By R. Bruce Striegler – Announced in 2006 as the answer to overwhelming road congestion in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, the B.C. Government pledged the ambitious Gateway infrastructure program would eliminate the gridlock. High population growth combined with significant increases of import and export traffic through Port Metro Vancouver’s many facilities scattered across the region had led to 13-hour rush hours across one of the key crossings of the Fraser River. Goods movers found themselves stopped or slowed on the region’s roads 75 percent of the time, adding an estimated annual $500 million in costs.

Port Mann Bridge ProblemsBudgeted at $3.3 billion, the multi-project Gateway Program included plans to replace the aging five-lane Port Mann Bridge, widen 37 kilometres of the existing four-lane Trans Canada Highway at the Eastern entrance to the Greater Vancouver road system and to construct a new four-lane highway to improve goods movement along the South bank of the Fraser River cutting through the City of Surrey and the Municipality of Delta.

‘Ice bombs’ wreak havoc

It wasn’t the opening the B.C. Government had imagined. After years of debate about the tolls imposed, commuters had only praise for the new bridge, transit service returned to the crossing after 25 years, the project had been delivered on-time and within budget. But only weeks after eight of the ten lanes opened on the visually spectacular new Port Mann Bridge, which carries the Trans Canada Highway across the Fraser River East of Vancouver, a December storm of freezing rain and snow coated the bridge’s massive support cables.

During a busy morning rush-hour, temperatures rose sufficiently to melt chunks of the accumulated ice from the cables, which rise 75 meters above the bridge deck. Dubbed “ice bombs” the chunks, some estimated to weigh 40 to 50 pounds, plummeted to the bridge deck below damaging nearly 300 vehicles, injuring several people and closing the bridge in both directions for over four hours. The size of the structure is notable. When the final two lanes open in 2013, the bridge will enter the Guinness Book of World Records as the widest bridge in the world and it is the largest and longest main span river crossing in Western Canada.

The B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, TI Corp., the bridge’s Crown operating company and the bridge contractor, Kiewit Flatiron General Partnership, scrambled to find answers and solutions. TI Corporation announced the following day that when temperatures dropped to two degrees Celsius with any hint of precipitation, crews would patrol, visually inspecting the cables and monitoring weather conditions 24 hours a day.

In a written statement TI Corporation said, “If any kind of snow or ice is seen to start presenting a risk, TI Corp. will take appropriate measures.” One of the measures would be to close the bridge until weather circumstances make it safe to travel. TI Corporation announced less than three weeks after the ice incident that it would be installing a remote weather station on the top of the South tower, and sensors along the bridge deck surfaces and at each of the bridge approaches to measure wind speed and direction, precipitation and ice buildup while cameras will focus on the cables with the information being monitored by bridge engineers and the bridge maintenance company.

In late January, the government announced engineers have identified further solutions to prevent the build-up of snow and ice. Custom designed cable sweepers attached to the 152 cables that cross the roadway will move the length of the cables to remove accumulated snow or ice. Powered by a specially-designed winch, the scraper unit is approximately two feet long with four snowplow shaped blades set one centimeter off the cable to avoid damaging the cable sheath. The scrapers also contain four thick bristled brushes and move down the cables on eight caster-type wheels.

At the same time, TI Corporation announced lab-testing of ice and snow repellants called hydrophobic coatings. The tests are to evaluate compatibility and effectiveness with the Port Mann Bridge cables, as well as to verify the coatings will not impact wind loading and aerodynamic properties on the cables. If they appear to satisfy the de-icing requirements, the substances will be applied in the summer of 2013.

Transportation Investment Corporation CEO Mike Proudfoot said, “These solutions are the product of tremendous effort on the part of the engineering and design team. Over the past weeks they have canvassed international experts and considered and refined numerous technologies. That hard work has resulted in a combination of solutions that will allow us to keep the bridge operating safely and efficiently.”

While ice build-up is not unusual on cable-stayed bridges, the design of the Port Mann’s span has the cables draping over the deck rather than configured parallel to the roadway. The scope of the problem is not insignificant as there are 288 cables that if stretched lengthwise would run about 45 kilometers. Long term solutions being explored include pulse vibration, heating technologies and other mechanical systems.

Taxpayers not on the hook for bridge design flaws

B.C.’s Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Mary Polack was quick to assert that taxpayers would not pay for mitigation of the bridge’s design flaws saying at a news conference that snow and ice concerns were specifically discussed with the contractor prior to the construction and documented in required contract specifications that clearly were not met.

