Will Skagit collapse provide a bridge to legislative harmony? Not likely.

News analysis: In the wake of the I-5 bridge collapse, legislators are talking about possible compromises. But the political currents may prove tricky to navigate.
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Skagit River Bridge down

News analysis: In the wake of the I-5 bridge collapse, legislators are talking about possible compromises. But the political currents may prove tricky to navigate.

Economists and engineers have jumped into overdrive to deal with last Thursday's collapse of part of Interstate 5's Skagit River Bridge. But politically, it is difficult to say if the incident will have any effects on a state legislators wrestling with transportation budget deadlocks.

The collapse has renewed political jousting between Democrats and Republicans, who were already deadlocked over whether the state's transportation budget needs extra gas taxes of 10 cents per gallon spread across four years — a key part of the Democratic House's $8.4 billion transportation revenue package.

Republicans object to the tax plan and they have vehemently opposed current plans for replacing the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River, while Democrats support that replacement. Washington has to provide $450 million — which is being blocked by the Republican-oriented Washington Senate — to have already-committed support from Oregon and the federal government kick in to cover the rest of the $3.5 billion price tag.

The question is whether the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge will break those impasses, in either direction.

Neither side has shown an inclination to budge in recent months.

The conservative wing of the Senate's Majority Coalition Caucus has been controlling Senate, imposing strict party discipline on its own members to the extent that the caucus' moderates won't stray from conservative stances on almost any issue. That wing refuses to publicly ackowledge the possibility that any tax increase or closureof any tax exemption should be considered — taking a my-way-or-the-highway stance against the Democratic-controlled House.

That same majority coalition's vehmence and strong party discipline extends to opposing replacing the Columbia River bridge. A major reason is that highly influential conservative caucus members Sens. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and Ann Rivers, R-La Center, are deadset against it. Even the promise of the feds picking up most of the costs has not swayed them.

Meanwhile on the House Democratic side, beliefs and emotions on a gas tax increase and replacing the Columbia bridge are just as strong. And House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle,  has a history of digging in his heels at least as deep as the majority coalition leaders are doing now.

The bottom line is sheer stubborness and pride are likely big factors in the stalled negotations over the gas taxes and the Columbia River Crossing. Also, the rank-and-file members of both sides are not in Olympia at the moment to pressure their leaders. Instead the rank-and-file are staying home, waiting for their leaders to compromise enough to hold party caucus  meetings to discuss the matters.

The Skagit River Bridge is 58 years old and designated as "functionally obsolete." That means if it were designed today, it would be configured to handle greater traffic loads with more up-to-date engineering.  An oversized semi-truck triggered the collapse by its load hitting the overhead trusses, which broke the bridge for reasons still under investigation.

Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way and co-chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said, "We can only hope that people will realize we need a revenue package. ... I don't know if this will change anyone's mind or vote on a revenue package."

Despite the challenging environment, Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima and co-chairman of the same committee, said he, Eide and Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island and chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, are working on a compromise between the House's gas-tax-based revenue package and the tax-adverse Republican-oriented Majority Coalition Caucus in the Senate.

He said the Skagit bridge collapse was an accident caused by a semi-truck, and the budget compromise needs to be take into account the bigger picture. Eide said the House transportation budget proposed for 2013-2015 calls for $176 million for bridge maintenance and operations. King said the majority coalition wants a better handle on the overall transportation revenue situation before committing itself to a course of action.

The opposition to the Columbia River Crossing plan focuses on the fact that the proposed new double-decker bridge would have light rail on the lower deck, which many Clark County residents don't want to pay taxes for. Also, the new bridge would be too low for three upstream businesses to ship their products under.

However last week, Gov. Jay Inslee said the state and feds are near agreements with two of those businesses for the governments to provide mitigating measures. Talks with the third are far along, he said.

Also, many Clark County residents also support a new bridge. The county's politics are split on this issue with Democrats being pro-new-bridge while Republicans oppose it. That split is also reflected in Clark County's legislative delegation.

The three-lane northbound section of the current Columbia River Bridge was built in 1917 and rebuilt in 1958. It is rated as functionally obsolete, the same rating as the Skagit River bridge. It averages almost 71,000 vehicles a day. The three-lane southbound section was built in 1958, three years after the Skagit River Bridge. It averages 64,300 vehicles a day. The four-lane Skagit River Bridge averages about 71,000 vehicles a day.

Published clearance heights for the Skagit River Bridge are  more than 17 feet inches near the center and on the line between the inner and outer lane; and 15 feet 3 inches just outside of the outer lane. The overloaded semi-truck that triggered the collapse had a state permit allowing its load to be 15 feet 9 inches high.

The published clearance height for I-5's current northbound Columbia bridge is 15 feet 6 inches for the entire width. The southbound bridge has an official clearance of 15 feet 8 inches for the entire width, according to Washington's Columbia River Crossing Project Office, citing Oregon Department of Transportation guidelines. Those heights are set by Oregon, which will permit taller loads on a case-by-case basis.

If the proposed double-decker Columbia bridge is built, there would be no trusses and girders above the upper deck where all the vehicular traffic would be. The minimum clearance of any gates or other overhanging structures that could cross the upper deck is 16 feet 6 inches.

Bridge opponent Sen. Rivers declined to compare the Columbia River Crossing situation with the Skagit River bridge incident. "Perhaps it would be wise to ... revisit the state’s policy on permits for oversize loads, considering WSDOT can control who gets a permit but obviously can’t control whether a truck will be errant," Rivers said in a written statement.

"I have every confidence that if this [Columbia] bridge is unsafe, Washington Department of Transportation will not allow motorists to use it," she said.

Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver and a supporter of a new bridge, noted that I-5's Skagit River and Columbia River bridges are roughly the same ages while being functionally obsolete. "You don't expect bridges to collapse when you run into it," Cleveland said.

Like Eide, she hopes the Skagit bridge collapse will convince Republicans to budge on the Columbia River Crossing project. 

However, the Columbia River Crossing is an all-or-nothing choice. One side will have to give up completely. And unless some rank-and-file legislators are willing to cross party lines, a Columbia River deadlock appears here to stay for quite a while.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8