Washington state’s top priority is fixing the section of the I-5 bridge that collapsed into the Skagit River last week, according to Governor Jay Inslee. Inslee announced plans Sunday that could lead to a temporary replacement in June, and a permanent fix in September.
Meanwhile, questions remain about whether the driver of the pilot car could have done more to help avert the disaster. And as the governor reminded lawmakers about the importance of investing in infrastructure, local residents remained concerned about their local economy and their quality of life.
The governor made the announcement about the bridge replacement as he stood on the northeast bank of the Skagit River, with the damaged steel bridge behind him. A chunk of its frame lay below in the water, like a decapitated metal dragon.
Inslee said the state had come up with a plan within 72 hours of the crash. Officials said the total cost of fixing the bridge is estimated to be $15 million, most of which will likely be covered by the federal government.
“We’re going to get this project done as fast as humanly possible,” Inslee said. “There’s no more important issue right now, to the economy, to the state of Washington frankly, than getting this bridge up and running.”
The plan calls for installing a temporary replacement made out of steel girders. It would have four lanes like the current bridge, but it would be narrower and oversized loads would not be allowed on it.
An oversized load is what’s being blamed for the collapse, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The agency was on site shortly after the accident and is continuing to investigate the incident.
NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman said the bridge had a history of being hit by oversized loads. Before last week’s collision, the most recent incident happened last October.
The bridge is believed to have collapsed last week after a truck hit one of the overhead girders. The truck was in the right lane and Hersman indicated it could have crossed safely if it had been traveling under the center of the bridge where there is more clearance.
“If this vehicle had been traveling in the left lane, we likely would not have seen the bridge strikes that we saw, but we need to take measurements all the way through,” she said.
The truck was led by a pilot car that was equipped with a measuring device and was supposed to alert the truck if it reached a space that was too small for the oversized load. Some witnesses said they saw the pilot car’s measuring pole hit the bridge -- suggesting that the car’s driver should have known the bridge was too short for the truck. But Hersman said they’re still gathering evidence.
“There are a lot of statements that are going to be put out there. Some of those statements might be conflicting. That is not unusual in our investigations,” she said. The NTSB is planning to talk to witnesses and the driver of the pilot car.
Governor Inslee used the incident to talk about the importance of maintaining roads and bridges. He called on state lawmakers to pass legislation that would increase transportation spending. “We were lucky not to have loss of life here. We don’t know if we’ll be that lucky next time. So we need to get together and have a bipartisan solution. I hope we’ll do that this year,” he said.
The governor also used the opportunity to talk about the local economy. He said tourists should not be concerned about driving through the area on their way to the San Juan islands. He also made an appeal for people to shop in Skagit County; an appeal that was directed across the state and across the border.
“I talked to Canadians through their radio a few days ago, urging them to continue doing their great shopping in these great malls in Burlington,” he said.
Chris MacKenzie was one of those Canadians visiting to do a little bit of shopping. He said he had no problem driving down because he took back roads. But he sympathized with the locals who will have to deal with traffic headaches through their rural towns. “It’s going to suck for the community around here. But hopefully they’ll get a temporary up,” he said.
Before the temporary replacement goes up, the state will need to inspect the remaining part of the bridge to make sure it can handle the replacement. Workers will also need to make repairs to other damaged parts of the bridge, damage that is still visible several hundred feet away.