Canadian Consulting Engineer

Bridges – Who’s In Charge?

January 1, 2008
By Extract From A Report By MMM Group

In November 2007, the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario, an alliance of labour and management groups, published a report written by engineers MMM Group of Toronto. The 20-page stu...

In November 2007, the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario, an alliance of labour and management groups, published a report written by engineers MMM Group of Toronto. The 20-page study entitled “Ontario’s Bridges: Bridging the Gap,” not only reviews the state of bridge infrastructure in Ontario, but also looks at the governmental procedures and processes in place relating to bridges and public safety.

In preparing the report, MMM’s engineers drew on several sources. They conducted interviews with representatives of the Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation, for example, and sent out a questionnaire to all Ontario municipalities.

The Ontario Ministry of Transportation owns and maintains approximately 2,800 bridges but the municipalities have approximately four times that number, or 12,000. The province also owns 1,900 culverts of more than 3-metre span, while the municipalities have 5,400.

Following is an extract from the MMM report.

Bridging the Gap: Conclusions

Ontario has a bridge infrastructure deficit that could lead to serious problems. The province is not alone in this regard, for the problem is being experienced by most jurisdictions in North America. Preoccupied by a variety of other funding demands (e. g. health or social services), all levels of government have for a number of years sought to defer the needed infrastructure maintenance and rehabilitation work. Continuing on this path is not sustainable and can only lead to negative consequences that will adversely affect public safety.

Perhaps the most disconcerting observation from the current bridge infrastructure dilemma in the province is that no single agency or government body has all the information on the state of the municipal infrastructure. Furthermore there is no one agency responsible for ensuring that the bridge inspections and rehabilitation work is being carried out.

With respect to this observation, it is impossible to say whether there is any bridge safety concern in Ontario as the data to support such a conclusion is generally not available. In those cases where some detailed data may be available, it is unclear whether the data is accurate enough to draw relevant conclusions.

With respect to oversight responsibilities, the province is relying on the OGRA’s [Ontario Good Roads Association’s] Municipal Data-Works inventory program to keep track of municipal infrastructure. However, the OGRA does not have the mandate to be responsible to ensure that all municipalities comply with their legal responsibilities, and the individual municipal data will not be available to the province to enforce. Municipalities need a provincial body to provide the leadership and support in terms of the oversight, standards, expertise and funding.

There is good reason to believe that the provincial bridge system is safe, but reliable centralized data that would allow us to conclude the same for municipal bridges does not exist. Thus while there is no definitive reason to believe there is a problem, the lack of comprehensive data [means] a conclusion on this matter cannot be drawn.

Ontario should be mindful of a similar experience it had in relation to public infrastructure safety, and should be concerned about repeating the same mistakes for bridges. In May 2000, the drinking water in the small community of Walkerton, Ontario became contaminated, leading to the death of seven people. Broadly speaking, in the Walkerton case, the municipality was responsible for providing safe drinking water and the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) was responsible for overseeing what the municipality was doing. As in most major disasters, there was a sequence of events (multiple failures) that led to the eventual catastrophic results. One of the key elements of the failure was found to be the lack of provincial oversight of the municipality. While this may be an unfair comparison, the similarities should signal concern and warrant taking action to address the oversight matter as soon as possible to ensure the safety of all of Ontario’s bridges.

As a result of Walkerton there have been a number of changes to protect the public, including a greater role for MOE to “police” municipal water treatment installations, legislative changes, standards setting, responsibility to report deficiencies and accreditation requirements; all of which could be similarly applied to improving the municipal bridge inspection program and ensuring public safety.

The Public Transportation and Highway Improvement Act requires municipalities to inspect all bridges and culverts at least once every two years. However, compliance with these requirements is entirely up to the municipalities. It is quite probable that some municipalities are not fully aware of their responsibilities in this area, or it is also conceivable that inadequate or insufficient resources are involved. A provincial agency, such as MTO, needs to be more proactive to ensure that municipalities are inspecting bridges in accordance with regulations and that the bridges are safe for public use.

Current regulations require inspections to be done under the guidance of an engineer. This regulation should be strengthened to ensure it is performed by qualified professional engineers. Many of today’s bridges are too complex to trust inspections to anyone other than experienced professionals. The current cost-critical competitive process for hiring bridge inspection services discourages thoroughness and the use of qualified professionals. The need for proper accreditation was a matter raised in the Quebec de la Concorde Commission of Inquiry.

An important concern in this area lies with municipalities that do not have the resources or the tax base to fund required rehabilitation. Because of funding pressures these municipalities tend to act on a short term basis, and simply react to infrastructure rehabilitation needs. This situation only exacerbates the problem. Smaller municipalities typically do not have sufficient funds for emergency repairs. They may also not have funds available to conduct programs of preventive bridge rehabilitation or undertake bridge inspections on a regular basis.

Many smaller municipalities do not have the resources or technical expertise to evaluate and maintain their bridge infrastructure. Some may not have an engineering department, so they lack the depth or prerequisite knowledge. There is no consistent application across Ontario; in some cases the higher tier municipality (i. e. county level) will assume the responsibility for all structures simply because the lower tier municipality lacks the depth of experience to do so.

Alternate sources of funding through special programs such as RIII, COMRIF and OSIFA have been well received. Many municipalities have been able to take advantage of COMRIF [Canada-Ontario Municipal Rural Infrastructure Fund] funding to undertake badly needed bridge rehabilitation. It is ironic that the COMRIF program is managed by the Ministry of Agriculture, and may speak to the significance of the issue. While the funding program was set up to help agricultural based municipalities, their most pressing needs often relate to their transportation infrastructure.

Even larger municipalities have identified problems funding their projected infrastructure deficits. Some might argue that these problems are due to poor fiscal management and that senior levels of government should not be required to intervene. With the potential safety of the public at risk and the obvious problems municipalities are having securing the necessary rehabilitation funds, an acceptable solution must be found with the cooperation of senior levels of government. Municipal needs must be reviewed on a case by case basis and appropriate action taken. A one-size-fits-all strategy will not address the overall infrastructure deficit funding problem.

Although essential to getting the infrastructure projects under way, one-time government funding programs are simply not
the most efficient means to get the work done. One-time funding does not allow for the proper planning and programming that bridge infrastructure rehabilitation requires. The philosophy of municipalities having to “compete” for infrastructure rehabilitation funds is flawed. Funding should be based on an established need which can be derived from a uniform provincial database (Bridge Condition Index reports). The resources expended on applying for grants are likely wasted. A multi-year funding program that municipalities can rely on is essential to ensure the safety of our bridges infrastructure.

Public funding sources, whether federal, provincial or municipal, are limited. There is always pressure from competing public services for available investment dollars. Alternative funding and delivery methods should be seriously considered as a means to address the mounting infrastructure needs. An overriding objective should be to deliver the infrastructure rehabilitation or reconstruction in a timely, efficient and cost effective manner.


1. Ensure that Safety is Paramount (highest priority)

2. Implement Governance Reforms

3. Provide Technical Leadership

4. Strengthen Provincial Legislation

5. Establish Multi-year Funding

6. Use Alternative Delivery Methods


The extract from the report “Ontario’s Bridges: Bridging the Gap” (Nov. 2007) is reproduced with permission of MMM Group and RCCAO,

Robert D. Nairn, P. Eng. was in charge of the project at MMM Group and the lead author of the report. Others involved at MMM were J. Hans VanPoorten, P. Eng. and Ed Ellard, P. Eng.


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