On the Road

A Bridge Too Low

June 27, 2013

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The i5 Bridge over the Skagit River collapsed after a truck hit the trusses. It's far from the first time that has happened. - Creative Commons license
The i5 Bridge over the Skagit River collapsed after a truck hit the trusses. It's far from the first time that has happened. - Creative Commons license

The Skagit River Bridge on Interstate 5 near Mount Vernon has a history of high-load strikes dating back to the 1970s. In a great bit of investigative journalism, Associated Press reporters used Access to Public Records laws to review bridge maintenance and inspection records. Reporters found a litany of strikes, including one very similar to the impact that brought it down on May 23.

A few weeks ago, I shared a few thoughts on the collapse of the bridge caused by such a seemingly innocuous strike by a tall load. I mean, the load -- a shed for a drilling machine -- suffered hardly a scratch. The bridge, as we know, did not fare as well. In the blog, I suggested the state has a duty to mark such structures, instead it places the onus on carriers -- and drivers -- to ensure what they are hauling will fit under or through whatever lies in their path.

After reading the AP story that ran in many major newspapers earlier this week, it seems to me that the Washington State DOT has a little explaining to do.

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Quoting the AP story, "By the middle of last year, an inspector identified eight different points on the bridge that had high-load damage, including some portions in which components were deformed by the impact. Then, last fall, inspectors encountered perhaps the worst damage yet: A tall vehicle travelling northbound had struck the overhead bridge structure, ripping a three-inch gash in the steel, causing three portions to distort and tearing off surrounding paint ..."

In 1985, inspectors discovered and noted damage from a high-load strike that turned out to be very similar to the damage done by the Mullen truck in late May. Maybe the bridge's luck -- and that driver's too -- had just run out. Or maybe it's that a series of strikes over the years conspired to weaken the structure. Incrementally, probably. One rivet at a time, its structural integrity seems to have been chiseled away like a beaver gnaws at a tree.

As recently as last October -- just eight months before the collapse -- officials discovered another large gash in the northbound portion of the bridge and the other damage that appeared to accompany it. Images viewed by the AP reporters showed one portion was peeling back "like a torn piece of paper and left pointing down the roadway."

What's even more amazing, is that the WDOT seemed to ignore the previous strike or simply neglected to tell anyone else within the agency of the obvious problem with the bridge. They apparently didn't even tell the people down the hall who issue permits to truckers who haul tall loads over the bridge.  

"Even after that, state officials still didn't take precautions to prevent truckers from doing it again," the story notes.

To quote once again from the story, "AP found that Washington state's Department of Transportation (DOT) regularly puts detailed warnings on its trucking permits when routes are projected to encounter potentially problematic areas of low clearance. But despite the history of issues on the Skagit River bridge, the state never added warnings to permits for that span."

Mullen's lawyers will have a field day with that one.

In these days when various departments of transportation are demanding so much of the trucking industry, the performance of the WDOT is sorely lacking. Truckers have a right to expect some diligence on the state's part when it comes to issuing permits and indeed, for marking questionable clearances. A sign advising oversize loads to use the left lane would have done the trick, I think, and probably relieved the state of a huge portion of the liability in the collapse of the Skagit River bridge.

A few thousand dollars for an overhead sign or a few million for a new bridge -- not to mention the massive disruptions cause by the collapse. The evidence the Associated Press has dug up here should be a lesson to all state and federal DOT: they too have some responsibility for highway safety. 

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Author Bio

Jim Park

Equipment Editor

Truck journalist 13 years, commercial driver 20 years. Joined us in 2007. Specializes in technical/equipment material (including Tire Report), brings real-world perspective to test drives.

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