By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
OLYMPIA — The swiftness with which the state is repairing the I-5 bridge in Skagit County is fueling interest among lawmakers to construct all highway projects with similar speed.
A bill introduced Friday directs the state Department of Transportation to handle permitting and environmental decision-making more expeditiously to save time and money.
State lawmakers had already taken a step in that direction before the 160-foot segment of the bridge crumbled into the water, approving a study on how Washington can complete its road projects cheaper and faster. The $325,000 analysis, which is due in December, is part of the transportation budget passed in April.
“Realistically, we need to look at why, if we can do this (bridge repair project) in a couple of weeks, does it take us so long when we’re doing other projects,” said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, a co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. “If we don’t take a look at it and learn from it, we’re not doing our jobs.”
This conversation is revving up partly in response to Skagit County where the bridge fell into the river after it was hit by a truck carrying an oversize load. Two vehicles fell into the river, but no one was seriously injured.
Constructions crews started working around the clock Saturday to open a temporary span in a matter of days. They had been waiting for the National Transportation Safety Board to finish up its investigation on the site.
A permanent fix is supposed to be in place no later than Oct. 1; a contract will be issued June 19. The state will pay $10 million for the short-term fix; there is not an estimate yet for the cost of the permanent solution.
These two projects are getting done in less than five months because this is an emergency situation, state transportation officials said. An entirely new bridge would require much more time, they acknowledged.
When Gov. Jay Inslee declared an emergency following the May 23 collapse it enabled most of the procedural playbook to be discarded, said DOT spokesman Travis Phelps.
The declaration suspended compliance with the State Environmental Policy Act, which can lead to time-consuming analyses on the potential effects of a project.
It also allowed the state to obtain permits verbally to remove debris from the water and work along the shoreline, though permit paperwork must be filed by the end of June.
And DOT officials can sidestep formal written notifications to leaders of state and federal agencies and area tribes about the plans for the projects. Rather, they can meet at the site to look at drawings or talk on the phone about concerns and objections.
“It’s not like we’re just putting blinders on and plowing forward,” Phelps said. “We value the public input. But when you have something of an emergency nature like this you need to have the flexibility to move. Our goal is to restore I-5 to its previous functionality.”
State transportation officials are in regular contact with the Swinomish and Upper Skagit tribes and representatives of federal agencies including the Fish and Wildlife, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Federal Highway Administration, Army Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard.
They also are keeping several state agencies up to date, including the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, the Department of Ecology, the Department of Natural Resources and state Fish and Wildlife. Within DOT there is a special environmental protection division that is summoned as well.
Thus far there have been no objections raised by any agency or tribe to the scope of manner of the work, Phelps said.
What’s transpired in Skagit County is bolstering Republican-inspired efforts in the House for revamping the transportation construction process.
“We have got to have reforms in Washington state that will leverage tax dollars more effectively,” said Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton.
The chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee said the study should spur changes.
A consultant will figure out what existing policies and practices drive up costs the most in Washington then see if other states face the same challenges and if not, why not. They will also compare what Washington pays for large transportation projects with what other states pay for comparable undertakings.
Lawmakers want to know if the state does pay more and take longer, an often heard criticism of the Department of Transportation contend.
“There is a perceived problem,” said Carrie Dolwick, policy director for Transportation Choices Coalition. “Let’s figure out if there is a problem and what’s causing it then we can come up with solutions to address it.”
Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, warned it may point out lawmakers are part of the problem by their inaction or, in some cases, changing the rules from one session to the next.
“The process that we have goes on and on and on and the problem is us — the Legislature, the City Councils, the people,” she said. “We just don’t make the decision and move forward. We rethink it 15 times.”
“There are times when we’ve been our own worst enemy,” he said. “Are we like a doctor that overmedicates? Are we like a doctor that overtreats? Are we too cautious?”
Clibborn cautioned against thinking reforms can be made easily. Resistance will surface to altering or removing ingredients of the current process, she said.
“The minute we start talking about changing environmental rules or the public review process we run into a buzz saw,” she said. “It’s not easy to change.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org