Monday, September 5, 2011

The Bridge Debacle

Thank goodness for sharp-eyed canoeists. If a local resident hadn't been canoeing under the Diefenbaker Bridge last weekend, and looked up to see a crack in the girder, who knows when it might have been discovered. The bridge is not inspected annually, and I understand that Highways and Infrastructure is behind in their schedule of bridge inspections. Since the bridge is within city limits, it is likely to be considered a city responsibility, even though many of its users, especially on a long weekend like this one, aren't city residents.

Predictably, the most common cry that has come out is the need for a second bridge. While I'm not denying that need, we also need to take care of the current bridge, otherwise the same scenario will play out again, even after a second bridge is built.

Six or seven years ago, when the bridge was resurfaced, it was identified that the steel structure under the bridge needed to be maintained regularly. The recommendation was that the supporting structure should be sandblasted, inspected, and painted, with an estimated price tag of $2 million. Part of the reason for the high cost is that tarps would have to be put up underneath the bridge, to prevent materials from falling into the river.

This work hasn't been done. It's been identified in city budgets, but both the last council, and the current council, have deferred this work. Other bridges in the city, such as the Central Avenue and Sixth Avenue viaducts, also require maintenance work that has been postponed. When we put our priorities on other projects, both large and small (and I'll leave you to pick out your favourite example of non-essential spending by city council), it shouldn't be a surprise when basic structures start to show serious signs of damage.

We also could have sustained the city's fiscal stabilization fund, which would be able to provide the money to take care of this sort of emergency action. Six years ago there was $2 million in this fund; it has since been depleted for various projects, although this year's budget, for the first time in five years, put $200,000 back. Not much, when we start talking about unscheduled bridge repairs.

However, this has definitely put the bridge report back on to council's radar. Completed in 2008, it was reviewed at that time by the mayor and one councillor, one city staff member, and RM councils, as well as the Ministry of Highways. No report was made to council at that time. Apparently, the original report just showed a bridge outside city limits; the report was then modified to show an option of having a bridge inside the city.

In 2010, a public meeting was held at City Hall, at which the route options were presented. The report itself didn't come to council until this year, when I made a motion in January to bring the report to council for discussion. I thought that, with the twinning of Highway 11, as well as various discussions about annexation of lands south of the city, we should endorse a route option, and we could then consider this route option as part of a coordinated planning approach. When the report was brought forward, it was set aside as a topic for a strategic planning meeting of council, but no bridge discussions have happened yet.

But effectively closing half the bridge has apparently proved to be the incentive to starting serious discussions with Highways about a new bridge. I was rather amused to read in the media that the city now supports a bridge outside city limits (although it's never been discussed at council), which means that the province will pick up the tab. To me that's been the sensible option all along, and we could have made that decision three years ago, when the report was first issued, instead of not talking about it at all.

And perhaps this demonstration of why it's important to spend money preventatively will help in future budget discussions. I know that there aren't nearly the photo ops attached with doing regular maintenance as with opening new facilities, but just as with your car, regular maintenance can save money, and structures, in the long run. Not to mention insanely long line-ups on a long weekend.

"For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail." - old nursery rhyme, supposedly based on Richard III's loss in Bosworth Field)