Safety of Alberta’s bridges

“None of Alberta’s 4,400 bridge structures are in imminent danger of collapse but work needs to be done to maintain safety”, said Auditor General, Merwan Saher, when presenting his fall Audit Report on November 1, 2012.
In January 1996, bridge maintenance was outsourced to the private sector. At that time the role of the Department of Transportation was changed from doing the work to one of steering the work. The department was to set policy and standards and monitor to ensure that the performance standards were met.  It was also hoped the change would save money, reduce government administration, provide opportunities for innovation and facilitate growth in the private sector.

Saher noted that the Department has a well-designed inspection system but they are not using it properly.  His review found that about 50 per cent of the inspections were being done by inspectors whose certification had lapsed.
Monitoring the maintenance activities was also a serious oversight of the Transportation Department. The department developed spot audit checks to monitor the quality of inspections but didn’t follow it consistently.  
The Auditor General’s review of the Department’s 2011 spot audits found that:
· For 11 of the 12 structures the Department re-inspected, its staff found 36 maintenance recommendations that should be done in 2012 that contractors had not identified.
· The Department’s staff consistently rated the condition of some bridge parts lower than the contractor’s inspector did.
· An inspector who performed eight inspections in one day missed 26 maintenance recommendations.  Of the 1,700 inspections done in the 2010-2011 fiscal year, on 75 days, inspectors did 10 or more inspections in one day.
For the year ended March 31, 2011, contractors did inspections on about 1,700 bridges and culverts.  The Department paid the contractors about $650,000 to do this work.  The contractors did the inspections in about 250 working days—about the number of days that one person works in a year.    As well, Transportation personnel do not have a way to deal with those contractors who deliver shoddy inspections.
“The risk of unsafe bridges is unnecessarily high”, said Saher.  The current practice increases the risk that deficiencies will be missed, or repairs necessary to protect the billion-dollar bridge investment will not be done.
The estimated replacement value of Alberta’s bridge structures is $6.7 billion, with 45 per cent of bridges older than 40 years, and 20 per cent older than 50 years. The Department says it will need $900 million over the next decade to replace bridges but right now is budgeting for only $25 million a year, a shortfall of $65 million per year.
“The Department,” said Saher, “told him that the plan to address the shortfall in the short term is to close bridges or reduce the maximum weight of the trucks travelling over them.”
The Auditor General continues to recommend to the Department of Treasury Board that it consider the impact on service quality and overall costs of deferring maintenance and the impact of different funding levels on the safety and use of bridge infrastructures.

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