Washington Bridge Creaks as U.S. Repair Costs Increase

The vintage-1925 Meridian Street bridge in Puyallup, Washington, creaks and shakes as 15,000 vehicles a day rumble over it, striking fear into the hearts of commuters like Robert Elkins.

Elkins, 45, said the May 23 collapse of a portion of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River, 95 miles (155 kilometers) north of Puyallup, brought home the degraded condition of his own community’s span. It’s one of 134 owned by Washington classified as “structurally deficient,” though transportation officials say there’s no imminent risk.

“It just seems like at any moment, it could give way,” said Elkins, who drives and walks over the steel-truss structure several times a week. “It’s scary. It’s like, please don’t come down on me while I’m walking under it.”

The passage over the Puyallup River is among 11 percent of U.S. bridges categorized as structurally deficient, according to the 2013 infrastructure report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers, based in Reston, Virginia. The trade group estimated that the federal, state and local governments need to spend $8 billion a year more to catch up with $76 billion in unmet needs for deficient bridges.

On the 371-foot-long Meridian bridge, which carries two northbound lanes of traffic, cracks in the pavement expose metal support rods. The structure is partly supported by rusty metal. A sign warns of “rough road” and vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds are restricted to the right lane. A state document describes severe steel corrosion and delaminating concrete.

Shutting Down

The bridge, which links the town of 37,000 to Seattle, 35 miles (60 kilometers) to the north, is slated for replacement in 2015 at a cost of $30.5 million, most from federal sources, according to the state Transportation Department.

Drivers aren’t in danger, according to the state.

“If we find anything remotely dangerous on the bridge, we immediately shut it down,” said Mike Allende, a department spokesman. “We’re not going to put drivers’ lives at risk.”

The collapse on I-5 north of Seattle sent three people into the Skagit River, causing minor injuries, and severing the major transportation artery between Canada and the U.S. West Coast. The Washington Department of Transportation plans to install a temporary bridge that would reopen the interstate within weeks, Governor Jay Inslee said in a May 26 statement.

Bridge Work

Inslee, a Democratic former congressman who became the state’s chief executive this year, said the failure of the Skagit River bridge highlighted the “considerable maintenance issues” of Washington’s 7,000 bridges. Inslee said he planned to confer with state lawmakers to prioritize funding.

“We are mindful of the need for infrastructure improvements across the state of Washington,” he said May 24 at a briefing for reporters near the site of the accident.

The I-5 span, which was struck by a truck before it buckled, was not rated structurally deficient, which the state Transportation Department defines as requiring “repair or replacement of a certain component.”

Washington lawmakers are considering a 10 cent per gallon increase to the state’s 37.5 cent-per-gallon fuel tax in a special session this week to help pay for repairs. The increase would would yield $8.5 billion over 12 years, of which $911 is earmarked for bridge and road maintenance, said Representative Judy Clibborn, a Democrat who heads the House Transportation Committee.

“This bridge going down will raise the attention of the public that we have to set aside money,” Clibborn said.

Showcase Projects

Tacoma resident Eleanor Bailey, 70, said she’s wiling to pay a gas tax increase -- if the money is spent on roads and bridges.

As she walked her dog on a path that runs along the river, under the Puyallup Bridge, she described its condition as “horrible.”

Washington has neglected many of its roads and bridges while prioritizing mass-transit projects such as rail, said John D. Knutsen, the vice mayor of Puyallup. Residents are likely to oppose new taxes without assurances they’d go toward maintaining current roads and bridges, he said.

State leaders prefer “flashy projects,” Knutsen said.

Puyallup resident Marty Ledford, 50, said he’s skeptical of a fuel-tax increase. He said he’s crossed the Meridian Street bridge for 42 years and while it’s “rickety,” it would take an earthquake or truck collision for it to collapse. Instead of raising taxes for all drivers, state officials should institute user fees for specific roads and bridges, he said in an interview near the Puyallup span.

Mere Blip

Of 600,000 bridges in the U.S., 150,000 or 25 percent are either “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete,” Casey Dinges, senior managing director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said in an interview.

Those designations don’t mean that those structures are in danger of imminent collapse, Dinges said. Deficient bridges, which total 70,000, are those needing maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement, he said.

The engineers group in a report this year gave U.S. infrastructure a D+ rating, with bridges rating better at C+.

“In terms of the size of the U.S. economy, this is barely a blip on the radar,” Dinges said.

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