A Bridge to Political Posturing
I had friends in town from Toronto last weekend and a tour of the city my wife and I provided for them on Saturday morning made me realize how politics have got in the way of properly recognizing a magnificent new bridge in my hometown.
Dave and Mel Sieger lived in Edmonton many years ago, so I was happy to show them Rogers Place and all the changes happening to Edmonton's downtown. I wanted to drive there on the new Walterdale Bridge to show it off. As we drove across it in the middle lane, I told them there still hadn't been an official civic opening.
It made me think that many others might not realize that, so here's the story about what happens when politics, an election and construction delays combine to make a new bridge feel unwelcome in a community.
In the early to mid 1990’s, I was in charge of Public Relations for the City of Edmonton’s Public Works department. One of my many jobs was to help organize and oversee roadway and bridge openings.
I remember the pride everyone had in early November 1993 when the City opened the last section of Whitemud Drive to traffic, which was the piece between 99th and 106th Streets. Motorists could finally drive from one end of the city to the other without traffic lights or ramps. I worked on the opening with Wayne Wood and Bonnie Timinski of the Transportation department and won an award from the local chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) for organizing an impactful, but low-cost opening. We had hundreds of cars on the Whitemud at 10am waiting to be the first to drive it.
The following summer, I organized the opening of the bridge that connected the south end of the city to Twin Brooks and Blackmud Creek. That day Edmonton Power needed to shut the power off in the area for awhile, but was supposed to have it on again well before the official opening. Something went wrong and when area residents came home to no power, they scurried over to the bridge opening for free hot dogs and pop. We ran out of food so fast, the first car to use the bridge wasn’t the one bringing the dignitaries across, it was the manager of the Sobey’s store on 23rd Avenue driving the other way to load up on more supplies from his store. Needless to say, I didn’t win an award for that effort.
The reality is, for a relatively small investment of time and money, a tremendous amount of goodwill and pride can be created by an opening. It provides a huge thank you to the people who invested years of their lives working on projects like this. It also gives a thank you to residents and businesses that put up with a lot of mess and inconvenience to get the project completed. They can share in its success.
Walterdale Bridge Opens With Zero Fanfare
That brings me to last September when the Walterdale Bridge opened two years behind schedule.
The day before it opened, the City of Edmonton surprised many observers by saying the bridge was due to open the following day by sending a single Tweet. What? That’s it? A Tweet to announce the opening of a $155 million-dollar project?
The municipal election was only a month away and it was clear that no politician wanted to be seen at the opening of a project that had been delayed by two years because of a difficulty to get steel and delays in construction because of the uniqueness of the project.
Mind you, local politicians were quick to point out that the contractor responsible for construction would pay millions of dollars in fines for not bringing the project in on time.
Later last fall, wonderful LED lights were installed and turned on giving the bridge an even more impressive look at night. That’s when I thought there would be an official opening. The bridge was fully operational, the lights were shining at night, first reviews from the public were positive and the election was over and politicians didn’t have to worry about negative feedback until the next vote in four years. However, there was still nothing in the way of an opening to celebrate the construction of one of the most unique and magnificent bridges in the country in the last decade.
There’s been some suggestion the City will wait until all the landscaping is done before throwing a celebration, but no opening has been confirmed to my knowledge, at least not publically. From my drive through there last weekend, that may still be awhile. Perhaps that’s what the City is hoping – maybe by then taxpayers will have forgotten about the two-year delay in construction?
Wouldn’t that be similar to throwing a housewarming party four years after you move in because it took you awhile to get around to doing the fence, landscaping and deck?
The Bridge Needs a Proper Christening
Unfortunately, the pr problem for the City wasn’t just the two-year delay in construction of the Walterdale Bridge. It happened around the same time as the ongoing delay in getting the Metro Line LRT working properly, along with the delay in finishing construction on the 102 Avenue overpass by the old provincial museum.
When reporters suggested to Mayor Don Iveson about the three projects somehow being connected since all were managed by the City, it was the only time I saw the normally cool two-term Mayor lose it with the media and snap back that one delay had nothing to do with the other. He might be right but I have to believe the raft of construction delays was the biggest reason we’re still waiting for that bridge opening.
Isn’t penalizing the Walterdale Bridge for the other construction mistakes like punishing your daughter because your son didn’t clean his room?
Somebody suggested to me that if there had been a two-year delay in the construction of the nearby High Level Bridge over 100 years ago would anyone care about it today, or anytime in the last 50 years. Of course not.
The Walterdale Bridge is supposed to be in use in Edmonton for the next 100 years, so will a two-year delay mean anything then? Once again, of course not.
As every week and month passes with no official opening for the bridge, it’s another silent message for the hundreds of men and women who worked on it their work wasn’t that important. I think everyone in charge at the City of Edmonton has let those people down.
Photo Credit; Special thanks to Edmonton photographer Keith Moore (@kmoorephotos) for the use of his great photo.