A 160 foot section of the 58 year old four lane steel truss bridge which crosses the Skagit River about an hour north of Seattle crumpled around 7 p.m. apparently after being struck by a truck carrying an oversize load state officials said. Three people were injured none of them seriously when vehicles went into the river.
But the ripple effects of the collapse could be huge for commuters freight haulers residents and businesses around the bridge on detour routes and for politicians in Olympia Washington s capital. Lawmakers have been loudly and publicly wrestling over the hundreds of millions of dollars in state money needed to replace another aging bridge over the Columbia River that separates Oregon and Washington farther south on the Interstate 5 corridor.
Interstate 5 is the main north south route from British Columbia to California passing through both Seattle and Portland. Washington State s Department of Transportation has established detour routes through the cities of Burlington and Mount Vernon which are separated by the Skagit River but urged travelers to avoid the area if they can. More than 67 000 drivers cross the Skagit every day along that stretch of the Interstate according to the state.
Patience is going to be the watchword said Gov. Jay Inslee at a news conference here. Mr. Inslee a Democrat said that state transportation officials were scouring the country looking for a temporary portable structure that might be brought in to span the river until the collapsed section can be replaced. But even if that happens he said the disruptions could last for weeks at the least.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board also arrived Friday to begin an inquiry into the accident s causes. The chairwoman Deborah A. M. Hersman said an early priority was to interview witnesses especially the driver of the vehicle carrying the load that struck the bridge.
Whether it should be considered reassuring or alarming about the state of the nation s infrastructure the Skagit River bridge had not been judged unsafe or structurally deficient according to inspection records. The bridge and its approach lanes totaling just over 1 100 feet were only considered to be past their useful life span meaning that the time had arrived for a bigger broader structure. But even calling a bridge structurally deficient does not necessarily mean that it is unsafe as federal officials often point out it only means that at least one major component has deteriorated and actions may be taken to address the issue like restricting traffic to ensure that the bridge is not stressed beyond its limits.
Obviously this is a bridge that has lived a very long life Ms. Hersman said. But she added based on performance and inspection records It has been healthy throughout that life.
Mr. Inslee said in an interview that a broader message of the collapse is that state financing for state transportation projects now under consideration in a special session of the Legislature can no longer wait especially for the long delayed Columbia River project.
It shouldn t take an oversize load to let us know we have an oversized problem he said.
Washington State faces a deadline this year to find money for the $3.2 billion project over the Columbia River or risk losing up to $1.2 billion in federal financing. Oregon s Legislature has approved $450 million but Washington State s $450 million share has been stalled. About $1 billion would come from tolls.
Building America s Future an advocacy group founded by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and two former governors Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California also issued a statement characterizing the bridge collapse as a call to action.
Regardless of how this happened the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge in Washington State is a timely reminder of our nation s need to invest in critical infrastructure upgrades Mr. Rendell said. Our nation s bridges roads and highways are deteriorating before our eyes.
But Washington s secretary of transportation Lynn Peterson said it was clear that money would remain tight. The bridge was constructed of four 160 foot sections three of which could be restored to use pending inspection she said.
Under current fiscal constraints there is no intent at this point to rebuild the entire bridge she said.
The fact that a portion of a high use highway could suddenly fall and fail without serious casualties was hailed by political leaders and residents as near miraculous. It also allowed immediate discussion of economic impacts by Mr. Inslee and others in ways that might have otherwise seemed crass or callous.
Mr. Inslee in particular urged people to support the small businesses in the area that he said could find themselves in trouble with customers unwilling or unable to breach the creeping train of detoured vehicles.
John Schwartz contributed reporting.