Bill restricting trucks' access to bridges introduced in Washington state legislature

A week after the Interstate 5 Skagit River Bridge collapse, the first bill has hit the Washington state legislature to restrict where overheight trucks may go.

Senate Bill 5944, introduced Thursday by GOP state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, would deny travel permits to a load higher or wider than the minimum clearance on its route.

On May 23, part of a drilling platform on a southbound truck struck about 10 overhead crossbeams, causing a bridge span to fall into the Skagit River. The load was estimated at 15 feet, 9 inches, but the edge of the right lane has only 15 feet, 6 inches of clearance, and even less over the right guardrail. So the truck needed to be in the left lane to cross safely.

This same bridge was dented by a truck hit last fall, and statewide there have been 59 known hits on highway bridges from 2010 to 2012, says the state Department of Transportation.

Baumgartner criticized elected officials and interest groups who point to the collapse as a reason for new gas taxes. The Skagit bridge was not earmarked for replacement in the House Democrats' $8.4 billion transportation plan this spring, nor has the Republican-controlled Senate proposed doing so. "This bridge collapse had nothing to do with gas taxes. It's just common sense that DOT shouldn't be issuing permits for trucks that are bigger than the bridges they cross," he said.

State DOT spokesman Lars Erickson said the agency hasn't had time yet to study the bill or hear from the trucking industry about possible effects.

"Would you be putting these trucks on county or city bridges, that have even more problems with them?" he asked.

Baumgartner's bill would require warning signs on bridges with less than 16 feet of clearance.

The bridge-height information is available for truckers to study when they apply online or in person for permits, Erickson said.

Jim Tutton, vice president of the Washington Trucking Association, said Thursday the whole point of the permit is to address clearance problems, and that when truckers get one, "they have to know" what the conditions are.

House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, a Democrat, said, "I've had a number of people who have told me they're writing up something."

Some ideas worth considering include requiring a pilot car behind an oversized load, having clearance signs on bridges, and even road signs before a bridge telling tall trucks to move left.

Investigators from National Transportation Safety Board are measuring the bridge, the truck and a similar load.

The NTSB says it didn't interview the pilot-car driver Wednesday as expected, and didn't say whether that happened Thursday. In other updates:

-A temporary, third Amtrak Cascades train from Seattle to Bellingham will run starting May 31. The extra run leaves Seattle at 8:15 a.m. and Bellingham at 5:15 p.m. The trains run on BNSF tracks, and the railway has made accommodations to add the temporary train, according to BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas.

-U.S. Rep. Rick Larson, D-Wash., this week told business owners and residents he has spoken with federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and it appears the federal government will pay the entire cost of a temporary roadway now being assembled onshore, and about 90 percent of the permanent, steel-girder-supported bridge span to be installed in September, using disaster-relief funds.

The state DOT might attempt to recover those costs, estimated at $15 million, from hauler Mullen Trucking of Alberta, Canada, or other parties, depending on the findings, Erickson said.