By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
Millions of tax dollars are being spent to temporarily fix then permanently repair an I-5 bridge that collapsed into the Skagit River.
But when the work’s all done, Washington will be left with exactly what it had before: A functionally obsolete, fracture-critical 58-year-old bridge that could come crashing down the next time it gets smacked hard enough in the right place.
“While it’s going to be in the same (classification of bridge), it’s going to be safe to drive on,” said Travis Phelps, a state Department of Transportation spokesman. “We’ll continue to inspect our bridges every two years to make sure they are in good shape.”
Tearing it down and building a brand spanking new bridge might be desired but Washington can’t afford it.
“Right now we don’t have the funding to replace the bridge,” Phelps said.
That means it will retain the same rating it had the evening of May 23 when a southbound semi-truck hauling an oversized load in the right lane struck several of the bridge’s overhead trusses, causing a 160-foot section to tumble into the river. Two vehicles went into the water, but the three occupants survived.
It’s still going to be functionally obsolete because it was not designed to handle today’s traffic volumes, Phelps said. Moreover the trucks traveling on the bridge are taller, wider and heavier then those on the road when this four-lane bridge opened in 1955.
Washington had 1,624 functionally obsolete bridges as of February 2009, according to a tally published by the Federal Highway Administration. The total includes 55 in Skagit County and 104 in Snohomish County.
Absent a complete replacement, the bridge will continue to be deemed fracture critical, which means it is one freak accident away from collapse. There are thousands of bridges in the same condition nationwide.
Phelps said it will be safe to drive on when a temporary span opens as early as this week. A permanent segment will be in place by Oct. 1.
Atkinson Construction of Renton received an emergency $10 million contract to demolish the damaged portion, remove debris from the water and put in a temporary four-lane segment. Acrow Bridge, a New Jersey firm with offices in Washington, is designing the section.
Crews spent the weekend aligning and securing the spans and hoped to begin putting in the bridge deck today, Phelps said. The deck will need to be paved with asphalt and the lanes striped. Once it reopens, traffic will be required to drive much slower than before because the lanes will only be 11-feet wide, roughly a foot narrower than they were before.
Also Monday, bids are due for the contract to provide a permanent bridge replacement. The state estimates it will cost between $3 million and $10 million.
The contract is scheduled to be awarded Wednesday morning.
Federal funds will cover 100 percent of the costs of the temporary fix and 90 percent of the permanent replacement.
Thus far the federal Department of Transportation has committed $16.6 million for the two projects from its Emergency Relief Fund. The federal agency provided $1 million in the days following the collapse and then last week pledged another $15.6 million.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com.