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Brandon’s battered bridges

Here's the current Brandon bridge tally, by my count:

  • Pedestrian bridge: Closed since 2011
  • Eighth Street bridge: Closed since mid-January, except to pedestrians
  • First Street bridge: Needs immediate reinforcement (and by immediate, I mean they promise by 2015)
  • Daly Overpass: Needs expansion to four lanes, but that's not coming before 2016
  • Thompson Bridge: So new the pavement is still sinking (lol!)

Not looking too good, is it? Let's take a closer look:

First Street Bridge

It was a surprise announcement yesterday that the province will make the First Street bridge its priority after an engineering assessment found that it was in dire shape.

"When the engineers tell us a project should be a priority, we listen," Premier Greg Selinger said, in annoucing the project. Pre-construction and design work is slated for this year, with construction to begin next year.

The mayor sounds like she was surprised, and Drew Caldwell (his constituency includes the bridge) said he didn't know how serious the bridge's condition was until Thursday.

Well, I'm no bridge engineer, but I'm an East End resident, and I walk or ride over and under that bridge regularly. Its condition is no surprise to me.

There were public concerns about the bridge being raised four years ago. Although the link now goes to a 404-error on the city's website, then-Coun. Errol Black brought it to city council in 2010.

At that time, city engineer Ted Snure wrote that a provincial inspection of the First Street bridge had found no problems, but he pledged to stress to the province that there was a need for continued maintenance — even cosmetic maintenance. The First Street bridge had been partially repaved in summer 2010 (it was again in 2012), but concerns remained about the condition of the metal guard rails and the concrete sidewalks.

Those concerns have definitely not been addressed. In the wake of the 2012 Winnipeg bridge tragedy (where a woman's SUV popped through decaying guardrails before plunging to the ice below) I wondered if there would be a province-wide push to assess and upgrade guardrails, but there's been nothing that I've heard of.

That's too bad — the metal guardrails on the First Street bridge are frightening in their state of rot. There are places I can put my fist right through. Crumbling cement at their base doesn't exactly spark confidence in my security as a pedestrian, either. And that's not to mention that the "sidewalk" is merely a strip of gravelly cement that runs inches away from high-speed traffic.

About that traffic — the speed limit is 50 km/h, but you won't find anyone going that slow.

In 2012, when the province was microsurfacing the top of the bridge to provide a smoother driving surface again, residents again raised concerns.

At that time, Ruth Eden, a director of structures, design and construction with Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation, stressed that there were no safety concerns, but she admitted the bridge is in need of work.

At that time, she said the bridge was already in the province's five-year plan, so getting it now in 2015 is only — at maximum — a couple of years early.

Eden said in 2012 that the plan then was to re-do the deck completely, to replace the railings entirely, and to get underneath at the girders as well.

"(We’ll be) looking at the girders … what we need to do to them and any of the concrete under the bridge too, so we go in and re-do the bridge to get another 40 years out of it," she told the Sun more than 18 months ago.

Sounds like exactly what they're proposing to do in 2015.

So — what's changed in the last year and a half to turn it from "it's in our five-year plan" to make it sound like an emergency? That's a question the province needs to answer.

By the way, when they re-do the bridge, they should pay particular attention to improvements for pedestrians and cyclists. There is a ton of residential on the south side of the bridge, and it connects well with both southwest-side sidewalk to downtown and to the city's trail network on the northeast side, where Errol Black Park is. But on the north side of the bridge, where the trail network continues, and where there is substantial recreational space, there is no connection at all.

On the north side of the bridge, cyclists and pedestrians are suddenly dumped onto the shoulder of what's essentially a highway, with zero facilities to make use of, and no way to get where they are going. It's not just annoying, it's dangerous.

Daly Overpass

(above: that is my all-time favourite Daly Overpass photo)

Once the province has gotten First Street all fixed up (hope it doesn't flood!) they'll be able to focus on the Daly Overpass.

That overpass, which I'm fond of describing in web updates for the Sun as a "notorious bottleneck," has needed four lanes instead of three probably since it was first built, some 50 years ago.

But I think we can lay blame for the traffic troubles squarely at the feet of city planners and councillors who allowed massive retail development in a pristine green space that is also a flood plain (cough, Corral Centre, cough) without any forethought about the infrastructure needed to service it.

The developer deserves some opprobrium as well; let's not forget about the fact that there are two commerical shopping centres side by side (Corral Centre and The Paddock) which are not interconnected. A separate turning lane had to be constructed, post-hoc, to accommodate them, and the traffic is horrendous.

I won't spend too much time on the fact that pedestrians at the popular Riverbank Discovery Centre have to cross the intersection three (THREE!!) times if they want to cross from the walking trails to the Starbucks, and that there are barely haphazard facilities for non-motorists in the parking lot itself.

