‘Living on borrowed time’: Washington, US bridges need repair, replacement

Mar 26, 2024, 8:44 PM | Updated: 8:50 pm

Photo: A hole in the West Seattle off-ramp to SR 99....

A hole in the West Seattle off-ramp to SR 99. (Photo: Kate Stone, KIRO Newsradio)

(Photo: Kate Stone, KIRO Newsradio)

The state of Washington has around 7,300 bridges. And there certainly have been some disasters over the years.

But University of Washington Civil Engineer John Stanton told KIRO Newsradio the state has a limited number of bridges that could be vulnerable to what happened to the Francis Scott Key Bridge that collapsed in Baltimore early Tuesday.

“The kind of great majority of our bridges, think of the West Seattle Bridge, despite all its other problems, is high enough that a ship is not gonna hit the deck of that. We’ve got a pretty limited number of bridges which might be vulnerable to that kind of thing,” Stanton said.

Previous coverage: Baltimore bridge collapses after powerless cargo ship rams into support column; 6 presumed dead

With that said, Stanton said nationally, the need to repair — and replace — bridges is quite high.

“We are seriously living on borrowed time in terms of repairing and maintaining our bridges and replacing them because many of them are just old,” Stanton said to KIRO Newsradio. “But, basically, the funds are not there to replace them all.”

Tuesday’s bridge collapse in Maryland is sure to create a logistical nightmare along the East Coast for months, if not years, shutting down ship traffic at the Port of Baltimore, a major hub. The loss of the bridge will also snarl cargo and commuter traffic.

“Losing this bridge will devastate the entire area, as well as the entire East Coast,” Maryland State Sen. Johnny Ray Salling said, according to The Associated Press.

Jack and Spike: A Baltimorean’s view on the Key Bridge collapse

Over 200 Washington bridges are in ‘poor condition’

Of the 7,300 or so bridges in Washington, 213 of them — or about 3% — are in “poor condition,” according to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). (A Microsoft Excel file with the list of bridges in poor condition can be downloaded and viewed here.)

The agency categorizes bridges in poor condition when there are advanced issues, “such as section loss, deterioration, cracking, spalling, scour or seriously affected primary structural components,” according to its website.

Bridges in poor condition may also have truck weight restrictions posted.

The county with the most bridges in poor condition is Kittitas County, with 25. Following that is King County with 22 bridges.

However, WSDOT said “poor condition” does not mean the bridge is unsafe for travelers or in danger of collapsing.

“The actual number of bridges in ‘poor’ condition varies as work is completed and bridges are inspected,” the WSDOT website states. “Depending on inspection schedule timing, a bridge with completed work may remain on the list until the next inspection is completed. The list is updated twice a year, in January and July.”

WSDOT says most bridges are inspected every two years.

Bridge preservation work includes “bridge seismic retrofit, repairs and rehabilitation, steel bridge painting, concrete deck rehabilitation, scour mitigation and bridge replacement.

Bridge disasters in Washington: Baltimore bridge collapse reminds Washingtonians of past disasters

And although transportation departments work hard to prevent disaster, some things can slip through the cracks.

Expert: Limited vulnerability for Washington bridges

Stanton explained to KIRO Newsradio bridges built over shipping waterways have better protections, especially for ships that head off course.

“In a lot of bridges it is arranged that the ship will hit something very solid typically underwater or just below the surface of the water before it hits the bridge itself,” Stanton said.

He added that, these days, when new bridges are built over shipping waterways, there is often a giant fence around the piers of solid material underwater to prevent an out-of-control ship from hitting the bridge.

Stanton did detail one significant bridge that may see trouble if a ship were to hit it the way one hit the Key Bridge in Baltimore.

“If you think of the Astoria bridge over the Columbia River, that would be an example of a big steel bridge over water. Some of its piers the vertical support, those are in the water and therefore vulnerable to ships,” he said.

Contributing: Chris Martin, KIRO Newsradio; Steve Coogan, MyNorthwest; The Associated Press

Julia Dallas is a content editor at MyNorthwest. You can read her stories here. Follow Julia on X, formerly known as Twitter, here and email her here.

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‘Living on borrowed time’: Washington, US bridges need repair, replacement