State may go after trucking firm to fund bridge repairs
Investigations continue in the collapse of the I-5 span, but a finding of negligence by the truck driver would aid the state's claim.
Washington transportation officials are prepared to seek the money from the firm whose truck was carrying the oversized load that struck the bridge.
But they are waiting until the National Transportation Safety Board finishes its investigation of the May 23 incident which saw three people survive after the cars in which they were traveling plummeted into the chilly water.
The state won't make any move to recover damages from Mullen Trucking Co. or its insurers unless a federal probe finds negligence played a part.
"We need to have proof of driver negligence," said Department of Transportation spokesman Travis Phelps. "They are hopefully going to help us reconstruct what happened that night."
The state Transportation Department didn't wait long to raise the issue with Mullen. Transportation officials contacted the firm the day after the collapse to "say we are looking at the possibility of liability," Phelps said.
Ed Scherbinski, vice president of the Alberta-based trucking firm, confirmed the heads-up came in a phone call May 24.
NTSB officials are not saying how long it will take to complete the investigation but are aiming to release a preliminary report before the end of June. The Washington State Patrol, which is also conducting an investigation, has said the truck driver would have been responsible for confirming the truck could safely cross the bridge.
"We want to find out what happened. If there is something we did wrong, we want to find out," Scherbinski said, adding the company is cooperating fully with the investigation.
Washington state is spending $10 million this month to clear away mangled girders and sunken slabs of concrete and install a four-lane temporary bridge. That is the amount of the contract with Atkinson Construction and covers payments to Acrow Bridge for the span which could be open by mid-month.
At least $5 million more will be needed to pay for a permanent four-lane section to be put in place this fall.
The federal government is expected to cover all of the cost of the clean-up and temporary bridge and 90 percent of the bill for a permanent replacement span.
Under state law, the state can file a civil action to recoup money from a third party for damages to any state highway, bridge or transportation structure. The law also allows seeking money to cover the cost of installing cameras, signals and other changes to improve the flow of traffic on detour routes.
On Sunday a temporary traffic signal was being installed at the intersection of Fir Island Road and Pioneer Highway near Conway in Skagit County after a State Patrol motorcycle trooper died in an accident near there.
If there is negligence found, Washington state, which is self-insured, would first try to collect from the trucking company's insurance provider. If that didn't fully cover the damages, the state could make a claim against the assets of the company as well.
On Friday, it was unclear if the state can recoup money paid by the federal government.
The Transportation Department has been collecting damages in this manner for years from people who wreck guard rails, knock over light poles and crunch into other state-owned facilities.
In 2012, the state recovered a total of $5.33 million, Phelps said. That is the only year for which he could provide figures.
Former transportation secretary Paula Hammond said the agency enjoyed increasing success in her tenure as they put more focus and resources into its effort.
"We didn't believe the taxpayers should have to pay for people's traffic accidents," she said.
Meanwhile, today the Economic Development Association of Skagit County will select a consultant to conduct a $150,000 advertising campaign to promote the region's businesses and attractions, many of which have seen revenue fall in the days after the bridge collapse.
The marketing effort will run June 12-30 and target residents of British Columbia and the Seattle metropolitan area, according to information provided to potential bidders.
Don Wick, executive director of the association, said the goal is to counter the perception that traveling through the corridor is difficult with a message that all exits are open in Skagit County.
The epicenters of economic pain seems to be in Mount Vernon and Burlington where Wick said several retailers reported sales during the Memorial Day holiday down by double digits from a year ago.
Funding for the campaign is coming from the state's Economic Development Strategic Reserve Account at the order of Gov. Jay Inslee.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com.
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