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Engineers say £118M Wear bridge is waste of public money

Bridge experts this week slammed designs for Sunderland’s £118M New Wear Bridge as a “staggeringly poor example of bridge engineering” and a “scandalous waste of public funds”.

Bridge engineers told NCE that the steel/concrete composite bridge between Castletown and Pallion would be four to five times more expensive to build than a standard box-girder road bridge and called for a halt to funding.

Designs produced by architect Spence Architect and structures consultant Technika include two cable stay towers - one 180m tall and the other 140m tall - on either site of the deck. The towers taper and curve towards each other longitudinally, overlapping, when viewed in elevation. Despite the overlap above deck level, there is no physical connection between them.

“Gross misuse of money”

“A bridge of this type is a gross misuse of public money in a time of austerity,” said independent bridge expert Simon Bourne. Bourne has 30 years’ experience in designing major bridges and has also been vocal in his criticism of the Mersey Gateway..

He has written to transport secretary Justine Greening outlining his concerns and urging her to withdraw government funding

The Department for Transport committed £82.6M to the scheme’s £118M total cost last December. Client Sunderland City Council is contributing £31.9M, with the remaining £3.5M coming from former regional development agency One North East.

His concerns were supported by other bridge experts. They said it was partly because the bridge will be very complicated to build, adding that as the bridge is already fully designed there is no room for contractor innovation.

“It’s a really complicated bridge, and completely unnecessary for a span of this length,” said an expert close to the project. “I just can’t believe it’s got this far [towards construction],” added another prominent bridge designer.

Unusual towers

The unusual shape of the towers - and the fact that there is no connection between them - means that they must be able to resist extremely high bending forces. As a result they are much larger structures than would be needed for a conventional cable stayed structure, said Bourne.

“The bridge is about as structurally inefficient as you can imagine,” he said.

The unusual layout also makes the structure hard to build as it is much more difficult for engineers to balance the forces going through the towers as contractors attach the cables to the deck.

As a result, contractors bidding for the project have a heavily prescribed construction schedule, eliminating scope for design innovation said the engineers who spoke to NCE.

Bourne said contractors will have to follow more than 400 individual instructions to keep the structure stable as it is built.

“In normal bridge schemes, contractors would be given a dozen indicative construction stages and it would be up to the contractor to decide on the best system for them,” said Bourne.

The council denied the project has been over engineered. New Wear Crossing project director David Abdy said the project had been “rigorously designed, costed, admired and backed within the industry and profession”.

The council is promoting the iconic bridge over a cheaper alternative to stimulate regeneration while relieving traffic congestion in eastern Sunderland.

Spence and Technika’s design won a Royal Institution of British Architects competition in 2005. But the scheme was mothballed until 2008 when the council announced that it was considering a simple alternative similar to a box girder option, that would be £21M cheaper. This option was rejected following a public consultation and planning permission was secured in April 2010 based on the current, iconic design.

But Bourne also criticised Sunderland City Council’s attempt to justify the design on the basis that the bridge would attract new investment.

Unsuitable comparisons

Bourne said Sunderland’s comparisons with the nearby Millennium Bridge in Newcastle - on which the justification is based - are unsuitable.

“The Millennium Bridge is a footbridge in the centre of town,” The Wear Bridge is a serious piece of infrastructure in the middle of an industrial estate,” said Bourne.

Five contractors are bidding to build the two span, 336m long cable-stayed structure. Balfour Beatty, Vinci, Ferrovial, Skanska and Graham Construction are understood to have been shortlisted. The council hopes to select its preferred bidder later this year with construction starting in 2013. Target completion date is 2015.

Readers' comments (14)

  • The attack of the conservative Bridge Engineers! The bridge is elegant. Difficult to build -yes, but elegant. As a Bridge engineer myself, I can only envy those who will be taking on this design and build challenge.

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  • Before I retired I worked for some 35 years with large contractors involved with a number of award winning projects.
    I always said that if I was a client Iwould sue the design team of my project if it won an RIBA award on the basis that it would be over-priced, difficult to build and probably expensive to maintain.
    Obviously this is an opinion which cannot be substantiated in all cases but a look at the the RIBA winners will show that this is not far from the truth.
    Beware of Architects & Engineers building monuments to themselves!

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  • It looks exciting, and design is not just about cheapness. It is better to design to please many and offend some, than to design to not offend anyone.

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  • I am all for innovation, but only if sound engineering principles are incorporated in the concept. This design, as far as I can see, does not do that and I'm afraid I have to categorize it as an architect's whim. It is overly complicated and does not present a clear structural statement of what it is trying to achieve.
    I believe Simon Bourne is absolutely right - it is a disgraceful waste of public money. True, design should not just be about cheapness, but nor should it be stating "we will build this simply because we can".

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  • As a Sunderland Council Taxpayer and one who took the trouble to respond to the public consultation, I have to admit to feeling a certain smugness that those whose speciality is bridge design appear to concur with my long-held view that this is primarily a piece of public art. The so-called consultation, as I clearly recall, was a "tick the box" affair, with a space the size of three large postage stamps for additional comments, so the outcome was never in serious doubt.
    As to the proposed structure leading to inward investment and regeneration, how many captains of industry are likely to be moved to relocate to Sunderland as a direct consequence of this expensive addition to the Wearside skyline?
    The only positive aspect from a personal point of view is that its future maintenance will not be my problem!

    Mike Gardiner

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  • We don't design and build bridges just to show that we can. Ny fool can do that. We do it for a purpose and to complement the landscape and/or it's surroundings. It is an extremely rare example that a bridge structure by itself in a mundane setting can influence future development and without a robust probability that this bridge will achieve that purpose then it fits into the architects inflated ego category and an extreme waste of public funds.
    Roger Colton

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  • Sadly, we find the common denominator being paraded as cheap and, therefore, most suitable. I do wonder what Mr Bourne would have to say about a Calatrava bridge? Is it all show, more expensive than it should be and, therefore, to be condemed? The world is scattered with costly design examples, not only of bridges, that are striking, memorable and, by Mr Bourne's theory, should never have been built. A few to ponder are The Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House, The Forth Railway Bridge, etc. It should be remembered that the Council want an iconic design that will be memorable and inspirational. It's too early to know, but what will Bourne et al have to say if it succeeds and results in the regenaration of Wearside? All, of this from a professional groupo who seek the status they feel they deserve. Not on this showing!!

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  • gordon s crighton

    "Churches built to please the priest"
    A bridge designed by an archtect ? I hope the tenderers are to be given the opportunity to submit alternative designs.
    Gordon Crighton

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  • Alexander - are you saying that it's perfectly acceptable for any council to say they want an iconic structure to enhance their status, at any cost?

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  • If you want, and can afford, to have an "iconic" structure instead of a bog standard box girder bridge; Good, I'll design and supervise its construction. My brief is to make sure that it doesn't fall down or fail to meet building regulations. It is the promoter's responsibility to meet the cost!

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