BNSF Skagit River Bridge

by Sandra Spargo Sunday, August 16, 2015 10:19 PM

1995 Flood - Damage to BNRR Burlington Bridge

City of Burlington and City of Sedro Woolley’s Request

to Replace BNSF’s Aging Skagit River Bridge

The bridge is 99 years old. The following request was made before substantial oil train traffic.

In June 2009, the City of Burlington and the City of Sedro Woolley included the replacement of the BNSF Skagit River Bridge on the Council of Governments’ priority project list, as follows:

  • Built in 1916, this bridge is a hazard to itself and the adjacent levee system. Debris buildup upstream of the bridge in 1995 caused the bridge to fail and almost caused the adjacent left bank levee to fail.
  • We believe the bridge is a strong candidate for funding from the $8 billion Intercity High Speed Passenger Rail Program from which Washington could receive $400 - $600 million.
  • Bridge replacement is supported by Dike Districts 12, 17 and 1; but not by 3 (left bank downstream of Mount Vernon) or 22 (Fir Island).

According to the Washington State BNSF Skagit River Bridge Debris Management Study, June 2007,

  • Local stakeholders have sought to obtain funding to replace the BNSF Rail Company’s (BNSF) Skagit River Bridge, because debris has accumulated at the piers and results in overflow to nearby levees. In addition scour at bridge piers could potentially led to bridge failure. In 1995, one of the piers was damaged, which led to bridge closure for several days.
  • A team comprised of local stakeholders and representatives of the BNSF met to discuss various alternatives. As the study progressed, BNSF withdrew from the project team, because the railroad believed that the study would not address ways to prevent debris from reaching their bridge. Further, the railroad maintained that their current debris management practices were effective and that the bridge was not at risk of failure during flood events.
  • Lack of participation by BNSF created a dilemma for the project team, because BNSF owns the bridge under study. Another challenge facing the project team was to develop alternatives in which BNSF could participate, despite the fact that the railroad is not subject to debris management regulations imposed by state and local agencies.

During FY 2011, Senator Patty Murray requested $120,000 to help fund a comprehensive analysis of the costs and benefits of replacing the BNSF Skagit River Bridge for the purpose of reducing flood risk.

The Summary of the requests states:

Importance: The BNSF Skagit River Bridge is a known hazard to the adjacent levees during Skagit River flooding. If the bridge induces failure of the adjacent levees, the neighboring cities of Burlington and Mount Vernon would flood, Interstate 5 would flood and shut down and the mainline rail would shut down.

If the BNSF Skagit River Bridge were to fail, an oil spill would impact our downstream, potable water supply.

The Anacortes water treatment plant is located alongside the Skagit River in Mount Vernon and downstream from the BNSF Skagit River Bridge. The water treatment plant serves approximately 56,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers. The plant is the primary source of water for Shell and Tesoro refineries, which draw more than 60 percent of the potable water from the plant; the cities of Anacortes, La Conner and Oak Harbor; the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station; and a significant portion of Skagit Public Utility District No. 1.

Bridge Safety Standards

Electronic Code of Federal Regulations

Part 237 (As of Jan. 26, 2015)

237.103: Bridge inspection procedures.

(a) Each bridge management program shall specify the procedure to be used for inspection of individual bridges or classes and types of bridges.

(b) The bridge inspection procedures shall be as specified by a railroad bridge engineer, who is designed as responsible for the conduct and review of the inspections. The inspection procedures shall incorporate the methods, means of access and the level of detail to be recorded for the various components of that bridge or class of bridges.

(c) The bridge inspection procedures shall ensure that the level of detail and the inspection procedures are appropriate to the configuration of the bridge; conditions found during previous inspections; the nature of the railroad traffic moved over the bridge (including equipment weights, train frequency and length, levels of passenger and hazardous materials traffic); and vulnerability of the bridge to damage.

(d) The bridge inspection procedures shall be designed to detect, report and protect deterioration and deficiencies before they present a hazard to safe train operation.

