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The Skagit River bridge collapsed after a truck hauling an oversized load struck a support beam, injuring three people.

Elaine Thompson/AP

The number of Canadian shoppers at major retail destinations along the Interstate 5 corridor in Washington state plummeted after the collapse of a bridge over the Skagit River, a study has found.

The long-term study by the Border Policy and Research Institute at Western Washington University is intended to focus on the economic impact of changes that might influence cross-border shopping, such as the exchange rate and sales taxes. Coincidentally, the bridge – a major thoroughfare that connects British Columbia and Washington State and carries more than 70,000 vehicles daily – collapsed on May 23, two months into the study.

A recently released working paper quantifies the decline in sales traffic that retailers had reported anecdotally when detours and traffic jams snarled the area in the four weeks before a temporary span was erected on June 19.

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Counting the number of Canadian licence plates in the parking lots of major retail destinations both before and after the collapse, researchers found some retailers south of the site were significantly affected.

For example, the Costco Wholesale in Marysville, about 50 kilometres south of the Skagit River bridge, saw 80 per cent fewer Canadian-plated vehicles from March to June, according to the report. Also in Marysville, discount retailer Ross suffered a decrease of more than 70 per cent in Canadian customers and Wal-Mart about a 50-per-cent decline.

Most retailers north of the Skagit River bridge surveyed, including the Bellingham Wal-Mart and Costco and Bellis Fair Mall, did not appear to be affected.

"We would normally be hesitant about discussing a time-series study consisting of just two sampling events," the report said, "but in this instance there are stark differences between the March and June data, supporting some general conclusions."

The study, while still in its infancy, "highlights the importance of Canadian visitation to the retail sector within northwest Washington," as well as the fact that reliable infrastructure is key to the regional economy, the report said.

To gather the data, researchers counted the number of Canadian vehicles in parking lots of 29 retail businesses along the 120 km of Interstate 5 in Whatcom, Skagit and Snohomish counties. The counts took place over the Easter weekend (March 28 to 30) and on June 8, 13 and 14.

Three people suffered non-life-threatening injuries after a truck hauling an oversized load struck a support beam, causing the bridge to fall about 15 metres into the river below.

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Traffic along the temporary, narrower span must travel at a reduced speed of 40 miles per hour (64 km/h). The new, permanent span is being built adjacent to the temporary span and is expected to be installed after the Labour Day holiday weekend.

The contractual deadline to open the new, permanent span is Oct. 1, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.

British Columbians spent between $1-billion and $1.6-billion on consumer goods during short-term visits to the United States last year, according to the Business Council of B.C. Without short-term cross-border shopping, the council believes that B.C. retail sales would have grown by 3 per cent in 2012 rather than 1.9 per cent.

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