Funds for strengthening western Washington's bridges against earthquake damage could drop significantly in the next budget cycle, according to the state's transportation department.
For over two decades, the Washington State Department of Transportation has reinforced bridges with additional steel and concrete in an attempt to make them less susceptible to catastrophic collapses and other, less severe, structural failures during earthquakes.
WSDOT has retrofitted 286 bridges as of late August; an additional 478 spans are still in need of seismic upgrades. But two major funding sources that have helped pay for this work are about to run dry. As a result, the amount of money WSDOT expects to have available for these projects in the next budget cycle is currently slated to decline by about 80 percent.
In the 2011-2013 cycle, the agency spent roughly $18.7 million on retrofits. Between 2013-2015, the retrofit budget was around $22 million. The amount WSDOT plans to include for seismic retrofits in its 2015-2017 budget request, a figure based on the agency's anticipated funding constraints, is about $4 million. A WSDOT spokesperson said that because the cost of retrofit projects varies widely, it is not possible to project how many bridges could be upgraded with this lower level of funding.
According to state bridge and structures engineer, Tom Baker, the immediate public safety hazards posed by un-retrofitted bridges is relatively low. "If our bridges are open, they're safe," he said during an interview last week. "I'm not concerned driving around western Washington, worrying about the structures under me collapsing in an earthquake."
But the risks to motorists caught on a bridge span during a quake are not the only potential problem.
"It's important that we have the bridges on key routes standing and usable after an earthquake," said Mark Stewart, a spokesperson for the Washington Military Department's Emergency Management Division. "It's not only for the emergency response, but to aid the recovery afterwards."
A badly damaged bridge along a major corridor like Interstate 5 could not only handicap first responders. It might also snarl traffic and freight in the days and weeks after a quake while repairs take place, exacting an economic toll on the surrounding area.
The financial uncertainty hanging over the seismic retrofit program is not unique. "It's one of many examples of why we need to pass a transportation revenue package," said state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, vice co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.
The so-called "Nickel Package," which the Legislature adopted in 2003, and the 2005 Transportation Partnerships Act were key sources of cash fueling seismic retrofit projects in recent years. Now the work those funding measures helped pay for is coming to a close. "As that finishes," said WSDOT's Baker, "there aren't continuing funds to go and do more retrofits."
The Transportation Partnerships Act alone provided $87 million to upgrade 172 bridges in the central Puget Sound region. The account funded over 270 transportation projects during a 16-year period using gas tax and vehicle weight fee increases. The Nickel Package paid for 158 WSDOT projects over 10 years using the same revenue sources along with an increase in the sales tax on motor vehicles.
Neither Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, who co-chairs the state Senate's Transportation Committee, nor Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, the House Transportation Committee chair, responded to requests for comment on Wednesday about the seismic retrofit program.
While he emphasized that he was not an expert on the specifics of the transportation budget, Ross Hunter, D-Medina, who chairs the House Appropriations committee, echoed Hobbs's call for a new comprehensive revenue package to cover transportation costs. "We underfund maintenance on our roadways by a tremendous amount," he said. "We're going to have to find some new revenue in order to fund a new maintenance plan."
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