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Bridge cost overruns draw the ire of Skakun, McConnachie

City engineer Adam Holmes says the Willow Cale bridge should be open by the summer. Bill Phillips photo
City engineer Adam Holmes at the Willow Cale bridge last April.

Two city councillors have voiced their displeasure with massive cost overruns on the Willow Cale bridge repair project and the paying for it isn’t done yet.

Staff brought forward a report Monday seeking approval from council to borrow $6.8 million for the project which, when it started, was about $1.5 million.

Candidate Terri McConnachie at the CBC/Prince George Public Library forum. Bill Phillips photo
Councillor Terri McConnachie

“We’ve had a consultant, more than one engineering firm, a couple of contractors, design construction experts all involved in this process,” said Coun. Terri McConnachie “I understand we went to remove a failing culvert, to replace it with a failing bridge, to now remedy that with another culvert which is also not acceptable.”

The Willow Cale bridge replaced a culvert that had been installed when the Willow Cale Forest Service Road was first built. An inspection indicated that the culvert was failing and by early 2016, single-lane traffic was implemented across the culvert.  Construction of a replacement crossing began in September, 2016 and the bridge opened on March 30, 2017.

The design team consisted of DWB Consulting Services Ltd. and GeoNorth Engineering Ltd., according to a report before council on Monday. The contractor was Belvedere Place Contracting Ltd.

By early August 2017, cracks appeared in the new asphalt on the south side of the bridge, indicating unstable ground beneath. The culprit was determined to be a layer of clay about 20 metres below the surface that was undetected in geotechnical surveys and provided an unstable base for the earth above it. After closing the bridge, the city worked to stabilize the ground underneath the bridge structure. This was achieved by installing a culvert in Haggith Creek and covering it with five metres of fill.

The bridge re-opened in July 2018.

“As a city councillor my only job is exercise financial oversight and force accountability,” said McConnachie. “Every budget time we agonize over sidewalk, lighting, playgrounds, there’s so many other things we need. This is a deliberate shot across the bow, the way this turned out, with all these additional costs and those experts, is simply unacceptable.”

An added issue is that the second culvert the city installed may not be acceptable as Haggith Creek has been determined a fish-bearing stream the culvert outflow is about five feet higher than the creek below it.

Brian Skakun is seeking his sixth term on city council.
Coun. Brian Skakun

“I am so concerned about this, we started at $1.3 million then went to $1.8 million, in my opinion someone’s got to be held responsible,” said Coun. Brian Skakun. “We are held responsible every four years and, in this case, there’s obviously some mistakes made.”

He questioned why the city would install a culvert five feet higher than the creek and asked what the costs will be to deal with the culvert in the future.

“It’s impossible to mitigate it without substantial cost,” he said. “I’m wondering how the mistake was made to have it out of the water that high so there’s no way fish could get through there.”

City engineer Adam Holmes said both the existing culvert and the previous one ranked as being basically the same.

“You couldn’t salvage the culvert that was put in originally and you can’t do anything with the new culvert,” he said. “The other culvert had issues with grade, this one is a little bit higher but it’s not much higher than the previous one.”

He added the new one the city installed is undersized, at about three metres, suggesting that a six-metre culvert would have have been preferred. Skakun then asked why the city would install an under-sized culvert.

“That was the quickest and largest culvert we could get that would stabilize the bridge,” Holmes said.

City staff were scheduled to meet with Department of Fisheries and Oceans staff today to discuss the culvert.

“The information I’ve received is that we’re not necessarily out of the woods,” said Skakun, suggesting the $6.8 million cost isn’t the final cost.

Holmes said the culvert will eventually have to be removed.

“DFO will want us to eventually remove the culvert, but what we are saying is that because of public safety we can’t remove the culvert right now,” Holmes said. “The ground needs to consolidate and that could take years to happen.”

In the end, however, council had little choice but to pay the bill and authorized borrowing $6.8 million through the Municipal Finance Authority.