Collapsed bridge raises infrastructure questions in Nova Scotia

I was playing pool with some buddies in Carl's shed in Tusket on Tuesday night, when Gordon said, "What's that rumble -- is that a big truck?" We checked the window. No truck.

A few minutes later, Eddie got a call. His face went stiff and his eyes darted. The Tusket bridge, a half kilometre upstream, had collapsed.

What!? When we arrived, there was a lineup of cars plus a large flatbed truck with a road machine on board -- all within minutes of crossing the ill-fated structure.

While we absorbed the shock of something that was such a solid part of the landscape for a century being gone in a minute -- Premier Darrell Dexter would call it "incomprehensible" the next day, an apt word -- the question arose as to whether there had been anyone on the bridge, now washed down the dark and ferocious turbulence.

No one was, and that part of it, at least, ended happily, if not miraculously.

After a storm wiped out a much smaller bridge and cut off Meat Cove at the opposite tip of the province in September, not to mention the extra damage in Yarmouth County and beyond now, the rest of it is not so happy. How far does the whole story extend?

In fact, finishing our game back at Carl's, when the conversation resumed it wasn't about the collapsed bridge, but about a bigger one downriver that's been the subject of macabre joking among us for some time -- as to whether the boys would make it back for another round of pool or not.

Half the gang come from Surette's Island, place of my distant relatives. It's attached to the mainland by a one-lane steel truss-and-suspension bridge twice as long as the collapsed one -- nearly 200 metres in three spans over a tidal sluice. It was a local marvel when built in 1908. But now?

Along with everybody else in Surette's Island, and the community of Morris Island which is attached to it by a small bridge, my friend Warren (Surette -- need you ask?), a welder by trade, has been fretting about it for years.

He's peeled off thick slabs of rust by the fistful, rattled the old railing that's coming loose, listened to the whole thing shake as heavy equipment goes through, wondered how long the old iron can take it and muttered more than once: "If something happens, I hope it's not to a school bus."

If something happens, unlike Tusket which has a handy detour, some 250 people would be completely cut off.

The province is working on it. The plan is for a new bridge in 2012 -- but with a policy condition that keeps locals sceptical: "If the money can be found." It won't be cheap -- in the vicinity of $10 million.

Transport Department engineers have checked it and declared it sound. But the Tusket bridge was checked and looked sound hours before it collapsed. As we left, Billy quipped: "J'ai peur de m'en aller"-- I'm afraid to go home (over the bridge). This time, I wasn't sure he was joking.

Antique infrastructure and worsening conditions. The province has two big policies about to come out that relate to this -- one on transportation infrastructure, another on forestry and natural resources, plus another in the works on coastal protection.

The last one first. As far as I'm concerned, the massive clearcutting in the interior has contributed to the ferocity of the flooding.

If you've ever cruised the interior clearcuts in Nova Scotia, wherever it's hilly, the roads are a mess of washed-out ditches and culverts, as clearcuts hold little water and water flushes down in spate.

Washed-out bridges and highways are the downstream version of that. If the new forest policy has nothing on that, I suggest they crank it back and find something to say.

Meanwhile, I've been waiting for the transportation policy for different reasons. The plan is to put highways and bridge work on a scientific footing.

Money is to go where it's needed according to certain norms rather than according to political influence.

Since corrupt roads politics goes back to the British founding of Nova Scotia, and almost resulted in the removal of a sitting premier as little as 15 years ago -- grassroots Liberals were furious as John Savage refused to fire Tory foremen on highways work when he took office -- highways work is at the symbolic core of the meaning of the NDP overthrow of the old party system.

Such a policy, if accepted by the public, would help advance the cause of confidence in our politics.

My buddies, for example, tend to believe that if their bridge was in Cape Breton, it would be replaced by now. In keeping with general western Nova Scotia opinion, the notion is that we don't protest loudly enough down this way and get less.

Yet, even if the transportation policy was about to even all that out, it too may be outdated even before it comes out because of the ferocity and frequency of storms, not to mention the higher tides (there was damage from those too in the recent storm), all related to global warming -- deniers and conspiracy nuts to the contrary.

The new question is: What new standards of construction do you apply if you're going to assume that you're building something, like the Surette's Island bridge or even the doomed Tusket bridge, that's going to last a century?

Meanwhile, my other buddy Darrell, getting a helicopter view and facing a new reality, seemed shell-shocked by it all -- no doubt thinking of the 550 or so other bridges in the province, many of them antiques, how much climate mayhem is yet to come, and how much it's going to cost.

Questions for all of us.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was originally published in The Chronicle Herald.

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