Advocates call for increased funding after Washington bridge collapse

The collapse of a bridge in Washington state late Thursday shows the need for Congress to approve more transportation funding, road and transit advocates said Friday.

No deaths were reported when a portion of I-5 in Washington collapsed on Thursday after a truck hit one of its overhead support structures, sending cars into the Skagit River. But advocates said it points to the need for Congress to repair the nation's aging infrastructure.

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“The shocking collapse of a busy Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington State highlights the issue of our country’s aging bridges and what we’re doing to address them," the Transportation For America (T4A) group said in a statement.

"Nationwide, more than one in ten bridges is rated structurally deficient, in need of close monitoring, urgent repairs, rehabilitation or replacement," T4A continued. "We take more than 260 million trips over deficient bridges each day. In just our 102 largest metro areas alone, there are more deficient bridges than there are McDonald’s restaurants in the entire country, 18,000 versus 14,000." 

The Washington state bridge was not on the list of "structurally deficient" structures that is maintained by the Department of Transportation, but advocates say it is a reminder that even after a deadly 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis, work needs to be done.

"The collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington state serves as another urgent reminder that America's aging infrastructure was built, at best, for another era and, at worst, can pose a danger to our citizens," U.S. Travel Association President Roger Dow said in a statement. "While many believed the tragic 2007 collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis was a national wake-up call, six years later critical investments are still needed to modernize our infrastructure."

Some lawmakers joined the fray as well on Friday, arguing that the Washington bridge collapse showed why transportation projects needed to receive more funding.  

“Last night’s collapse of a section of the I-5 bridge in Washington State is a frightening reminder of the critical state of our nation’s infrastructure," Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.

"We are thankful that no one was killed, but an incident like this should never be acceptable in this nation," Higgins continued. “The truth is, we have no one to blame but ourselves for a long-standing lack of sufficient investment in our nation’s infrastructure right here at home. The perilous state of the I-5 bridge was already known – it had been deemed fracture critical and functionally obsolete. And sadly, this is among one of an alarming number of bridges across our nation in a degrading condition."  

However, Eno Center for Transportation President Joshua Schank said it was unlikely that the Washington incident would convince Congress to work to increase transportation funding.

He pointed to similar claims that were made after the 2007 bridge collapse in Minnesota, which killed 13 people and injured 145.

"That was an actual collapse, with tragedy and horribleness. There was a structural flaw," he said.

By comparison, Schank said the Washington collapse appeared to be a freak accident in which no one was killed.

"I know it sounds horrible, but people react more emotionally when there's tragedy," he said.

Schank said it was unlikely that any one infrastructure mishap would change the debate over transportation funding in Congress. He cited recent examples involving increased gun regulations after the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting and the fights over emergency relief funding after Hurricane Sandy and the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma.

"I don't think any singular event is going to spur Congress," Schank said. "You had huge events in Newtown and with [Hurricane] Sandy that involved doing things that were a lot easier [politically] than raising taxes and nothing happened."

For it's part, T4A said Friday that if Congress does not increase transportation, it could at least undo changes it made to the funding mechanism for bridge repairs in the last transportation bill that was approved in 2012.

"Considering that progress on repairing deficient bridges has slowed in the last ten years, Congress took a major gamble in last summer’s new transportation law (MAP-21) by eliminating dedicated funding for repairing highway bridges," T4A said. "Now bridge repair is forced to compete with other transportation needs for funding.

"At the same time, our chief source of repair dollars – the federal gas tax – is declining as Americans drive more fuel-efficient cars and fewer miles," the association continued. "Congress urgently needs to address both our funding priorities and how we will pay for them in the face of an aging system and growing population, before the next preventable bridge collapse strands commuters, cripples a local economy and claims lives.”

-This article was updated with new information at 3:26 p.m.