On Thursday night, reporters gathered at the scene of a catastrophic collapse of a complete section of the Interstate 5 bridge spanning the Skagit River, and it was the head of the Washington State Department of Transportation Lynn Peterson who offered the most useless recommendation for travelers and commercial drivers.
Peterson’s advice for dealing with the complete severance of the sole high-volume transportation route able to move goods and people through Western Washington: “Try to avoid using I-5.”
On Friday, Inslee did his best not to be out-gaffed.
“We want to discourage drivers from crashing their trucks into state bridges,” Inslee said on Friday.
Of course, Inslee’s comment was likely an attempt at sarcasm, a form of humor that even polished politicians approach at their peril. For Inslee – not known for being a savvy orator – it was like tossing a bale of catnip to pack of cats. Within no time at all, the off-the-cuff remark inspired an afternoon of ribbing in social media.
— MyNorthwest.com (@Mynorthwest) May 24, 2013
— Insleeisms (@Insleeisms) May 24, 2013
I’m glad at least one governor supports the idea of not driving trucks into bridges. Where do the other 49 stand? #wagov
— Mike Faulk (@Mike_Faulk) May 24, 2013
But the revelry over Inslee’s dopey failed attempt at humor threatens to obscure what his comment reveals, not because of what he said, but because of what he did not say. It wasn’t the truck that ultimately caused the collapse, it was the insufficiency of the bridge to handle a not-so-rare occurrence on a highly-traveled interstate – being struck by a vehicle.
In reality, we can be certain that truck drivers avoided smacking into bridges before Thursday’s catastrophic bridge failure and would have done so even were the bridge never to have fallen.
Still, Inslee’s glib Biden-esque quip ironically needs to be taken seriously. Until a serious reorganization of the mission and priorities takes place within the Washington State Department of Transportation, large commercial trucks should take extra care not to rattle any of the bridges they must traverse each day.
Until Thursday night, it would have been considered common sense behavior for a big rig driver to take ample care to protect their cargo, their vehicle, their lives, and the lives of others. Also common sense: believing that in any collision between a truck and a bridge truss carrying a major interstate highway – always a foreseeable accident waiting to happen – the driving public should have some reasonable security to think that the bridge will never lose.
Last night, that security was revealed to be misplaced in shocking fashion, and Inslee’s gaffe nails that insecurity home.
What could Inslee have said to establish a more secure road ahead, metaphorically and literally? Maybe he could have said, “We want to discourage the WSDOT from allowing bridges to exist that can be destroyed by a vehicle commonly traveling over them.”
He could also have said, “We want to discourage the WSDOT and members of the Legislature from avoiding critical roadway maintenance as they chase castles in the sky such as expensive and poorly utilized light rail systems.”
He might have added a positive third thought: “We want to encourage the WSDOT to take a serious look at its own regulations with an eye for reducing costs so that more projects can be planned and completed to provide maximum value for taxpayers.”
The state is currently engaged in a number of mega-projects, two of which involve roadways that carry tens to hundreds of thousands of people each day — the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel and the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge replacement.
A bullet was dodged last night in that no lives were lost. A future accident may not have such a fortunate outcome.