Guest Opinion: As the former state Secretary of Transportation, I know the department is ready to respond.
Thursday night’s collapse of the I-5 Skagit River Bridge horrified this ex-Secretary of Transportation, as we at WSDOT have always taken great care to maintain the safety of travelers on our structures. While this steel truss bridge is similar to the type of bridges carefully scrutinized nationwide after the I-35 bridge failure in Minnesota in 2007, this was not one of the bridges on our watch list.
In spite of its nearly 60 years in service, it was in reasonable structural condition. With early reports that a truck carrying an oversized load might have struck the bridge and caused the collapse, and the recovery of passengers safely complete, our attention turns to what will happen next.
The good news is there is no other team of public servants as accomplished in emergency management as the Washington State Department Of Transportation and State Patrol. These dedicated employees have had plenty of experience with transportation crises in recent years. As the Skagit River bridge site is secured and damage assessed, WSDOT engineers, traffic managers, budgeteers and communicators are already at work on a plan to restore traffic to this critical West Coast economic corridor.
The first order of business is to establish a detour for the over 70,000 vehicles that use I-5 in this area daily. This will require close coordination with the city and county on appropriate local roads that can accommodate a long-term diversion of freeway traffic. Up-to-date road signage, variable message signs and coordination with businesses affected in the corridor are all necessary to help manage the traffic diversion through the duration of the closure. The length of I-5 from the Canadian border through the state will carry electronic messages about the traffic detours available. The most important thing the department will focus on is communication far and wide so that people and businesses know what to expect.
One thing we learned from serious 2007 and 2009 Lewis County floods is that truckers and shippers want to know timely facts and road conditions so they can make business decisions on which routes to travel. From that experience, WSDOT created a popular database of over 3,000 businesses that receive real-time alerts of traffic disruptions on state highways.
Within hours of this bridge failure, WSDOT has undoubtedly alerted Federal Highway Administration, and discussed the authority for using federal “ER” (emergency relief) funding to replace the structure. These funds typically can only replace the facility in-kind, not enlarge what’s already there. If investigators find that a trucking company is liable for third party damages, WSDOT’s Enterprise Risk Management team will seek reimbursement from the company's insurer.
In emergencies such as these, streamlined contracting provisions are available to WSDOT. Normal bidding procedures are not required. Pre-qualified bridge contractors will be contacted, and arrangements will be made to work with bridge designers for a rapid construction contract. There will likely be incentives offered to the contractor for an early-as-possible opening of I-5 in this performance-based contract.
This one accident will cause months of disruption for travelers and commerce in the I-5 corridor. It serves as a good reminder of how fragile our aging infrastructure is and its connection to the state’s economic health.