Frank Peebles on the most urgent infrastructure project you may not have heard of.
If you believe the village of Taylor is one of the most important spots in the entire B.C. transportation system, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.
Specifically, it’s the Peace River Bridge – which the taxpayer already owns, but it’s in deep arrears, mechanically speaking.
For the past 20-plus years, it has been a rallying cry for investment in rural infrastructure. Now, it’s reaching a point where the calls have become screams. The 60-year-old thing is falling apart, and those who cross it every day say that so will government coffers if something isn’t done.
It would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but only a fraction of any Lower Mainland bridge rebuild, and its economic impact to the province dwarfs anything being proposed in the Vancouver area right now. Congestion is a legitimate issue, but enabling the most lucrative resources in the province is quite another.
“That bridge has to be more weld than base metal at this point,”
The province’s largest metropolitan area keeps hearing the ka-ching of work to relieve traffic pressure, like the newly announced replacement of the Pattullo Bridge (estimated cost $1.4-billion), the recent upgrades to the Alex Fraser Bridge (about $70-million) connected to the Deltaport / Highway 17 and 97 upgrades (another $260-million), the untold amounts needed for rapid transit extensions, and of course the political triple-axels over the Massey Tunnel. At last count, the previous government’s proposal of a 10-lane bridge would have cost $3.4-billion with the new NDP government going back to the drawing board.
And why wouldn’t they make those investments? No one in the province would correctly argue that these projects aren’t worth every penny in resonant effect on the overall economy. The two mayors on either side of the Peace River insist the same can be said about their hometown bridge that has become a welder’s dream.
“That bridge has to be more weld than base metal at this point,” said a Reddit reader when someone posted a pastoral photo of the Peace River Bridge in its gorgeous setting. “I just hope I’m not driving across it when it finally falls in the river.”
The provincial government insists the crossing is safe, but the concern is not hyperbole. A chunk of the steel deck grating actually did recently fall out, but close enough to one end that a steel plate could be installed over the hole. The provincial government estimates costs are now about $1-million each year just for maintenance welding.
The village of Taylor takes in both shores of the Peace River at the site of the bridge. The City of Fort St. John is a little further north. Families and businesses there cannot easily endure a failure of this bridge, and neither can the provincial economy. Groceries and the goods of daily life for the towns of the northeast goes over that span, but it’s not an exaggeration to say the province’s oil and gas industry also flows over it, not to mention a lot of interprovincial and international tourism, mining, agriculture and forestry business.
Provincial government figures peg the royalties and direct taxes just on the natural gas segment of that activity at approximately $400-million per year. Then there is all the indirect income and spinoff income for the province – the stuff that pays for a lot of the transportation, education, health and other programs from one end of the province to the other.
In a report this year by the Conference Board of Canada, the B.C. liquefied natural gas (LNG) sector was owed thanks for record-setting private sector investment in recent years and, looking ahead, “growing the industry in British Columbia could create 96,550 new jobs, boost total wages in Canada by over $6-billion, and increase Canada’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by $11-billion every year.”
There might be only about 7,500 vehicles per day that cross the Peace River Bridge, but what isn’t contained in that statistic is the nature of that traffic. Sure, there is commuter flow like any town has, but also a significant fleet of rigs that would bulge the eyes of urban dwellers unaccustomed to that sort of specialized heavy-duty vehicle.
It’s not an exaggeration to say the province’s oil and gas industry also flows over it, not to mention a lot of interprovincial and international tourism, mining, agriculture and forestry business.
“When they talk to us about traffic count, we have to smile, because the size of the vehicles is significantly different,” said Fort St. John mayor Lori Ackerman.
“Not only is it fiscally possible to fix our bridge issues, but when you consider the size of the equipment that needs to go over that bridge, it becomes very prudent. The oil and gas equipment we have in this area of the province makes it ridiculous to think of having anything less than two dedicated bridges, one with two lanes going one direction and one with two lanes going in the other direction, like Prince George has with the twinned Simon Fraser Bridge.”
The bridge is located on the famed Alaska Highway. Fort St. John sits at Mile 47 on that epic route that was built in 1942 as a military imperative and exists today as a tourist pilgrimage and a cargo necessity. Taylor is at Mile 36.
“If we lose this bridge, there goes the access to the whole region and there goes the economy for not only northeastern British Columbia but Yukon, western Northwest Territories, and Alaska. They (Yukon and Alaska residents) would have to go all the way to the coast for the next available highway system,” said Taylor mayor Rob Fraser. The eastern half of the equation would have to resort to Alberta highways.
There is already a B.C. government desire to make this segment of the Alaska Highway a four-lane thoroughfare. There are already holdups and bottlenecks on the two-lane road, despite provincial government contention that four-laning isn’t critical until 10 times as many vehicles are present.
The pressure is already real, said the mayors, and it is especially painful at Taylor where the road has long descents from the high plains on either side of the river down to the deep valley bottom. In some weather conditions, it is a feared place.
