CBC Investigates

Municipality where bridge collapsed opening day doesn't regret declining provincial cash for better bridge

The rural municipality in eastern Saskatchewan where a new bridge collapsed just hours after opening had previously turned down provincial funding that would have paid for a better bridge.

RM of Clayton said no to $750,000 from Saskatchewan government, built the bridge on its own

A section of the newly built Dyck Memorial Bridge over the Swan River in Saskatchewan's RM of Clayton collapsed hours after it was opened to the public. (Photo submitted by Duane Hicks)

The rural municipality in eastern Saskatchewan where a new bridge collapsed just hours after opening had previously turned down provincial funding that would have paid for a better bridge.

Earlier this year, the RM of Clayton said no to $750,000 in provincial cash for a new bridge because officials believed the structure they would have been required to build was unnecessarily expensive.

Instead, the RM built a less expensive bridge without provincial funding. That bridge collapsed on Sept. 14, just a few hours after it was opened to the public. There were no injuries.

The RM is already rebuilding the bridge even though the cause of the collapse hasn't been determined and a geotechnical study of the riverbed hasn't been concluded.

The municipality's administrator, Kelly Rea, said she has no regrets about the decision to go with the less-costly bridge because the more expensive one may have collapsed, too.

"Nobody can guarantee me that ... the same thing wouldn't have happened to that bridge."

This bridge is above our needs. We do not need this bridge.- Kelly Rea,  administrator, RM of Clayton 

In March, the RM learned it had been approved for bridge money through the Municipal Roads for the Economy Program (MREP), which is funded by the province and administered by the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM).

MREP had agreed to provide $750,000 to replace the Dyck Memorial Bridge, a 120-foot, two-lane bridge on a rural road spanning the Swan River, about 350 kilometres east of Saskatoon.

In order to receive the funding, SARM insisted the new bridge meet provincial highway standards. The RM would have been required to kick in $325,000 for a total estimated cost of $1,075,000.

But at SARM's annual convention in March, Rea questioned Saskatchewan Minister of Highways Dave Marit, arguing MREP was requiring an unnecessarily pricey bridge.

"This bridge is above our needs. We do not need this bridge," Rea told the minister at the public meeting between rural and provincial politicians, which has been posted on YouTube.

Watch: RM of Clayton administrator Kelly Rea raises her concerns about the bridge funding.

Kelly Rea from the R.M. of Clayton raises concerns over bridge funding criteria 2:24

She said the RM had consulted with various engineers and was told "the bridge that suits our needs is about $500,000," not the $1,075,000 bridge required by MREP.

"What we're searching for and hoping to get is a policy change that puts more than one option for MREP," she said, though she emphasized that the less-expensive bridge should still meet all Canadian safety standards.

If the RM built the MREP-funded bridge it would have cost the RM $325,000, as MREP would have picked up the tab for the additional $750,000.

However, in the end, the RM built the cheaper bridge on its own for $325,000 — all in. Now that bridge is being rebuilt at the contractor's expense.

A cheaper bridge for the greater good

Rea said the RM chose the less costly bridge with the greater good in mind.

She said MREP only receives a small amount of money from the provincial government every year, and so if RMs can be frugal then more bridges can be built. 

She said her plea to the minister was about more than just Clayton's bridge.

"It was about the best of the whole — how can we take this little bit of money that we have left and spend it more wisely? And a one-bridge-fits-all isn't the answer."

Minister of Highways Lori Carr says the provincial government has high standards for bridges because safety is the top priority. (CBC News)

However, Saskatchewan's new highways minister, Lori Carr, told CBC the province's rigorous standards exist for a good reason.

"The reason is safety," she said. "To minimize those standards to get things at half the price probably isn't the best deal. If you can get something that costs a lot less and it meets all of the safety standards that we have in place, by all means we would approve something like that."

Piles of questions

Earlier this year, the RM put out a tender for the bridge and selected a design-build bid from Can-Struct systems for $325,000.

The RM submitted that bid to the MREP program for partial funding but the request was denied.

Deputy minister of highways Fred Antunes said MREP had questions about the proposal because the bridge was to be built on a non-standard foundation.

"They wanted to use screw piles as opposed to what we [the Ministry of Highways] normally do, which is driven piles," Antunes said. Driven piles are pounded into the riverbed while screw piles are twisted in. "Screw piles are a newer innovation, so we haven't used any screw piles yet, but not saying that we wouldn't."

He said the MREP engineers asked the RM for additional information to understand whether the screw piles would be supporting all of the loads the bridge was going to be carrying. "I think that's the big thing."

A look at the bridge in the RM of Clayton in Saskatchewan that collapsed just hours after it opened. (Photo submitted by Duane Hicks.)

Minister Carr said in the end, "they decided not to send that information and go a different route."

Rea has a different account. She said the RM council attempted to provide the engineers the information they needed.

"We tried. We ran out of time and we missed the deadline. That's what happened," she said. "We couldn't get our paperwork and all the stuff the board needed to approve the bridge under the MREP program to them in time."

So the council decided the RM would go it alone and foot the entire bill.

No geotechnical study

In an interview with CBC back in September, Reeve Duane Hicks said the bridge gave way when the piles holding up one of the piers unexpectedly dropped four feet, which he described as an "act of God."

"It seems like something under the riverbed let go and a row of pilings sunk," he said. "I don't know who to blame, but I figure God built most of this for us."

According to Hicks and Rea, the cause of the collapse is currently under investigation by the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan.   

In his interview with CBC, Hicks said a geotechnical study of the riverbed wasn't done before the bridge was built.

Inertia Solutions, the engineering firm for the project, declined to answer CBC's questions and referred calls to the RM. Inertia and the construction company, Can-Struct, are owned by the same people.

Hicks explained the work wasn't done in part because of cost. "Well, the fact of the matter is we don't have a heck of a lot of money," he said.

Experts CBC consulted said it's "irregular" for a bridge to be built without a geotechnical investigation.

University of Toronto bridge expert Paul Gauvreau said "it's being sort of penny-wise and pound foolish by not doing the geotechnical investigation."

Bridge being rebuilt

Rea told CBC the new piles have already been installed and the pier that sank is back up.

She said a geotechnical study of the riverbed is being conducted but hasn't yet been completed.

CBC asked why the piles would be installed again before the geotechnical work was conducted.

Rea replied: "I asked that, too, but there's a big complicated explanation and I don't know. I don't understand."

She also explained that timing is a factor. "The testing takes weeks and weeks and weeks to come back ... I know that. So we would be delayed months."

About the Author

Geoff Leo

Senior Investigative Journalist

Geoff Leo has been a reporter for CBC News in Saskatchewan since 2001. His work as an investigative journalist and documentary producer has earned numerous national and regional awards.