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Tue August 20 2019

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Cost of bridge maintenance backlog spirals by a third in one year

8 Jan The cost of repairing substandard local authority bridges in Great Britain has risen by 34% in the past year alone to £6.7bn.

The one-off cost of clearing the total maintenance backlog for the near 72,000 council-managed road bridges has increased from £5bn to £6.7bn.

The RAC Foundation has crunched data for the 2017-18 financial year to calculate what is needed to carry out all the work that is required on the tens of thousands of local authority bridges (defined as structures over 1.5 metres in span).

The study is based on data provided by 200 (out of a total of 207) councils across England, Scotland and Wales.

Between them the 200 councils manage 71,652 bridges, of which 3,177 (4.4% of the total) are categorised as ‘substandard’.

Substandard means unable to carry the heaviest vehicles now seen on our roads, including lorries of up to 44 tonnes.

Many of the substandard bridges are subject to weight restrictions. Others will be under programmes of increased monitoring or even managed decline.

The proportion (4.4%) of substandard bridges is in line with that reported in 2016-17 (4.6% – 3,441 out of 74,005 bridges – based on data from 204 local authorities).

Between them, councils say they would ideally want to bring 2,026 (64%) of the 3,177 substandard bridges back up to full carrying capacity.

However, budget restrictions mean that they anticipate that only 343 of these will have the necessary work carried out on them within the next five years.

The survey of local highways authorities was carried out by the RAC Foundation with the help of the National Bridges Group of ADEPT , the Association of Directors of Environment, Economics, Planning and Transportation.

The 10 councils in Great Britain with the highest number of substandard bridges are:

Local authority

Number of bridges*

Number of substandard bridges

Proportion of substandard bridges

Devon*

2,712

244

9%

Essex*

910

167

18%

Somerset

1,483

160

11%

Cornwall

1,007

140

14%

Suffolk

924

140

15%

Northumberland

972

80

8%

Lancashire

1,469

77

5%

Cumbria

1,911

71

4%

Gloucestershire

962

66

7%

Aberdeenshire

1,293

65

5%

The ten councils in Britain with the highest proportion of substandard bridges are:

Local authority

Number of bridges

Number of substandard bridges

Proportion of substandard bridges

Lewisham

34

18

53%

Hammersmith & Fulham

4

2

50%

Blackpool

21

9

43%

Bristol

140

52

37%

Islington

7

2

29%

Southend-on-Sea

83

22

27%

Kensington & Chelsea

4

1

25%

Barking & Dagenham

13

3

23%

Bexley

82

18

22%

Conwy

291

63

22%

Despite the financial pressures, annual expenditure by councils on maintaining bridges rose from an estimated £367m in 2016-17 to £598m in 2017-18.

The subject of bridge safety has climbed the agenda after the collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, Italy last August, killing 43 people. While no UK local authority manages structures directly technically comparable with that bridge, they do have are a number of similarly post-tensioned (PT) bridges with hidden cables.

These PT bridges require intrusive inspections (post-tensioned special inspections or PTSIs) that can cost £100,000 a time.

The number of post-tensioned bridges that are local-authority managed and how many require inspections:

Local Authorities that have PT bridges

Total number of PT bridges

Bridges that have had PTSIs in the last 18 years

Bridges that require but have not had PTSIs in last 18 years

Estimate of funding required for the additional PTSIs

106

605

305

199

£21.4 m

(based on the £15.5m needed for 144 bridges for which  RAC has data.)

The RAC Foundation also asked national roads authorities how their bridges were faring:

 

Number of bridges

Number of substandard bridges

Proportion of substandard bridges

Highways England

11,067

83

1%

Transport Scotland

2,641

38

1%

Welsh Assembly

1,251

96

8%

RAC Foundation director Steve Gooding said: “Establishing the condition of our highway bridges provides a litmus test for the condition of our road network more generally, and the condition is worrying.

“While we should draw some comfort from the good knowledge highway authorities have about the strength and structural integrity of their bridges, the fact is that many thousands are subject to enhanced monitoring, speed and weight restrictions, and the cost of bringing them up to scratch is continuing to mount.

“Ancient bridges on rural back roads might not be the highest priority for repair, but the risk we run is that sub-standard structures on some roads result in heavier vehicles having to make lengthy detours.”

Kevin Dentith, chair of the ADEPT National Bridges Group, said: “Bridge maintenance is about priority. In large rural counties, like my own authority, Devon, there will be structures that on paper fall short of current design standards, however they are never likely to be strengthened because they carry little more traffic than the odd car and tractor.

“However, there is a serious issue around so-called post-tensioned bridges. Whilst these are not directly comparable in technical terms to the bridge that collapsed in Genoa they do require intrusive examination, something many of them will never have had because of a lack of funding, expertise or both.

“Hopefully some of the Department for Transport’s £200 million Challenge Fund set aside for 2019-21 will be used to prioritise this work. We should find out more about how the money will be allocated early in the new year.”

* Last year both Devon and Essex councils reported the number of bridges under their management as being significantly higher than this year. This is because last year they used a minimum-span definition of 900mm. This year they have only reported structures of 1.5 metres or more in span which is what the RAC Foundation question actually asked. This change in reporting also explains, in part, why the total number of GB bridges under local authority control this year appears slightly less than last year.

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