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Engineer questions the decision to replace Port Mann bridge

Richard Gilbert

The plan to twin the Port Mann Bridge near Vancouver, B.C. would have been a much cheaper option than building a new single span, says the award winning Dutch engineer, who designed and supervised the construction of the existing structure.

The plan to twin the Port Mann Bridge near Vancouver, B.C. would have been a much cheaper option than building a new single span, says the award winning Dutch engineer, who designed and supervised the construction of the existing structure.

“The expected life of the Port Mann Bridge was in the order of a hundred years,” said Gerrit Hardenberg, who was employed by CBA Engineering Ltd. as a senior structural engineer during the construction of the existing bridge between 1957 and 1964.

“As I understand it, the bridge was thoroughly examined in about 1995 and considered to be in excellent condition and expected to provide service for many more years.”

The original plan to improve the flow of traffic over the Fraser River between Coquitlam to Surrey involved twinning the bridge with another crossing to the west of the existing span.

However, former premier Gordon Campbell unveiled plans for a new 10-lane superbridge on Feb 4, 2009.

Max Logan, director of communications for the Transportation Investment Corporation, which is involved with the Port Mann/Highway 1 Project, explained the decision.

“As part of the competitive selection process, the incremental costs associated with constructing a new 10-lane bridge and the costs associated with maintaining the existing bridge for another 40 years were reviewed,” he said.

“It was concluded that a new bridge saves almost $200 million in avoided seismic upgrades and operations, maintenance and rehabilitation costs. Conversely, the incremental costs of building a new 10-lane bridge – instead of a new five-lane bridge for the twinning option – were estimated at $180 million. The result is a net benefit over the long term.”

Campbell said that the twinning option would include the cost of the new bridge and the cost of taking the old bridge down as well as replacing it with a new bridge.

In 2009, he said it would cost about $500 million.

Hardenberg was astonished when he found out about the B.C. government’s decision to replace the Port Mann bridge with a new cable-stayed structure that will open in late 2012 or early 2013.

“I consider the project a waste of money, firstly, because the present bridge has not come at all to the end of its useful life,” he said.

“Hence, I do not understand where the sum of $180 million would be required to give the bridge another 40 years.”

According to Hardenberg, a ball park figure for the twinning option can be calculated by multiplying the cost of the original bridge by the rate of inflation over a 45 year period.

The Port Mann Bridge was officially opened in 1964 and cost $25 million.

Using the Consumer Price Index (CPI) between November 1964 and November 2008, the cost of twinning the bridge should be about $173 million.

This represents a 592 per cent change in price over the 44 year period since the project was completed.

Contractors on the original project included; Perini Pacific Ltd, John Laing and Son, Dominion Bridge Company and the Western Bridge Division of Canada Iron Foundries.

Hardenberg said some money should be added to the $173 million figure to get the existing bridge in top-notch condition.

Once this is done, you have a starting point for comparing the cost of the twinning option with the sums of money that are now being spent to build the single span.

Peter Kiewit Sons Co. and Flatiron Constructors Canada Limited were awarded a $2.46 billion fixed-price contract by the B.C. government to design and build the new bridge and to widen Highway 1 for 37 kilometres on the east and west sides of the Fraser River.

The $2.46 million figure is for the entire bridge and highway expansion project.

The government hasn’t released bridge specific construction costs.

However, Logan said the bridge accounts for about a third of the total project cost.

This works out to about $820 million.

The final cost is $3.3 billion, which includes operating and maintenance, rehabilitation and financing costs.

“I think that the final decision for the project is influenced by the desire to save the government the trouble of financing the whole scheme by cunningly replacing a free bridge with a toll bridge,” said Hardenberg.

“Politically, this transition seems easier if you go for a completely new scheme and remove the old bridge.”

The government initially reached an agreement-in-principle with Connect BC Development Group for a public-private partnership (P3) for the construction of the new bridge on Jan. 28, 2009.

However, the consortium, which included Macquarie Group, Transtoll Inc., Peter Kiewit Sons Co. and Flatiron Constructors Canada Limited, couldn’t get financing.

When negotiations with MacQuarie collapsed, the government changed the procurement process from a P3 to the traditional design and build model.

The project wasn’t put back out to tender.

Hardenberg won an award of design excellence from the National Design Council and the Department of Industry in Ottawa for the creative use of structural steel in the design of the existing Port Mann Bridge.

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