Lesser Slave River News

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Old Bridge Over the Athabasca Needs Replacing

A 78-year-old bridge in the hamlet of Smith, Alta., is at risk of collapsing into the Athabasca River, according to the local government, which can't afford to replace it.


Original article written by Madeleine Cummings for CBC News.

A 78-year-old bridge in the hamlet of Smith, Alta., is at risk of collapsing into the Athabasca River, according to the local government, which can't afford to replace it.

Local leaders say the one-lane bridge, which is about 200 kilometres north of Edmonton and 70 kilometres east of Slave Lake, is important for the community and its economy but its replacement doesn't seem to be a provincial priority.

"This bridge has to be replaced — it's not a want, it's a need," said Murray Kerik, reeve of the Municipal District of Lesser Slave River.

Kerik said the bridge is the municipality's most important issue. It's also a longstanding one; his father, the area's first reeve, lobbied the province to replace it in the 1990s.

"That's kind of why we're putting more pressure on this time because we've been continually more or less just brushed off and ignored," he said.

The U.S. Army built the bridge during the Second World War as part of the construction of the highway between Alaska and Canada. The builders expected the bridge would last 75 years.

With damaged steel and a supporting pier that has been badly eroded by the river's current, the bridge is deteriorating and racking up repair bills.

The bridge spans the Athabasca River, near the hamlet of Smith, Alta. (Madeleine Cummings/CBC)The bridge used to be the provincial government's responsibility but it was transferred to the municipal district after Highway 2 was realigned in the 1970s and the road became a local one.

Last year, the municipal district spent more than $120,000 to partially replace the bridge's deck and further repairs would buy only a few extra years in life.

The municipal district is on the hook for the total replacement cost of $70 million.

Residents Rely on Bridge

According to the Canadian census last year, 227 people live in Smith and 2,861 live in the municipal district. Kari Richard, who lives north of the Athabasca River, worries about the inconvenience a bridge closure would cause, and the possibility of losing her job.

She crosses the bridge as a school bus driver every morning and gets water for her home from a station south of the river.

School bus driver Kari Richard uses the Smith Bridge while taking students to school. She lives north of the river and a bridge closure would add lengthy detours to her daily routine. (Madeleine Cummings/CBC)

"Everything I do is across that river," she said.

Resident Sheila Willis wants to see a more modern bridge built, but she hopes the old one is saved and turned into a tourist destination.

"If this could be preserved, it could be a historic site," she said.

Industry Needs

Local councillors say Smith is near a group of lucrative oil fields that generates millions of dollars in royalties for the province.

"The oil industry in this area has literally exploded in the last three or four years," said Norm Seatter, a councillor who has worked in the oilfield industry for years.

Industrial vehicles cross the bridge regularly but larger vehicles cannot use the covered bridge and therefore must travel longer routes.

"It adds quite a bit of expense to the whole operation," Seatter said.

Replacement Date Delays

Though the bridge is the municipal district's responsibility, the province inspects it and recommends maintenance work and replacement dates.

Councillor Nancy Sand said she and her colleagues learned in the spring that the province had delayed the bridge's replacement date until 2035. She said the province's engineers determined it could last until then but engineers hired by the M.D. came to a different conclusion, finding it was at risk of collapsing.

Sand and her colleagues say they want to replace the bridge before it fails or needs to be closed.

"We need to be proactive and work on it now," she said.

280 Vehicles Per Day

Kevin Lee, a ministerial assistant for the office of the transportation minister, said the bridge is the municipal district's responsibility since it's on a local road.

He added that it has a relatively low traffic count of about 280 vehicles per day and that based on a provincial inspection in July 2020, the replacement date was adjusted from 2023 to 2035.

"While these inspections provide maintenance recommendations and suggested replacement dates, it is ultimately up to the M.D. to determine when and how it will fund the replacement of local bridges like the Smith Bridge," Lee said.

He said local bridges are eligible for the Strategic Transportation Infrastructure Program (STIP), which the municipality has not applied for. Through that program in 2019, the government spent a total of $18.4 million on local road bridge projects.

Murray Kerik, the reeve of Lesser Slave River, says the bridge has become a public safety issue. (Madeleine Cummings/CBC)

Kerik said the STIP program doesn't have enough money for all the small bridges and culverts in the province.

Without provincial help, he said, "there's no way this bridge will get replaced and eventually it's going to fail."


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Smith Bridge Rebuild

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REBUILDING THE SMITH BRIDGE

The Smith Bridge is five years past its engineered lifespan.The time to rebuild is now, and we need the Province to prioritize the required funding. Learn what the MD is doing to get this critical piece of infrastructure on the road to replacement.

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