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In Our View: Bridge questions timely after Baltimore collapse

The Columbian
Published: March 30, 2024, 6:03am

Following a tragedy such as the collapse of a bridge in Baltimore, several questions are relevant. One is, “Can it happen here?” Another is, “What can we learn from this?” With plans for replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge being our region’s dominant news story in recent years, the questions take on added importance.

On Tuesday, the 985-foot-long Dali was leaving the Port of Baltimore while carrying an estimated 4,700 shipping containers. It lost power and issued a mayday call, then drifted into a support pylon below the Francis Scott Key Bridge. The bridge quickly collapsed; six people are believed dead.

A similar accident involving the I-5 Bridge (or the Interstate 205 Bridge) is unlikely because container ships do not travel that far upstream along the Columbia River. The Port of Portland’s container facility, Terminal 6, is located near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers — downstream from the I-5 Bridge.

According to the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program, traffic passing below the I-5 Bridge “consists of small vessels such as tugs, barges, marine construction equipment, cruise ships and recreational vessels. Large commercial ships do not currently pass under the Interstate Bridge.”

The Port of Vancouver, which is downstream from the Interstate 5 Bridge and a nearby railroad crossing, rarely handles container ships. But to clarify the point, Don Hamilton of the Oregon Department of Transportation noted of the Baltimore accident: “Anything of that size that hits a bridge will cause major damage. That was a monster ship.”

So, while a similar disaster is unlikely here under current circumstances, there still are lessons to be learned.

One is the importance of adequately protecting bridge pillars. Another is the need for contingency plans if a vessel loses power or faces some other emergency. And yet another involves the need to reevaluate and modernize the United States’ infrastructure.

The Francis Scott Key Bridge was built in 1977, when container ships were relatively new. Introduced in the late 1950s, standardized containers revolutionized the shipping industry and international trade, making it easier to load and offload ships that ferry thousands of tons of cargo.

When the Francis Scott Key Bridge was designed and constructed, it is likely that nobody conceived of a 985-foot-long vessel carrying 4,700 containers — 10 times the amount of cargo that was possible in the late 1970s. As Jeffrey Berman, a University of Washington engineering professor, told The Seattle Times: “The fact is, we’re relying on 1950s infrastructure. If the thing is built today, maybe this doesn’t happen.”

While a cargo ship the size of the Dali is unlikely to strike the Interstate 5 Bridge, Washington is no stranger to bridge failures.

Most famously, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed in 1940, four months after opening. High winds created “harmonic oscillation” that buckled the bridge, and film of the collapse has been a standard part of the curriculum in high school physics classes. Most recently, a bridge carrying Interstate 5 over the Skagit River collapsed in 2013 when tall equipment carried on a truck collided with an overhead brace.

Risks are involved with any sizable infrastructure; in the case of the current I-5 Bridge over the Columbia River, the most common concern is the structure’s ability to survive a sizable earthquake. Amid those risks, it is essential that we ask the proper questions in the wake of a disaster.