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Our Opinion: Flawed thinking will sink I-5 bridge plan

Washington state is scrambling to reopen the crumpled Skagit River bridge on Interstate 5 as quickly as possible, with officials citing the economic impact of the bridge closure as a primary reason for swift action.

Meanwhile, the archaic Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River impedes commuter traffic and freight every day, but at present there is no certainty the Washington Legislature will come up with its share of the money to replace that particular structure.

Some supporters of the Columbia River Crossing project hope the Skagit bridge collapse last week will serve as a wakeup call to Olympia legislators about the need to replace the bridge over the Columbia. The two bridges do have some similarities, but it is the current condition of both — one has collapsed and the other is insufficient in nearly all respects — that should argue most strongly for greater investment in infrastructure both north and south of the Columbia River.

The Skagit River bridge, at age 58, was much younger than the 96-year-old span that makes up half of the current I-5 bridge over the Columbia. Plus, both bridges contain a design flaw that make them more susceptible to collapse. In the case of the Skagit bridge, the failure was triggered by a truck striking an overhead girder. Regular users of the Columbia River bridge will take note that their bridge is also “fracture critical,” but they should be equally uneasy about the bridge’s lack of seismic integrity as well as its inability to carry current traffic volumes.

The Columbia River Crossing project is hung up in the Washington Legislature because some lawmakers don’t like the light-rail portion of the project. Oregon has approved $450 million in matching funds. Unless Washington State does the same by Sept. 30, however, both states will miss the deadline to receive federal dollars. Once the deadline passes, the opportunity to proceed with this project will be gone for 10 to 20 years, possibly more.

By then, the oldest of the two Columbia River spans will exceed the century mark, carrying 21st century traffic and freight on a structure originally designed for Model Ts. That prospect should sound alarms somewhere in the Washington Legislature, for it puts the region’s economy and motorists’ safety at risk for years to come.