Blog Post #186 – Alberta Boom Strains Bridges

Excerpt from

The province’s booming economy means its 7,000 bridges are carrying more heavy trucks, supplies and people than ever before — and about half are nearing the end of their lifespan and need urgent inspections, rehabilitation and replacement, says one of Alberta’s top structural engineers.

About half of the province’s bridges were built in the 1960s or earlier, and structures of that vintage normally have a lifespan of about 50 years, said professor Roger Cheng, head of the University of Alberta’s civil and environmental engineering department.

“It’s not saying every bridge is unsafe, it’s just saying that we do have a problem on our hands,” he said Thursday.

“The aging infrastructure is a common theme across all North America. It’s not just an Alberta problem.”

Cheng and government officials say nothing is guaranteed, but the system is doing well compared with other parts of Canada and the United States.

But following the bridge collapse in Minneapolis and a similar one in Quebec, many are wondering about the condition of the concrete and steel that takes them across rivers and freeways.

Experts say Canadians have every right to worry.

Bridges in Canada have reached 49 per cent of their useful life, according to a 2006 Statistics Canada study. Saeed Mirza, a professor of civil engineering at Montreal’s McGill University and a nationally recognized expert on infrastructure, calls the state of Canada’s infrastructure disastrous.

In Alberta, Cheng said even though the province has few steel arch bridges of the type that collapsed in Minneapolis — instead building concrete bridges reinforced by steel — the province needs to put more resources into checks, repairs and high-quality new bridges that will last a century.

But doing the necessary fixes will be difficult because the costs are so high. The bill is about $5 million for major repairs or to replace small bridges, and up to $30 million for larger bridges, he said. “Really, it’s not possible to do that.”

Cheng said Alberta had the best transportation department in the country until the early 1990s, when the Klein-era cuts were implemented. Since then, the university professor said bridges have still been maintained — albeit with a much-larger private construction presence and less publicly paid engineers.

In recent years, the province has begun to beef up its transportation and infrastructure department again, he said. “The reason I know that is they hire quite a lot of our graduates,” he said.

While groups such as the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties have expressed concerns about the condition of rural bridges and have called for more infrastructure funding, the government said the province’s bridges are being properly maintained.

“We don’t let things get to the point where they fall down,” said Trent Bancarz, a spokesman for Alberta Infrastructure and Transportation, noting “it’s highly unlikely” that any incident like the one in Minneapolis could happen here — and no provincially maintained bridge has ever collapsed so dramatically.

He said the lifespan of bridges is closer to 75 years, and about 10 per cent of the province’s bridges will need to be replaced or have serious repairs within the next three years to a decade.

“You can’t be fooling around with these things, particularly in the area of bridges. It’s just such a safety issue.”

Bancarz said it’s unclear how big an impact the province’s economic and population growth is having on roads and bridges. “The increasing activity is not so much creating structural problems as capacity problems,” he said.

In Calgary, Peter Enslen, manager of construction and materials for city roads, said there are no bridges in the city like the one that collapsed in Minneapolis.

Right now, the 85th Street N.W. bridge over railway tracks is being worked on, along with the St. George’s Bridge near the zoo and the two bridges on Macleod Trail that span the Elbow River.

“We have a list of bridges that need some work over the next few years but none of them are especially critical,” Enslen said. “We’re trying to be ahead of the game. We’re trying to do the work on the bridge before we’re in an emergency situation.

“It’s hard to keep up with the costs.”

There has been at least one bridge collapse in recent years in the city. In October 2004, two workers plunged 12 metres into the Bow River when part of another 85th Street N.W. bridge (located slightly south of the 85th Street bridge currently under construction) collapsed while under construction. One worker had no injuries while the other suffered a broken leg.

Enslen said the incident was investigated, and “the way that the bridge was widened ended up putting quite a load on the piers . . . it’s just something that happened and we’ve learned from.” Enslen declined to go into detail about where the error was made.

My opinion

North America has issues everywhere especially on maintenance and the upkeep of certain structures. Alberta is not the only one with this problem.

When structures are built, the emphasis is on the NOW, not the LATER aspect. In Ontario, we have the nuclear facilities coming up to their allotted time frame and we need to produce more or replace the current nuclear reactors.

I also wager the bridges in Ontario do not have the engineering ‘seal of approval’ as well. It would be safe to say, all the Canadian provinces and many of our neighbours to the south have the same concerns. Money was allocated to build the structures but there was nothing put aside for maintenance or replacement costs. It is easier to build than to upkeep!

I wanted to have this blog placed here to have everyone consider issues for the upcoming 2012 calendar year. Let us hope not to hear of a bridge collapsing next year due to poor maintenance or upkeep. I do not want to be the one saying, “I told you so.” That attitude will not help the families that may lose a loved one because of it!

To you and yours, “All the best from HRS Group”. May you have a prosperous New Year and throughout all of 2012.

Remember — In Canada, “ALL Accidents are Preventable”

HRS Group Inc. has a great team that can help you with all your health and safety need. Contact Deborah toll free at 1-877-907-7744 or locally at 705-749-1259.

We can also be reached at 

‘Work’ and ‘Play’ safe.

Daniel L. Beal
CHSEP – Foundation Level
VP & Senior Trainer
HRS Group Inc.

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