So, it's pretty clear to everyone that the Daly Overpass needs a fourth lane.

But it, too, needs more than driving space. Although there is moderately more pedestrian protection on the Daly Overpass than there is on the First Street bridge, it's certainly not suitable for cyclists, and it's not exactly accessible for pedestrians, either (the Pacific Avenue crossing is annoying, for one).

I have a pie-in-the-sky dream that a Daly Overpass expansion could be coupled with a pedestrian walkway that is bolted to the old warehouse at 18th Street and Pacific Avenue.

Although that old building (used to house a duck processing plant) is currently used for furniture storage, it has great potential. I was lucky enough to have a tour a few years ago, and it's in pretty good shape inside. To my eye, the building could be converted into a Forks-style mini-market, with main-floor access from Pacific Avenue and second-floor access from a walkway that's about the height of the overpass.

Meanwhile, the province pledges that it's on the five-year plan, which only means that they're promising to start it before 2020. We shall see.

Thompson Bridge

The almost-brand-new two-span bridge across the Assiniboine River on 18th Street is, for pedestrians and cyclists, pretty great. There are even great walk/bike facilities on the west side of the bridge, despite there being no access to it.

It, too, had to be rushed to completion after the ill-planned Corral Centre was built. And, despite delays and overbudget issues, it's lucky it was done before the 2011 flood.

And yet, years later, we're still dealing with sinking pavement in the bridge approaches. They were shored up in 2012, but you'll note that there are still big bumps before and after the bridge — big enough on one side to require warning signage.

So yes, it's nearly brand-new — but I'm starting to worry parts of it are a wee bit lemony.

Eighth Street bridge

Two months. It's been closed for two months, since mid-January, when a truck took out a lateral support beam.

At the end of January, the city said that repair work could start "next week" — but there's been zero visible progress since then.

Now, we're not quite at Brown-Block levels of delay, but it's starting to be more than a brief inconvenience. Bus routes have been rerouted, and residents of the flast have been forced to trudge over the bridge — during the coldest winter in decades — instead of being able to drive.

Fixing up the bridge is, of course, temporary at best. It has needed a rebuild for years. In fact, at one time, it was slated to have been completely replaced "by 2013."

There was a flurry of planning, with several options presented to the city, but it's fallen off the radar recently. There have been suggestions that it would be best just to turn it into a pedestrian bridge. I guess the last two months have been a trial of that idea.

Personally, I think that's better than some of the proposals that would have seen it turned into more of a thoroughfare through downtown, with a realignment of the bridge to line up with Ninth Street or with Fifth Street. Either of those options, in my opinion, would just lead to more vehicles going through downtown — not stopping — in efforts to bypass First Street or 18th Street. More congestion, with no benefit to downtown businesses at all.

Once again, though, whatever happens with it, the pedestrian and cyclist situation over that bridge is currently abysmal, and that portion of it needs a rethink as well as an upgrade.

Pedestrian bridge

Oh yes, the forgotten way to cross the river.

Once one of the most popular recreational options in the city, the pedestrian bridge on the Red Willow Trail has technically been closed ever since the flood of 2011. There's no one stopping you from making your way down the trail, of course, but it's still mucky and overgrown, with hastily-built dikes meaning you have to scramble up or down a steep clay-and-gravel slope to access the south end. It's easier to get to the north end of the bridge, but there is still a sign that warns that path is closed.

Three summers it's been closed, which shows you the priority that this once-jewel-in-our-crown currently has in Brandon. I'd be curious to know what kind out outrage there would be if any non-pedestrian bridge had been closed this long.

Or if a pedestrian bridge had been closed in any other community for this long.

With progress finally being made over the winter in clearing brush from the affected riverside parks, I'm hoping that the paths will be tackled this summer.

Of course, if you look back at the Assiniboine River Corridor Master Plan from the '90s, we were supposed to have three more pedestrian bridges by now, so holding my breath, I ain't.

--------

Whew. That was a lot about the bridges. I can't believe that there is something wrong with ALL FIVE of the bridges in Brandon!

It might be a tad nit-picky, some of it (sinking approaches are hardly the end of the world), but it highlights the concrete (sorry) effects of the infrastructure deficit that Brandon finds itself saddled with.

For various political reasons, it's always easy to find money for new roads, and new bridges. It tends to be tougher to come up with the cash for preventative maintenance.

(As an aside, if I let my lawn get overgrown, the city'll mow it for me, and then make me pay them back. Why don't they try that with the province? Just do the Daly Overpass work ourselves and send Broadway the bill.)

At any rate, it sounds like we will have an expensive few years ahead of us, rebuilding all our bridges.

My wallet looks forward to it.

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