Opinion

Replacing Nisqually Bridges can’t wait

Cables and other gear await placement by the Interstate 5 bridges over the Nisqually River, July 11, 2013.  The state Department of Transportation has hired a contractor to sand blast and paint both bridges.  The top of the southbound bridge (right) has brackets that will hold tenting necessary to keep the sand and paint from dropping into the river.
Cables and other gear await placement by the Interstate 5 bridges over the Nisqually River, July 11, 2013. The state Department of Transportation has hired a contractor to sand blast and paint both bridges. The top of the southbound bridge (right) has brackets that will hold tenting necessary to keep the sand and paint from dropping into the river. Staff photographer

Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country an overall D+ grade for the condition, funding and maintenance of the nation’s infrastructure.

We are collectively failing to make priority investments in our country’s highways and bridges. The most glaring examples in our region are the Nisqually Bridges, a vital component to the Interstate 5 corridor.

The original structures were built for the last century, dating back to 1937 and 1967, northbound and southbound respectively.

The Nisqually Bridges are the newest choke point in the South Sound region. Now is the time for a strategic planning process to replace these structures.

In addition to traffic impacts, a new concern emerges: The bridge footings embedded in the Nisqually River impede the river’s flow and impact the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, endangering trout and salmon.

With increased heavy rains due to climate change, the potential for flooding across this area of I-5, similar to what happened further south during the Chehalis River Flood of 2007, is real.

The northbound assessment by the National Bridge Inventory Data asserts that there needs to be “[b]ridge rehabilitation because of general structure deterioration or inadequate strength.”

In the past half-decade, the I-5 commute from and into northern Thurston County has become increasingly stop-and-go, no matter the time of day. Already, the state Department of Transportation has begun a $495 million JBLM improvement project between Mounts Road and Tacoma.

Fortunately, the Legislature funded a preliminary study of the I-5 corridor from Mounts Road to south Tumwater (Exit 99). However, we are years away from any improvement being made on this stretch of freeway.

The time to act is now. We must invest in improving this road and these bridges before our communities are left with the consequences. Road closures due to flooding will have an impact for those who work north of us, as well as to freight mobility.

Deterioration will continue on the Nisqually River and wildlife refuge, an important environmental ecosystem.

The tragic derailment of Amtrak Train No. 501 last December shut down the I-5 southbound lanes north of Mounts Road. This incident provides a partial preview of the consequences of not planning and investing in public infrastructure.

Even though the federal government acknowledges these needs are critical, the proposed federal infrastructure plan does not provide sustainable or adequate funding for the Nisqually Bridges or other pressing projects.

The proposed plan flips long-established funding ratios from 80 percent of project funds coming from the federal government to 80 percent of funds coming from non-federal sources.

Local and state governments already contribute a large portion of funding to operate and maintain highways and local roads. Cities suffer when roads need repair work, shut down or can’t accommodate the amount of traffic for the lanes available.

Drivers start taking local side roads, ramps back up and shipments are delayed because trucks are stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

In Pierce and Thurston counties, the more we wait, the more we risk dramatically worsening our commute along I-5, and irreparable damage to the Nisqually River and its fish runs.

I invite you to join me and the National League of Cities in advocating that Congress reinvest in our nation’s public infrastructure and partner with state and local government to make sure our infrastructure meets the needs of the 21st century.

Cynthia Pratt is deputy mayor of Lacey and serves on the Board of Directors for the National League of Cities and Association of Washington Cities.

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