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Collapse of Washington state bridge raises infrastructure concerns, questions

TORONTO – A Washington State bridge collapse Thursday evening has called attention to the state of aging infrastructure in the United States.

Investigators said a truck carrying an oversized load struck part of the bridge, sending a section of the span and two vehicles into the river on an interstate highway over a river north of Seattle.

The three people in the two vehicles suffered only minor injuries.

READ MORE: Alberta truck driver struck collapsed Washington State bridge

Ted Bunker at Bloomberg News said “the bridge’s collapse put a new focus on the nation’s failing infrastructure, an issue that President Barack Obama has highlighted in his second-term agenda.”

In his State of the Union address in March, Obama unveiled his infrastructure plan, a $50 billion “Fix-It-First” program with $40 billion of that funding directed at “urgent upgrades,” including bridges.

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Washington State Governor Jay Inslee said the bridge collapse was a reminder that the nation needs to focus more on repair.

“We have some work to do on bridges whether or not this accident happened,” said Inslee in a news conference Thursday evening.”And we have some discussions in Olympia [the state’s capital] about making sure that we make investments in bridges to prevent this kind of thing from happening.”

Built in 1955, the bridge carries about 77,000 cars a day, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.

In 2007, a highway span fell in Minneapolis, Minnesota during rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145.

GALLERY: Washington state bridge collapse

Bloomberg News said that according to FHA records reviewed last year, there are about 18,000 so-called fracture-critical bridges nationwide, of which about 8,000 are classified as “structurally deficient.”

According to theweek.com, state lawmakers said the Washington bridge wasn’t even on their high-risk list.

The New York Times said Democratic Rep. Judy Clibborn, who leads the transportation committee in the state House, said the bridge wasn’t one that has been a focus for lawmakers.

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“It is shocking that I-5 would have something happen like this,” she said.

“Structurally deficient” vs. “functionally obsolete” 

According to the Federal Highway Administration, two terms are used to summarize bridge deficiencies: “structurally deficient” and “functionally obsolete.”

FHA said that a “structurally deficient” designation “does not imply that a bridge is unsafe, but such bridges typically require significant maintenance and repair to remain in service, and would eventually require major rehabilitation or replacement to address the underlying deficiency.”

While the FHA did not classify the bridge that collapsed Thursday as “structurally deficient,” it did designate the term “functionally obsolete” to the bridge—a category meaning that the design is outdated, such as having narrow shoulders and low clearance underneath.

It is not yet clear if the I-5 bridge’s condition played any role in the collapse.

VIDEO: Raw video: Washington bridge collapse day after (May 24)

“Sufficiency rating well below the statewide average”

In an interview with The Associated Press on Friday, Transportation Department spokesman Noel Brady said the I-5 bridge received a sufficiency rating of 47 out of 100 during its November 2012 inspection.

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Washington’s state average is 80—according to an AP analysis— meaning the I-5 bridge had a sufficiency rating well below the statewide average.

Brady said the I-5 bridge was inspected two times last year, in August and November.

The bridge was 1,112 feet long and 180 feet wide, with two lanes in each direction, Brady said. There are four spans, or sections, over the water supported by piers. The span on the north side is the one that collapsed.

According to a 2011 Smart Growth America report, Washington spends about $181 million on road repair and preservation a year, when $426 million in investment is needed.

“It’s an older bridge that needs a lot of work just like a good number of bridges around the state,” said Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson.

Peterson told AP, transportation officials are working on plans for either a temporary or permanent replacement.

– with files from The Associated Press