Several bridges in New Brunswick need "significant" work and if the Alward government doesn't start setting more money aside for maintenance, the bridges will not be able to support the weight and volume of traffic, warns the provincial auditor general.
Kim MacPherson says 293 of the 2,608 bridge structures across the province — about 11 per cent — received a "poor" rating on the Bridge Condition Index.
"This rating is not an indicator of an unsafe bridge," she stresses in her annual report, released on Thursday.
"It is an indication that significant maintenance work is required on that bridge in the near term in order to keep the bridge in service."
Ontario, for example, usually schedules maintenance within a year of a bridge receiving a poor rating, MacPherson said.
In New Brunswick, however, the investment in regular maintenance and bridge rehabilitation has been steadily decreasing in recent years and bridge repair work is not being done on a timely basis, she said.
When bridges that need major repair or replacement are not included in the capital program, the Department of Transportation uses short-term measures instead, such as temporary bracing and weight restrictions, said MacPherson. As of January, 163 bridges had posted weight restrictions.
'Properly maintained bridges are essential to the integrity of the transportation system and the safety of New Brunswickers.' - Auditor General Kim MacPherson
"As a result, there will be a significant increase in the funding required for regular and capital maintenance for provincial bridges in the coming years," MacPherson states in her more than 500-page report.
"Unless funding allocations to bridge maintenance are increased in future years, the department will not be able to maintain the existing service level of its bridges," she said.
"Properly maintained bridges are essential to the integrity of the transportation system and the safety of New Brunswickers," said MacPherson.
"You look at what has happened in Quebec with the failure of the bridge. This past week you heard about the Champlain Bridge, they shut down two lanes and there was a backup of traffic of 11 kilometres because of a couple of inches of crack in the foundation. If we don't maintain our bridges we are headed in that direction."
'Non-condition related factors' affect repairs
MacPherson suggests New Brunswick should follow Quebec and Ontario's lead and publicly report on the condition of bridges annually.
New Brunswick does not currently have a formal quality assurance and control process in place, the provincial watchdog found.
In addition, the Department of Transportation has an informal, unsystematic and undocumented process for developing and managing bridge intervention priorities, said MacPherson.
She recommends the department establish guidelines for bridge repair and selecting which bridges to replace and document the rationale for the projects selected.
As it stands, the maintenance and capital program can be heavily influenced by "other non-condition related factors," such as economic and social development, industry considerations, and political activism, she said.
The inspection process itself is in accordance with accepted professional standards and "generally complete, accurate and consistent," said MacPherson.
But the information recorded in inspection reports is insufficient to follow the evolution of the defects over time.
The department inspects the bridge structures it is responsible for every one, two, or four years, depending on the condition, age and structure type.
Bridge structures include seawalls and retaining walls on provincially designated highways.