In Our View: Can Our Bridge Collapse, Too?

Columbia River Crossing debate intensifies after Skagit River accident

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What is the likelihood that the Interstate 5 Bridge linking Vancouver and Portland will fall into the Columbia River, as happened Thursday evening with the I-5 Skagit River Bridge near Mount Vernon?No one is sure, but every local resident shudders at the possibility. There's a good chance the impact here would be much more catastrophic. Our twin bridges carry an average 128,600 vehicles daily, whereas the Skagit River Bridge averages 70,925 daily. If that kind of tragedy happened here at 7 p.m. on a weekday -- near the end of 60,000 commuters returning home to Clark County -- we can't imagine escaping without fatalities, as was the fortunate outcome Thursday.

The Columbian often cautions against comparing the Columbia River Crossing with other new-bridge projects. And there are numerous differences between the I-5 bridge at Skagit River and this one. Still, when any old bridge with a low functionality grade crumples into a river, government officials would be foolhardy not to consider other old bridges with low functionality scores.

There is no denying that, as state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said, the Skagit River tragedy is "going to intensify the debate over the safety of the bridges." And if it nudges a few legislators toward helping the Legislature approve $450 million in matching state money for the CRC, that would be a good thing. But the greater reality is this: Our Interstate 5 Bridge was dangerously obsolete -- both structurally and in terms of traffic safety -- for years before the Skagit River bridge collapsed after being struck by a truck with an oversized cargo.

Even as the raging debate is intensified by what happened Thursday, there's no guarantee it will change anyone's mind. State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said: "The first point I'd like to make is that the (Skagit River) bridge was damaged by a truck. 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." And yet, both bridges are the same type, steel truss. And our bridge, according to federal statistics, carries lower "sufficiency" ratings -- 49 out of 100 southbound, 18.5 northbound -- than the Skagit River bridge -- 57.4. And both spans here, like the Skagit River Bridge, are rated "functionally obsolete." (These scores do not apply to bridge safety; they describe sufficiency for meeting traffic demands.)

Our Interstate 5 Bridge has no shoulders or emergency lanes. Its on-ramps and off-ramps are dangerously short, designed to meet slower, lighter traffic demands of many generations ago. And in Clark County, this bridge is not alone in its obsolescence. The Clark County Transportation Alliance, on its 10-year regional system priorities list, ranks a wider state Highway 14 bridge over the Camas Slough as No. 5 among projects needed over the next six years, at a projected cost of about $20 million. Also among needed projects is extending Northeast 10th Avenue over Whipple Creek from 149th to 164th streets ($32 million).

More urgently, though, we agree with Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber about the Columbia River Crossing: "We just need to get this moving. I hope my colleagues in Olympia will head there."