That the bridges may be built
That the Federal Government would repair some bridges across the nation at a total cost of N275 billion would seem good news in view of the need for upgrade of Nigeria’s road infrastructure but the choice of 52 bridges raises questions of why and how.
Why are the bridges to be repaired within the same period (spanning three years) considering the fact that they were built at different times to specifications and maintenance dates for the designed lifespan? And how would the Federal Government source the money, jobs for this. That many of the bridges in the country “had not been maintained in four decades, is, of course, very bad.
On a recent inspection of repair works on the Lagos Island approach to the Third Mainland Bridge, Minister of Works Babatunde Fashola said the structure had not been repaired in 25 years, a great risk to public safety. Not long ago, the first section of the bridge built by one company was closed for a long time for remedial works while the Ebute Metta-Oworonshoki section built by another, is noticeably different. In retrospect, was the decision not to award the contract to one company a mistake?
Oh, how we miss the olden days! Things worked perfectly and the nation’s assets were well built and properly maintained. There was the all-embracing Public Works Department which had its training school for artisans and professional engineers. “Director of Public Works” was not just a top position in government, he was the custodian of the nation’s assets. Engineer M Tukur Usman was renowned for maintaining infrastructure at the Federal level and Engineer T. M. Aluko was in Western Nigeria. The PWD covered every aspect of public projects: lands, housing, water, electricity. Over the years, one area or the other was excised and placed under a separate agency. The Ministry of Works handled lands, housing and federal roads. In the Francophone countries, it was aptly named Ministry of Public Works (Ministere des Travaux Publiques). Over time, a separate ministry was created for housing as well as environment.
Since 1970, all the studies and reform recommendations have called for a separate agency for roads. The World Bank has consistently stated that the term “Works” had become an anachronism, given the fact that all the items under the behemoth PWD had gone to separate agencies or ministries. An attempt was made to comply when the military government placed highways under the Ministry of Transportation. However, the validity of the 1972 Wey Commission Report became apparent: that the proposed agency for roads should not be placed in transportation which at the time handled the ports, waterways, railways and air transport. The vacillation continues till date.
It is pertinent to note that construction costs are estimates based on today’s material prices. The bill of quantities always predates the paperwork leading to contract signing and release of mobilisation. The road alignment is surveyed in detail but ground experience often demands on-site adjustment. Against this background, the N270 billion estimate for 52 bridges, over three years may definitely go higher, if the political will remains to sustain the initiative.
Also the comprehensive list of the 52 bridges that will be rehabilitated and maintained is yet unknown. Could the figure be for all bridges on federal roads nationwide, including flyovers in urban and rural areas as well as viaducts over swampy terrain? There are bailey bridges and steel bridges, such as the bridges over River Niger in Onitsha and Ogun River in Abeokuta. These were erected in colonial times and there is need to further assess their structural integrity. The bridges of latter years have been deck on piles. These two types require specific engineering inputs. Experiences of pile shifting on the Five Cowries Creek section of the flyover bridge from Marina to Ikoyi and the Third Mainland Bridge abound. These experiences ought to have given the ministry’s engineers the discipline for regular inspection of bridges as is also required for the roads.
In keeping with best practices worldwide, there must be workshops at which federal and state highways engineers share experiences and document papers in the best traditions of their noble profession. For this reason, the erstwhile annual meeting of the National Council of Works must be given a deeper assignment profile. For years, many professionals have called for a separate annual conference on roads, to bring together highways engineers from the federal, state and local government with all other stakeholders. These include the Nigerian Society of Engineers, the Federation of Building and Civil Engineering Contractors of Nigeria, Transport Union Representatives, the National Association of Chambers of Commerce (NACCIMA), the Federal Road Safety Commission, the Nigeria Police Highway Patrol Division, the Nigeria Road Federation and individuals interested in roads.
All things considered, a major concern now is the source of funds for the proposed works. Budgetary allocations are insufficient for funding roads. The minister must also draw from his experience as a former state governor to highlight the plight of state governments who have spent heavily on federal roads and are yet to be reimbursed. He must institute the process for re-classification of roads. Above all, he must play an active role towards the establishment of the National Road Fund and the Federal Highways Authority.