Graeme Waller is nervous about taking his school bus across Cullen Bridge over Mulgum Creek in Nimbin.
Graeme Waller is nervous about taking his school bus across Cullen Bridge over Mulgum Creek in Nimbin. The Lismore Northern Star

Safety concerns over 300 local bridges

WHILE a busload of Nimbin primary school students chatted about tuck shop lunches and homework on their way home yesterday, bus driver Graeme Waller was drawing a nervous breath.

Mr Waller, owner of Waller's Bus Company, was about to take his precious cargo across one of the region's many wooden bridges, and he was nervous - he fears many of those bridges are unsafe.

A report on NSW's wooden bridges by Professor Bijan
Samali, chief of civil engineering at the University of Technology in Sydney, warns that even wooden bridges considered safe by some local council's 'may not be'.

Across the Northern Rivers there are more than 300 wooden bridges, with most of them in the Kyogle Council area.

Most need to be replaced, but councils say they lack the tens of millions of dollars needed to do the work.

In Kyogle shire, two bridges were closed this year and sidetracks built due to concern over bridge safety. Another four wooden bridges in the shire have weight restrictions.

In the Richmond Valley, an 11-metre high wooden bridge on Ainsworth Road partially collapsed on June 26 after a truck passed over it.

Richmond Valley Council works director Gary Murphy said the bridge was immediately closed, replaced and reopened on August 11.

Prof Samali's report says 20 per cent of the 200 bridges checked across NSW are unsafe, many are more than 100 years old, and some have been neglected for decades.

Prof Samali said it would cost millions to get the wooden bridges up to an acceptable standard.

In the Kyogle Council area alone, the repair bill is expected to top $50 million.

Kyogle Council has the most bridges of any council in NSW, and technical services director Frank Winter said it probably had the most wooden bridges as well, with the current count standing at 250.

"Kyogle's bridges cost the council around $1 million a year; $400,000 of that is just for maintenance," he said. "We agree a lot of bridges are in poor condition and people should be careful when they are driving on them. They shouldn't be scared, but some of them are not totally safe."

Mr Winter predicted it could take up to 30 years to replace all of Kyogle's wooden bridges at the current rate of spending.

Mr Murphy said Richmond Valley Council had replaced most of its wooden bridges.

"All of our wooden bridges are on the list for replacement, but none of them are in urgent need," he said.

But he said this could change following an analysis of the most recent bridge assessment.

In 2006, then Premier Morris Iemma announced the $60 million, three-year, Timber Bridge Partnership to fix council-managed bridges on regional roads.

However, none of the wooden bridges in Richmond Valley, and only 13 of the 250 timber bridges in Kyogle, qualify for this funding as they are not on regional roads.

This scheme also requires each council to match provided funds in a 50-50 basis, making it difficult for councils to take part.

This leaves councils to apply for Federal Government funding, which doesn't require matching funds and provides around $1 million a year, still well short of Mr Winter's $50 million figure.

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