My brother lives down by Spangle and asked me the other day why one southbound lane of Highway 195 was closed over a bridge just north of Spangle.
Not having an answer for him, but also not wanting to disappoint him, I decided to go take a look for myself. At 37-years-old, I haven't had to travel under many bridges, but I came fully prepared to answer a riddle or pay a toll to a troll.
However, there were no bridge trolls. What I found was much more real and much more shocking.
The cross bars of the highly-traveled bridge had deteriorated to the point that the rebar could be seen. As a result of the crumbling crossbar, WSDOT shut down a lane in an effort to restrict the weight traveling across the bridge at one time.
Regional Administrator for the Eastern Region of WSDOT Mike Gribner shockingly told me conditions like the bridge on Highway 195 are becoming more and more common in our region and across the state.
"The system is aging. We are looking at a crisis here," Gribner said. "What you saw on 195 is going to continue to happen."
WSDOT says the bridge on Highway 195 is just one of 42 in the Eastern Region that falls under the "poor category." It was built 53 years ago in 1967 and hasn't had maintenance done to the beams since.
Does that mean you should feel unsafe driving over it?
"If it's open, it's safe. It's safe based on the conditions we put out there," Gribner said. "If it's truly a safety hazard, we would shut the bridge down and it would elevate priority."
Right now, however, there's no money to make it a priority, and that's nothing new. It's not imaginary bridge trolls that need money, it's WSDOT.
"The issues around maintenance have been building over a couple of decades," Gribner added. "We have not, truthfully, properly funded maintenance and preservation for some time now."
The maintenance and preservation budget is underfunded in Washington by about $600 million a year statewide and $58 million within the Eastern region, according to WSDOT. The recent economic impacts of COVID-19, which at its peak resulted in $100 million a month in lost revenue, according to Gribner, are yet to be fully seen.
In addition, the recent passing of I-976 ($30 car tabs), shorts DOT $661 million in preservation money. Now, following the original publishing of this article, I saw a few comments and received a message from a viewer saying, "Wait, I'm still paying well over $100 for car tabs? They aren't $30!" Yes, that is true. Though I-976 was passed, it is still being fought over in the court system and hasn't gone into effect. However, should the initiative go into effect, everyone who paid more than $30 for their tabs when it should have been in effect would received a refund on the difference. So yes, WSDOT is collecting the money, but they aren't spending it because it might end up having to be refunded to the taxpayers at some point.
Severe under-funding, combined with an aging system and the accelerated need for repair adds up to more impacts like we're seeing on the Highway 195 bridge.
"You saw the story when you went down to 195," Gribner said. "That's what we're trying to get people to understand. That's what's going on in terms of the condition of the system."
And it's going to get worse, according to WSDOT.
Repairs to the bridge on Highway 195 that sparked my curiosity could be 10 years out, though WSDOT says they are trying to accelerate the priority. Should the bridge's deterioration rapidly excel, WSDOT says they could shut the bridge down and move southbound traffic into one of the northbound lanes.
The Northport Bridge on Highway 25 in Stevens County over the Columbia River was built in 1948. It is also considered to be in the "poor" category as patched up deck doesn't instill a lot of confidence, though again, WSDOT says right now it is safe for use.
The Latah Bridge at the bottom of Sunset Hill on I-90 was built in 1963 and is also labeled in the "poor" category.
Those bridges, along with many others, all evidence of a crumbling infrastructure in desperate need of repair.
The impact of not repairing these pieces of our transportation system could have much larger consequences than just some lane closures. As the problems build and as more restrictions are put into place, Washingtonians could see impacts to commerce and capacity via congestion, according to Gribner.
"Pretty much everything you have here in Spokane, the quality of life, the economy you have here, the things that make Spokane so enjoyable here is really based on this current transportation system that we own," Gribner said. "It's not based on what we're going to build, it's based on what we already own - the taxpayers - and it's in jeopardy and that translates to impacts to their quality of life and their pocketbook."
The state legislature sets WSDOT's budget every two years and maintenance and preservation has taken a back seat for a while now. Gribner said the program is primarily funded out of pre-existing funds from the original $.23 gas tax. More recent taxes have been geared towards expansion and mega-projects, which Gribner said are also important, but in that time, revenue for maintenance and preservation hasn't grown.
And it isn't just our bridges that are suffering. With the current funding, WSDOT says they won't be investing preservation money in highways 45 miles per hour and under. That means Division Street, Francis Avenue, and Trent Avenue won't see any preservation money in the near future.
It's the same story with freeway ramps.
"Those are now not being programmed for funding. So getting off and on the freeway? Some of them are kind of in tough shape," Gribner said. "There's no money coming for that."
Highway 231 in Stevens County just south of Chewelah is still down to one lane after the road gave way back in January.
So while, in the short term the public shouldn't have to worry about driving over the bridge on Highway 195, Gribner said the public should be looking long term.
"They should be very worried on the trajectory of the preservation program, what is coming down the road and how this is going to impact their quality of life, local economy, their ability for the system to operate. They should be very worried about that."
The Washington State Department of Transportation is bound to budget law, which is passed by the state legislature. The legislature defines the budget, determines where the money goes and WSDOT is bound to that. WSDOT informs the legislature about needs for the budget every two years, so the best way for you to voice your opinion on what money should go where, is to contact your local representative.
"As we make decisions as a society on where to spend money I want them to at least understand the picture that is there and have clarity on whether or not that should be a priority to them," Gribner said when discussing the public and possible future funding. "If they are willing to fund, willing to move money into to fix this, we can go fix this. That has not been the case in the past couple revenue packages."