Inspection reports detail the state of the province’s bridges

Barb Sweet
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At last inspection, the majority of the province’s bridges were in fair or poor condition.

And more of them were in poor condition than good condition — 168 versus 143.

Most bridges — roughly 420 — were rated in fair condition, including the lift bridge in Placentia. However, that bridge has been investigated more closely since its 2011 inspection, which resulted in the implementation of weight restrictions.

One bridge was found to be unsafe, another uninspectable.

Through provincial access to information legislation, The Telegram obtained inspection reports on 731 bridges. They were built as far back as 1925 and as recently as last year, although only 61 of them were built this century.

(CLICK HERE for complete list of province's bridges and listed state of condition)

Roughly 460 were built before 1980, and about 270 of those were built before 1970.

Bridges are not necessarily inspected every year — some were inspected this year, others last year, some in 2010 and a few even earlier.

In 2003, the auditor general’s report found that the average age of bridges in the provincial database was 29 years.

According to the reports examined by The Telegram, the average age now is 35 years, a figure not challenged by the government.

As well, in 2003, the auditor general found that only 80 of the province’s then 715 bridges were in poor condition, 226 were fair, 349 were good, 54 were not rated and six were unsafe based on inspections as of Dec. 31, 2001.

The  inspection reports were requested by The Telegram in March and supplied this month, following a review of the Department of Transportation and Works’ database. The department said the delay was caused by having to update the database to remove all structures replaced by steel culverts, transferred to a municipality or demolished.

In cases where bridges were in poor condition, The Telegram asked Transportation and Works about the status of repairs. Some inspections recommend immediate repairs or replacement, while others suggest the work can wait up to three years.

Of the 170 bridges The Telegram inquired about, the department said nine have been repaired, seven have work underway and two are closed. Another 11 are no longer used as provincial highways, but continue to be inspected. They remain standing, even though when they were last inspected it was recommended that they be torn down.

The department said work will be done in the “near future” on five more bridges.

The remainder are being reviewed or have been reinspected and it was determined that rehab work can be delayed.

Placentia Mayor Bill Hogan, who was a Liberal cabinet minister in the early 1990s, said he understands fiscal restraint. The Liberal government of his day didn’t have the money for fixups, he said.

And he also understands the restraints of the current government in the face of infrastructure demands, even with economic prosperity. But he said more surplus money in recent years could have been used on infrastructure, rather than paying down debt.

Hogan’s town and its bridge have been making news since February, when the province placed weight restrictions on the Sir Ambrose Shea lift bridge, built in 1961.

When the bridge was inspected last year, its was described as being in fair condition.

But the bridge inspector noted that the status was unchanged from 2004 and ’07, except that the bridge was tentatively scheduled to be replaced in 2011. That obviously did not happen.

Although the overall condition was fair, the substructure was found to be in poor condition, with severe corrosion to the sheet pile ice walls surrounding the piers and severe disintegration to the ends of both piers. Other problems included cracks, erosion and severe rutting.

It wasn’t until the province experienced the sticker shock of replacement estimates that it discovered it should put a weight restriction on the structure.

Transportation and Works Minister Tom Hedderson said when the tender was cancelled, the province brought in a consultant to see if the shelf life of the bridge could be extended, perhaps even by decades.

Because the lift bridge is the only one of its kind in the province, the department lacked the necessary expertise.

The consultant recommended a load-bearing test last fall and that took a couple months, Hedderson said. The result of that was the implementation of the weight restriction.

But if the bridge was listed in overall fair condition in 2011 —  inspections rate elements of the substructure, superstructure and deck and come up with an overall condition —  and the load-bearing concerns were not caught through the department’s inspection, can the public be confident that the system works and that even bridges in fair condition don’t have serious problems?

Hogan’s not impressed.

“It’s frightening to think some bridges are fair when they were worse than fair,” he said of the lift bridge example.

“I shudder to think of it.”

Hedderson, however, said the public can be comforted, because the Placentia steel bridge is unique and because most of the province’s bridges are concrete and “can be easily inspected.”

Meanwhile, the province is carrying out $1.7-million in emergency rehab to get four to six more years out of the Placentia bridge and is expecting to issue a retender for its replacement later this summer.

Organizations: The Telegram, Department of Transportation and Works

Geographic location: Placentia

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