Sunday, May 26, 2013

Skagit Bridge: Time for the Rise of the Transportation Wonks

DT provided me a very nice write up on the bridges situation with some very good background on earthquakes. As I noted in the first post, the collapse of the I-5 Skagit River bridge is giving us a small taste of what a post major quake landscape would feet like.  DT felt his write up was more appropriate on my blog as it gets into policy (one of my habits - good or bad). I made a few very minor modifications to his text and the policy part at the end is all mine.

The 'functionally obsolete' I-5 bridge over the Skagit River was toppled by a large truck. Imagine the effect of a large magnitude earthquake, which could shake a bridge for several seconds or even a couple minutes. Now, imagine dozens if not hundreds of such bridges collapsing, and the effects on regional transportation (not to mention on occupants of vehicles at the time). That is the grim scenario faced by all of us in the seismically-active Pacific Northwest and the Cascadia Subduction zone. Since this and other similar bridges were completed in the mid-1950s, the region has been relatively quiet seismically.
The bridge, built in 1955, and hundreds of other bridges of its generation in the Northwest were often designed in a manner described as fracture-critical — meaning a failure in a key location can ruin an entire span. There is little internal cohesion, and no underlying girders beneath the bridge spans.
The largest earthquake in modern times in western Washington was the magnitude (M) 7.1 Olympia earthquake in 1949. Since the Skagit bridge and its relatives were built (ca. 1955 or so) during the rush to complete I-5 the largest earthquakes have been the M6.5 Seattle-Tacoma earthquake (1965), the M5.1 Satsop earthquake (1999), and the M6.8 Nisqually earthquake (2001). Strong shaking during the 1949 Olympia earthquake lasted about 20 seconds; during the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, about 40 seconds. Since 1870, there have been six earthquakes in the Puget Sound basin with measured or estimated magnitudes of 6.0 or larger, making the quiescence from 1965 to 2001 among the longest in the region's history (WA DNR report). The energy produced in these earthquakes pales in comparison to what can be expected in a large subduction earthquake. The last big one (January 26, 1700) was estimated to be an M 9. (A magnitude 9 earthquake is on the order of 30 times more energetic than an 8.)
According to a May 24 report by Seattle Times reporters Mike Lindblom and Cheryl Phillps, "(t)here I-5 bridges in Washington State appear as “structurally deficient” in the national database: at the Stillaguamish River just north of Arlington; the Samish River south of Bellingham and north of Burlington; and the East Fork Lewis River, at Woodland in the southwester part of the state.
The Stillaguamish and East Fork bridges also are fracture-critical, steel-truss bridges. The I-5 Ship Canal Bridge in Seattle, built in 1962, has “satisfactory” or “good” ratings structurally, but is functionally obsolete because of traffic safety or capacity problems."
There are 362 fracture-critical bridges in Washington state, says the Federal Highway Administration. There are 366 bridges in the state that are structurally deficient, meaning they should be replaced, according to a recent report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The collapsed I-5 bridge rated higher than those. A third of all bridges — more than 2,800 around the state — have aged past their 50-year design lives.
“It doesn’t imply anything bad about the bridge. It just means that if a certain component fails, it can lead to the complete collapse of the bridge,” said Jugesh Kapur, former head of bridges and structures for the DOT.

Policy Implications

One aspect of this collapse will be the policy implications. Will the Skagit Bridge failure lead to changes in policy?

Over sized Loads

One policy issue that perhaps needs some review is the over site of extra large loads on our highways. Are we too permissive when it comes to what is allowed? Is the over site adequate? Clearly there are times when extra large loads should be allowed, but in this case, Was there a compelling public benefit for transporting essentially a large steel box on the entire length of Interstate 5? I was particularly struck (pun subconscious) by the frequency that bridges have been hit by large loads.

Vulnerable Bridge Syndrome

Outside of the oversize load issue, the collapse of the bridge will be and has been raised as a wake up call regarding our transportation vulnerabilities. This issue is by no means new as noted above, The American Society of Civil Engineers has been actively advocating on the vulnerable bridge issue for some time. And State and Federal agencies have clearly recognized the problem.

The transportation wonks and those familiar with the number crunching of costs have some idea of the scale of the bridge issue. My own introduction to the problem came during my stint as a part time County Council member. The County Public Works had to dramatically shift priorities once they began evaluating bridges and began recognizing the huge cost liability the County faced. This happened in counties all over the country. Very suddenly there was a lot less money available for improvement projects. Even small, obscure bridges that had only a very localized but critical impact were eating up vast quantities of federal grant money. Indeed the question of perhaps abandoning the entire road would get asked. At the very least, one could express some regret that the original road was ever built in the first place opening areas up for development that would never otherwise have been developed.

Rapid Response Political Action

The policy issue is also very much a political issue. John Stark Post sheds a bit of light on the early rapid political positioning that took place at least locally.

From the three GOP legislators in the 42nd:

“We are committed to working in a bipartisan fashion with the governor, our fellow legislators from both sides of the aisle and our federal delegation to address the immediate need to rebuild this bridge and reopen this vital transportation corridor,” State Sen. Doug Ericksen and State Reps. Jason Overstreet and Vincent Buys said in a joint press releasze. “We will work to deliver the resources necessary to mitigate the current crisis, provide funds to rebuild the bridge and create an emergency-permitting system to get the bridge operating again in record time. 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.
“Let us be clear – any comprehensive transportation funding package in Olympia must include, and be preceded by, comprehensive reform of how we build transportation projects and how much we pay for them. Reform must come first if we are to address the many challenges that we face in our state’s transportation system. More information will emerge in the coming days with regards to comprehensive reform strategies.”

