Let me set the scene… We have a bridge on route 5 of the Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, built in 1955. Hmmm… Didn’t Interstate construction begin with the fed’s funding it in 1956? Yup, and a whole bunch of preexisting roads and parts of roads that sorta resembled Interstates were drafted into the system. All well and good, but after a decade or two all of those bits of freeway that weren’t up to Interstate standards should have been upgraded or replaced to meet said standards. ‘Specially since they decided to call the 99% complete Interstate System complete a couple decades ago and be done with it. And the bridge in question, too narrow and low with overhead fracture critical structural members, never met Interstate standards to begin with. Don’t help either that WADOT doesn’t seem to have too good a handle on their own bridge, with it’s vertical clearance being described as anywhere from 14′-9″ to 17’. WADOT’s solution to that problem is to put waiver language in their overdimension permits that in plain language states “we don’t know how high our clearances are, so you should measure them yourselves”. So the truckers are supposed to stand there in the middle of a busy freeway with a tape measure? The practical solution to this problem is to send a pilot car ahead with a pole slightly taller than the truck and load, which the trucking company in question did.
Which introduces our lead character, a big ‘ol chunk of a prefab drilling platform, according to the permit headed across Washington from top to bottom. Which begs the question, aren’t there big boats to move that kind of stuff? Especially given that Washington’s I-5 turf begins, is paralleled by, and ends near navigable waterways. But besides not knowing how tall a load their roads can handle, apparently WADOT is a pushover when it comes to permits, and would probably grant a permit to move the Queen Mary down I-5, as long as they paid the modest fee. And WADOT didn’t even actually issue a permit to our lead character, it was “self issued”, probably by an online program.
Now our lead character is not a bad actor… A Canadian company with a good reputation that specializes in permit loads. The driver had two decades experience, and the tractor is only three years old. Definitely not the kind of clowns that dropped a scraper off a bridge in Duluth a while back, on their way to the East Coast at twice the legal weight and hadn’t pulled a single permit!
So our lead character is boringly runnin’ southbound on I-5, with the pilot car and it’s height gauging pole clearing the bridge, no problem. Then, out of nowhere (’cause a wide load doesn’t allow much visibility behind), a faster truck insisting on passing comes up in the left lane. Our oversize lead in this tragedy moves as far right as possible, but there’s no right to move to, ’cause this is a 1955 bridge with no shoulders. So we’ve got two 12′ lanes and maybe a foot or two of “shoulder” between the retrofitted center Jersey barrier and the bridge beams… Just barely enough to allow the 8′ and change wide passing truck to clear the 16′ or so wide load, horizontally. But remember, this is a funky old through truss bridge, and the overhead beams arch downward on the right side… Maybe that 14′-9″ clearance is measured there? And there’s the rub, with our starring over 15′ tall load banging into one or more of those overhead beams. Meanwhile our passing villain appears to kept speeding right on down the road.
Looking at the pictures of our leading oversize load, the damage from this metal on metal melee appears to be little more than scraped paint. But the bridge has been sitting there gettin’ rusted and tweaked for over half a century, and the decades haven’t made it any stronger. Ever the drama queen, the poor bridge is so stressed out that she breaks apart and plunges into the icy river below. A couple of hapless motorists are crossing the bridge during this bridge equivalent of an emotional breakdown, fortunately they had a relatively soft landing and will remain bit players.
Now after a performance like that, you’d think that WADOT would get around to replacing their 1955 model bridge with something a bit more current. But Nooo… WADOT is talking about repairing their obsolete bridge! And while WADOT should be fast tracking a new 21st century bridge, getting their permit process in order, and insuring that the only highway move loads wider than a lane make is to the nearest port… Their PR flacks are workin’ overtime and I’m sure everyone’s gettin’ lawyered up!