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Originally published May 25, 2013 at 8:02 PM | Page modified May 25, 2013 at 8:53 PM

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Bridge failure a new impetus for boosting state gas tax?

The collapsed Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River provides fresh ammunition for groups urging state lawmakers to approve an $8.5 billion transportation tax package. But it may be not enough to force action this year.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

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The collapsed Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River provides new ammunition for groups pushing state lawmakers to approve an $8.5 billion transportation tax package.

But it may be not enough to force action this year.

Legislators have debated for months whether to increase the state gas tax by 10 cents a gallon to help pay for work on Interstate 405, Highway 167 near Tacoma, and include money for a controversial new bridge over the Columbia River, among other projects.

The proposal, rolled out earlier this year by House Democrats, also would provide millions for maintenance of existing roads and bridges.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has supported the effort. Republicans, who control the Senate, have not.

It’s unclear if having part of I-5 fall into the Skagit River has changed the equation.

Sen. Curtis King, the Republican co-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said nothing has changed for him. He still sees no need for action this year.

“We have too many businesses still struggling and we have too many people who are just getting by. Yes, you may have a lot of groups lined up to say we have to have this,” King said, “but it’s the citizens of the state of Washington who have to pay an additional 10 cents a gallon at the gas pump.”

Groups backing the tax package quickly used the bridge collapse to support their cause.

“This is a sober reminder of the need for a transportation revenue package,” the Washington State Labor Council said in a news release. “We need to keep the public safe, keep our economy rolling, and put folks to work. Partisan bickering over bills in the Legislature needs to stop.”

However, King, R-Yakima, noted the bridge collapsed because it was hit by a large truck, and the incident did not appear to be related to maintenance.

House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, acknowledged the proposed transportation package currently has no money in it to replace bridges like the one that collapsed, “because it wasn’t in trouble.”

Previous inspections had indicated there were no structural problems, but it was considered obsolete. The span, built in the 1950s, had a “fracture-critical” design. That means if certain load-bearing parts fail, the bridge could collapse or be left unable to function.

“What I don’t think we want to do is say all bridges that were built in 1955 have to go out and be replaced,” Clibborn said.

Still, Clibborn said the collapse likely will turn up the heat on lawmakers to pass a transportation package this year because of heightened awareness about the state’s aging highways and bridges.

And she expects legislators will look at setting aside more money in the package to maintain the existing transportation system, and use some of those funds to replace obsolete bridges.

Lawmakers are in a special session that started May 13 and can last up to 30 days.

One aging bridge, the I-5 span over the Columbia River, already has $450 million set aside in the House tax package for a new structure. Like the collapsed bridge over the Skagit River, it is considered fracture critical.

The Columbia River bridge is a truss design, with one span having opened in 1917 and another in 1958, and the bridge does not meet current earthquake standards.

Senate Republicans have vowed to block any package that includes money for the bridge, largely because the proposal includes light rail.

King said opposition has not changed with the collapse of the Skagit River bridge. “I don’t think it has any relevance,” he said.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or agarber@seattletimes.com. Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this story.

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