Bridge collapse will cause holiday travel headaches

It had to happen heading into a holiday weekend.

The collapse of the Interstate 5 bridge across the Skagit River is certain to clog traffic, upset travel plans and disrupt commerce this Memorial Day weekend.

Already, the collapse of the 57-year-old span is sending ripples through industries that rely on I-5 for north-south transit.

Puget Sounders heading for the tranquillity of the San Juan Islands will likely first have to endure hours of teeth-grinding delays and detours. Trucks and traffic were rerouted.

Gov. Jay Inslee urged travelers to avoid the I-5 corridor in the area altogether until detours were in place.

AAA estimates that nearly 35 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from their homes this weekend.

If that travel includes anything north or south of Bellingham, good luck.

David Overstreet, a spokesman for AAA Washington, said, “It’s a reminder that we need to take care of our transportation infrastructure before more of these things happen.”

Bob Lama, a board member of the Mount Vernon Chamber of Commerce, said the collapse will affect not just local traffic, but Canadians coming south and Americans going north. And it likely will cut into crowds at Bellingham’s annual Ski to Sea festival.

“It’s going to impact everybody, business and nonbusiness,” Lama said. “The Department of Transportation has their work cut out for them to figure out what to do.”

Inslee, after inspecting the scene of the collapse Thursday night, urged travelers to “avoid this portion of the corridor” until detours are in place.

DOT spokesman Travis Phelps said the section of I-5 needs to be rebuilt, and that the fixes would take weeks, but not years.

Ironically, the quickest route back onto northbound I-5 from the detour funnels traffic across the Division Street Bridge on State Route 536, which has been listed as “structurally deficient” by the state Department of Transportation and scheduled for routine inspections.

Locals say the Cascade Mall, a regional shopping center in Burlington just east of I-5, will be heavily impacted by the loss of traffic. The mall is a source of jobs and tax revenue for the city.

“This is the main thoroughfare for traffic and commerce going from Seattle to Vancouver,” said Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton. “It’s a far-reaching effect.”

“This is going to affect us not only this Memorial Day weekend, but long into the future,” Sexton said.

A Greyhound Lines bus was scheduled to depart from Mount Vernon at 10:05 a.m. Friday, said company spokesman Maurice Harris. Those plans may be disrupted, he said.

Greyhound passengers who planned to depart from Mount Vernon should call the terminal (360-336-5111) on Friday to verify its departure.

Bill Shuler, a commissioner for the Port of Skagit, said the bridge collapse will not directly impact the Port’s operation. Traffic is going to be another matter, he said.

“Until they get that fixed, there’s going to be a lot of traffic congestion” and pressure on truckers who are on a time schedule, he said.

The Port of Seattle was monitoring the situation but didn’t expect major disruptions to its business from the bridge collapse, said spokesman Peter McGraw.

Agriculture, the Port’s main export, is trucked in from Eastern Washington via Interstate 90, he said.

Shipping company UPS said it expects no service disruptions and a minimal impact to customers.

“There are other ways to get across the river,” said UPS spokeswoman Ivette Lopez. “This is something we prepare for, and we do have plans in place we can act on pretty quickly.”

FedEx said it’s working on implementing a contingency plan “to help lessen the effects of the bridge outage on our service.”

Out of an abundance of caution, Amtrak had its structural personnel inspect the BNSF railroad bridge about 400 yards east of where the I-5 bridge collapsed, said spokesman Gus Melonas. They found it to be structurally sound.

He said, rail traffic is continuing but “we are running trains with restricted speeds through the area.”

Diane Mueller, a resident of British Columbia was on her way home from a conference in Portland when the conductor informed the passengers about the collapsed bridge. At the time, they were about 20 minutes south of the Mt. Vernon station, Mueller said.

She said passengers were told that Amtrak was stopping the train so company engineers can reinspect the railroad bridges before they attempted to cross them. “They were also concerned that freight trains might be back up … “

Mueller said her train was stopped for an hour and a half before it took off again heading for the next stop at Mt. Vernon and then Bellingham. She said they were told that the Canadian customs offices in Vancouver would remain open for the passengers, who were expected to arrive around 12:30 a.m.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or Seattle Times reporters Sanjay Bhatt, Amy Martinez and Lornet Turnbull contributed to this report.