C. Fraser Smith: Bridge collapse last warning, not wake-up call

Special to the Daily Record//May 30, 2013

C. Fraser Smith: Bridge collapse last warning, not wake-up call

By C. Fraser Smith

//Special to the Daily Record

//May 30, 2013

Now comes the cliche “wake-up call.”

That phone’s been ringing in the matter of bridge repair for years. Catastrophes aren’t waiting to happen.

In just the latest, an over-height truck clipped a bridge truss, triggering the collapse of a bridge span 120 feet above the Skagit River north of Seattle.

It was something of a miracle that only one car and a pickup truck were on the bridge at the time. An estimated 70,000 vehicles crossed this bridge every day before the fall. No one died this time, but three people were pulled from the water, one of them injured.

Something of a miracle. But wake-up call? Washington State and the nation as a whole — including Maryland until very recently — have slept through repeated alarms.

Lawmakers in this state were reasoned with, cajoled and log-rolled into voting for a gas tax increase that will pay for more road and bridge repair. No state, including ours, is without worrisome bridges.

A headline in The Seattle Times after the crash read: “Vulnerable bridges not so rare in state” — as if this were news. Of the state’s 7,700 bridges, 95 percent were said by highway officials to be in good health. Hundreds of others, not so much.

Some of the vulnerable spans in Washington are simply old. Others were built under a system that left them vulnerable to calamitous “fractures.” If hit in just the right — or wrong — spot, bridges of this design can go down, as apparently happened with the Skagit River Bridge.

Witnesses said the compromised span trembled briefly and then fell into the water. The description was reminiscent of the Aug. 1, 2007, collapse that sent dozens of vehicles into the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Thirteen died, 145 were injured. Not so lucky there.

That was 2007. Wake-up call might have been valid then. Now? Something like “Last Warning” would be more appropriate.

Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, said “particularly bad luck” caused the accident. Truck drivers should refrain from driving into bridges, he said.

A more straightforward and sober assessment came from Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board: “We do have a lot of infrastructure that’s been around for a long time. We have to invest in it. They’re like our house. We have to maintain our house,” she said.

It’s as simple — and politically difficult — as that.

Even as bad luck and tax aversion contribute to the Washington bridge situation, political leaders there were failing once again to ask drivers to pay more for the upkeep of their transportation “house.”

The Skagit River collapse may not move Washington state senators to approve raising $8.5 billion via the gas tax for a variety of projects, including maintenance of roads and bridges. One state legislator predicted that nothing will change.

Bridge work may become the infrastructure version of gun control: mass shootings at Aurora, Colo., or Newtown, Conn., changed nothing.

What is needed is a massive public works project. The interstate road system created by President Eisenhower is due for an overhaul.

Turns out Maryland’s in the vanguard, relatively speaking at least. Someone actually woke up.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. HIs column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is [email protected]


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