The Skagit River Bridge and our Transportation Priorities

By Mara Gross of Portland, Oregon. Mara is the Interim Executive Director of the Coalition for a Livable Future, an organization that unites a diverse array of organizations and individuals to promote healthy, equitable, and sustainable communities in the Portland-Vancouver region.

A few days ago, the Skagit River I-5 bridge in northern Washington collapsed. While emergency responders were looking for survivors (everyone survived, fortunately) and engineers were looking for causes (an oversized truck hit a girder), it took less than two hours for the collapse to be used as a justification for building the Columbia River Crossing.

Reality check: The CRC is not primarily a bridge project (the bridge is only about a quarter of the cost), and the Interstate Bridge is structurally sound. But the bridge collapse offers an important reminder.

We’re spending too much on new highway projects, while letting what we’ve built fall apart.

Washington and Oregon have real transportation needs. We have hundreds of bridges that need to be shored up, thousands of miles of roads that need to be repaired, and incomplete, unsafe transportation networks for people who need or want to walk, bike or take transit to get around, all while our transportation system is adding to climate pollution and chronic health problems.

Despite those needs, the Oregon legislature funded a massive highway expansion by gutting its own transportation budget, while Washington’s legislature is considering a transportation package that significantly expands highways while doing little to address the state’s transportation problems. Former Washington Secretary of Transportation Doug MacDonald explained in “Trans-poor-tation: Olympia's $8.4 billion fail”:

[The Washington transportation package is] a prescription for further, unavoidable and accelerating decay of the current transportation system, effectively guaranteeing more crumbling roads and huge future costs for eventually setting things right.

In poll after poll, the public says their top priorities are safety, maintaining what we have, and creating complete transportation choices. Smart analysts have drawn up lists of what we should fund given those priorities. Then why do Salem, Olympia, and Washington, DC keep building new highway expansions instead?

McClatchy newspapers did a series on this dynamic, “U.S. keeps building new highways while letting old ones crumble.” McClatchy called it “a politically-driven road building binge”:

[F]ederal government analysts, taxpayer advocates and transportation experts have warned for at least a decade that many states were spending too much on building highways and too little on fixing them, and that their maintenance costs would skyrocket if they didn’t change course.

Washington legislators are proposing spending billions of dollars for road expansions like the 509, 167, North-South Spokane Highway, and Columbia River Crossing. They’re being bold enough to boost gas taxes by a dime, but are committing the lion’s share of new revenue to the public’s lowest priority: 66% of the funds go to highway expansion, while only 12% goes to maintenance.

We’ve already spent over $170 million planning the huge CRC highway expansion, and backers hope we’ll spend another $3 billion. The 509, 167, and North-South Spokane highway all repeat the story: spending billions and billions of precious dollars to expand politically-driven highways while our critical needs go unmet.

America has over 68,000 structurally deficient bridges, including hundreds in Oregon and Washington.

The bridge collapse is a clarion call to focus on our real priorities: safety, maintenance and options.

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