COQUITLAM, B.C. – British Columbia’s transportation minister has slammed the international contractor that built the newly-opened Port Mann Bridge, saying the forced closure of the span, only weeks after it opened, is an intolerable situation and that the firm should have been aware of potential problems.
More than 100 insurance claims were filed after chunks of ice pelted down onto vehicles from the bridge’s suspension cables during a snowstorm on Wednesday. Two people were injured and the bridge, which links the Vancouver area to populous southern suburbs, was closed for several hours.
“We will not live with the bridge in that way,” Mary Polak told a news conference.
“When you purchase a product in a store, when you build a bridge for $3.3 billion, you believe that it will work. You expect it will work. When it doesn’t work you seek for redress to that. You seek for someone to refund your money or you seek for someone to resolve the problem.”
Polak said that’s what the province will be doing.
“Taxpayers will not be on the hook for this and we will ensure that we have a bridge that is safe for the travelling public to use and that an event like this has a permanent solution to see that it doesn’t happen again.”
Polak said her ministry was “alive” to snow and ice being a potential problem on the bridge before it was built and there were specifications in the contract to address the concern.
“Clearly, what we saw yesterday shows that they did not meet those requirements.”
The bridge was built by Kiewit-Flatiron General Partnership. The company said in a statement it was working to figure out where the problem is and find a solution quickly.
“We’re very concerned about the recent weather issues impacting motorists on the Port Mann Bridge,” said the statement from Thomas Janssen, director of external affairs for the company.
“With the recent severe weather conditions, it’s evident there is an issue that needs to be closely reviewed and addressed.”
The Crown agency that operates the bridge will pay the deductibles of drivers whose vehicles were damaged in the incident. Tolls for travellers who crossed the bridge between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Wednesday will also be waived.
Prof. Tom Brown, an engineering professor at the University of Calgary known to his students as Dr. Ice, said he’s confident the problem can be fixed.
Brown has worked on offshore oil rigs and Prince Edward Island’s Confederation Bridge and said sometimes, problems slip through despite the best work by experts.
“This is certainly a concern because I would kind of imagine that the conditions under which it occurred, the atmospheric conditions in Vancouver, could well occur again,” he said in an interview.
“I don’t know what the fix will be, but it’s certainly a fixable problem.”
Brown said cold weather, high humidity, precipitation and wind all play roles in allowing ice to form on the bridge cables and eventually fall off. The ice bonds to the cold cables and when the wind whips up, it starts a vibration on the cables that eventually knocks loose the ice.
Brown said Vancouver’s rapid temperature fluctuations from cold to warm can also break off heavy ice chunks as they begin to melt.
Last January, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge near Seattle was shut down due to falling ice from bridge cables on a Kiewit-built bridge.
Alice Fiman, a spokeswoman at the Washington state Department of Transportation, said the problem was called “weather-related” at the time.
Fiman said Kiewit completed construction on the twin suspension bridges in 2007, and since then the span has been closed only once due to falling ice.
Mike Proudfoot, CEO of the Transportation Investment Corporation which operates the bridge, said the bridge is a significant crossing, the second-longest cable-stayed bridge in North America.
Building it required a “certain expertise.”
“We have the best firms in the world engaged in the design and delivery of this project, both as the original designers and as the independent checkers.”
Proudfoot said provisions had been made to prevent such snow accumulations.
“It hasn’t transpired as expected,” he said.
Possible solutions to the problem include heating the cables, the use of vibrations or coatings, as well as manual and mechanical methods for removal.
“We expect some answers on that very shortly.”
The Port Mann Bridge opened eight lanes Dec. 1 and was touted to slash commute times of up to an hour for some people.
Cars and small trucks crossing the Port Mann are electronically assessed an introductory $1.50 toll, but the levy will rise to $3.00 per crossing by next December, with varied rates applying to larger trucks and motorists using special passes.
— With files from Dirk Meissner in Victoria