A few minutes online and $10 are all it takes to get a permit to drive an oversize truck across Washington state.
Drivers obtain more than 130,000 of the permits every year, many of them through the state Department of Transportation’s website, without ever involving a state employee.
The permit includes this warning: “Route OK — WSDOT Does Not Guarantee Height Clearances.”
The practice explains how Canadian truck driver William Scott got a permit to drive his 15-foot 9-inch-tall load across a bridge that, at its lowest point, had 14-feet 5-inches of clearance.
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The state says it was his responsibility to stay in the inside lane, where the Skagit River bridge is more than 17 feet tall. There, his truck could have crossed the span with no trouble.
Instead, state officials say, the truck nicked the bridge. As Scott watched in his rearview mirror, the northern end of the bridge collapsed into the water.
“He looked in the mirrors, and it just dropped out of sight,” the truck driver’s wife, Cynthia Scott, told The Associated Press. “I spoke to him seconds after it happened. He was just horrified.”
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) arrived Friday to investigate the loss of the bridge, which may cost an estimated $15 million to replace.
Also on Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee and members of Washington’s congressional delegation lined up, promising a replacement, while holiday travelers lined up on Interstate 5, waiting to get through the detour.
If the investigation finds the trucking company liable, the state can pursue a claim for damages.
“It is obviously too early in the investigative phase to commit to a course of action, but that is one possible step that WSDOT could take,” said Janelle Guthrie, spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office.
Scott, an experienced driver with at least eight years of experience contracting with Alberta-based Mullen Trucking, is cooperating with investigators. State officials could not confirm reports Scott was trying to move into the left lane to get more clearance, but was blocked by another vehicle.
Scott’s load, a big steel box used for a drilling platform, was headed to Vancouver, Wash. The upper right corner of the box was damaged.
Accompanying Scott was a pilot car, which was driving in front with a flag on a pole. It went across the bridge first to make sure the truck wasn’t too tall, said Ed Scherbinski, Mullen’s vice president for operations.
Scherbinski questioned whether Scott was at fault, saying it’s possible the bridge failed first and hit the truck on its way down.
When drivers apply for an oversize permit from the state, the system searches a database created by regional transportation and bridge staff. The application generates a list of trouble spots for drivers to watch out for, said Jim Wright, permit program manager for WSDOT. Scott’s permit didn’t flag the Skagit River Bridge because it wasn’t considered a trouble spot.
“Normally, we don’t have all the height restrictions in our program,” said Wright. “What we do is require the customer to check that route to make sure that the route will accommodate the load.”
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter
News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report. Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.