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Saturday, August 24, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Truck meets bridge: The story behind Spokane’s much-scarred overpasses

UPDATED: Sun., April 8, 2018, 12:34 p.m.

A struggle plays out frequently in downtown Spokane – about once every three months on Stevens Street, in fact. Below that 11-foot-6 railway viaduct you can watch the conflict in real time, every time a tall truck gets stuck – or sheared, crunched or otherwise masticated – below the low train bridge.

The reason for the seemingly inevitable collisions can be simplified down to a lack of truck driver attentiveness. Or maybe it’s just a matter of obsolete 100-year-old engineering. But let’s be real. This battle has been raging ever since highways were first laid around the nation 100 years ago.

Trucking companies versus the railroads. A freight-shipping mode throwdown – trucks versus trains.

It’s a story as old as the wheel. Something new supplants something old. The evolution of technology. The battle for supremacy.

If Stevens is any indication, the railways are winning.

Between 2007 and 2017, 37 trucks collided with the Stevens viaduct. In all, there have been 108 collisions between tall vehicles and Spokane’s bridges in the past decade, according to data collected by the city of Spokane. The trucks, generally, are done for. And the not-so-obsolete, century-old bridges still stand.

The Stevens bridge was built when the viaduct took trains off downtown’s streets, in 1915. Every day, according to BNSF Railways, around 55 trains roll over its geriatric columns, each tugging the equivalent of what up to 350 trucks can do on their own. An eighteen-wheeler can haul as much as 80,000 pounds of cargo. Math tells us that the bridge could carry up to 1.5 billion pounds a day.

The concrete is chipping, sure, and long, dragging scars mar the viaduct ceiling. But considering the battering the bridge has taken, and the load it bears hour after hour, day after day, it surely is a feat of engineering.

Consider: On March 13, an Allied tractor-trailer rig had its roof peeled back like it was a can and the viaduct its can-opener. Thirteen days later, a Penske truck dragged its roof on Stevens’ underbelly before getting wedged halfway through. There was that time a trucker turned his sleeper into a convertible and had his bags ready to throw into a cab’s trunk, heading for the airport, when the cops arrived. Or in 1989, when a cattle truck ran into a bridge, sending officers after a runaway calf.

And still, Stevens stands – as do the 13 other viaduct bridges that have been nailed over the last century.

Asphalt’s fault

Mike Brown has a commercial driver’s license and his own 53-foot trailer.

He’s never hit a bridge, but he came close once in New York City in his RV on a family vacation. He was exiting a freeway when he saw the posted height.

He knew immediately: His air conditioning unit wasn’t going to make it.

“It said 11 feet, 5 inches, so I knew I was going to take off the AC from my roof,” he said. Brakes applied, he was able to stop, thankfully for the climate control but not the rest of traffic. “A policeman had to shut the highway down and let me back up the on ramp.”

Brown uses his hard-earned expertise at Diamond Line Delivery, a Meridian, Idaho-based company that has 150 trucks, 500 trailers, and 11 terminals, including one in Spokane.

As the company’s safety director, Brown has heard the stories of his drivers and their run-ins with low bridges.

“I’ve had drivers hit the bridge so hard it broke the glass in the windshield,” he said. “Or decapitated the top of the truck.”

Brown said his drivers all run trucks with the same height: 13 feet, 6 inches. They know it. The problem, more often than not, Brown said, is the posted heights. At times, they’re just plain wrong.

“Sometimes they’re off and we’ve experienced it and I’ve experienced it,” Brown said of the posted bridge heights. “When they asphalt, they add inches to the pavement and don’t change the signs.”

Brown pointed to a bridge in St. Maries, Idaho, where one of his drivers clocked a bridge last year.

“It said 13 feet, 10 inches. It should’ve been 13 feet, 10 inches and the driver should’ve be fine,” he said. “It wasn’t. We went back and measured everything.”

The sign was changed.

That’s not a problem in Spokane, said Mark Serbousek, a bridge engineer with the city. Any time road work might change the road height, the city brings out the measuring tape.

“When we go in and do an overlay, right after the overlay we go in and check the clearance,” Serbousek said. “It’s done pretty much right away. We don’t let it sit there.”

Serbousek said the city attempts to keep the clearance the same as it was before the work, but if it changes, the city pays to change the sign.

Aside from that, the city doesn’t have much of a role when a truck strikes a bridge.

The police department, however, is all over it.

Costly collisions

About two years ago, Spokane police Officer Brad Moon reported to one of the viaducts. A semi-truck and trailer was wedged halfway under the bridge.

“The sleeper was basically a convertible,” Moon said. The driver had all his things piled up on the sidewalk, including duffel bags, ready to go. “I said, ‘Where are you taking all your belongings?’ He said, ‘I’ve only been with the company a week. I know I’ll be fired. I don’t care what you do with this truck, but I’m going to the airport.’ ”

Moon has been in commercial vehicle enforcement since 2004 and has seen it all. Just this week, he went to the 16th Avenue bridge west of U.S. Highway 195. A truck driver out of Eugene was following his GPS computer along a questionable route from the Super 8 hotel near the airport.

