The Skagit River Bridge Collapse: What Happened and What Does It Mean

Last Thursday, a bridge collapsed over the Skagit River in Washington state, about an hour north of Seattle. I first heard the story on NPR, wedged between several other top-of-the-hour news bulletins. “A bridge collapsed in Washington state,” the radio said, no more details were offered.

I immediately wanted to know more: a bridge collapsed? How? Why? What kind of bridge? Was anyone hurt? Is this common? As a commuter who crosses multiple bridges daily, this story out of Washington seemed to play on some of my worst fears — now all the infrastructure I had taken for granted was a possible death trap.

But as I went about my day, waiting to hear emerging details of the collapse – the rescue efforts, the investigation, the government’s response – I was left in the dark. When I checked the New York Times website Friday evening, the story was buried in a small bullet point at the bottom of the page.

Miraculously, I learned, no one was killed. 3 people were rescued, none injured seriously. Apparently the bridge was clipped by a truck carrying an oversized load, damaging crucial components of its steel truss design. This was somewhat reassuring news – at least the bridge had been faulted in some way and hadn’t just collapsed on its own.

But still… is that all it takes? One slight error in a truck driver’s judgment?

Pinning down the exact condition the bridge was in before it came down is something of an exercise in semantic and bureaucratic murkiness. The bridge was listed on the Washington State Department of Transportation’s list of “Structurally Deficient Bridges,” which – the organization is quick to point out – does not necessarily mean the bridge is unsafe, but “requires repair or replacement of a certain component, such as cracked or spalled concrete or the entire bridge itself.” Huh. The Federal Highway Administration had the bridge listed as “functionally obsolete,” meaning its design was outdated though, again, not necessarily unsafe. The National Bridge Inventory classified the bridge as “fracture critical,” meaning any slight to the bridge’s structure could bring the whole thing down (which is exactly what happened).

Regardless of classification, two things are clear: the Skagit River bridge was old (58 years) and it fell down. Whether the collapse could have been prevented by a more attentive repair schedule or whether the bridge needed to be replaced entirely has yet to be answered decisively, but an incident like this necessarily calls into question the adequacy of the state’s, and the nation’s, other bridges.

The results aren’t very reassuring. In Washington State, 759 bridges had a lower sufficiency rating than the one that collapsed, reported the Associated Press; and, according to Federal Highway Administration data, there are an estimated 67,000 structurally deficient and 85,000 functionally obsolete bridges nationwide.

The issue, of course, is money. Although infrastructure rehabilitation has been a priority of the Obama administration, increased funding has repeatedly met opposition in Congress (sound familiar?). Currently, infrastructure spending, as a percentage of total GDP, is the lowest it’s been in 20 years. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that $190 billion a year is needed to adequately maintain the country’s roads and bridges, an 84% increase of its current $103 billion annual budget.

What’s harder to predict, though, is the economic fallout of a bridge collapse like the one at Skagit River. As part of Interstate 5, the otherwise unremarkable bridge facilitated around 71,000 vehicles daily, a significant portion of those being commercial trucks. One estimate of financial loses puts the number at $200,000 a day. The bridge is expected to be out until mid-June. That puts total loses in the $5 to 6 million range. Imagine what a similar amount could have done for rehabilitation?

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