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March 30, 2011 at 4:23 PM

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Good news about broken bridges: We're No. 46!

Posted by Mike Lindblom

Colossal highway plans hitting the ballot in the coming years might not be as sexy as before.

Sentiment is growing among certain groups and officials to set aside a share of cash for maintenance -- instead of pouring every dollar into dazzling the voters with promises of new projects.

First, some good news: Washington state ranked only No. 46, out of 50 states plus Washington, D.C., in the percentage of its bridges, at 5 percent, deemed "structurally deficient" in a report Wednesday by T4 America. What's more, some of the worst Seattle spans listed either were recently fixed or due to be fixed: the Northeast 45th Street overpass in the U District; the South Park Bridge; the Argo bridge in the Duwamish industrial zone; and yes, the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

We're not off the hook, though.

By 2015, gas taxes will largely be consumed by paying off bond debt, as Olympia pays off most of the 421 road and lane improvements the Legislature promised to build through its 2003-05 gas tax hikes, totaling 14.5 cents. If gas taxes continue to flatten or decline, there would be less money for upkeep of bridges.

Paula Hammond, secretary Washington state Department of Transportation, acknowledged that voters want new projects, so there are risks of ballot failure if a big chunk of money is reserved for maintenance instead. (In 2007, a $38 billion, three-county "Roads and Transit" project list in the Seattle area failed, followed by an $18 billion Sound Transit plan passing in 2008.)

"As we look towards the future and our declining revenues and our inability to keep up with taking care of of our basic assets, bridges, roads, and in our state ferries and ferry terminals, we have to have, not only us at the state DOT level, but our governors and our legislatures, has to have the political will and gumption to do what's right for our future, and that is to make the tough decision to set aside a basic level of preservation and maintenance money to take care of the system they have," Hammond said in a T4 America teleconference.

On average, 11.5 percent of bridges are deficient. In Pennsylvania, ranked No. 1 at 26.5 percent, recent funding plans included $600 million for bridges, and officials were able to convince the public that was needed, said Allen D. Biehler, former Pennsylvania transportation secretary.

Washington does have deficient bridges, such as the northbound Puyallup River Bridge on Highway 167, which is reduced to one lane, said Jerry Lenzi, chief engineer. He wasn't immediately aware Wednesday of any pending bridge retrofits that are unfunded. [A new Highway 520 crossing for the late 2010s is $2 billion short.] Also, the state doesn't have money to carry out a $2 billion redecking of aging I-5 through Seattle.

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Jim Brunner
Covers politics.

Keith Ervin
Covers the Eastside.

Andrew Garber
Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

Emily Heffter
Covers local government.

Mike Lindblom
Covers transportation.

Kyung Song
Covers politics and regional issues from Washington, D.C.

Lynn Thompson
Covers Seattle City Hall.

Bob Young
Covers King County and urban affairs.