Bridge For Sale: History Clashes With Safety In Washington State

9 hours ago
Originally published on September 6, 2017 1:58 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

New infrastructure spending is a big topic in the news these days. But one thing we don't talk about is how to get rid of the old infrastructure. Julia Dewitt of our Planet Money podcast spoke to people who were finding novel ways to deal with that problem.

JULIA DEWITT, BYLINE: Washington state posted an ad on their website recently. The ad is offering any qualified taker a free bridge.

CLAUDIA BINGHAM BAKER: Are you in the market for a bridge? You are - great.

DEWITT: This is Claudia Bingham Baker reading from the Washington Department of Transportation's website. She runs communications at the DOT for the Olympic region.

BAKER: How about the 1925 State Route 167 Puyallup River Bridge? We're looking for a new home for this 92-year-old charmer, and yours might just be a match.

DEWITT: It's Claudia's job to figure out how to give away this bridge. It used to carry highway traffic, but it's old and rusty, and it can't hold the big semis anymore. So Washington built a new, safer bridge and moved this one down the street and parked it in a field. It's a pretty nice bridge, and it's free. Actually, better than that, if you take this bridge, Washington state will pay you a million dollars.

BAKER: We have had a lot of inquiries. You can imagine people are seeing free bridge plus a million bucks being advertised. And that's not exactly what we're offering.

DEWITT: When people see free bridge plus a million bucks, like, (laughter) what is that? Who calls?

BAKER: It's been a whole range of inquiries, everything from a person asking if they could put a tarp on it and live in it (laughter) to a couple of serious inquiries from contractor-type people that actually might understand the complexity of what we're talking about.

DEWITT: The bridge is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. So the next person that takes it has to take care of it. In other words, you can't just take the million bucks and dump the bridge in a ravine.

BAKER: So we started brainstorming who would be our target audiences, and it's obviously other governmental jurisdictions like cities and counties or parks departments or even golf courses. So those target audiences were identified right away.

DEWITT: Hocking bridges is actually not that unusual, it turns out. Texas does this a lot. New England has a bunch of old, protected bridges. Missouri has a whole page on their Department of Transportation website devoted to bridge giveaways. It's titled Free Bridges - exclamation point. If you're curious, you can find the Puyallup River Bridge and many others on a website for bridge enthusiasts called bridgehunters.com.

Washington expects more bridge giveaways in the coming years as old infrastructure needs to be replaced. In the case of the Puyallup River Bridge, they have agreed, with the State Department of Archaeological and Historic Preservation to look for a new owner for two years.

BAKER: If we don't have a serious taker by June of 2019, then we will demolish and recycle the bridge.

DEWITT: OK. Will you be sad? Would that be sad?

BAKER: You know, I've worked at DOT for almost 30 years, and I've seen many structures come and go.

DEWITT: (Laughter).

BAKER: And...

(LAUGHTER)

DEWITT: You have to learn to stay detached.

BAKER: Yeah, my - a little piece of my heart goes with all of them (laughter).

DEWITT: If you want to check it out, the Puyallup River Bridge is still sitting in a field at the intersection of State Routes 161 and 167 - applications open soon. Julia Dewitt, NPR News.

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