December 14, 2012 Print

Why Can't we Build Bridges in Washington State?

When my Grandfather first walked across the Hood Canal Bridge at its grand opening in 1961, he drew a lot of attention from local reporters because his children were wearing their orange life vests while they were walking across this brand new bridge. When questioned by a reporter, Grandpa Morgan told him that he didn’t trust bridges built in Washington and he had seen strong storms on the Hood Canal since he was a child. He appeared prophetic when the Hood Canal Bridge sank in a windstorm in February 1979.

Grandpa’s skepticism was also based on the terrifying experiences he had in 1940 driving across the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge, also known as “Galloping Gertie” on a windy day. He claimed the rolling waves of the bridge were so extreme that he couldn’t see the vehicles driving ahead of him on the bridge, and he swore he would never drive across that bridge again. A few months later, on November 7, 1940- the Tacoma Narrows Bridge blew apart in a famous video which has become required viewing in most engineering schools today.

I was reminded of my Grandfather’s experiences because two bridge stories have been making the news lately. The first was the 520 bridge replacement project which has become bogged down in controversy first exposed by Komo news that the “new” bridge pontoons have cracks, are leaking, and missing key structural rebar. If these pontoons were to be used, the “new” 520 bridge would inevitably join the infamous list of sinking bridges, which includes not just the Hood Canal Bridge, but also the I-90 Lake Washington Floating (sinking) bridge which went to the bottom of the lake in 1990. According to one of the original engineers of the currently still floating 520 bridge – the 50 year old pontoons never had cracks or leaks when originally installed or built. He claims in the 1960s they never would have accepted leaking pontoons.

Since this blog was posted, I've had feedback from people around the state about their local DOT projects gone awry. If you have a story you'd like to forward to me on this subject, feel free to send it to


What happened? Are these cheap, Chinese knock-offs that managed to escape the initial quality inspections? No.  They certainly avoided a quality inspection process, but they were proudly made in American by union members being paid prevailing wage in Aberdeen, WA. Not only were they made in America, but they were made in Washington State – a fact that I would normally support with great enthusiasm, but in this case it is just depressing.

As bad as thCRC Projecte 520 pontoon debacle appears to be, however, it still pales in comparison to the second bridge story which really is about the unbelievable incompetence displayed by our Department of Transportation on the Columbia River Crossing project. This was an effort to replace an old drawbridge on the Columbia River with a new bridge that would allow the unimpeded access of freight transport on the river. A new bridge would solve a variety of other local transportation needs as well. Instead of being the bridge too far, this has become the bridge too short. After spending $150 million it appears the bridge designed is too short for the very river traffic it was supposed to accommodate. Of course, the taxpayers will have to spend another $100 million to get it right. The DOT gives us great assurance they can eventually get it done – someday - maybe. If we just spend more…

Gov Rosellini - In officeAt the end of the day, regardleGov. Rosellini Looking at plansss of Grandpa’s healthy skepticism of Washington’s bridges, at least in his tax paying days, our state could actually build them. Today, it is far more likely that vast sums of money will be spent and it is anyone’s guess if the bridge will ever exist in our lifetimes. In the Governor Rosellini administration (1957 to 1965), “soft costs” hovered around 5% of the total cost of an infrastructure project. Today, this tends to be closer to 60% when you include environmental review, “mitigation,” design, redesign, lawyers, management, permitting, environmental experts, mitigation experts, lobbyists, consultants, community outreach, public relations, and other soft costs.

Today, these projects tend to take on the appearance of a big money game where everyone gets a piece of the taxpayer subsidized action, and they have to throw a few guys in hardhats outside as window dressing to prove they are providing “jobs.” The truth, unfortunately, is that the hardhat guy (like the rest of today’s working generation) will grow old before they ever see these jobs materialize, and the high paid consultants, engineers, environmentalists, mitigation experts, ex-politicians, attorneys, and other “soft” cost leeches will be living the high life on projects that keep the gravy train going as long as possible with the fewest tangible results. As an acquaintance who works at WADOT recently told me, “We may do a lot of unethical and immoral things (at DOT), but usually it isn’t illegal.”

This all assumes that the project will ever be finished. The reality is that we should all tremble to contemplate the certain disaster of Seattle’s Tunnel project which has rightly been compared to the infamous “Big Dig” boondoogle in Boston. This project is likely to make sinking bridges, intoxicated ferry captains, leaking pontoons, and bridge designs that are too low look like the good old days. Anything that has DOT’s involvement is destined to cost the taxpayer far more than ever imagined, and our imagination may be all we will have left when the money inevitably dries up.

Former Gov. Rosellini


Hood Canal Bridge 1979Sunken Hood Canal Bridge









Since this blog was posted, I've had feedback from people around the state about their local DOT projects gone awry. If you have a story you'd like to forward to me on this subject, feel free to send it to


Glen Morgan

Property Rights Director

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