The Seattle Times editorial board is both right and wrong in its assessment of state transportation spending in the wake of the I-5 Skagit River bridge collapse. Right in its call to prioritize spending more on "infrastructure maintenance" and less on "sexy new projects," but wrong in its narrow definition of "infrastructure maintenance."
Immediately, some politicians began to suggest the collapse of the 165-foot span over the Skagit River was a case study on the cost of deferred infrastructure maintenance.
But that narrative does not seem to fit the facts. Instead, the collapse, as described by state officials, suggests an obsolete bridge design exploited by a freak accident.
By all means, Olympia should focus on repairing or replacing our 135 "structurally deficient" state bridges first. Those pose the most immediate threat to public safety and commerce. But even a well-maintained "functionally obsolete" bridge (as the Skagit River span was officially designated) should be beneath the standards of Washington State. Far from a "freak accident," a WSDOT report finds that the bridge had previously suffered a number of "high load hits," with at least eight sections where the steel was bent or dented by hard hits from trucks carrying loads too tall to clear the bridge.
Should replacing a 58-year-old structurally sufficient—but functionally obsolete—bridge like the Skagit River span be considered a sexy new project? I don't think so. But either way, it would be a mistake to lose sight of our transportation infrastructure as a whole for the sake of focusing on individual structures. Even a writer at the car-hating Stranger will admit that sometimes expanding capacity can be just as critical to maintaining public safety and commerce as maintaining the structures we already have.
But the bigger lesson to learn from the Skagit River bridge collapse is that government matters. This is a reminder of the irreplaceable role our tax dollars play in maintaining the quality of life and economic prosperity of our state. The debate the Seattle Times raises about transportation spending priorities is one well worth having, but reprioritizing alone cannot fix all our problems if there isn't enough money to go around. For there is also a strong argument to make that we are not spending enough money as a state—on roads, on bridges, on transit, on education, and on other crucial public infrastructure and services—to either meet our current needs or to prepare for the future. And it would be foolish to debate spending without debating revenue.
That is a debate I'd hope the editorial boards would welcome too.