Wednesday, May 29, 2013

I-5 Bridge Failure Local Op-Ed

This last Thursday the I-5 bridge that spans the Skagit River north of Seattle in Mount Vernon failed after an over-sized truck carrying drilling equipment hit one of the load bearing overhead girder. While no one was seriously injured this brings some serious issues about our failing infrastructure and the deferred maintenance on the bridges in our region to light.” Meanwhile, 378 bridges in Oregon, including Portland's Steel Bridge, are considered "structurally deficient" and 1,150 are rated "functionally obsolete." Nearly 40 percent are older than the 50 years and unable to handle today's traffic demands [2]” This brings into question how the city of Washington will react to the proposed plan to update the I-5 section crossing our much closer Columbia River as well as what priority we in Oregon will put onto maintenance of our own bridges. 

    Columbia River Crossing debate influenced by I-5 bridge collapse

There is some interest in unpacking the terms that we use for our bridges. The most common word used to describe our bridges is that they are “structurally deficient” as used above. This term can be a bit deceptive and over used for instance, “Portland's Steel Bridge is considered "structurally deficient" but that does not mean it's ready to fall into the Willamette River says Joseph Rose of the Oregonian. In this instance of the Steel Bridge it means the bridge needs paint into order to keep from rusting [2].” Still others pointed out the fact that the Hawthorn Bridge was constructed earlier than the I-5 Columbia crossing and that both of these bridges are supported by wood pilings. This brings into question all the press for the I-5 crossing and not the Hawthorn. One element worth mentioning is that the I-5 Interstate crossing also is supported by the same garter system as the bridge that collapsed. Needless to say the bridges of our state and our country are failing and desperately need attention.   
What is true in both these bridges is that they were constructed in the early 1900’s as was all of the Portland Bridges, excluding the newer Fremont Bridge, and have started to decay and need major construction to keep them safe today. The maintenance has been deferred over the years and budgets have been delegated to other projects leaving the needed maintenance behind. Today the amount of funds needed to bring these bridges to safety have accumulated creating a very costly situation. Today the Columbia River Crossing project finds itself in an interesting conundrum. To pursue only the construction of the bridge, or the highway interchanges surrounding that have been left behind as well?
It seems our local populous has been less and less inclined, or permitting, to any rise in taxes to fund new infrastructure development. The overall opinion is that this should be the role of the Federal Government to fill, while through this class we can see the Federal Government tracking towards the opposite. So how are these projects to get done with the citizens of the State unwilling to support the project with funding and the many stakeholders stalling the projects till the completion of them are many years behind schedule? This is where these projects find themselves trying to expand a single project to be the umbrella of many projects for the uncertainty as to when these infrastructure projects will once again be funded. This also touches on a much larger problem of a split in our national parties creating funding problems at a local level. If interested see future Op-Ed.     
Obama in March of this year pleaded with congress to approve a 21 billion dollar bill that would get infrastructure projects back underway in our country [3]. His new major criterion is to evaluate projects on the value that they impact trade and thus economy in their region. These earmarked funds can be stalled or redirected by Republicans in congress. It would be nice to see some federal funds making their way to the states to help with the issue of failing infrastructure.  It seems that with the I-5 Bridge being a major connector of north-south traffic in our country this project should be a good candidate.  
The question is to how this recent bridge collapse will impact Washington’s state senate in coming to a conclusion as to how fund their half of this project. The debate has revolved around mostly issues of the inclusion of light rail, needed to get New Starts federal funding, but also that of the safety of the structure. To those who are holding off because they feel the bridge is still sound let’s hope the failure of the Skagit River span is a warning sign to get this project underway.   
Right now the vote on Washington matching the funds for their half of this project is scheduled for this next month. At the present the vote is expected to be a tie with the contentious aspect being in the connection of the light rail on this project. Many residents of Vancouver see this as a negative aspect and do not desire the program to go through with light rail. Light rail was added to this project expand the mode choices for people of Vancouver as well as to access the “New Starts” federal grant making the completion of this project more feasible. It is unclear if this project is feasible or desirable to most parties without the light rail aspect. This puts the project in an unsecure place with the desires of the Washingtonians.  
This project is unique in that being on the state line it encompasses two states instead of one. The two state issue brings twice as much planning and double the formal paperwork. It does though touch on a local issue as to what infrastructure project, in the current buffet of projects, will be funded and who has a voice into this process. My fingers are crossed that we begin the process to fund any infrastructure project and uniquely this time follow through with it.        

[1] English, Joe. "Columbia River Crossing Debate Influenced by I-5 Bridge Collapse." KATU, 24 May    2013. Web. 27 May 2013. <      influenced-by-I-5-bridge-collapse-208897061.html>.
[2] Rose, Joseph. "I-5 Bridge Collapse: Oregon's Bridges in Better Shape than Most -- but That's Not Saying                Much." The Ian. The Oregonian, 24 May 2013. Web. 27 May 2013.                 <>.
[3] "Press Release: President Obama Urges Congress to Put Construction Workers Back on the Job We Can’t Wait:   Common-sense Steps to Expedite Transportation Projects."President Obama Urges Congress to Put    Construction Workers Back on the Job We Can't Wait: Common-sense Steps to Expedite Transportation        Projects. United States Department of Transportation, 2 Nov. 2011. Web. 27 May 2013.      <    we-can’t-wait-common>.
[4] Sink, Justin, and Ben Goad. "Obama Calls on Lawmakers to Approve $21 Billion Infrastructure Bill." The Hill., 29 Mar. 2013. Web. 27 May 2013. <        calls-on-congress-to-approve-21b-infrastructure-bill>.
[5] "WSDOT - 2013 - Governor Inslee Announces I-5 Bridge Replacement Plan." WSDOT - 2013 - Governor Inslee   Announces I-5 Bridge Replacement Plan. Washington Department of Transportation, 26 May 2013. Web.          27 May 2013. <>.


  1. This article was quite informative. Though it is clear there is a need for bridge maintenance, it is important to understand the terminology that is used on this topic in order not to scary a whole lot of people from using particular bridges, especially the ones here in Portland. I like that this post is an opportunity to understand some of the definitions of the specific language, like structurally deficient. Unpacking this language as you say, helps when reading the press and media pertaining to this issue, especially that of the Columbia River crossing. This is where I found the article most interesting! The dialogue about who should be funding such projects is an important one. While I see the valid argument by those who believe it should come from federal dollars, I think it is important to remain as inclusive as possible in situations like this. Local residents and commuters ought to be more willing to take one some of the responsibilities for maintenance of bridges and roads. Instead of it being a drain on the state and local resources, projects like this can act as opportunity to employ residents. Incorporating a light rail project was a strategic move to help ensure funding but it seems it has complicated the project. While light rail is a great source for public transit, it might be asking too much of the local taxpayers and municipalities to shell out the required funds, even if it is partnered with the federal government. I guess what my point is that we shouldn’t get discouraged and abandon projects like the Columbia River crossing when a consensus about funding is out of reach. That being said, I think more simply projects require less red-tape. Transportation required a lot of costs because it impacts all areas of economy and daily life therefore we should be more inclined to just bite the bullet and help fund no matter what. Thank you for the post, look forward to reading the OP-ED.

  2. Good post. I recently read that northbound span of the Interstate Bridge has a functionality rating of 18.5 our of 100, which renders it functionally obsolete. To put it in perspective, the Skagit River Bridge rated 57.4 and it collapsed! And so many more people drive over the Interstate Bridge everyday (including myself). So hopefully the Skagit River bridge is a good indication that the Interstate Bridge needs to be replaced (or at least retrofitted) to avoid a catastrophe.


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