Both mayors agree that twinning the bridge is only part of the solution, and must include adding lanes out either side or risk traffic snarls at best and fatalities at worst.
The nearest alternative route that could possibly handle some of the heavy equipment is at Hudson’s Hope to the west, which would add about three hours to each round trip.
There is another crossing to the east, but the Clayhurst Bridge option is again a couple of hours’ drive out of the way – and that rural passage is not able to handle all the big rigs.
Ackerman and Taylor agree on what the solution should be. First, you cannot practically subtract the existing Peace River Bridge in order to build a new one; it would have to be done alongside the current bridge to keep traffic flowing during construction. Second, once you have the new one, you also have the four lanes the government hoped to achieve through that region, if the existing bridge is then properly renovated and kept in use.
“The substructure of the existing bridge is supposedly good. It’s the deck of the bridge that’s the problem,” Fraser said.
Despite looking like a flat deck with little height across all 721 metres, the structure will actually act as a sail catching the fierce winds that blow down the valley. The grate is horizontal, but still allows much of that airflow to circulate through with minimal threat of being pushed over. It also allows much of the snow to fall through during winter plowing.
Asked if some kind of wind diffusion structure could be built beside the old bridge, Fraser laughed and said yes. It’s called the proposed new bridge, built to modern engineering standards.
“If you build the new bridge in a fashion that shields the old bridge from wind-loading, then you could also let traffic continue to cross as it does now while you build it, then divert traffic to the new bridge while you outfit the old structure with a new deck, and then at the end you’d have two lanes going each direction, and you really do need those four lanes,” Fraser said.
The cost estimates floated out to the public by the Ministry of Transportation have been in the $250-million to $350-million range, perhaps more if the valley’s highway safety issues are also cleared up. When ministry official Scott Maxwell discussed the topic at a Fort St. John Chamber of Commerce luncheon in 2019, he balked at the four-lane proposal…but did not dismiss it.
The good news, say both Fraser and Ackerman, is that means the government, for the first time in 20-odd years, is giving them active attention on this issue.
“I have said it to them (provincial government officials of every description) every time I have spoken to them, so I know it has been heard. Now the question is, what’s the likelihood of that actually happening?,” Ackerman said.
“We are the heart of the Montney natural gas basin. We are the ‘NG’ that they will ‘L’ at the other end of the pipeline (the west coast terminus of the oil and gas industry is another multi-billion-dollar hotspot that indirectly depends on the Peace River Bridge). There is a 40-year export license which means for the next four decades our natural gas industry will be growing. We have to find it, produce it, process it and ship it safely in that pipeline. For the next 40 years we will have an active economy up here.”
“I’ve told the government look, just give me the amount of the GST and PST that you’re going to spend on that Massey crossing. That’s the amount we’d need, that is it, to build the bridge we need here,” Fraser said. “There hasn’t been zero movement, but we would sure like to see it on the official 10-year priority plan.”
A statement from the B.C. Ministry of Transportation & Infrastructure confirmed that preliminary research was indeed going ahead, including on-site drilling to test the ground’s composition. Their work started prior to the fall election and now with new minister Rob Fleming settling into the portfolio, more is expected.
“I’ve told the government look, just give me the amount of the GST and PST that you’re going to spend on that Massey crossing.”
The COVID-19 crisis also had an effect; part of the plan involved public meetings that still cannot be held.
“The in-field engineering investigations designed to inform viable options and to shape discussions at the upcoming public engagement and stakeholder consultation were not affected by COVID-19,” said the ministry’s statement. “We are at the start of this process, the first step of which is to identify what options are suitable for this geotechnically-complex area and to identify the needs of those who work and live in the area. Right now, we are conducting the necessary initial investigations and engineering works plus are developing plans for future public engagement and stakeholder consultation.”
Geotechnically complex is right. Approximately 65-million years ago during the Cretaceous Period, the entire northeast of British Columbia was the floor of an inland sea. One of the results of that condition is shale rock. The original Peace River Bridge was built on a bed of it in 1942, and by 1952 it was already exhibiting stress fractures. Five years later, during a rainstorm for the ages, the shale at the north end settled under the weight and slid, causing the bridge to pitch forward into the path of that infamous oncoming valley wind.
On October 16, 1957 the bridge collapsed. According to the Association of Professional Engineers & Geoscientists of B.C., it cost an estimated $60-million to clean up the disaster and replace the bridge – a ghastly sum by today’s standards, let alone mid-20th century. Exacerbating that was the gall and shame of being unnecessary, had the evidence only been acted on when it was seen.
The Peace River Bridge’s modern day version is on a more solid foundation, but the structure is again showing those signs of impending failure. A lot of local Peace country residents and a lot of accountants in the provincial treasury department are hoping the corrective measures are taken once again – as soon as possible.
Frank Peebles is a veteran magazine and newspaper journalist based in Prince George. He has won numerous awards for his work, including Canadian Community Newspaper Association and BC-Yukon Community Newspaper Association citations.