Refer to 49 CFR 237.109 – Bridge Inspection Records

A reasonable expectation is that the hearing examiner would examine inspection logs before coming to a conclusion regarding the adequacy of BNSF inspections and repair/replacement of the bridge. In fact, the bridge’s handling of increased oil traffic without establishing that BNSF has, in fact, has inspected the bridge and corrected deficiencies should require examination of records that become public.

BNSF Swinomish Channel Swinging Bridge


Sixty-two years old, located at the north end of the Swinomish Channel

In 1953, Foss tugs hauled a 775-ton, 368-foot, swing, draw-span from a construction yard on Seattle’ Duwamish Water to the north end of the Swinomish Slough, near Anacortes, for installation on the Great Northern Railway’s branch line between Burlington and Anacortes. The biggest project of its kind undertaken at that time on the West Coast, three Foss tugs handled the delicate movement, which entailed positioning the long, steel span on two 120-foot Foss barges lashed end-to-end. The “floating” bridge was barged without incident via Deception Pass to the span’s installation site. (The initial Swinomish Channel Swinging Bridge was installed in 1891.)

Swinomish Indian Tribal Community’s Climate Change Initiative Impact Assessment Technical Report, Oct. 2009

  • Erosion of bridge footings: Erosion of bridge footings and supports may occur from higher tides and storm surges. Increased flooding events can cause soil saturation and surface erosion of materials around bridge footings, potentially decreasing their structural stability and increasing maintenance and operational costs (NRCNA 2008). Erosion of bridge footings can also be caused by scour from increased water flow from flooding and tidal surges, resulting in structural instability. Scour is created when sediment is washed away from the bottom of a river, leaving a hole. This generally happens at any time but is more prominent during floods and increased water flow. This is a concern, because if the rock or sediment that a bridge rests on is scoured, particularly local scour can make bridges unsafe for travel because of degradation of structural base support (Warren 1993).
  • Increased fatigue and deterioration of bridge joints: Increased temperatures create thermal expansion of bridge joints. Bridges are designed to accommodate movement from thermal expansion and contraction. However, significant temperature increases from climate change can exceed standards for the current design, causing it to reach its threshold for thermal expansion (Soo Hoo 2005). With increased and prolonged exposure to heat, parts of the bridge are heated and not allowed to further expand; creating stress to the structure that may either damage the bridge or elements that the bridge is constrained by. This will potentially increase maintenance costs and negatively affect operations.

FRA Region 8 Track Safety Specialist James Adams expresses concern about rail movement of the Swinomish Channel Bridge.

Please refer to attached email copy, which involved Rep. Jeff Morris. The email states the following:

After viewing these photos, FRA Region 8 Track Safety Specialist James Adams wrote on 2/18/14, “The West Conley rail slip joint concerns me. Paul is going to call the railroad and see if he can get the railroad to adjust it. Paul, at your earliest convenience, please conduct a thorough inspection of this line, also take a look at the rail anchor pattern approaching the bridge. It appears there may be issues regarding rail movement.”

· Photos concerning such taken are viewed at

If the BNSF Skagit Swinomish Swinging Bridge were to fail and cause an oil train derailment, an oil spill would impact surrounding shorelines, salmon and shellfish habitat, the fishing industry and boat tourism in La Conner and Anacortes. An oil spill expanding throughout the Fidalgo and Padilla Bays and the Salish Sea could have a devastating impact on aquatic life and the people whose livelihoods and sustenance depends on them.

Skagit County’s failure to ensure oil spill prevention would stain tourism and quality of life and livelihood..

Refer to 49 CFR 237.109 – Bridge Inspection Records, as attached.

A reasonable expectation is that the hearing examiner would examine inspection logs before coming to a conclusion regarding the adequacy of BNSF inspections and repair/replacement of the bridge. In fact, the bridge’s handling of increased oil traffic without establishing that BNSF has, in fact, has inspected the bridge and corrected deficiencies should require examination of records that become public.

Moreover, please do not overlook the threat of terrorism. Oil trains are easy targets. Ignition of an explosion or trigger of a spill could easily be manipulated.


Add comment

  Country flag

  • Comment
  • Preview

Copyright © 1998–2012 Evergreen Islands. All rights reserved.