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Concerned about pedestrian safety on Skyway Bridge


In 2012, two Canadians died, and 19 were injured when the roof of the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake collapsed. Judge Paul Belanger found that the engineering disaster resulted from many failures arising from: “its designers and builders, its owners, some architects and engineers, as well as the municipal and provincial officials charged with the duty of protecting the public.” He listed the contributing human factors as: “Apathy, neglect and indifference to mediocrity, ineptitude, incompetence and outright greed”.

The preventable disaster resulted in a corresponding collapse in public trust in the engineering industry’s safety culture. I believe the public lessons learned are twofold; that blind faith in “apathetic” and “indifferent” engineering professionals, regardless of their codes of conduct or history, can be fatal, and Canadians need to be much more pro-active and diligent with respect to their own safety and well-being.

Every situation is different of course, but human safety is paramount, and traveller safety should be the overarching engineering principle that governs every road and bridge design.

The Skyway Bridge that carries Highway 49 over the Bay of Quinte, and connects the east side of Prince Edward County to the Ontario mainland, is due for repairs. The bridge has a history of unmanaged road risks as it forces together all types of traffic; slow moving pedestrian and biker traffic moving inches away from high speed: industrial, commercial, residential, and seasonal tourist traffic.

Within the confines of one open and narrow space, pedestrians and bikers are subjected to the powerful wake from fast moving tandem vehicles and tricky cross winds that combine with the awful sway at the top of the bridge, all of which increase crossing risks for everyone.

Road risks are shared by all travellers not just pedestrians and bikers. A tragic biking death in Wellington reminds us that collisions and ‘near misses’ involving bikers usually involve drivers, who can be charged with: “Failing to Share Roadway with a Bicycle under the Highway Traffic Act”.

Unmanaged road risks place both pedestrians and drivers in harm’s way, and will increase due to:
• Rising gas prices, and the growing popularity of biking and walking in the County.
• Heavy industrial traffic in the form of tandem trucks carrying quarry and cement plant materials leaving the County has been increasing, and promises to continue as Picton Terminals ramps up.
• The addition of seismic protection under the bridge may cause it to sway more in high winds.

Skyway Bridge users have been forced to cope with this unsafe engineering on this bridge since the 70s, and we’ve been looking forward to the day when an enlightened government would upgrade the safety case for the Skyway Bridge.

Unfortunately, we discovered with great disappointment that Morrison Hershfield’s preferred recommendation 3c, fails to recognize and address the paramount issue of bridge safety due largely to the fact that both the County, and the Ontario Ministry of Transport failed to adequately study how the bridge is used by different types of traffic.

We’ve seen pedestrians and bikers use the bridge in all seasons, but because the County and the Ministry have not been diligent and ignored pedestrian crossings, they now try to trivialize pedestrian traffic, and convince us that it’s zero, or almost zero.

The Ministry of Transport suspended the consultative process by claiming that a cantilevered pedestrian walkway attached to the side girders is not required, and it would create a dangerous, unbalanced load on the bridge. Following that dismissive statement, they have gone silent and refuse to respond to additional questions.

The Ministry’s argument ignores the obvious fact that bridges are designed to carry unbalanced loads, it’s their job. This 50 year old bridge has been carrying enormous unbalanced loads for decades in the form of tandem industrial transports carrying quarry and cement plant materials out of the County. They often travel over the bridge in convoys of 3, creating a combined unbalanced load reaching 60 tonnes, moving along one side of the bridge. Recent testing confirms that 50 years of unbalanced loads has not harmed the supporting pylons.

The presence of an aluminum walkway on the opposite side could act as a counterweight to restore balance to the bridge, and its cross bracing could conceivably strengthen the grid work of elements, to reduce excessive swaying.

The County’s Mayor and Councillors have expressed concerns about ensuring access during the repair stages, but raised no concerns about public safety on the eastern gateway into the County. If County councillors were held legally responsible for bridge safety the same way they’ve been made legally responsible for water safety, I believe they would support bridge safety unanimously. We saw how diligent Council became during the spill in Picton Bay, because new laws inspired by the disaster in Walkerton now hold them directly accountable.

This is where our proactive work begins. As primary stakeholders who have been subjected to unsafe engineering on the Skyway Bridge for many years, I believe this is the right time to repair mistakes made in the past. That means giving our support to Option 3c, only if it includes a separate, protected walkway. The walkway could be installed beside, or under the deck as others have suggested, if it’s a better fit.

The preventable disaster in Elliot Lake informs us that we are all ultimately responsible for our own safety, and cannot rely completely on professionals and government to do the job adequately without cautious civilian oversight by the most affected people, the end users.

Steve Staniek, PEC

Filed Under: Letters and OpinionNews from Everywhere Else

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