WSDOT builds miracle bridge over Skagit

The News TribuneSeptember 19, 2013 

Onlookers watch workers Saturday prepare for the next day’s opening of the permanent I-5 repair span over the Skagit River.


If Dwight Eisenhower had needed environmental permits, he probably wouldn’t have crossed the Rhine much faster than the Washington Department of Transportation crossed the Skagit this summer.

On May 23, an oversized truck hit an undersized crossbeam on Interstate 5’s Skagit River bridge, crashing much of the structure into the river 120 feet below.

At that point, the calendar became everything. Transportation crises don’t get much bigger. The collapse had severed I-5, Washington’s north-south jugular, at a point traveled by more than 70,000 vehicles a day.

Employees were cut off from jobs, suppliers from customers, freight from destinations. People from Canada to Mexico were affected.

WSDOT’s response was magnificent. Almost immediately, it had temporary detours in place. Within days, it was assembling permits and pursuing plans to create a temporary span, a permanent replacement and a rebuild of the entire overhead support structure.

On June 3, it issued a request for bids on the permanent job. On June 18, it awarded the job to Max J. Kuney Construction of Spokane. On June 19, the 500-ton temporary bridge deck was lowered into place.

In mid-August, Kuney rolled eight concrete girders — each the weight of a space shuttle — into position under the bridge.

On Sunday, it all came together. Crews swapped out the temporary span with the new 900-ton permanent span, and the replacement bridge was open for business 66 days after the collapse. The final cost was well below the $15.6 million federal emergency grant, and the job was done more than two weeks before deadline.

There’s nothing like a sense of urgency.

WSDOT streamlined the project with a design-build approach, which lets the contractor integrate engineering with construction. Recognizing the emergency, other agencies — including the Coast Guard, Department of Ecology, Federal Highway Administration, Army Corps of Engineers — fast-tracked a plethora of environmental permits and approvals.

WSDOT is currently getting pilloried — and rightfully so — for design errors that are requiring more than $200 million in repairs to pontoons on the Highway 520 floating bridge over Lake Washington. But the Skagit bridge project shows that the department is capable of extreme competency in a pinch.

Can WSDOT — and other federal and state agencies — replicate this performance? Are there lessons to be applied to non-emergency projects? Transportation money would be much easier to come by in Washington if citizens knew their tax dollars would always be spent with so much efficiency and success.

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