Skagit bridge collapse will mean headaches for Whatcom County, Canada commerce

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 25, 2013 

The broken Skagit River bridge on Interstate 5 is already disrupting commerce in the Pacific Northwest, with travel delays of more than an hour at midday Friday, May 24, near the area of the collapse.

For the trucking and transportation industries, dealing with a disconnected I-5 is a big deal. It's estimated that 600,000 truck trips are made south from Canada through the Whatcom County border crossings each year, with 70 percent of that traffic heading south of the Skagit bridge, said Don Alper, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University.

It's also a big deal for the northbound truck traffic, with about 500,000 truck trips annually through the border crossings into Canada. That's between $10 billion and $12 billion in commerce flowing in either direction, Alper said.

It's difficult to assess what Thursday's collapse will mean to local truck traffic without knowing how long repairs will take. If the repairs take a long time and the traffic around the Skagit bridge becomes a major problem, Alper said companies in Canada may look into rerouting trucks through the east side of the mountains. Shipping containers coming from Asia also could be diverted to the Port of Vancouver rather than the Port of Seattle.

This situation is one local companies are watching closely. In the early morning hours after the bridge collapse traffic on alternate routes wasn't bad, but it worsened as the day wore on, said Lex Ludtke of Bellingham-based Ludtke Pacific Trucking. The company regularly has trucks traveling south, and is looking at ways to adjust, whether that means taking different routes or leaving earlier in the day.

"It's such a crucial road for commerce, so they will have to find a way to keep it open," Ludtke said. Detours allow access but take up precious, and costly, time, he said.

For other businesses, the delay isn't expected to cause big problems beyond later deliveries. Haggen grocery stores haven't had deliveries interrupted as a result of the bridge collapse yet, said Helen Neville, vice president of marketing for the Bellingham-based company.

"We think delays will be minimal," Neville said. "We'll know more in the coming days."

Darigold spokeswoman Michelle Carter said massive traffic slowdowns on I-5 would create delays and increase costs for milk producers, transporters and processors but that as of Friday, no significant disruptions were expected. The farm cooperative has a major milk powder facility in Lynden that processes and markets most of Whatcom County's dairy production.

Carter said as far as she knows, Whatcom County dairies still will be able to move their daily product to market, and there will be no effect on supplies at supermarkets.

GAS PRICES NOT EXPECTED TO SPIKE

Industry experts also believe the bridge collapse would not have a major impact on Whatcom County gas prices.

Tim Hamilton, executive director of the Automotive United Trades Organization, said in an email that with the way the infrastructure is set up in this region, Whatcom and Skagit County gas stations should continue to receive deliveries without much delay.

Nearly all of the Puget Sound refineries are north of the bridge, and fuel produced at those refineries is loaded on trucks for delivery to stations in this area. Fuel from those refineries also is transported to truck-loading terminals farther south in Seattle and Renton through pipelines.

The fuel historically hauled from Seattle back up north of the bridge is not significant in volume, Hamilton said. He also expects that a decrease in consumption locally as travelers seek to avoid the traffic problems should balance out the expected drop in volume from the south.

Midday wholesale gas prices in the Pacific Northwest were actually down slightly Friday, May 24, said Dave Overstreet of AAA Washington. He said it's possible that fewer people will travel over the Memorial Day holiday because of the potential traffic mess, which would further reduce demand.

POTENTIAL BOOST POSSIBLE WITH CANADIAN TOURISM

While the bridge collapse will mean plenty of headaches and adjustments in the coming months, Whatcom County may see one silver lining: more tourists from Canada.

The collapse came right before the kickoff of the traditional tourism season. With the Canadian dollar remaining strong, it was expected that many British Columbia residents would venture into the U.S. for vacations and day-trips.

The bridge closure may change some travel habits, however, with some residents choosing to venture into Whatcom County and not farther south to Seattle, said Loni Rahm, president and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism.

"I think we're going to see some positive and negative impacts," said Rahm, noting that Whatcom County may capture some of that Canadian business from people who go to the local shopping malls rather than make the trip to Seattle. But the bridge closure may mean fewer people visiting Whatcom County from the Seattle area.

The reaction of Canadians to the bridge collapse and potential traffic delays could be significant to the local tourism industry. Recent surveys have shown about 50 percent of passenger trips going south through the four Whatcom County border crossings (excluding the Point Roberts crossing) intend to travel south of the collapsed bridge, said Alper of the Border Policy Research Institute.

"I think it could be a case where Bellingham benefits in an odd way if Canadians decide to do more shopping and recreating in this area," he said.

Rahm said callers already have been asking about travel route alternatives.

"My first concern was making sure it's clear to our international travelers who aren't familiar with the area," Rahm said.

The next step they've taken is printing out maps with the alternative travel routes; those are being distributed at the local visitor stands, she said. After that, further steps may be taken if the alternative routes remain confusing to travelers.

"At this point I think convenience is the biggest factor, with a delay of 15 to 20 minutes being the best case," Rahm said.

Reach Business Editor Dave Gallagher at dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com or 360-715-2269. Read his Business blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/business or get updates on Twitter at @bhamheraldbiz.

Reach Business Editor Dave Gallagher at 360-715-2269 or dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com. Read his business blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/business or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldbiz.

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