Washington bridge collapse points to bigger problems

WASHINGTON — The collapse of an interstate highway bridge in Washington state brings new attention to the limits of the country's infrastructure, especially older structures that were designed with little room for error and were never intended to carry the number of cars and trucks they see today.

The 58-year-old Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon, Wash., was considered outdated but not structurally deficient. While state police believe an oversize truck hitting the bridge may have contributed to its collapse, an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board will ultimately pinpoint the cause.

Bridge experts said the I-5 bridge shares a design feature with thousands of other bridges across the country that make them more vulnerable to failure. The bridge was fracture-critical, which means there is no redundancy in the structure — if one component fails, the whole bridge can collapse. It's a scenario that's happened before, and experts say it will happen again if older, obsolete bridges are not replaced or reinforced.

"This is a repetitive story that's going to play out again like a horrible nightmare," said Barry LePatner, a New York construction lawyer who's identified nearly 8,000 of the country's most troublesome spans.

A 40-year-old interstate bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed into the Mississippi River in 2007 also had a fracture-critical design. Thirteen people were killed and scores more were injured. No one was killed or seriously injured in Thursday's collapse.

"It could have been a lot worse," said Pat Natale, executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Another fracture-critical bridge over the Ohio River between Louisville, Ky., and New Albany, Ind., was closed for several months in 2011 after inspectors discovered a large hidden crack that could have proved disastrous. Engineers added reinforcement to the structure for a fraction of the cost of replacement, and LePatner said that a bridge such as the one on I-5 similarly could have been made stronger. "Government officials have failed to fund needed maintenance, and these bridges have long passed their intended life span," he said.

The oldest parts of the Interstate Highway System are more than 50 years old and need repair and replacement just as states and the federal government confront shrinking funds to build and maintain infrastructure.

At a news conference Friday, Washington Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson said that only the section of the bridge that collapsed would be rebuilt. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the repair would cost $15 million — a replacement could cost many times more.

Washington state has much incentive to finish the repairs quickly. I-5 is the primary highway corridor along the Pacific Coast, carrying an average of 71,000 vehicles, including 10,000 trucks a day, which will have to endure lengthy and costly detours until the bridge is repaired.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Friday that $1 million in emergency federal funds would be available to help repair the bridge.

But the bridge will reopen with the same narrow lanes and low clearances it always had — it predates the interstate system and was not constructed to federal standards for interstates. Many of such bridges on the interstate system, including this one and others on I-5, were "grandfathered in."

Natale said it wouldn't be enough just to patch over the problem and move on. The civil engineers group recently gave the country's infrastructure a "D-plus," and he said improving it should start with aggressive upkeep. "The problem is when we get into tight financial situations, we cut maintenance and inspections," Natale said.

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