Bridge collapse serves as reminder of infrastructure problems nationwide


A view of the collapsed I-5 bridge. (Rick Lund/Seattle Times via AP)

The collapse of a bridge segment in Washington state dumped people and vehicles into the Skagit River Thursday and could cost the state $15 million to repair. And even though authorities said a large truck was likely to blame, in the initial period after the collapse, it brought to mind the decaying state of bridges and other infrastructure across the country.

This problem impacts tens of thousands of bridges as well as water systems, airports, the power grid and ports. The Post’s Ashley Halsey III has repeatedly reported on these problems over the years, documenting the deterioration of systems, services and structures that are showing their age after decades of wear and tear.

A 2011 report issued by the group Transportation for America found that 70,000 bridges nationwide were rated as structurally deficient by federal, state and local agencies. That included the Key Bridge, Memorial Bridge and 14th Street Bridge, three of the five major bridges used to get in and out of Washington.

The report was assembled using data from the Federal Highway Administration. As Halsey wrote at the time:

The FHWA says that bridges are considered structurally deficient if significant load-carrying elements need repair. Rating a bridge deficient does not imply that it is likely to collapse or that it is unsafe, but that it might need closer monitoring or more frequent inspections.

This problem can be seen rather acutely in the local bridges that badly need repairs. Take the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, which runs over the Anacostia River. Engineers say it is falling apart faster than repairs can be made. As Halsey wrote in December:

Now and then, a chunk of concrete shakes loose from the bridge’s underside and plops into the river, but mostly it is quiet corrosion that has eaten holes through the thick steel beams that were placed six decades ago. Most are the size of a quarter or no bigger than a dollar bill, but one girder looks like something that has been gnawed on by rats, so riddled with gaping holes that no wise person would dare stand on it.

 

The bridge section collapse in Washington sent three vehicles into the water and only resulted in minor injuries, the Associated Press reports. Authorities said the collapse may have been caused when a large truck hit a portion of the bridge. The National Transportation Safety Board has dispatched a team to investigate the collapse.

This bridge, located about an hour north of Seattle, is crossed by more than 71,000 drivers each day, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Transportation for America issued a statement Friday saying that while the I-5 bridge “was not considered structurally deficient” when it collapsed, it was still one of thousands of bridges carrying more vehicles and being used longer than intended. Bridges are built to stand for about 50 years, according to Transportation for America; the I-5 bridge was reportedly built in 1955.

Roads and bridges are not alone in needing maintenance and, in some cases, replacement. The country’s water and sewer systems are out of sight, but they are aging as well, with pipes springing leaks and sewers badly needing replacing.

Just this week, traffic in downtown Washington was snarled when a sinkhole opened up at the intersection of 14th and F streets. A spokeswoman for D.C. Water told the Post that concrete fell into a brick sewer line that was built in 1897. That concrete was followed by dirt and asphalt, and the resulting hole is requiring construction work that could last through the holiday weekend.

Construction workers on the scene cited the age of the sewer line in the collapse, with one saying it was likely “just old infrastructure” that caused the sinkhole.

WATCH: A video of the bridge collapse in Washington state.

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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