The Southwest River Bridge on March 6, a day after workers with the Department of Transportation and Works cold paved potholes on the bridge. High snowbanks can still be seen on both sides.
When Chad Holloway heard there was an accident involving a bus on a bridge near Port Blandford, he immediately thought of his son.
“My son was home because of the winter games but the first thought was ‘Was he on that bus?’ Then you have to take that second thought of ‘No, he’s home.’ But then you go back to the thought of ‘Somebody’s child was on that bus,’” he says.
Holloway is mayor of Port Blandford and, like every parent in the community, his children are bussed to school down the Trans-Canada Highway to Clarenville, about 20 minutes away. The route takes them over the Southwest River Bridge, just outside of Port Blandford.
On March 4 a bus carrying 39 children from Fogo Island Central Academy to a ski trip hit the rear bumper of a car, an incident the school board describes as minor and involving no injuries.
“It’s really unfortunate to hear through the media, ‘Bus accident on the bridge,’ and as soon as they said Port Blandford I knew what they were talking about, because that bridge is in just awful shape right now,” says Holloway.
The bridge was heavily potholed before the collision and the Department of Transportation and Works had put up reduced speed signs on both west and eastbound lanes to slow traffic as it approached the bridge. Large snowbanks on each side of the bridge narrowed the lanes in both directions.
Holloway says Port Blandford town council had the bridge on its agenda for a meeting scheduled the same day as the collision.
“Over the winter it’s been slowly deteriorating, but over the past couple weeks it’s accelerated dramatically,” says Holloway. “No doubt we’ve started to get a lot of complaints even at the town hall.”
A road crew from the Department of Transportation and Works was sent out the day after the collision to repair asphalt on the bridge.
“Repairs are being made with cold mix asphalt materials and are temporary in nature,” reads an email statement from the department. “Further monitoring and maintenance will continue for the remainder of winter/early spring until more permanent repairs can be made.”
Holloway says town council in Port Blandford has spoken with the local MHA and the Department of Transportation and Works.
Holloway says he understands the department can’t repave the bridge in winter, but would like to see a long-term solution.
For now, he says, he’d like to see a set of traffic lights put up on the bridge and traffic across the bridge reduced to one lane at a time, because the path across it is too narrow for two lanes of traffic. Already traffic is stopping to let larger vehicles through, according to Holloway.
“This is something that needs to happen for the short term, to have a set of lights there to let traffic travel more safely, because if you get two big vehicles passing each other on that bridge, it’s very dangerous, it’s like crossing a construction zone,” he says.
“It is a very dangerous situation when you have two vehicles passing at the same time. It’s a narrow bridge to begin with, but with the excess snow that’s building up on the rails, the majority of the holes are next to the rails, so people have a tendency to move to the centre.”
Holloway says people who live in Port Blandford and travel the highway to Clarenville regularly know about the reduced speed zone, but someone passing through on the highway may not realize the speed has been reduced. The bridge is also located close to blind turns both west and eastbound. The department has installed amber lights on the speed signs to make them more visible at night.
The department email stated that engineers will investigate the cause of the deterioration and prepare a plan for a more permanent repair. The work will be considered for funding as part of this year’s capital works program.
With children from Port Blandford travelling across the Southwest River Bridge daily, Holloway says he wants to see a permanent fix as soon as possible, because the bridge’s condition has never been worse.
“What happened to that bridge this year, I haven’t seen anything like it to be honest,” he says. “Hopefully we can try to get something done there to prevent any future accidents, especially when you hear it was a school bus.”
Of 40 bridges listed in The Packet coverage area, nine are listed as in poor condition and in need of repair or demolition within three years as of their last inspection on a Department of Transportation and Works database. The average age of the bridges was 42 years.
There are 93 per cent more bridges considered in poor condition today than there were a decade ago, according to last year’s auditor general’s report, and more than half of the province’s bridges are over 40 years old. The cost to replace all these bridges would be over $800 million. For more on that, CLICK HERE.