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Hundreds of girders cause problems on $1.4-billion P3 Windsor parkway

Opposition critics in the Ontario legislature are upset that the government has agreed to allow a consortium to salvage rather than replace 300 massive girders that have been installed for one of Canada's largest infrastructure projects.


Opposition critics in the Ontario legislature are upset that the government has agreed to allow a consortium to salvage rather than replace 300 massive girders that have been installed for one of Canada’s largest infrastructure projects.

The Opposition NDP charged that the government should have ordered that non-standard girders in the Rt. Hon. Herb Gray Parkway near Winsor be removed and replaced for the sake of the public perception of safety. And according to the Windsor Star, Andrea Horwath, NDP leader, also questioned the P3 process: “How could the government on a project of such importance, costing billions of dollars … fail to ensure that safety standards were being met in the first place?”

The parkway, formerly known as the Windsor-Essex Parkway, is a $1.4-billion, 11-kilometre corridor in southwest Ontario that leads to a planned new international border crossing to the U.S. The parkway is due to be completed by 2014.

The province halted the installation of the suspect girders in July, after concerns had been raised. Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Glen Murray said then that the issue was “of great concern” and asked a panel of independent experts to investigate. At that stage about 300 of 500 girders had already been installed even though many of them had not been properly certified by the Canadian Standards Association. There were reported to be concerns about tack welds used on their reinforcing and that some had shown cracking. The girders are being used to support the roof of extensive tunnels along the parkway.

The Independent Expert Review panel of five, chaired by Harvey J. Kirsh and including four civil engineering professors — reported back to the government last week. They said that the girders, fabricated by the French company Freyssinet in a Windsor plant, “would only be salvageable using muscular remedial measures.” Moreover, the panel declared: “Based on the information received so far, it is the opinion of the IER Committee that the girders do not meet the requirements of the applicable regulations, codes and standards. With various violations in the design and construction requirements and the uncertainties in the construction of these girders, the IER can not unequivocally opine that the girders are safe and durable. In fact, there is evidence that safety and durability of the girders have been compromised.”

The panel then gave two options: either replace deficient and non-compliant girders, or salvage, reinforce and monitor the non-compliant girders through a set of specific steps.

Not surprisingly given the costs involved, the P3 contractor — Windsor Essex Mobility Group, which includes Fluor Corporation — chose option two, salvage and strengthening. However it took two days of talks with the Ministry and Infrastructure Ontario to come to the agreement, and the contractor still insists the girders are safe as they are.

The independent review panel listed seven remediation steps that the contractor must perform. The steps include identifying girders with visible deficiencies and signs of distress. They were told to strengthen the girders in shear using a mechanism that reduces stress in the internal stirrups to address the fatigue problem that may be caused by tack welds. The panel noted that tack welding is known to increase the risk of corrosion of steel. The panel also required that the remediated girders must be continuously monitored on behalf of the P3 consortium by independent trained professionals in both the short and long term life of the structures. Windsor Essex Mobility has a 30 year contract to maintain the highway.

The independent review committee said it was mindful of the potential serious financial implications, time delays, and impacts associated with the issue and that it appreciated “the passion for the respective positions” taken by the participants. The panel also expressed thanks for the parties’ transparency, frankness and cooperation.

Meanwhile the Canadian Council of Independent Laboratories (CCIL) took the occasion to point out that the Ontario government is awarding P3 contracts with no requirements that the construction be verified by independent testing and inspections. On October 3 the CCIL issued a press release in which Derwyn Reuber, CCIL’s executive director, says of the Herb Gray Parkway situation: “If there had been independent inspection and testing on behalf of the ultimate owner of this project, the potential problem would have been identified much earlier. This would have saved a significant amount of money for taxpayers and avoided long delays in completing the Parkway.” The CCIL is uging the Ontario government “to require all public infrastructure projects to be subject to independent quality control and quality assurance testing and inspection. To ensure independence, these services should be retained by, and the findings reported directly to, government.”

The expert committee is due to provide a supplementary report on October 31. To read its report issued at the beginning of October, click here.

* This article was revised October 9, 2013, 9.05 a.m. EST.  The girders are not steel, but concrete with steel reinforcing.  A CCE E-newsletter was published on October 8 with a subheading that inccorrectly identified the girders as steel.  We apologize for the error.