The driver was paying attention to the stop sign. Not the 11-foot bridge he was about to hit.

“It basically peeled the truck roof all the way back,” Moon said.

That bridge strike was relatively harmless, if not for the driver then the transportation system as a whole. The Fish Lake Trail on it is surely fine.

But when a truck strikes a railroad viaduct, it has repercussions that can stretch for hundreds of miles.

When the police department hears of a viaduct collision, it immediately notifies BNSF Railways, which owns the tracks and bridges. The railway then stops all traffic on the mainline route and both a bridge inspector and rail inspector come to survey the damage.

In the meantime, train personnel wait. But like many hyper-scheduled systems, railways rely on strict timetables. And as with other professions, drivers and conductors can only work for a certain amount of hours. So if a Missoula-bound crew gets held up in Spokane for too long, there’s a problem. Especially if the train gets moving and their time cards run out in, say, Cataldo.

And you can guess who’s paying for it, on top of the $135 fine for failing to follow a traffic control device and the $51 collision infraction.

“If you have to bring a crew from Missoula to Cataldo, that gets pretty expensive,” Moon said. “I have heard that the worst-case scenario was $4,000 to $5,000. The average is $1,000 to $2,000.”

Then there’s the towing fees, which are substantially more than what the average passenger car would entail, for obvious reasons.

“We’ve had several of them where they have to bring a forklift, and bring out another truck to load it on,” Moon said, noting the bills average around $2,000. “I’ve seen those bills go $5,000 or $6,000.”

It’s a lot of money, and a lot of headache, but both Moon and Serbousek, with the city, said Spokane is trying to lessen the amount of bridge strikes at Stevens. It’s anybody’s guess why Stevens has such an outsized number of hits, but it’s likely due to its four-lane, one-way-ness. Seriously, why not take Browne Street, which has had zero hits in the last decade and an on-ramp to Interstate 90?

Regardless, late last year, the city installed an advance warning sign on Stevens, which sends out a barrage of flashing lights when a tall truck breaks the sensor beam at the approaching intersection.

“When those lights activate, if you’re paying attention and focused on driving, there’s no way you could see those and not stop in time,” Moon said.

He’s confident they’re working, because he hasn’t been called down to Stevens as much as he once was.

“Short of hitting somebody on the head with a hammer, there’s only so much you can do,” he said.

Stalemate

Gus Melonas didn’t ask for a hammer, but he did say there’s more people can do.

“First of all, we hope the drivers are responsible enough to know the height when operating their equipment,” said Melonas, a spokesman with BNSF. “These types of situations are all preventable and we ask that these truckers be responsible when they operate their vehicles.”

Melonas didn’t mince words: The railway is far superior in moving freight than trucks. If one truck strikes the bridge and is out of service, it could delay an amount of freight far beyond what just one truck can haul.

“Each day, BNSF moves over the bridges an equivalent, in excess, of 15,000 trucks off of I-90 and across these bridges in a 24-hour period,” he said. “If it’s just a grazing, it won’t require a shutdown. When we have to shut down, it impacts trains up and down the line. We’re moving all types of commodities, including Amtrak trains, and there’s always an anxious customer at the end of the line.”

Beyond that, Melonas said, Spokane’s elevated railway is something other cities covet.

“When the line first came through, it was at-grade, but the railroad worked with the city to elevate the mainline operation, which is extremely unique,” he said. “Most cities would love to have this type of setup to have the railroads separated from the public. We can go about our business without interference.”

Which brings us back to the battle.

When rail was laid across the country, the world changed. In 1800, it took six weeks to travel from New York City to Chicago. In 1876, it took the Transcontinental Express train 83 hours to go from New York to San Francisco. Goods traveled with the same speed.

Spokane was born with the rails, and their paths still define the city in many ways. As Melonas said, the downtown tracks used to be on the road, interacting and interfering with everything else – cars, horses, people.

But in 1915, the rail was raised and commuters rejoiced.

It was around this time that the pavement came, and soon enough the monopoly of rail was challenged by long-haul truckers. With the Interstate Highway System, the government created giant commercial channels for freight delivered by truck.

By the middle of the 20th century, the bustling industrial cores of cities emptied out, thanks in large part to roads. Just look at the old, tall buildings lining Spokane’s viaduct, prime locations for a freight system fixed in place around rails. Instead of these massive downtown warehouses along the railroad, the freedom of rubber-tired trucks allowed new, larger warehouses to be built in far-flung areas where land was cheap and highways flowed.

The North Spokane Corridor under construction is a good example of this. The argument for the new highway relied in part on the amount of freight the corridor carries, at last count about 7.2 million tons a year. Vast warehouses already sit near its growing path in Hillyard – for Food Services of America, Safeway, URM Stores and others.

Those warehouses sit near existing rail owned and used by BNSF. And bridges are being built where the highway and rail meet. This time, though, engineers are doing things differently. The bridges go over the rail.

With plenty of clearance.

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