Bridge safety crisis

High risk: A school bus at Grieves Crossing. Photo: Peter Rae bridge
Nanjing Night Net

Hundreds of ageing bridges and culverts across NSW are at risk of collapse, as councils fight a losing battle against a $6.9 billion bill to bring regional infrastructure up to an adequate standard.

In the Kyogle area alone, bridges have collapsed three times since 2004, including just last year when the Mills Road bridge failed under a loaded gravel truck. Council officials have expressed alarm about the dangers posed to school buses from a similar collapse.

Across two-thirds of the state, councils are in urgent need of more than $340 million just to bring their timber and concrete bridges up to a ”satisfactory” condition. The problem is intensifying each year as many of the 9289 bridges across NSW reach the end of their structural life.

A joint Herald/UTS investigation has found that although local governments are spending $16 million a year in an attempt to maintain their bridges, they need to be spending double that amount just to prevent the spans from deteriorating further.

Although major bridges and spans in metropolitan areas are the responsibility of the state roads authority, the majority must be managed by local councils.

Mick Savage, from the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australia, said a new source of funding for the state’s bridges had to be urgently found.

”There are 650 bridges that are soon going to be unserviceable and some of those are likely to be currently unsafe,” he said.

On the north coast, a clutch of councils including Kyogle, Clarence Valley and Kempsey Shire are facing a potentially catastrophic failure of one of their 806 bridges.

For several years, these councils have been forced to continually lower the load limits on their bridges to keep them open.

”They are a massive, massive problem for us,” said Graham Kennett, the head of infrastructure at Kyogle Council. ”It is the only ‘extreme risk’ we have got.”

Mr Kennett said that in 2008, a council water tanker fell through the Simes Road Bridge, ”which we preferred than a school bus”.

But a 12-tonne school bus still plies its way each day over the Grieves Crossing, one of 13 bridges along Gradys Creek road in the Kyogle council area. Grieves Crossing is rated 4.04 on the government’s 1-5 condition scale; a level 5 would be deemed ”critical, beyond repair”. There are an unknown number of similar school bus crossings across the state.

According to the first ever statutory self-assessment required of councils, at least 65 councils in 2011 reported significant or ”critical” deterioration of their bridges and culverts. Despite this, just months after winning government, the O’Farrell administration terminated a program to replace timber bridges that had been running since 2006, and which had led to the construction of 172 new spans in 57 council areas.

A $145 million ”Bridges for the Bush” program announced in October last year instead caters to bridges on roads used by major haulage companies, and will not provide a single dollar to councils trying to prevent the closure, or worse, the collapse of their bridges.

Meanwhile both bus and transport companies are lobbying the state government to raise load limits on local roads, the Herald has learnt.

In the Clarence Valley area, there are 17 bridges that have the second-worst asset condition rating, described in official government reports as ”requires major reconstruction”. If these bridges are not swiftly repaired, they will move to ”critical, beyond repair”.

The council also has 163 other bridges rated as ”deterioration evident”, some of which are in ”marginal” condition.

The Herald’s analysis was based on a new mandatory reporting regime forced on councils in 2011, whereby each council had to produce a detailed asset condition report known as a Special Schedule 7.

These documents show that some of the poorest councils in the state also face the largest infrastructure bills.

Cobar Shire Council (population 5120) needed to spend $46 million to bring its bridges and culverts up to a satisfactory standard, and Lachlan Shire Council (population 6967) faced a $23 million bill. In Cobar, the backlog equates to a bill per household of $18,714.

A 2011 report by the Mid-North Coast Group of Councils reported that the average condition of bridges on the north coast was ”evident deterioration”, and that each council was spending about $928,000 less per year on maintenance than was required. But the problems could be worse.

The Herald analysis shows that in 2011, dozens of councils failed to meet the new statutory reporting requirements in full, with many unable to identify the condition of their bridges.

Mr Savage said councils are going to be forced to close an increasing number of bridges because they cannot afford to maintain them. ”The only hope that local government has got is that there is a new source of revenue negotiated with the federal government.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.