How safe are Alaska’s bridges?

On Thursday, a section of Interstate-5 fell into the Skagit River in Washington after a truck reportedly knocked into the steel framework. No one died, but the collapse did send cars did hurtling into the water. The bridge was built in 1955, and was considered to be outdated by federal standards. In Alaska, there are over a hundred bridges that fall into that obsolete category.

Map of Alaska's Bridges

(Department of Transportation)


Alaska has a reputation of dreaming big with its bridges. There’s the proposed Knik Arm bridge, with its $8 billion price tag. And then there’s the Gravina Island Bridge, the $400 million “Bridge to Nowhere” that never got built after it became politically toxic.

But how is Alaska doing with the thousand bridges that it already has?

Patrick Natale is the executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and he says that Alaska gets about a C+ on his group’s infrastructure report card.

“It looks like you’re around the national average. The average is about one in four bridges have a concern. So, you’re there. That’s not a good sign.”

Just over 10 percent of the state’s bridges are labeled “structurally deficient,” which means they need maintenance or potentially replacement. Even more of the state’s bridges are considered “functionally obsolete.” Those bridges might be in decent shape, but they don’t meet contemporary engineering standards.

Natale says that Alaska — and the rest of the country — has a lot of work to do when it comes to fixing its bridges.

“I’m not saying they’re about ready to fall, but they need to be dealt with.”

Jeremy Woodrow is a spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Transportation, the agency responsible for dealing with that. He says not to worry — Alaska’s bridges are safe — but that yeah, the state’s infrastructure could use some improvement. He says that a C grade is about right.

“It’s a fair grade. You know, it’s understandable that infrastructure across the entire country is aging. It’s just the nature — a lot of our infrastructure was built up 60, 70 years ago, especially in the state of Alaska. And those bridges are getting toward the end of their lives.”

Still, Woodrow stresses that just because some of these bridges need improvement, not every one of them is a Skagit River bridge waiting to happen.

“The terms that are used for bridges are oftentimes may be scary terms for the general public, such as structurally deficient. It doesn’t mean the bridge is unsafe — it just means that the bridge is nearing a time where it needs to be rehabilitated or replaced. It doesn’t mean that it needs to be replaced tomorrow, it just means that it’s something you need to look at, and put it on your list, and make sure you have a plan to replace that bridge in the near future.”

According to a Department of Transportation report, the state needs to put around $60 million into bridge maintenance each year if it wants to keep that infrastructure in decent shape. Woodrow says that his department inspects each bridge in the state every two years to figure out which ones need the most attention. They judge them on a zero to nine scale, and anything that drops below a seven gets attention or gets shut down.

“If there’s ever a cause for concern, we will close a bridge prior to it getting to the point where it could reach failure,” says Woodrow.

In recent years, there’s only been one bridge closure in Alaska due to safety concerns. A bridge along the Copper River Highway near Cordova was closed in 2011 because of erosion around it, and remains shut down indefinitely.