Let’s learn from the Skagit River Bridge replacement | Don Brunell

The news these days is filled with stories about Big Bertha, the stalled Seattle waterfront drilling machine, and the cracks in the pontoons of the new SR 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington.

The news these days is filled with stories about Big Bertha, the stalled Seattle waterfront drilling machine, and the cracks in the pontoons of the new SR 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington.

You might wonder if Washington’s Department of Transportation (DOT) is doing anything right.

They are.

For example, the replacement of the collapsed I-5 bridge across the Skagit River between Mount Vernon and Burlington is an example of how DOT engineers and private contractors can move quickly to design and complete a major transportation project with minimal traffic disruption.

Here’s what happened.

On May 23, 2013, just after the evening rush hour, a semi-truck carrying an oversized load of oil drilling equipment slammed into the supports of the 58-year old bridge. About a third of the four-lane bridge plunged into the river. Two vehicles fell into the water, but the three people in those cars were rescued by boaters. Miraculously no one was seriously injured.

State transportation officials went to work almost immediately.

Traffic engineers worked through the night on detour routes through the streets of Burlington and Mount Vernon for the 71,000 vehicles that use the bridge daily.  Within 24 hours, a contractor was hired under an emergency contract to remove the collapsed span, and began working with WSDOT engineers to install a temporary span to get the interstate back open. The temporary span was up and operating by June 19.

On June 18, the state awarded a $6.87 million contract to Max J. Kuney Construction of Spokane, one of our state’s oldest and most respected contractors, to design and build a permanent replacement span. The design was completed on July 9 and construction began three days later.  The replacement bridge was built alongside the temporary span without interrupting traffic, and moved into place during an overnight closure on Sept. 14–15, 2013.

The Skagit River bridge replacement is an example of how things can get done quickly and effectively.   Yes, this was an emergency and we cannot expect that breakneck pace on a regular basis.  But surely there is something we can learn from this extraordinarily successful project – something lawmakers and elected officials can use to reduce the protracted delays that cost motorists and taxpayers billions.

Traditionally, major transportation projects in Washington seem like a bureaucratic blood sport.  They spark months or years of criticism, accusations, public hearings and debate from all sides. We call that “input.” On occasion, people who don’t get their way file lawsuits, causing further delays. That’s followed by months or years more of design and permit review.  We call that “process.”

There must be a better way.  Of course, public input is important, but there comes a time when we have to stop talking and get moving.  Endless “process” needlessly runs up the costs of these projects, and hinders transportation improvements that bring environmental and economic benefits.

Lawmakers, state transportation officials and private contractors should come together to analyze what made the replacement of the Skagit Ridge Bridge such a resounding success.  Then they should identify ways to translate that success to everyday transportation projects around the state – whether by streamlining permits, utilizing the faster “design and build” construction process, or expediting regulatory reviews.

The Skagit River Bridge project was a stunning success.  Let’s learn from it.  Let’s make it possible to have successes like that every day of the week.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.  He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

More in Business

Remember 1993

Twenty-five years ago, business took a beating in Olympia. The swing to the left in the 1992 general election was swift and potent. It drove higher costs to employers and more government regulations.

Rural prosperity essential to Washington

While Seattle is growing rapidly, our rural areas continue to struggle. They don’t have the corporate giants such as Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing creating jobs and economic opportunities. Farms are predominantly family-owned.

Amazon’s plan reminiscent Boeing’s Chicago move

Last year, Seattle Times aerospace reporter Dominic Gates wrote about the similarities and differences between Boeing’s corporate office move to Chicago and Amazon’s plan for a second headquarters.

LiveLocal98022 meeting cancelled

Bob Green, the night’s speaker, notified the organization he couldn’t attend due to an illness.

Expanded Panama Canal among challenges for Washington Ports

The $5.4 billion spent to expand the Panama Canal is paying off for East Coast and Gulf of Mexico seaports; however, it is putting more pressure on the Northwest to remain competitive.

Players taking a knee hurting the NFL | Don Brunell

On a recent Saturday afternoon in Portland, a young woman stepped onto the playing field at the beginning of the University of Montana vs Portland State football game and started singing our national anthem. She immediately drew a blank on the words and briefly stopped, but as she started apologizing, the fans spontaneously took up the singing.

New metal collecting machine may clean up contaminated waters

There is a new machine being tested in Montana which could decontaminate toxic mine tailings while recovering valuable precious minerals for everyday use.

Workshop will focus on business, social media

All are invited to learn how social media can impact business and how it can be used to create a positive experience for customers.

Impact of Hirst decision must be address

In Washington, the legislative stalemate over permitting new household wells and the state’s construction budget has not only delayed needed funding for public projects, but triggered yet another salvo in the wider conflict over future supplies of fresh water for people, fish and farms.

Mitigate massive wildfire danger | Don Brunell

At last count firefighters were battling 82 major wildfires in 10 western states. The fires have already scorched 2,300 square miles of forests and range lands, dislocated thousands of people, and burned hundreds of homes and buildings.

Silver linings to Hurricane Harvey | Don Brunell

All of the things that went wrong in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, appear to have been corrected with Houston’s recent Hurricane Harvey. Chalk it up to a series of important lessons learned.

Workshops aim to help small business owners and startups | Pierce County Library System

Pierce County Library System, in partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), is offering two workshops to help entrepreneurs start and grow a successful business as well as share tips to advance existing small businesses.