Throwing Money at Bridges Will Not Fix the Problem

A near-disaster at the Skagit River Bridge in Washington State sent three people plunging into the river in Washington last month. Poor signage and a functionally obsolete bridge appear to be the major factors. Predictably, bureaucrats and politicians are using this occurrence to demand even more money for unnecessary projects, while critical infrastructure needs are neglected. Voters shouldn’t let bureaucrats reward inefficiency by approving new taxes while existing funds are being frittered away.

On May 23, a portion of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River failed when a truck carrying an oversized load struck an overhanging brace, sending two cars into the river. Fortunately, no one was killed, and the drivers escaped with only minor injuries. But the collapse has served to reignite a debate about bridge safety and infrastructure maintenance, both in Washington and throughout the country.

The I-5 bridge serves as a major artery, carrying around 62,000 cars and 8,500 trucks every day, but at the time of its collapse, it was nearly 60 years old and was graded “functionally obsolete” by the Federal Highway Administration, meaning that it could no longer meet current traffic demands. The Washington State Department of Transportation explains the deficiency rating: “A bridge can be categorized functionally obsolete a number of ways like having substandard lane widths, or narrow shoulders. Another example would be a bridge that doesn’t have enough vertical clearance for large trucks to pass under, causing repeat hits and damage to the bridge.”

This is only part of the story. The Skagit River Bridge was also “fracture-critical,” like many similar bridges constructed in the 1950s; the failure of a single component could cause the entire bridge to collapse. The otherwise structurally-sound bridge could not withstand repeat damage, so when a truck load 15 feet, 9 inches tall hit a brace 14 feet, 8 inches high, the entire span buckled and collapsed into the water.

As one may expect, this incident has been met with calls for increased transportation spending to address the state’s 135 structurally deficient bridges and the 185 fracture-critical bridges owned by WSDOT. Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, co-founder of the group Building America’s Future, declared, “Regardless of how this happened, the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge in Washington State is a timely reminder of our nation’s need to invest in critical infrastructure upgrades.”

But it’s clear that a lack of funding is not Washington’s problem when it comes to bridge maintenance. A study by Reason Foundation released in February found that between 1989 and 2008, spending per mile of state-managed roads increased by more than 100% in Washington State, in inflation-adjusted terms. Transportation revenues for the current biennium are forecast to be over $4.3 billion, a 5.7% increase over 2009-2011. In the last two decades, Washington ranked 4th in the nation in terms of spending increases per mile, but only 34th in progress on fixing deficient bridges. In terms of overall performance and efficiency, the state is ranked near the bottom, at 42.

Nonetheless, the Skagit River Bridge collapse is putting increased pressure on legislators to approve an $8.4 billion transportation revenue proposal, of which barely a tenth would go towards road and bridge maintenance. This is despite the state’s C-minus ranking on bridge repair by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Others are using this event as a call to action on the long-postponed $3.2 billion Columbia River Bridge connecting Oregon and Washington which would replace the current obsolete bridge. While Oregon has already approved $450 million in funding, Washington has been cautious about proceeding given the project’s enormous costs, including $750 million to build a light-rail line that will never pay for itself. Washington must also approve $450 million this year in order to capture $1.2 billion in federal funds for the project; and the Skagit River incident further serves to focus pressure on the Legislature to approve new taxes for this expensive light rail line.

There are many things that can and should be done to improve Washington’s bridges and roads. Directing funds towards maintenance and away from flashy new transit projects and a focus on more efficient use of existing funds are both crucial. Better signs indicating height, weight and speed restrictions on deficient and obsolete bridges could make relatively little money go a long way toward preventing future accidents and collapses.

But currently taxpayers are being offered a bait-and-switch, as politicians emphasize the danger of old bridges in order to secure additional funding for unrelated pet projects, like stormwater-mitigation and light rail. Voters and legislators should not allow this event to pressure them into supporting inefficient and uneconomical projects that will divert desperately needed funds away from necessary maintenance and improvements. Washington State’s bridge problem lies with poor management, not poor funding.