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.


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