The above press release shows the impacted public that these guys are going to work hard to get this bridge fixed fast. They are taking advantage of using the opportunity to advocate for transportation reform. But, What are the reforms? A bit of a flub politically in that it is clear they have not yet formulated their ideas on reform. And they could not help but use the chance to beat the drum about permits no matter if it is relevant or not - and in this case it is of very little relevance.

The local Democrat delegation from the 40th District had their press release as well.

“This accident is a reminder that our transportation infrastructure requires ongoing investment in maintenance and upkeep. This bridge was not considered structurally unsound, but it was deemed outdated based on the type and volume of traffic it was carrying. It should raise red flags when a single oversized freight truck can disrupt an entire region’s transportation system. We need to be doing more as a state to prevent this type of disaster from happening again.
“As representatives of the 40th Legislative District, we are doing everything in our power to secure the resources, expertise and action necessary to handle the current situation and mitigate the damage to the quality of life and the economy of northwest Washington.
“Our transportation network in the North Puget Sound is inextricably linked to the ferry system. While Governor Inslee’s emergency proclamation was a positive step for getting Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties the resources that they need, it does not address our marine highways that serves the islands of San Juan County. We are pushing to have the state of emergency extended to San Juan County to ensure that the full area of the impact of is addressed.
“We also urge the Washington State Department of Transportation to consider moving an additional passenger train to the North Cascade Corridor to help those attempting to travel between Bellingham and Seattle. Increasing the frequency of rail service along this route is an immediate step that can be taken to reduce some of the congestion and mitigate the negative impacts on residents, particularly with traffic set to worsen with Memorial Day traffic.”

I have to say the Dems release is better. They too will be working hard to get the resources to fix the bridge, but they also are pushing for some short term solutions: rail and extending the emergency to San Juan County. Yes, the marine highway reference probably seems silly, but two things: San Juan County will be impacted and it is an opportunity this delegation can never miss to advocate for the islands.

Other politicians have jumped into help. And this will be one of those "disaster" tests for Governor Inslee. How fast can he get the WDOT and Federal teams to get the bridge repaired, What will be done in the short term to ease the disruption, and How rapidly will a permanent solution be designed and implemented?

Political Rewards and Punishment

As noted, there is a political aspect to disasters that are or should be well understood by any politician. This type of event has been studied - think Hurricane Katrina as one example or more locally the snow storm that took out Seattle Mayor Nichols.

But what about the long-term political consequences. The "let's be prepared" approach to transportation vulnerability which is at the heart of DT's assessment of seismic risk consequences. The 42nd GOP suggest reform, but as noted provided no specifics regarding fixing the vulnerable bridge syndrome. Will that reform include added funding to move the very costly bridge replacement projects forward? Or Will it be a shift in funding away from other projects?

Healy and Malhotra (2009) shed some light on this matter. They evaluated the political rewards for fixing disasters and the lack of rewards for spending to minimize disasters. A state where voters routinely vote for Tim Eyman initiatives (Eyman is a anti tax crusader), suggests that extra spending to fix bridges before they collapse will not be rewarded.

There are two approaches for avoiding naming non bridges after Tim Eyman. One is to raise transportation taxes. Perhaps that can be done is some sort of new way that will be fairer and more reformed minded than across the board increase - which means ignoring Eyman. Or, we can accept Eyman and be much more honest about priorities and building economic development support infrastructure in our communities. Claiming permit reform and efficiency is not an honest assessment of the costs that go into transportation projects and should be ignored or ridiculed as ignorant or dishonest.

Perhaps this bridge collapse will lead to the rise of the transportation policy wonks and a new golden age in transportation in Washington State.

Thanks again to DT at


Geoff said...

Disaster are the 21st century pork delivery instigators, and disaster reaction organizations (fed/state/local) are the delivery systems. It used to be federal largesse was enabled by the military bases or products delivered to constituents, but now it is our government response to disasters. Government should be the institutions that allows us to manage and respond to risk, because we all face it in some form or another. That is a proper role, but the "tribal" ideologues don't see it that way. Tim Eyman is there poster boy. I always think of the book "Rising Tide" to visualize how we reacted to risk (disaster, which was primarily human caused) in the 1920's. The institutional response was racist, narrowly political and ineffective, and it didn't have 24/7 coverage: just Hearst newspapers. Yes, let's see how the T-wonks really work the problem, as we await the "big one".

Eric B said...

A minor correction that only supports your point more: A M9 earthquake is 30-32 times more energetic than a M8, etc. The amplitude of the largest wave goes up by a factor of 10 in the Ml (aka Richter) scale, but the energy to do that increases more rapidly.

Dan McShane said...

Thanks for catching that Eric. I made a correction to the text.
Geoff: In typing up the policy section I considered going into that subject of disaster spending - it has sky rocketed as I am guessing you are more aware than most.

Geoff said...

Yes, it has skyrocketed since Katrina but it brings federal programs right back to people who need them. Is it a perfect allocation system, no. But's its better than doing nothing, or doing harm, like in Rising Tide. Plus still better than building jets, tanks or maintaining outdated military bases where the largesse goes to more corporate centers and interest than to people.