Old Steel Structures

It having already been established that the problem TransLink has with the Pattullo is not a traffic problem, but an aging bridge problem, I want to poke at the edges of that problem a little bit.

We can all agree that the Pattullo is an old steel structure. The world is full of old steel structures, many well past their design life: The Lions Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, the Canadian Navy. To bring this back down to earth, I own a couple of old steel structures: my 1996 Honda, and my commuter bike. Admittedly, not as old as my other examples, but both built with the cheapest steel they could find at the price point, and in very good shape considering their design life.

The thing all old steel structures have in common is the need for maintenance. Steel rusts, so you need to get ahead of the rust. Water and salt exacerbate the rust problem, so you have to manage those corroding elements. Bare steel rusts faster, so you have to keep up on the paint. If you do these things, steel structures can last nearly forever. Even ones that bounce around in the ocean getting shot at.

On the flip side, all steel structures similarly turn to dust faster than you can imagine if the basic maintenance above is ignored.

With this in mind I took a walk across the Pattullo Bridge this weekend, and I took a camera. I ask you, does this look like a steel structure where the maintenance is being kept up?

you can click on any picture to fully appreciate the majesty.

Where they are staying ahead of the rust?

If the traffic is quiet enough, you can hear the bridge rust.

Where the paint is regularly inspected and renewed?

Where corroding elements are controlled?

Every drain on the Surrey side was plugged. Every single one. where does the water go?
…some goes into this pothole with an actual piece of rebar sticking out of it.

Or does this look like a bridge where maintenance has been ignored, and is turning to dust?

Noting inspires confidence in a railing like being able to stick your finger in rustholes.

??Yes, I am suggesting part of TransLink’s aging bridge problem is created by TransLink, themselves. Once again falling back to Hanlon’s Razor, I have to assume that this is not an intentional move, but more a result of bad planning, misplaced priorities, and lack of budget (a three-step program which is starting to sound like TransLink’s Modus operandi). That does not excuse them, though. The obvious neglect of basic maintenance is an irresponsible way to manage an expensive public asset. You own this bridge, you pay for it, and they are responsible for maintenenace. You are getting ripped off.

I was thinking maybe it is just a funding issue; that seems to be the cause of most ails of TransLink. At the “consultation” meetings that TransLink held back in February, TransLink mentioned that they spend $3 Million a year to maintain the Pattullo ( see page 4 of this document). You would think $3 Million would buy a hell of a lot of paint, or at least allow them to occasionally pressure-wash the plant ecosystems off of the steel trusswork.

This is not, unfortunately, the only place where plants are growing on the steel truss.

Except, TransLink does not spend $3 Million a year maintaining the Pattullo as claimed. That is obvious if you look at it, but more obvious when you look at their budget documents. There is a line item for bridge operations and maintenance, and it has averaged about $1.5 Million per year over the last few years (see this document). That $1.5M is spread amongst the Pattullo, the Knight Street Bridge & associated overpasses (a bridge that, I note, has a worse safety record than the Pattullo), and the old Westham Bridge (which is an old swing bridge with actual moving parts and machinery and such).

Maybe if they actually spent $3 Million a year on the Pattullo like they claimed, we could get another 50 years out of the Old Steel Structure. That would equal $150 Million, or a fifth of the cost of a replacement. We can even drop and extra $200 Million for the upgrades to make the bridge safer, and still be way ahead.

But TransLink wants a new bridge, just like I want a Porsche. My wife won’t let me get a Porsche. But maybe she will change her mind if I stop putting oil into my Honda…

One comment on “Old Steel Structures

  1. Excellent analysis, Patrick. Seems that Translink is playing the “Oops, did we neglect the upkeep? Well, now that it’s totally wrecked so we HAVE to replace it…with something not suited to the location!”

    BTW, do you know anything about the economic / business interests in building the bridge? Is there a money route to follow in this?

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