The MD is working with the Province to prioritize the required funding to rebuild the Smith Bridge. Browse answers to some common questions below — or ask one of your own. We'll continue to add to this section as the campaign gains momentum.
History and General Background Information
The Smith Bridge was built in 1944 by the US Army Corps of Engineers as part of the Alaska Canada (ALCAN) Highway. Before this bridge was built, a ferry was required for travel between the Hamlet of Smith and the Town of Slave Lake.
When the Smith Bridge was built, it was estimated that it would provide 75 years of useful service — beyond which point it would need to be replaced. According to its original builders, 2019 was the bridge’s end-of-life date.
The bridge has numerous structural issues due to its age — from wooden decking that deteriorates over time to rusted and damaged structural steel — to a supporting pier that has badly eroded due to the undercurrent. From a design perspective, the bridge fails to adequately support thriving industrial activities in the Mitsue and Marten Hills areas of the MD.
From a design standpoint, the bridge was not designed for today’s transportation needs. It is only one lane, which creates a pinch point for public and commercial travel. Also, due to the bridge’s inferior load capacity, industry vehicles and equipment must cross the bridge in a staggered manner. It’s important to note that this vital commercial traffic feeds not only the Lesser Slave region, but the province as whole.
It is also a covered bridge, meaning that larger vehicles that support the ag, forestry and energy sectors are prohibited from using it. Lastly, the angle at which the bridge connects with the roadway on either side is somewhat precarious.
The Smith Bridge is at risk of collapse due to the severe erosion of ground cover underneath pier 3. The ground cover is engineered to be 2.5 meters into the river bed, but it is now only 0.5 metres at this point. That pier is in danger of washing out during a high-water event. If this were to happen while traffic is on the bridge, it would be catastrophic.
Additionally, failure of the Smith Bridge means that residents in Smith and surrounding communities would be prevented from accessing medical or police services in a timely manner. Smith is also a CN Rail hub. If the bridge fails and a train is going through town (severing the only other route out of the Hamlet), Smith residents would be completely stranded.
Roles and Responsibilities
- The provincial timeline for a new bridge keeps moving, and does not align with the realities of the existing bridge.
- The further the timeline for the Smith Bridge rebuild gets pushed, the more municipal funds must go toward costly temporary repairs.
- The Province could be wrong, and the bridge could fail before their projected rebuild date. This outcome would be catastrophic both to community members and to industry as a whole. It would also be far more expensive to salvage a destroyed bridge and build a new one versus a planned and controlled rebuild.
Last year the MD replaced the bridge deck at a cost of roughly $120,000. The MD has needed to remove a debris pile from pier three several times over the last ten years, at a cost of about $50,000 each time we have to do that. Proposed near-term maintenance activities exceed a million dollars, which would buy the bridge just a few additional years of life at best.
The bridge is at the end of its useful life. To keep investing money into temporary band-aid repairs is neither sustainable nor fiscally responsible. Simply put: the Smith Bridge continues to deteriorate, and it needs a permanent replacement within the next two to three years in order to prevent a complete structural failure.
The Province has many municipalities advocating for their own infrastructure projects — and the Smith Bridge rebuild is a large undertaking. At a price tag of about $70 million, this project would use up the Province’s annual bridge reconstruction funding allotment.
The Province has the ability to increase its funding envelope for bridge reconstruction. This would free up more funding to break ground on a new bridge while addressing other provincial infrastructure priorities.
There are considerable resource revenues in the northern part of the MD, largely due to the energy and forestry sectors. The Government of Alberta is a beneficiary of these revenues. Freeing up funding dollars and prioritizing the Smith Bridge rebuild would help sustain (and possibly increase) the economic benefit of these industries to the Province.
- The Smith Bridge is essential to the safety of industry, community members and the travelling public.
- An uncovered two-lane bridge would provide industry with greater opportunities for exploration; a more reliable sales route; and numerous other benefits.
- There is an ideal window of opportunity for the MD’s thriving industrial plays to help offset the costs to replace this bridge. This opportunity will not exist forever.
How does a structure as large as the Smith Bridge get built?
With a bridge of this size, it's standard practice for municipalities to receive funding from the provincial government when it comes time to replace them.
The MD is responsible for upkeep and maintenance of the Smith Bridge — but when it needs to be replaced, we lobby the Province for funding. Rural municipalities simply do not have the tax base to fund projects like these.
Sizable oil & gas operations are underway in the Marten Hills area of the MD. These operations rely on transportation corridors for exploration/production equipment, and tanker trucks for getting the product to buyers. As transportation becomes faster, cheaper or easier, costs go down and revenues go up. This formula benefits everyone — including the Province by way of royalties.
There are other energy-sector benefits to rebuilding the Smith bridge, like the ability to transport larger exploration-type equipment; unimpeded access to a local workforce; and the opportunity to develop support services in the Hamlet of Smith.
A small covered bridge with a questionable lifespan is a pinch point for oil producers. They will likely forego this corridor and find other routes that are hundreds of kilometers longer. The higher the cost of transportation, the larger the deduction from oil & gas revenues — and the less money that the Province gets from royalties. If routes are too cumbersome, this may dampen future exploration and production plans altogether.
There are other energy-sector risks that the Smith bridge poses in its present state, like worker safety; or the environmental impact of an oil spill in the Athabasca River.
A window of opportunity exists for the MD’s thriving oil & gas sector to offset the Smith Bridge rebuild costs. However, this opportunity will not exist forever.
Got questions of your own?
Community participation is encouraged at all stages of the Smith Bridge rebuild campaign. Have any questions not addressed in the FAQ? Submit them here!