Minister says bridges safe, despite poor condition of some

Barb Sweet
Published on June 25, 2012

The Sir Robert Bond bridge underwent rehab work in 2010, but two years later it remains rated in overall poor condition, and repairs are recommended within one year.

The 1958 bridge, which spans the Trans-Canada Highway near Bishop’s Falls, has a substructure deemed in poor condition, as are its expansion joints, bearing seat, curbs, deck and roadway.

There are cracks and concrete deterioration. The abutments and retaining walls are recommended for rehab, but there has been no announcement yet of that work.

That bridge is one of nearly 170 in the provincial roads network judged to be in poor condition.

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

The Department of Transportation and Works told The Telegram that some of those are being worked on, including the E.S. Spencer bridge on the TCH near Terra Nova, which is being replaced. Others are scheduled for rehab or are being reviewed, or the repairs can be delayed awhile. 

When it comes to bridges deemed in overall poor condition, the provincial inspection system rates the repairs as being needed immediately, within one year or within three years.

Unless a bridge makes the news, details of the inspections aren’t publicly available. A May news release on four bridges to be repaired in the Placentia-St. Mary’s area touted the government’s investment in infrastructure and mentioned the importance of the bridge inspection system, but did not note that the bridges at Big Barachois Brook, Little Barachois Brook, Red Head River and Beckford River are all in poor condition.

The Telegram reviewed 730 inspection reports and learned that many of those in poor condition have problems such as corrosion, wide cracks, erosion, disintegrating and crumbling components, missing guide rails, rotting guide rail posts, exposed rebar, missing hazard markers and handrails that are falling off or missing.

Asked about the list of damages, Transportation and Works Minister Tom Hedderson said many of the problems may make bridges look unsightly, but they don’t affect the integrity of the structure.

“It’s basically cosmetic. It’s not going to fall down,” he said.

In just one example, last year’s inspection report on the 1966 North River bridge in Clarke’s Beach rated the substructure in poor condition and the overall condition of the bridge as poor.


“Very severe concrete disintegration continues to southwest, northwest abutment corners/exterior faces,” it said.

Both the substructure and superstructure of the Windmill Brook Bridge No. 1 South in the central west region are in poor condition, including the expansion joints, bearings and bearing seat. It is in overall poor condition with repairs recommended within a year.

For a list of bridges deemed in overall poor condition, see graphics page A2 and A4, which also include the department’s response to questions about repair status.

The average age of the bridges is 35 years.

“Depending on the type of bridge you have, lifespans on bridges could be 50-plus years — 70 years, for that matter — depending on the type of bridge,” Hedderson said.

The 2003 auditor general’s report noted that a 50-year life estimate is contingent on regular maintenance and rehabilitation being undertaken.

The province is not at a point where it only has to worry about maintenance, but instead is catching up on repairs and replacements, Hedderson said, adding he’s more comfortable with the situation now than when the Tories took over in 2003.

“It’s a challenge, no doubt about it,” he said.

Hedderson defends his government’s record on bridge work, blaming the “infrastructure deficit” on the Liberal government of the 1990s.

“Coming into 2003, we had an awful infrastructure deficit,” he said. “We are in a situation right now where we are putting sufficient dollars into that. Since 2009, we have looked at close to 200 bridges, at a cost of $22 million,” he said.

Hedderson said there are roughly 800 bridges under provincial watch.

He said priority has been put on TCH bridges, because of the volume and high speeds of traffic.

“The ’90s, it was a terrible time. A lot of our infrastructure, we’re paying the price for it now,” Hedderson said.

He insisted staff are keeping constant watch on the bridges, even beyond the two-year routine inspection system, and said bridges will be closed immediately or restricted if they are compromised.

“We have to be very diligent in making sure we are doing those inspections and keeping up a database so we can make sure we are knocking off the high priority ones in the order they should be,” Hedderson said.

“I’ve got a great level of comfort we have skilled individuals out doing the work. … The responsibility for the individual bridges in any particular area falls upon the regional staff. They’re the ones travelling the roads every day, making sure that anything they see out of the ordinary they inspect, stop, get out and look. If there’s any question at all, we shut down, we restrict, we close off.”

But how could staff not notice missing guide rails and other problems?

Hedderson said repairs are prioritized and maintenance is done according to safety.

“It looks bad, but when you look at the structural integrity, it’s as safe as can be,” he said of those in apparent rough shape.

A bridge inspected and found in fair or good condition can also be subject to quick deterioration due to adverse weather events like ice and heavy rainfall.

The 2003 auditor general’s report called for a long-term plan to address bridge rehab needs.

Hedderson said the department has improved its inspection database and is developing a new data management system to sort out priorities and plan for the future. Two extra staff have been hired.

But implementing that system is years out, he admitted.

The database currently used by the department costs out some of the repairs and replacements, including the recommended time for replacements, but it’s not mandatory for inspectors to include that information, and some don’t.

And often the estimates are way off. The 2011 inspection of the Placentia lift bridge estimated a $10-million replacement cost. When the job went to tender, the province was expecting a cost of around  $24 million, but the bid came in at roughly twice that. It was cancelled and emergency repairs are underway.

But if the projected replacement timeline is any indication, about 220 bridges will need to be replaced between 2013 and 2031, at a potential cost of $600 million. That figure, however, may not be reliable down the road, as it may not reflect the true price of materials and labour, or the replacement date could change depending on rehab work.

As for the Sir Robert Bond bridge, Hedderson insists it’s structurally sound, as are all the other bridges awaiting repair, no matter how bad they look or the problems detailed on inspection sheets.