OLYMPIA, May 24.—You can call this one of the spookiest coincidences in Washington state history. On Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee was standing at the Capitol steps, addressing a rally in support of a transportation tax increase. And he did his best to send chills down everyone’s spine by reminding them of “the bridge that fell down in Minnesota.”
And right on cue, four nights later a freeway bridge in Washington state collapsed – pretty much like the bridge that fell down in Minnesota.
While the disaster on the Skagit River north of Seattle is only a few hours old, the causes haven’t been determined and the rhetoric hasn’t even had a chance to heat up, the bridge collapse could put a rather different spin on the Legislature’s current argument over a troubled $8.4 billion transportation-tax proposal. In particular it could be a game-changer in the debate over the replacement of the Interstate Bridge at Vancouver, the highly controversial Columbia River Crossing. That is to be expected. It’s not the first time a shocking bit of news has changed the course of the Washington Legislature. But no doubt it will be the first time anyone has called Inslee a voice of prophecy. He really did say it:
“We have to got to fix and maintain what we have today. Our valuable public assets, our roads, bridges, ferries and buses are deteriorating today because we are not investing sufficiently to keep them up to par. Today – one out of five bridges today are functionally obsolete in the state of Washington. We had a bridge just the other day over in Carbonado where we had to put restrictions – that you have to have weight restrictions going on. We have got the bridge over the Columbia River. Today, out of 100, it is ranked 18th. Now, to put this in perspective, the bridge that fell down in Minnesota was ranked 50.”
Of course, what happened on the Skagit River at 7 p.m. Thursday may not have been a matter of an overloaded and underdesigned bridge, as was the case with the bridge that fell down in Minnesota. Instead it may have been a catastrophic failure, caused when a truck hit one of the supports — something that might take down a bridge no matter how well it is maintained. Yet bridges are hit all the time and don’t fall down. Even if there is no maintenance issue or construction shortcoming, there is a key similarity. Both bridges were designed in such a way that a single fracture could bring down an entire span. And then there is the other little point. Both were busy freeway bridges and both of them collapsed.
An Obvious Argument
What Inslee was referring to were the bridge-sufficiency ratings issued by the Federal Highway Administration. He misspoke, just a tad. The ratings are not an ordered ranking, but rather a point score, and they are a measure of relative maintenance and repair needs rather than of the imminence of collapse. But it is true enough. The northbound segment of the Interstate 5 bridge at Vancouver, some of whose segments date to 1917, has been given a point score of 18.5 out of 100. The southbound segment, built in 1958, gets a rating of 49. And the Skagit bridge? It got 57.4, and still it fell.
The bridge that fell down in Minnesota, of course, is the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis, which plunged into the Mississippi River in 2008, killing 13. That steel-truss bridge, similar in design to the Skagit Bridge, went down when steel plates gave way, after it had been overloaded with new layers of concrete pavement and heavy construction equipment.
Already there are indications that bridge safety will become a somewhat louder rallying cry in the Legislature’s current debate over the current transportation package, and about the Columbia River bridge in particular. “I presume it is going to intensify the debate over the safety of the bridges,” state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, told his hometown newspaper, The Columbian. “That’s been one of the principal issues with the bridge to begin with.”
He’s not the only one. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber told The Oregonian of Portland, “Can you imagine what would have happened if the I-5 bridge [at Vancouver] had collapsed at 5 o’clock on a Thursday night?”
And Senate Transportation co-chair Tracey Eide, D-Des Moines, told The News Tribune of Tacoma, “Quite frankly, the Columbia River Crossing was the first thing I thought of” after hearing a bridge had collapsed. “That thing’s on wood pilings.”
For advocates of the controversial $3.4 billion bridge project at Vancouver, the Skagit disaster was the best news in ages.
All or Nothing
Both the bridge and the transportation tax package as a whole are in big trouble in the state Senate, where opponents of the Columbia River Crossing have been doing all they can to defeat the current bridge design. As it sits right now, the $8.4 billion transportation package includes $450 million for the Columbia River bridge, the state’s share of the project. Even without the bridge, the tax proposal is hard for lawmakers to swallow, as it includes a phased-in 10-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase that affects every motorist in the state. It is made doubly difficult by the fact that some transportation advocates are pushing for an up-or-down vote in the Legislature, rather than a referral to the ballot for a public vote – the fear being that the public might say no.
But because the plan includes the bridge, a soft no in the Senate has become a hard one. The chief objection is that the new bridge, as currently designed, would bring the Portland light rail system to Clark County, thus compelling taxpayers on this side of the river to pick up part of the tab for its support. Washington State Wire spoke Wednesday and Thursday with key members of the majority coalition, just before the Skagit bridge collapsed, and they reaffirmed their opposition to the Columbia River Crossing project in its current configuration. State Sen. Curtis King, the co-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he would block any transportation package in his committee that contained money for the bridge. “There are too many problems with the existing design and too many problems with the fact that they’re trying to cram light rail down the throats of the citizens of Clark County.”
Right up until 7 p.m. Thursday it looked like an impossible-to-budge standoff had developed between the Senate and the the governor. Lawmakers attempted a compromise in this year’s transportation budget, a separate bill. To keep the project on life support they allocated $81 million for bridge design work but stipulated that $78 million could not be spent unless the Coast Guard signs off on a problematic low-clearance design; otherwise the money had to be spent on redesign. But on Monday, when the budget crossed Inslee’s desk, he vetoed that provision and the appropriation as well. It’s all or nothing, Inslee said. Either the Legislature launches the bridge as currently designed or it can forget it, because federal funding will be withdrawn.
Bridge opponents told Washington State Wire that was fine by them. “What he’s really saying is it’s light rail or nothing,” said state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver. “So to the people of Clark County, nothing is a better option than light rail and ridiculous tolls.” Benton even put out a press release declaring his praise for the governor, saying Inslee’s decision may kill the project once and for all.
Season of Miracles
And now the splash. There’s no telling if it will change the outcome, but it certainly will change the argumentation.
That much is inevitable, says state Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee. “What a joke,” he said. “I said it last night when I saw the news. I said, this is going to be Inslee standing on the grandstand and saying, ‘See, this is why we need to pass the transportation package,’ and then the rest of the country will start saying look, our infrastructure is collapsing. But you could strike a brand-new bridge with a semi-truck and it will come down. I am just beside myself about how idiotic we have become.”
The Legislature certainly has shown itself willing to turn on a headline. The best recent example might be the astounding special session of 1995. In that year, in one of those ploys that are so common in any city with a professional sports franchise, the Seattle Mariners baseball team threatened to move unless taxpayers built a new stadium. The voters of Seattle said no, and a cynical state Legislature took a pass during its regular session. And just when it looked like pro baseball was done in Washington state, the Mariners had their most successful season ever. They made the playoffs and looked like world’s series contenders. Suddenly an entire state became Mariners believers. And as all of Washington stopped work to watch TV and listen to the AM radio, the state Legislature grudgingly returned to town to pass the tax package that paid for what is now known as Safeco Field. Never would happened if the Mariners hadn’t started winning, grumbled anti-tax Eastern Washington lawmakers at the time. And it just went to show what a little bit of shocking news can do.