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WA Sues Trucker in Bridge Collapse

Monday, March 2, 2015

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Washington State officials are trying to recoup $17 million they spent to repair a bridge wrecked by a truck driver with an oversized load.

The state's Department of Transportation has filed a lawsuit to recover the $17 million used to rebuild the Interstate 5 bridge, which collapsed into the Skagit River on May 23, 2013.

The four-lane bridge, located about 60 miles north of Seattle, fell after an 18-wheeler carrying an oversized load rammed the span's overhead structure.

The truck was being guided by an escort vehicle equipped with a vertical clearance pole. The escort, or "pilot," car was about 350 feet ahead of the truck when the accident occurred.

5 Defendants

WSDOT's lawsuit, filed in Skagit County Superior Court, names five parties as responsible:

  • Truck driver William Scott and his employer, Mullen Trucking;
  • The escort-car driver and her employer, G&T Crawlers Service; and
  • The owner of the metal shed the truck was transporting, Saxon Energy Services Inc.
Skagit River Bridge
Photos: WSDOT

WSDOT is suing five parties for the $17 million it spent repairing the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River. The bridge collapsed in 2013 after it was struck by a truck carrying an oversized load.

Two cars and a camper-trailer fell into the river when the bridge went down, and two other vehicles were damaged.

None of the occupants was seriously hurt, although state police later blamed the collapse for the death of a state trooper who was directing traffic near the scene.

Scott's tractor-trailer did not go into the water, and he remained on the scene and cooperated with investigators. He voluntarily gave a blood sample for an alcohol test and was not arrested.

New Span in 6 Months

Opened in 1955, the I-5 bridge is a major commercial route between Washington and Canada, normally carrying about 71,000 vehicles a day. About 11 percent of the vehicles are commercial trucks transporting goods between the two countries.

The steel truss bridge was 1,112 feet long and 180 feet wide and was listed as "functionally obsolete," meaning its design was outdated. Four spans were supported by piers. The north span is the one that collapsed.

WSDOT built a replacement span within six months and upgraded the remaining spans, increasing the bridge's overhead support system to 18 feet.

The total cost for emergency repairs, installing a temporary span, building a permanent replacement and upgrading the remaining span was $19,844,383. Federal reimbursement paid for $18,733,638, according to WSDOT.

Negligent Driving Cited

The Washington State Patrol Major Accident Investigative Team cited the truck driver for negligent driving. Investigators blamed the collapse on a series of miscalculations and errors by the driver and his employer. The traffic infraction carried a $550 fine.

WSDOT

WSDOT built a replacement span within six months and upgraded the others, increasing the bridge's overhead structural support system to 18 feet. The old span was considered "functionally obsolete."

According to state investigators:

  • The truck driver did not know the accurate height of his load and received a permit for a load two inches lower than the one he carried.
     
  • The trucker failed to adequately research his route, to ensure that it could accommodate his load. Had he done so, he would have known the left southbound lane of the bridge provided adequate vertical clearance.
     
  • The escort-car driver was on the phone when she crossed the bridge and did not notify the trucker that her height-clearance pole had struck the bridge.
     
  • The truck driver was following the escort car too closely and would not have been able to stop in time. Only four seconds passed between the time the escort’s pole hit the bridge and the truck’s load hit the first sway brace.

The WSP's investigation, which was released in November, did note one death related to the collapse. WSP Trooper Sean O'Connell was killed May 31, 2013, while directing traffic at a detour around the scene.

Feds' Findings

The WSP's findings were similar to those released by the National Transportation Safety Board on July 15, 2014.

The NTSB blamed the crash on "a series of deficiencies in a system intended to safeguard the passage of oversized loads over Washington State's roadways."

The deficiencies included:

  • The escort driver's failure to perform basic safety functions;
  • Inadequate route planning by the trucking company;
  • Washington State's inadequate permitting process; and
  • Lack of low-clearance warning signs for the bridge.

The escort driver made five calls on her cell phone in the 30 minutes before the accident, and she was still on a call when the truck hit the bridge, the NTSB said.

bridge clearance permits

WSDOT had the remaining sections of the old span upgraded to increase overhead clearance to 18 feet.

An off-duty commercial trucker traveling near the escort car said he had seen the height pole strike the bridge four or five times.

DOT Criticized

Poor permitting and planning also contributed to the accident, the NTSB said.

The trucking company had a permit for the trip but "failed to check and plan accordingly for the low clearances encountered along the route."

NTSB criticized the lack of warning signs, noting that WSDOT had no low-clearance signs by the bridge. The agency also called for changes in the state's permitting process for oversized loads. At the time, trucking companies could enter trip data into an online application and receive a permit without a review or evaluation of the trip.

NTSB said that protecting bridge infrastructure was "too vital of a state concern to leave the responsibility of assessing the risk associated with the transportation of oversize loads entirely with the motor carrier."

   

Tagged categories: Accidents; Bridges; Department of Transportation (DOT); Lawsuits; North America; NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board); Program/Project Management

Comment from Tony Rangus, (3/2/2015, 9:47 AM)

I guess I am a bit dense. WADOT spends $19,844,383 to fix and Federal reimbursement paid $18,733,638. Do I assume if they get the $17,000,000 from the three entities, they send it to the federal government?


Comment from Jim Johnson, (3/2/2015, 11:47 AM)

That's a pretty large assumption tony! I'm sure WA wants as much as possible...


Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (3/3/2015, 8:40 AM)

They may have gotten money reimbursed by the Feds, but it was likely taken out of another WADOT project with planned federal reimbursement.


Comment from Karen Fischer, (3/3/2015, 10:16 AM)

The State of Washington also holds some level of blame here. The Feds sited poor permitting by Washington State as well as lack of low clearance signs on the span. Also, I noticed that included in the cost was the cost of upgrading the remaining structure that did not sustain damage. Though it doesn't state this in the article, were these upgrades necessary or optional to replace the damaged span. I see a great deal of the blame on the escort service (Not notifying the truck driver) as well as the truck driver not being given the proper instructions to follow far behind this vehicle. The Feds should be the ones reimbursed since this bridge likely was not slated for work and funds likely has to be diverted from another scheduled project.


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