Build a new bridge
The collapse of the Demerara Harbour Bridge (DHB) should serve as a wake-up call to remind us that it has served us long beyond its ‘expiration’ date. It was completed after two years of construction activity and was opened to traffic in 1978. It was conceptualised as a temporary arrangement to address the burgeoning traffic between Georgetown and western Guyana.
According to its builder: “The Demerara Harbour Bridge – in Georgetown, Guyana – is a 6,074-feet (1,851 m) long floating toll bridge… link(ing) the main city of Georgetown with West Bank Demerara. When it was completed in 1978 it was the world’s longest floating bridge. It was funded by the British Government and designed, manufactured and erected by Thos Storey. Despite being required to last for only 10 years during which a permanent structure was to be built.”
Even as far back as pre-1992, there had been several instances of sections of the bridge floating away, down the Demerara River. It is a tribute to the doggedness of the DHB management and maintenance team that the bridge has survived for so long beyond its anticipated lifetime. As the builder asserted, a permanent bridge was expected to have been built by 1988, but we all know by then the Guyanese economy had collapsed and the following year we were on an IMF bailout Economic Recovery Programme.
But since that time the economy has been stabilised, and in fact, has been on an upward growth trajectory for the last five years. As we look to the future, we have to address the infrastructural needs to sustain that growth. The temporary halt in the traffic flow on the bridge earlier this week illustrated, more than any theoretical discussion, the disruption in economic activities that would ensue without the bridge. And this activity will only increase.
Another factor that must be considered in making a decision on a new permanent bridge is the cost of maintaining the present structure. Even with the present (albeit very minimal) toll, the government has had to subsidise the DHB to the tune of hundreds of millions annually. Then there are the daily disruptions caused by the retraction of one part of the bridge to allow for ships to pass up and down the river. A properly designed permanent bridge, as the Jules Wijdenbosch Bridge across the Suriname River, could have its middle high enough above the water to allow unimpeded traffic for ships. Suriname opened this bridge back in 2000.
The Dutch contractor Ballast Nedam, which built the Suriname Bridge, has already conducted feasibility studies for a bridge across the Corentyne River to connect Berbice with Suriname. The funding for the bridge is said to have been already secured by the Suriname government from China. We are proposing that a permanent bridge be built to replace the floating or pontoon DHB, and most importantly, that this project be pursued jointly by the Opposition and the government.
The government has been roundly criticised by the Opposition for its methodology in going about its proposed expansion of the Cheddi Jagan International Airport. A permanent DHB, with Ballast Nedam as the builder and the Chinese as the funders, would offer the Opposition the opportunity to be exposed to the practical considerations inherent in the financing and execution of a large development project.
The 1000-foot shorter Suriname Bridge cost US$60 million back in 2000 and it is expected that the costs would have increased significantly since then. However, the Opposition would also have the opportunity to engage in competitive bidding practices, which they have recommended to the government in other ventures such as the Amaila Falls Hydro Project.
We believe that if the politicians are serious about wanting to develop Guyana – as they so often profess – the mishap caused by the collapse of section 61 of the DHB might provide the impetus to put their money where their mouths are. The bridge might connect more than the banks of the Demerara River.