B.C. Transportation Minister Mary Polak used that phrase repeatedly Thursday afternoon at a press conference to address the closure one day earlier of the brand new Port Mann Bridge when falling chunks of snow and ice damaged vehicles crossing the span.
“Yesterday’s events on the Port Mann Bridge were absolutely unacceptable,” she told reporters. “Like everyone else, I was feeling horrified at the images people were sending in. It was absolutely shocking.
“I can’t imagine what it must have felt like for those motorists going across the bridge and seeing huge pieces of ice coming down around them. It’s absolutely unacceptable.”
Polak and Mike Proudfoot, CEO of the Transportation Investment Corp. (TI Corp.) said it’s up to the contractor, Kiewit-Flatiron, to come up with a solution — at no cost to taxpayers.
“This design for the bridge contemplates measures for the accumulation of snow and ice,” Proudfoot said. “Those haven’t been effective so the ball’s back in the contractor’s court to come up with a proper solution.”
Said Polak: “We will be looking to the contractor to provide us not only with a long-term, permanent solution that ensures this never, ever occurs again but, also, an immediate fix to the problem so that the bridge is open and indeed safe for the travelling public.”
Still, they made no guarantees that weather conditions will not force another closure of the bridge.
Proudfoot said centre pylons are designed to eliminate structural points where snow can accumulate and the cables – which are not heated – are covered in plastic, and snow should have slid down the cables and dissipated.
He also said the Port Mann “was designed by one of the most prominent experts in cable-stayed bridges. It goes through an independent check by a separate firm, which is also an internationally recognized expert in cable-stayed bridges. And the TI Corp. has engineers who review it prior to the commencement of work.”
Polak was also asked about reports that workers raised concerns previously about potential problems with snow and ice, and whether an option for heated cables was presented to the province or TI Corp. “Nothing of that nature was ever brought to the attention of the ministry and I don’t believe it was brought to the attention of TI Corp.,” she said.
Kiewit-Flatiron spokesman Tom Jansenn said in an emailed statement the firm is “very concerned” and working to find a solution as fast as possible.
He would not say if the contractor accepts cost responsibility.
Earlier in the day, the main union representing workers on the Port Mann Bridge wouldn’t confirm whether its members had raised falling ice as a safety concern last winter.
Asked if the issue was recorded as a concern at health and safety meetings, Ironworkers Local 97 president Cecil Damery would only say: “Snow was an issue last year also.”
Damery said he had to be “careful what I say” because the union works closely with Kiewit-Flatiron.
The Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), another union whose members worked mainly on the highway side of the $3.3-billion Port Mann Highway 1 Project and less frequently on the bridge, said its reps did not hear of falling ice concerns.
“The issue about ice falling was never raised to them and it was never raised at any of our mass safety meetings,” CLAC spokesman Alex Pannu said.
WorkSafe BC spokesperson Donna Freeman said the workplace safety authority has no reports of falling ice being a concern, but added the issue could still have been raised and resolved locally.
NDP transportation critic Harry Bains said even without worker complaints, the government should have known that snow and ice falls onto traffic at other bridges of similar design, where cables from the outer bridge rails cross over top of traffic to central support towers.
Bridges with falling ice problems exist in Sweden, the U.K. and Boston.
“If they knew, why did they not consider eliminating that risk?” Bains asked.
Bains said either a retrofit to ensure de-icing — or whatever other technology is suitable — must be performed even if it costs much more now than it would have during construction.
It’s not acceptable to shut down the bridge for lengthy periods when similar snow and ice conditions develop, he said, nor is it acceptable if motorists are left scared to drive over the Port Mann in winter.
“There’s no other choice but to fix the problem,” Bains said. “Why didn’t they do this before? They ought to have known.”
If the ministry did know about the issue but chose not to build in a better solution, Bains wants to know if it was to cut costs.
“Was this because of money or because they simply never thought about it and never did proper due diligence?”
ICBC has received more than 100 claims of vehicles damaged on the Port Mann Bridge Wednesday. Two vehicle occupants were injured and one was hospitalized.
Motorists described the falling ice chunks as large — a few feet long — and cracking and in some cases punching through windows.
TI Corp. has said drivers who travelled across the bridge between 10 and 6 p.m. Wednesday won’t be charged tolls and the company will cover insurance deductibles for vehicles damaged by falling snow and ice on the bridge, as well as work to compensate motorists on a case-by-case basis who had no comprehensive insurance.
– with files from Sarah Payne