colleagues in Olympia will head there.”

In April, Kitzhaber’s spokesman reiterated that light rail must be part of the project.

“Any analysis that claims there is a quick, easy or advisable way to remove light rail from the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project is fundamentally flawed,” the governor’s spokesman, Tim Raphael, said by email. “We’d be starting over on federal funding and permitting. Without light rail, there is no project.”

Engineers’ report

Bridges are given sufficiency ratings as a measure of need for repair or replacement. The Skagit River Bridge scored 57.4 out of 100.

The northbound span of the I-5 Bridge over the Columbia River has a sufficiency rating of 18.5, while the southbound span rates a 49.

Both bridges are considered “functionally obsolete,” meaning the design (narrow lanes, no shoulders) doesn’t meet current standards.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt noted Friday that the American Society of Civil Engineers released a report card this week on the state’s infrastructure.

The state was given a C due to a lack of planned funding and maintenance, according to the group’s website. The state was given a C-minus for its bridges, and 366 of 7,840 bridges are considered structurally deficient, while 1,693 bridges are considered functionally obsolete.

About one-third of Washington bridges are past their design life of 50 years, the study noted.

Leavitt said Friday that he was thankful nobody was seriously injured or killed in Thursday’s bridge collapse.

“I just wonder how much evidence needs to mount that our infrastructure is falling apart,” Leavitt said. Bridges, including the Interstate 5 Bridge, don’t have the capacity to serve today’s needs, much less future needs, he said.

“One has to ask when our individuals in our state legislature are going to set aside petty politics and step up and provide the leadership we expect from them,” Leavitt said.

Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said she’s “certainly hopeful,” that a few Senate Republicans will reconsider their positions on the CRC.

“As leaders, we should be working together to ensure that the safest possible crossing exists,” she said.

In February, Clark County commissioners voted to officially oppose the Columbia River Crossing project based on its inclusion of light rail and tolling components.

The two Republican commissioners who voted to pass the resolution against the CRC, David Madore and Tom Mielke, did not respond to messages left Friday morning requesting comment on the Skagit collapse.

Commissioner Steve Stuart, a Democrat who was absent for the February vote but later indicated he would not have supported such a resolution, said on Friday the information surrounding the collapse was all too new for him to yet take a stand.

“I would need more information to make an educated comparison,” Stuart said. “But that said, it is scary to think what might happen if our bridge suffers the same fate.”

Battle Ground City Councilor Bill Ganley, who serves as chairman of both the C-Tran Board of Directors and the Board of Directors for the Regional Transportation Council, predicted Thursday’s bridge collapse will cause citizens and political leaders at all levels to re-examine their positions on the CRC and ask themselves what would happen if the Interstate 5 bridge suffered the same fate.

Instead of worrying about a truck striking the Interstate 5 Bridge, Ganley said he’s more concerned about a barge. Height has been one of the many points of controversy surrounding the CRC.

“Does (the proposed replacement bridge) need to be higher?” he wondered.

He welcomes the extra focus on the CRC.

“The more people we get involved, the community will make a better decision,” Ganley said.

Erik Hidle and Marissa Harshman contributed to this story.