Skagit River bridge collapses, disrupts trade and travel

Published on Wed, May 29, 2013 by Brandy Kiger Shreve

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It’s easy to take our highway infrastructure for granted. Roads and bridges pass in a blur as we make our way from point A to point B and are quickly forgotten in the journey. But take them away and we soon start to take notice of how these structures of steel and concrete impact our day-to-day lives far beyond the morning drive.

On May 23, one of the spans on the Skagit River bridge on I-5 collapsed after being struck by an oversized semi-truck, and critical steel supports failed. The accident sent two cars plummeting into the cold waters of the Skagit and ground traffic to a halt right before one of the busiest traveling holidays of the year.

There were no life-threatening injuries in the incident, but the impact of this interruption in the state’s only north-south strip of 
interstate has gotten the nation’s attention. While crews have moved quickly to assess the damage and develop a plan to install a temporary bridge at the site, it will still be weeks before the pre-fabricated span is delivered and installed.

Worries abound regarding how tourism and trade in the area will be affected by the collapse. David Davidson, associate director of the Border Policy Research Institute, did not seem hopeful. He predicted a substantial decrease in the overall numbers of cross-border travelers over the coming summer season and said some freight might be diverted to other ports to avoid delays on I-5.

“It’s really too soon to tell,” said Port of Bellingham economic development specialist John Michener. “Things seem to be working really well right now and everyone seems to be taking it in stride.”

“Most of the implications we’ve seen have been that our carriers are having to adjust their travel times to get here,” said Scott Cline, an owner of ProPack, Inc., a logistics and freight forwarding service located in Blaine. “But it’s only Tuesday. I’ll wait and see what happens over the next week or two to see what happens with no bridge. If they can get the replacement bridge in by early July, I’ll consider us lucky.”

Ryan Dickson, sales manager for Kam-Way Transportation in Blaine, said he’s already seeing the slow-downs affect his bottom line. “It’s mostly in the shorter trips, from Seattle to Vancouver,” he said. “You just can’t get as many trips out. Where we could have our drivers take two trips a day before and still be under their time limits, now we have to hire in another driver for the second route. It’s really inefficient.”

Dickson said that the effects are less noticeable on long-haul truckers who are driving from Southern California or Arizona, but there is still a delay.

Governor Jay Inslee has announced that the state intends to install a temporary repair to get traffic moving with minimal 
delays.

The temporary four-lane structure will allow traffic to pass at a reduced speed and capacity and will consist of two 24-foot wide sections. The structures will be pre-fabricated and trucked to the site to allow for accelerated installation.

The remaining southern section has been inspected and will not need to be replaced.

“The plan minimizes the closure time and keeps clear access to popular Skagit County retail business and destinations including the Anacortes ferry terminal,” Governor Jay Inslee said. “I’m proud of all the work done by the Department of Transportation and all our local and federal partners that resulted in this innovative plan.”

If remaining inspections of the bridge structure find no additional damage requiring repair, the temporary fix could be in place within weeks. Once debris has been removed, underwater structural examinations will determine if repairs are needed before installing the temporary span.

Crews will immediately start work on the permanent bridge once the temporary span is in place. Crews will put temporary piers into the river to support a platform adjacent to the collapsed span where the new section will be built. Once complete, the temporary span will be removed and the new permanent span will be moved into place. WSDOT hopes to have the permanent bridge open to traffic in early fall.

Inslee declared a state of emergency for Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties on May 24, prompting the immediate $1 million federal emergency quick release funding from USDOT. Federal funding will make up 90 percent of the cost of a permanent fix. The initial estimate for the total cost of a fix is $15 million. WSDOT transportation secretary Lynn Peterson said that although the short-term fix will bring some relief to drivers and the community, the final resolution is still months away.

“We ask for everyone’s patience as we transition from emergency operations to long-term repair,” Peterson said.

Reduced speeds during the interim fix mean traffic backups will continue to be a challenge, both locally and on I-5. Drivers should still allow for extra time when traveling through the area. And though reports say that traffic continues to build around the area, WSDOT plans to hold steady with their current detour plans and continue to monitor traffic. “We have incident response teams driving the detour routes,” said Harmony Haveman, spokesman for WSDOT. “Truck traffic is heavy, but the morning commute went smoothly on Tuesday [May 28]. People just need to allow extra time.” 

Haveman stressed that businesses in the area and surrounding counties are still open and that Washington State Patrol is helping to control traffic as people adjust to the new routes. WSDOT will be installing new traffic cameras by the end of the week and will continue to monitor traffic conditions. The detours will remain in place to provide drivers with travel options while the temporary bridge is in place.

“The home stretch will be a two week total closure of I-5 likely in September as crews remove the temporary structure and move the permanent bridge into place,” Peterson said.

The I-5 corridor carries 71,000 vehicles each day and is the only north-south interstate in Washington state.