Old bridges and limited funds pose serious problem in northern NSW

Concern: Derryn Nix from Kyogle Council inspects debris washed up against Murrays Bridge. Photo: Peter Rae As a small truck makes its way across the gushing creek at the tiny community of The Risk in northern NSW, the rattle of the ageing timber bridge rises in a crescendo.

The state of 80-year-old Grieve Crossing, just metres from the local public school, is the stuff of nightmares for council staff responsible for maintaining it.

”We’ve had staff leave because they’ve said all they see at night is a busload of kids going through a bridge,” Kyogle Council urban and assets executive manager Graham Kennett said.

Indeed, a school bus makes its way over the Grieve Crossing every day. The bridge, which is scheduled for imminent repairs, is rated 4.04 on an asset condition scale where 5 means the bridge is beyond repair and really should be closed.

Bridges are the only council assets Mr Kennett classified as ”extreme risks” within the tiny shire nestled among the forested valleys inland from the north coast.

The timber and dairy farm region has 420 bridges, more than half of them made of wood. Of those, 160 are single-lane only, many a remnant of the Great Depression settlers who used axes to chop down giant natives and create crossings over the many gullies.

”I don’t think there’s any other local government in the country that’s got that many bridges,” Mr Kennett said. ”They are a massive, massive problem for us.”

Barely one in 10 of the 223 timber bridges could be described as in ”good” or ”very good” condition.

But Kyogle, which has a population of just 10,000, cannot afford to fix its potentially deadly problem.

With such a small community, the council collects less than $5 million in rates annually, but spends more than double that, Mr Kennett said.

Among the expenses is upkeep of 1300 kilometres of roads, including 800 kilometres unsealed.

A $900,000 bridge replacement program allows the council to tackle six single-lane bridges a year.

”We’re focusing on the low-hanging fruit,” Mr Kennett said.

”But the problem we’ve got is another high number of multi-span timber bridges where the replacement cost is $400,000 [each].”

Kyogle manages the bridges it cannot afford to fix by imposing ever-decreasing load limits to give each structure the longest life possible. But even then, there has been a string of potentially very serious accidents.

In November 2004, the Hills Road bridge failed under a loaded milk tanker that exceeded its 15-tonne limit. The bridge collapsed under the rear of the truck, but no one was hurt. The Hills Road bridge has still not been replaced.

Four years later, the Simes Road bridge collapsed when a loaded council water truck was driven across it, ”which we preferred [to] a school bus”, Mr Kennett said. The truck was being used to clean debris after flooding. Again, no one was hurt and the bridge was replaced with a $120,000 steel and concrete span.

Then in July, a loaded gravel truck broke through the Mills Road bridge. Mr Kennett said no one was injured, ”thank whatever god you believe in”. It is due to be replaced in 2016-17.

Schools and the local dairy industry are consulted regularly on changes to local bridge use to ensure buses and milk tankers can get around the shire.

As the cost of full replacement rises, the council is left to slap concrete and steel stop-gaps on its many bridges or close them altogether, much to the chagrin of residents.

”The important things get done,” Mr Kennett said, ”but the reality of the situation is that there aren’t enough resources to get everything done that should be done.”

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