On Monday morning, Sen. Tracey Eide told a crowd gathered for a transportation rally how “scary” it feels to walk across the Columbia River Crossing — something she did once, and would never do again.
Four days later, a span of the Interstate 5 bridge over Skagit River collapsed into the water below.
Eide immediately thought of the Columbia River Crossing. “Then I heard it was the Skagit bridge and that wasn’t even on our radar,” said Eide, who co-chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.
The bridge collapse comes in the middle of debate over a proposed transportation funding package backed by many Democrats. The proposal would raise gas taxes by 10 cents to pay for a number of major projects, including the controversial Columbia River Crossing bridge between Portland and Vancouver.
“I would hope that naysayers see how important it is that we have a revenue package,” Eide said on Friday.
“This weekend people will be going over bridges and they’ll be wondering, ‘Is this bridge safe?’ I think about how horrible it could have been if the bridge was over a deep body of water with more traffic,” Eide said.
House Transportation Committee chair Rep. Judy Clibborn said Friday that lawmakers are continuing to work on the tax package, and there’s a possibility it could end up on the ballot for voters to decide.
“In a sense, this has raised that issue up in the eyes of people and they can see what we’re talking about,” she said. “People really do support bridges. There’s something about bridges that’s universal.”
Clibborn said it also underscored concerns about the Columbia River Crossing. The Skagit bridge was built in 1955. The bridge over the Columbia River “was built in 1917 on wooden pilings in a river,” she said.
But three Republicans from the district just north of the Skagit bridge say that the accident isn’t a reason to raise taxes.
“Some lawmakers in Olympia have been calling for increases in the gas tax and other transportation fees to fund highway and transit projects. We expect that many will use this event to try to further their cause,” said Sen. Doug Ericksen, Rep. Vincent Buys and Rep. Jason Overstreet in a joint statement.
The GOP legislators say that any transportation package must include “comprehensive reform of how we build transportation projects and how much we pay for them.”
Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, is an opponent of the Columbia River Crossing. She told The Columbian on Friday that the situation wasn’t comparable because the Skagit bridge was hit by a truck and didn’t “randomly fall into the river.”
On Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency in Skagit, Snohomish and Whatcom counties. He estimated bridge repairs would cost $15 million.
Clibborn said the state can pay for the cost of the repairs out of its emergency budget, and she expects the federal government to reimburse the state for much of the cost.
The federal government has so far pledged $1 million in emergency assistance. “That money is going to come in handy,” Inslee said at press conference.
State Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson said at the same press conference the state has “no intent at this time to rebuild the whole bridge.” She said the Skagit bridge had a sufficiency rating of 47 out of 100.
“There are a lot of bridges with lower rating that are actually a higher priority to replace because of seismic activity and age, including the Columbia River Crossing which is maintained by Oregon and doesn’t turn up in our assessments,” Peterson said.
Officials are looking at using a portable bridge structure known as a “Bailey Bridge” as a temporary fix to the Skagit bridge, which could take weeks to set up. If that’s not feasible, Inslee said repairs may take months.
Inslee said an investigation into the bridge collapse is ongoing, and “we’re going to do everything we can to learn if there are any lessons…one lesson we should know is that we want to discourage drivers from crashing their trucks into state bridges.”