Just weeks later, on January 3rd, forty cars were involved in a fog-shrouded crash on the new bridge. B.C.’s Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure said that neither the province nor the bridge contractor was responsible since there was no evidence the crashes were related to the bridge design. Minister Mary Polack said the accident appeared to involve a combination of factors including faster speeds on the bridge, fog and black ice. Despite regular de-icing measures taken by the highway maintenance company there was insufficient de-icing and TI Corp. ordered a saltwater solution be applied daily as well as salt when needed. Unlike those caught in the disastrous falling ice conditions, TI Corp. will not pay insurance deductibles on damaged vehicles and did not waive tolls for the multiple vehicles involved.

Controversial South Fraser Perimeter Road opens a section

Overshadowed by the ice debacles on the Port Mann Bridge, the South Fraser Perimeter Road opened the Eastern third of its new route the same December week. Costing an estimated $1.26 billion, and to be completed in 2014, the South Fraser Perimeter Road will provide a new four-lane, 40 kilometer expressway linking the Fraser River industrial sites which include Fraser Surrey Docks and CN’s intermodal yard to the U.S. border or Port Metro Vancouver’s Roberts Bank container and coal terminals to the West. The new highway also provides trucks a congestion-free link to the Trans Canada Highway to the East. The 10 kilometre section opened in December will relieve considerable traffic congestion at key interchanges within the City of Surrey, where commercial trucking will make up almost 30 percent of the estimated traffic volumes of between 25,000 to 30,000 vehicles per day.

While supported by the B.C. Trucking Association and many other business groups, the Gateway Program was opposed by regional mayors, the regions’ urban planners, the regional transit authority, environmentalists, First Nations and residents. Despite the clogged roadways of Surrey, homeowners along that portion of the alignment protested the 75 riverfront homes, some with historical relevance, expropriated and demolished, while others saw large portions of their riverfront backyards expropriated for highway construction. As a hazardous goods route many residents feared exposure to chemical spills and higher levels of diesel particulates. Once the final design process was concluded, decisions made to delay construction of several key interchanges in Delta left some in the trucking industry and the local Chamber of Commerce dissatisfied, suggesting they would lose up to $10 million a year in societal costs, additional fuel, lost productivity and vehicular accidents.

Environmental impacts sidelined

Heritage sites along the river that are between eight and ten thousand years old, including several First Nations historical encampments containing artifacts and burial grounds which might be disturbed or capped in concrete. Following early consultations, adjustments were made to the alignment, reducing impacts on known archeological sites, but First Nations representatives sued the government for violating its own archeological laws. A section of the new highway skirts Burns Bog. Referred to as “the lungs of the Lower Mainland”, the bog is the largest domed peat bog in Western North America and home to over 24 species of mammals and 150 bird species. The project raised furious opposition and legal challenges from those dedicated to environmental protection.

The project found itself in hot water with the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) after violating the conditions of its environmental approval. The government kept this breach secret until freedom of information requests brought the contravention to light. When the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure gained the requisite environmental certification, it stipulated it would not use “fill sites”, landfills where excavated industrial dirt, vegetation and other potentially contaminated industrial waste was placed and sealed. As construction progressed, the project found it had more fill than it could handle and began placing material in a number of existing sites. After an investigation, EAO submitted a report and recommendations to government and made amendments to the environmental certificate.

Final Gateway Program completion later this year

Construction will continue through 2013 on the largest transportation project in B.C. history as crews work on the Port Mann Bridge and along the Highway 1 corridor to complete the bridge to its full 10-lane capacity and complete highway widening and interchange improvements through Coquitlam, Burnaby and Vancouver. Dismantling the old bridge structure will also take place in 2013.

Work also continues on the Western section of the South Fraser Perimeter Road from Surrey through to Delta, scheduled for completion by December 2013. The new expressway will relieve heavy congestion on the Port Mann, Pattullo and Alex Fraser bridges on the Eastern edges of Vancouver as well as provide more options for commuters and goods movers on the heavily travelled North-South access to Vancouver via the George Massey Tunnel to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal and Roberts Bank coal and container terminals. In the meantime, initial consultation is just concluding on expansion or replacement plans for the bottleneck Massey Tunnel which provides an under-river tunnel on the main artery from Vancouver to the U.S. border.