A waste of Public Money?

An intriguing article in the New Civil Engineer (NCE) 17-05-12 about the proposed New Wear Bridge in Sunderland (http://www.nce.co.uk/news/structures/engineers-say-118m-wear-bridge-is-waste-of-public-money/8630426.article?blocktitle=Exclusive-news-from-NCE-magazine&contentID=204 ).  Three points intrigue me before commenting on the meat of the article.  Costs are an important background to the article with critics claiming the eye catching bridge will cost four to five times the cost of a conventional solution and figures quoted elsewhere in the article that a conventional bridge would be £21m cheaper (than £118m) i.e. the proposed bridge carries a 20% premium.  Intriguingly a little research on the Sunderland Council website indicates the Council’s bid to central government for funding identified an £8m difference.  It would improve the subsequent debate if more reliable or agreed figures were provided.  The second point of intrigue would be how a potentially £100m+ project has evaded good procurement practice, by not involving a Contractor during design development as indicated in the Treasury’s Infrastructure Cost Review Implementation Plan or the earlier OGC Construction Procurement Guidelines.  The final point of intrigue is why Simon Bourne the named principal critic has decided now is an appropriate time to write to the transport secretary raising the issue, as her department is the principal funder.  The proposed bridge resulted from a 2005 competition (with pictures first made public in 2009), the detailed design is completed and out to tender with five contractors.  Would the freedom from recently leaving Benaim’s have anything to do with it?

The meat of the article is that in austere times a fancy bridge can’t be afforded and that the resulting bridge is structurally inefficient.  Comments from critical un-named Bridge engineer(s) do not assist the credibility of those opposing the proposals.

There is some merit in the argument that the Country can’t afford to pay too much for it’s infrastructure, but what is too much?  Given that a tender spread of 5-10% is not unreasonable a potential 8% extra (£8m) seems reasonable if it was to provide an iconic structure that could provide a landmark symbol equivalent to Tower Bridge for London, the Clifton Suspension Bridge for my adopted City of Bristol or the Millennium Bridge for Newcastle/Gateshead.  If on the other-hand the cost difference is four or five times that of a conventional bridge, then the fancy bridge becomes an architectural indulgence and should be criticised.  Without full knowledge of the extent of the necessary approach roads, my view would be that the bridge element will carry at least a 100% cost premium, but possibly not the 300-400% premium suggested in the article. As the reason for the bridge is to provide the road infrastructure to open up brownfield sites for development a conventional bridge with an iconic public art structure would surely be the better use of public money?  Hence returning to my opening remarks, identifying the true costs is fundamental to the argument.

The article makes the case well that the bridge is over-complicated.  As a bridge engineer I would normally try to take the loads from the deck to the foundations in the most efficient manner, to minimise materials and to assist with construction, with the inevitable outcome of a cheaper structure.  The proposed form of two independent towers, supporting the cables from the deck, but bent towards the spans with no backstays, is very inefficient and will be complicated to construct.  The function dictating form brigade, would never want to see an architect involved in bridge engineering.  I on the other-hand have worked with a number of architects to develop bridge designs, where their input has been invaluable from concept to detailed design, but as part of a team, conscious of budget and buildability.  My view of the New Wear Bridge would be, great sculpture, inappropriate bridge.

Hence letter to the Editor of NCE (doubt it will be published)

“I was disappointed in the article regarding the proposed New Wear Bridge.  Whilst some of the technical reservations were addressed the financial ones were left un-clarified; was the bridge going to be four or five times as expensive as a pragmatic design or circa 20% more expensive as suggested by the Council or, if you consult the Council’s website, the figure of 8% provided in their funding bid to the Department?  Are the costs quoted only for the bridge or do they include the necessary approach roads as well?  Furthermore the method of procurement, excluding the Contractor from the detailed design, doesn’t accord with the ethos of the Treasury’s Infrastructure Cost Review Implementation Plan or the earlier OGC Construction Procurement Guidelines.  If an 8% premium was the figure, obtained by rigorous cost analysis and contractor involvement, then I would suggest the choice of an iconic bridge could be justified.  However, most experienced bridge engineers would take the view that the iconic premium was going to be at least 100%, if not quite reaching the unattributed comment of 300-400% and hence the wonderful sculpture, masquerading as a bridge should not be paid for from the public purse.”

For more lively debate on Bridge Engineering matters I refer you to the Happy Pontist bog http://happypontist.blogspot.co.uk/

+++UPDATE+++

Letter published 31-05-12 edition NCE

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