INTERACTIVE: Officials sitting on ticking time bomb

Corroded piping under the old Pacific Highway at Somersby caused the road to collapse during torrential flooding. Photo: Jacky Ghossein Washed away: Madison Holt, 3, and Jasmin Holt 2 and nephew Travis Bragg, 9, died when their car was swept down Piles Creek. Photo: Supplied

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

She should have turned eight on Easter Sunday. But Jasmine Holt, a child with a porcelain face and ruby smile, will forever be a two-year-old girl.

In 2007, she drowned alongside her older sister, Madison, 3, her parents, Adam Holt and Roslyn Bragg, and her nine-year-old cousin Travis Bragg, when a surge of whitewater washed away the road beneath them and swallowed their car.

Today there is a new bridge at Somersby on the central coast but it was built too late and is adorned by their names.

”Everyone has imagined losing their kids,” said Ken Holt, whose son and two grandchildren were killed. ”It is worse than you can imagine.”

But, across NSW, there are hundreds of other bridges and culverts that are at risk of collapse, with more deteriorating each year, a joint Fairfax/University of Technology, Sydney investigation has found. Experts and government officials are keenly aware they are sitting on a time bomb.

Now, the Holt and Bragg families have urged governments of all levels to heed the obvious lesson from their tragedy.

”You watch it on the television and it is some poor other family,” Gaye Holt said. ”Our children won’t be brought back but we have to stop other children getting hurt.”

The Old Pacific Highway yawned open on June 8, 2007, in the middle of a wild rainstorm that killed three others around NSW and led to mass evacuations.

But the five members of the Holt and Bragg family needn’t have died. An inquest later determined that Gosford City Council had been negligent at best.

Despite repeated internal warnings from engineering staff that the culvert was rusting away underneath the road, and in spite of two quotes to have the span repaired, the council did nothing.

”Those responsible for engineering services simply did not understand the limitations of their competence and senior management of GCC had not developed systems that would identify such limitations,” the coroner, magistrate Paul MacMahon, found.

”This suggests that there is a significant structural problem in both the senior management and the engineering section of the GCC.”

In 2009, the council was forced to pay a confidential sum to the Holt and Bragg families in compensation and now says it has adopted the recommendations of the coroner.

The Somersby accident was not the result of Gosford council having insufficient funds to repair the road, it was the result of incompetence.

But elsewhere in NSW, councils are struggling to pay for vital safety upgrades and ongoing maintenance on 8000 bridges that fall under their responsibility.

In the Kyogle area alone, bridges have collapsed three times since 2004, including just last year when the Mills Road bridge failed under a loaded gravel truck. Council officials have expressed alarm about the dangers posed to school buses from a similar collapse.

Across two-thirds of the state, councils are in urgent need of more than $340 million just to bring their timber and concrete bridges up to a ”satisfactory” condition. The problem is intensifying each year as many of the 9289 bridges across NSW reach the end of their structural life.

According to the first ever statutory self-assessment required of councils, at least 65 councils in 2011 reported significant or ”critical” deterioration of their bridges and culverts. Despite this, just months after winning government, the O’Farrell administration terminated a program to replace timber bridges that had been running since 2006, and which had led to the construction of 172 new spans in 57 council areas.

A $145 million ”Bridges for the Bush” program announced in October last year instead caters to bridges on roads used by major haulage companies, and will not provide a single dollar to councils trying to prevent the closure, or worse, the collapse of their bridges.

Cobar Shire Council (population 5120) needed to spend $46 million to bring its bridges and culverts up to a satisfactory standard, and Lachlan Shire Council (population 6967) faced a $23 million bill. In Cobar, the backlog equates to a bill per household of $18,714.

A 2011 report by the Mid-North Coast Group of Councils reported that the average condition of bridges on the north coast was ”evident deterioration”, and that each council was spending about $928,000 less per year on maintenance than was required. But the problems could be worse.

But Roads and Maritime Services says that it has trained 220 officers from 60 councils on how to properly inspect bridges and culverts to identify hazards and defects.

”This training was provided to council officers who inspect culverts on RMS roads,” said Penny Robins, a spokeswoman for the agency. ”However, the same skills would be used by those council officers to inspect culverts on council roads.”

On the north coast, councils are struggling to maintain hundreds of ageing bridges, including many being used by school buses.

Mr Holt said that ”it should be all governments’ responsibility to fix it”.

”If some of the MPs had children in the area, they would not allow it to happen,” he said.

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