More than 210 bridges in Washington are in ‘poor condition,’ WSDOT data shows

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The collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore early Tuesday morning is raising questions about bridges in Washington state. According to the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT), the state inspects approximately 7,300 bridges on state, city and county road systems.

Most bridges in Washington are inspected every two years to ensure they are in good working order. Those inspections, per the WSDOT, also help prioritize maintenance work.

The bridge in Baltimore collapsed after one of its columns was rammed by the Dali, a massive cargo ship. The bridge buckled after impact and crashed into the Patapsco River. Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said as many as 20 people and several vehicles had fallen into the river, and a tractor-trailer was on the bridge when the cargo vessel hit a support pillar.

Investigators will determine if the cargo ship is solely to blame and whether the bridge’s condition was a contributing factor.

The most recent significant bridge collapse in Washington state was 11 years ago on May 23, 2013, when the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River collapsed.

PHOTOS: A look at the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse in Baltimore

Three people and two vehicles fell into the Skagit River when the bridge, which connects Mount Vernon to Burlington, collapsed. The people were rescued and suffered minor injuries.

A truck hit the bridge in Mount Vernon – the truck’s tall load hit the overhead truss on the right side of the bridge. The driver had said he had to get out of the center lane with higher clearance to avoid a truck.

According to WSDOT’s website, the state inspects about 7,300 bridges a year and categorizes them by condition. The condition scale is good, fair and poor:

  • Good: A range from no problems to some minor deterioration of structural elements.
  • Fair: All primary structural elements are sound but may have deficiencies such as minor section loss, deterioration, cracking, spalling or scour.
  • Poor: Advanced deficiencies such as section loss, deterioration, cracking, spalling, scour, or seriously affected primary structural components. Bridges rated in poor condition may be posted with truck weight restrictions. Poor is the Federal Highway Administration’s new rating term for bridges previously described as “structurally deficient.”

According to WSDOT data last updated in June 2023, there are 213 bridges listed in poor condition in Washington, which is about 2.9% of all the bridges inspected by the WSDOT. Twenty-one of the bridges rated as “poor” are in King County.

The WSDOT stressed that even if a bridge is listed in “poor condition” it is still safe to drive over. The state said if it’s not safe, the bridge would be closed to traffic so the necessary repairs could be made or closed permanently if deemed necessary.

“The poor bridges in our state are safe to cross,” said WSDOT’s State Bridge Engineer Evan Grimm. “We do close structures anytime there is a safety concern and we will close a lane or an entire bridge.”

ALSO SEE | Engineering experts explain why Baltimore bridge collapsed after being hit by ship

A WSDOT spokesperson told KOMO News that crews are not above putting a restriction on a bridge, reducing a lane of traffic, dropping the speed limit or closing a bridge. Currently, the I-90 floating bridge’s right lane is closed due to an expansion joint issue so that crews can make repairs.

In the event of a “bridge strike,” like what happened in Baltimore, the WSDOT has a specialty bridge crew that inspects those bridges and inspections can result in a closure if deemed necessary.

“We do have bridges that are steel trusses like that over water and inevitable channels, so we do have similar risks to our structures,” Grimm told KOMO News.

When it comes to large vehicles and equipment, those require special permits to cross spans. A WSDOT spokesperson said adhering to those permitting requirements is an important piece of the safety system.

When asked what keeps him up at night regarding the state of Washington bridges, Grimm said, “It’s the long-term concerns that keep me up at night, that we have been going for years with underfunded preservation and maintenance program throughout the state of Washington. Because we have been underfunded for so long we are more reactive and chase after different challenges as they came up.”

Click here to see the list of Washington bridges categorized in “poor condition.”

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