Every day, millions of us travel over one of 366 structurally-deficient bridges in Washington.  These structurally-deficient bridges are in need of rehabilitation or replacement because at least one major component is in poor condition.  Of those structurally-deficient bridges, about 50 are fracture critical, which means that failure of one component could collapse the entire bridge (i.e. there is no redundancy in case of a failure).  A list of structurally-deficient bridges owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation (“WSDOT”) is available here.

One of Washington’s fracture-critical bridges recently made national news.  On May 23, 2013, a truck carrying an oversized load collided with the fracture-critical I-5 bridge over the Skagit River near Mount Vernon.  Our blog post provides a good account of the aftermath of the collapse.  Luckily, no one was seriously injured.  Although WSDOT was monitoring deck deterioration and the bridge was listed as functionally obsolete before its collapse, it was apparently not prioritized for rehabilitation or replacement.

Age is a significant factor in a bridge’s deterioration and most of the nation’s bridges are “senior citizens.”  America’s bridges were built in two major eras of infrastructure spending.  In 1933, President Roosevelt put many Americans struggling with the effects of the Great Depression back to work building bridges and parkways as part of federal agencies like the Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration.  In 1956, impressed by the effectiveness of American forces’ move across the Autobahn during World War II, President Eisenhower gave life to the interstate highway system, which introduced a new era of bridge building.  At that time, however, technology did not permit computer animations to evaluate the bridge designs or contractors to use today’s stronger, more flexible steel.

Most bridges are designed to last 50 years before a major overhaul.  Considering that the average age of WSDOT bridges is 43 years and the average age of its fracture critical bridges is 56 years, it is clear that this is a long-term problem without a short-term solution.  The bridge over the east fork of the Lewis River, for example, was built in 1936 and WSDOT has imposed weight restrictions because of the age, corrosion, and metal fatigue of its superstructure.  The bridge was not built for the bigger loads and high volume of traffic that is now commonplace.  WSDOT hopes to replace this bridge in the next 10 to 15 years.

Although Washington bridges have their problems, our state ranks high nationally.  According to data from the Federal Highway Administration, 4.6% of Washington’s bridges are structurally deficient, compared with 11% nationally.  Pennsylvania tops the chart with 24.5% or a total of 5,543 bridges categorized as structurally deficient.  Plus, Washington is trending upward, having 38 fewer structurally deficient bridges than last year and a total of 17 bridge replacement projects that will be under contract by December 2013.  According to WSDOT, even those bridges that are listed as structurally deficient or fracture critical are still safe to drive.

Investing in our state’s infrastructure is not cheap.  Over the next 10 years, WSDOT has prioritized 24 bridges for rehabilitation or replacement at an estimated cost of $240 million, which is on top of the tens of millions spent on day-to-day maintenance repairs and rehabilitation of concrete overlays.  In addition, WSDOT estimates that $350 million is needed to repaint the 102 steel bridges due or past due, and a stunning $1.4 billion should be spent on seismic retrofitting all bridges.  Of course, the funding for these projects does not all come from Washington taxpayers.  On average, the federal government spends $12.8 billion each year on the nation’s bridges, plus WSDOT shares the cost of maintaining bridges bordering Oregon and Idaho with those states.


Mike Baker, King 5, Dozens of Washington bridges ‘structurally deficient’ or ‘fracture critical’, September 16, 2013, available at:  http://www.king5.com/news/local/Dozens-of-Washington-bridges-found-to-be-structurally-deficient–223941211.html.

Transportation for America, The Fix We’re In For:  The State of Our Nation’s Bridges, 2013, available at:  http://t4america.org/docs/bridgereport2013/2013BridgeReport.pdf (last visited November 7, 2013).

Washington State Department of Transportation, The Gray Notebook, Issue 50. June 30, 2013, available at:  http://wsdot.wa.gov/publications/fulltext/graynotebook/Jun13.pdf.

American Society for Civil Engineers, 2013 Report Card for American’s Infrastructure: Bridges, available at:  http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/bridges/ (last visited November 7, 2013).

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