OUTLOOK - It's been over nine years since the gates were closed and locked up on the iconic and nationally-recognized SkyTrail walking bridge in Outlook. Since that time in October 2013, questions have popped up time and time again over what could be done to possibly save the once-popular structure, which was closed due to damage being suffered as a result of the ground underneath gradually sliding and approaching the South Saskatchewan River.
Is it a fight worth getting in the ring for? Or are there too many factors involved and dollar figures at risk? These are such questions that people have asked in the near-decade that has passed.
Now, with those massive questions still on the minds of many, the Town of Outlook is paying closer attention and starting on the path to finding the best possible outcome for the structure that dates back further than a century, at one time known as the longest pedestrian walking bridge in all of Canada.
The old research report from Associated Engineering (AE) dated April 2014 showed the firm's findings regarding the bridge and included a preliminary repair design. In the report, two categories of repairs were highlighted, including Emergency and Comprehensive Repairs.
AE defined the emergency repairs as being required to make the bridge safe for public use, though they weren't intended to repair all deficiencies in the bridge. Regular inspections would be required to monitor the bridge's performance until the comprehensive repairs are complete.
The ensuing comprehensive repairs would make the SkyTrail safe and allow reliable performance of the bridge in the years to come. The report states that it included repairs of damage and deterioration of the bridge that wasn't compromising the stability of the structure at the time.
Based on AE's analysis as described in the report, the order-of-magnitude cost for the repairs were $3,550,000 for the emergency repairs, followed by another $2,000,000 for the comprehensive repairs, ultimately carrying a price tag of $5,550,000.
Eight years later, an updated report from Associated Engineering dated January 2022 reflects inflation costs, showing much higher estimated dollar figures related to the rehab of the bridge and perhaps surrounding the future of the SkyTrail with even more question marks.
AE's 'Opinion of Probable Cost' analysis, which includes the cost of repairs described in the 2014 report and installation of equipment required for long-term monitoring of the structure, also includes a 35% contingency and an estimate of engineering fees during design and construction. As well, following any proposed completion of repairs to the bridge, it would require annual inspections, monitoring, and budgeting for future maintenance, though that could become a bi-annual inspection. These costs are estimated to be in the range of $6,000-$12,000 per year.
Associated Engineering's updated report breaks down as such:
Mobilization and Demobilization (10%) - $1,080,000
Tree Removal - $50,000
Subtotal - $1,130,000
Subtotal - $166,300
Subtotal - $190,500
Approach Span Modifications - These include installing approach girder span ties and repairs to the pier and grouting the plinth.
Subtotal - $608,700
Subtotal - $392,500
Subtotal - $1,102,900
Other Recommended Repairs - These include retrofitting the west abutment, the installation of monitoring instruments, and the replacement of bearings at P2, P3, P4, P8, and P9.
Subtotal - $2,900,000
This comes to a net construction cost of $6,500,000. However, counting in a 10% overhead, profit and markup, and a risk factor, the cost rises up to $9,270,000. Finally, when other factors are added in such as a Class D Estimate Contingency of 35%, a detailed design, an inspection including testing of materials, a temporary works design, and construction monitoring with an estimated timeline of 135 days, the total estimated project cost (excluding taxes) comes to $13,660,000.
It should be highlighted that AE's recommendations are based on the visual review of the bridge on their inspection from 2013, meaning that there's been no concrete inspection in the time that has passed since it closed.
The Town of Outlook also enquired about the costs related to demolishing the SkyTrail, should that be the only course of action left to take. Based on previous studies into the controlled demolition and removal of truss bridges as well as techniques that are used to remove similar structures in the province, Associated Engineering anticipates that the cost of removal would be in the range of $35 million to $50 million.
Kevin Trew, chief administrator for the Town of Outlook, says that the SkyTrail is on the minds of many decision makers in the community, noting that it's on the books to tackle in the future.
"It's on the strategic plan for the Town of Outlook to investigate and try to figure out how we're going to repair it and access funds for it," he said. "It's kind of hard to say that there's anything to report, but at the same time, there's a lot of stuff going on in the background."
With the Town closing the bridge due to the risk involved, Trew says that the engineering firm feels a kinship with the SkyTrail. They informed the Town of a federal grant program that could help with assisting the costs related to repairs, and it's possible that the community could look into more funding opportunities that have been announced by organizations, including Parks Canada revealing in October that $55 million will be used to maintain, enhance, and expand the 28,000 km Trans Canada Trail, of which SkyTrail is certainly connected.
"It's a huge part of this community," said Trew. "When I first started working here, I was incredibly disappointed that the bridge was closed. Now, having said that, I probably won't ever walk on it because I'm afraid of heights! I see it as more than just a tourism opportunity, it's actually at the heart and soul of this community. I identified that pretty quickly when I started working here, and I think it's a really important piece of Outlook. I think that as a community, if we're going to move forward, that issue has to be resolved. If we're not repairing it, then what? Just ignoring it and avoiding it isn't a solution, and we've done a good job of that. People in this community should be proud of that bridge; it's a beautiful landmark and it's something that's synonymous with us. Communities of our size and larger would kill for something like that. I think that something that maybe we haven't always taken into consideration is how to capitalize on just the fact that the bridge is there."
There may have been a joke or two about the state of the bridge in the almost ten years since it closed ('We have a bridge we could sell you; in fact, we have two!'), but Trew maintains that local government is onboard with measures that would see the SkyTrail return to its former glory.
"Council's been very supportive of this," he said. "When I think of the museum and the railyard subdivision, I see that we just have so much history linked together."
Trew says that no money is going to be spent on further reports or studies until another backer enters the picture, and notes that perhaps other firms may have a stake in its future, as well.
"I asked Associated Engineering what their estimates would be in order to update the numbers," he said. "Town Council has made it very clear that until we have a third party of some sort willing to help us out with these study expenses, which can range anywhere from $45-$60,000, we're not going to invest money into it. I can completely understand where they're coming from because we have other things on the go. I took that back to Associated Engineering and told them that they have a vested interest in Outlook, so why not put your money where your mouth is? They're mulling that over right now. AE has an opportunity to do something on a bridge that could make a great impact on a community that they're invested in. The other factor that no one seems to want to talk about is CP Rail. That's a factor that I don't think should be lost. CP Rail built that bridge, and yes, they sold it to the Town for a very, very small amount of money, but they did build it and it is a CP Rail bridge. If it ever comes a time when something disastrous happens, it won't just be 'the SkyTrail at Outlook', it'll be 'the former CP Rail bridge at Outlook'. I hope they can assess that as well."
The Town is going to apply for funding based on Associated Engineering's updated estimates, and Trew says he hopes that more people will support the possibility of bringing the SkyTrail back to life.
"I hope that there's support, and I think that there's support in the community," he said. "I know there are people who might be naysayers about it, but I have yet to run into someone who's just deadset against doing anything about it. I think it's just more that we don't know what to do, and people feel helpless. We do too. It's just this big thing that you can't make smaller. But it's heavy on our minds and we talk about it regularly."