Gambling on the Forth

     Last year, the SNP attempted to gamble the fortunes of Scotland by arguing for the break-up of the United Kingdom on what one of its own has called a wishful and delusional prospectus. Now it appears that it was attempting to gamble on one of the most important transportation links in the country.

  The elegant Forth Road Bridge.  Image Credit : © Copyright  Ian Compton  and licensed for reuse under this  Creative Commons Licence

The elegant Forth Road Bridge. Image Credit: © Copyright Ian Compton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

     Two weeks ago, the Forth Road Bridge – a vital piece of infrastructure in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom – was closed after the discovery of a crack in the truss end links on the northeast tower of the structure which connects Edinburgh to Fife across the Firth of Forth. The truss end links consist of two parallel steel members which support the deck of the bridge near the tower where there are no suspender ropes holding it up from the main cables. Thankfully, the truss end links on the northwest tower did not experience the same failure; otherwise, the deck of the bridge would have dropped by at least 6 inches (150mm) – as explained in this video.

     Bridge crews are now working overtime (weather permitting) to make temporary repairs via the placement of metal splints on either side of the damaged truss end link, but the bridge is not expected to be open again until January 4th in the New Year if everything goes according to plan.

     However, this has been little consolation for the people who use the 51 year old bridge for their daily commute across the firth – especially those making the two-way journey from Fife to Edinburgh and back. Those who elect to drive have to make a detour to the Clackmannanshire and Kincardine bridges 12 miles upstream, while others have decided to make use of public transit via the Victorian Era Forth Rail Bridge adjacent to the Road Bridge. The result has been a travel nightmare as people try to find their way on the alternative road routes (and add on to the local traffic in the area), while commuter trains are more crowded than usual, which has caused one man to collapse and forced ScotRail to lease two sets of locomotives and carriages (including a locomotive and six carriages from Eastliegh, near Southampton in England) to help handle the increased volume. Even so, the demand has become so great, some people can’t make a scheduled train and therefore can’t make their appointments on time, if at all.

     These disruptions have economic ramifications as well. On one end, people who live on one side of the Forth and work on the other side are finding it difficult to get to their jobs – leaving some with the possibility of being laid off and/or looking for work closer to home, especially if work on the bridge continues into the New Year. Even worse are the potential adverse effects on the Christmas shopping season as people may feel inclined to avoid Edinburgh and other areas because of the traffic difficulties, and instead find alternative locations to shop or head online.

     According to Colin Borland of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), the result is that businesses, especially small ones which depend on strong December sales to cover for the down months of January and February, may feel the acute effects of the crisis as it continues day by day. Some firms in Edinburgh remember the difficulties they had with cash flow and obtaining loans during the recent construction of the city’s trams, due to the disruptions they caused to local commerce. Without some clarity or certainty regarding bridge’s re-opening, the economic damage could become “permanent.”

  One crack was all that it took to cause a shutdown of the Bridge. Image Credit:  Forth Road Bridge .

One crack was all that it took to cause a shutdown of the Bridge. Image Credit: Forth Road Bridge.

     Meanwhile, the political fallout has yet to be determined, but this is unquestionably one of the worst crises that have rocked the SNP since it took power at Holyrood eight years ago. Ever since the shutdown, numerous questions have risen about the maintenance of the bridge (or lack thereof), whether warnings about the bridge’s condition were ignored, and if funding was lacking for it – the casualty of the SNP’s own policies.

     As the crisis developed, several engineers and officials associated with the bridge (past and present) began speaking out about how budget cuts by the SNP Scottish Government forced the Forth Estuary Transport Authority (FETA) – the agency once responsible for managing and maintaining the bridge – to keep deferring the sort of repair and/or replacement work that could have prevented the current damage.

     Andrew Carrie, an “independent transportation specialist based in West Lothian” with 35 years of civil engineering experience, wrote a Facebook post on his firm’s page to explain that a February 2009 report to the FETA said that the “truss end links were showing signs of being overstressed”, but that it was decided to “defer works until after they had carried out the repairs and dehumidification of the main cables.” The cables had suffered from corrosion over the years, and so it made sense for this process to be completed before anything else and the report stated that it was scheduled to be wrapped up by the end of 2009. Therefore, it was expected that work the truss end links would begin in 2010/2011.

     Indeed, a tender was put out by the FETA in May 2010 which explained that “assessments of the suspended structure and the truss end connections have identified that several of the key elements forming these connections are overstressed” and that following a feasibility study, the “preferred option identified” was “to strengthen the existing truss end link connection.” However, this was cancelled.

     Two years later, an Audit Scotland report on the FETA made note of how the “significantly reduced capital grant [from the Scottish Government] has led to greater capital project prioritisation and the deferment of some projects beyond 2012-2015.” This was a 65% reduction and the audit further noted that the “funding arrangements continue to provide management with challenges.” Nevertheless, while the truss end links were considered for deferral in the Capital Plan in 2012, minutes from FETA’s April 2014 meeting said that they were found to be “vital to maintain the operational capacity of the bridge and were retained in the programme” and the chief engineer warned that “deferral of part or all of these projects does increase the risk to the long-term structural integrity.”

     So in August 2013, FETA were informed by the Chief Engineer and Bridgemaster that the truss end links were one of three projects that were selected for tender “on the basis of criticality and affordability.” However, just six months later in February 2014, full replacement of truss end links was once again considered for deferral because of cuts by the Scottish Government, and their “high estimated cost” was singled out as the reason why they were deferred “in order to produce a significant reduction in the predicted deficit” at FETA. As in 2012, the truss end links were considered vital to maintain the operational capacity of the bridge and were retained in the programme”, but with FETA finances as tight as they were, the truss end links were listed among the “non-committed schemes” in the Capital Plan.

     Nevertheless, the links were “found to be significantly overstressed during certain combinations of loading.” It also said:

There is always a residual risk when maintenance works are deferred and it was noted that deferral of part or all of these projects does increase the risk to the long term structural integrity of the bridge and is likely to increase the actual cost of the works when they are eventually carried out.”

     The cost of carrying out full replacement of the truss end linkages totalled £10-15 million at the time, but as Carrie noted, the closure to facilitate such repairs still would have cost the Scottish economy £50 million, and the February minutes stated that “given the cost and difficulty in replacing these elements, and the potential disruption to bridge users”, further examinations had been carried out to “determine the most realistic levels of stress.” This resulted in a plan to avoid full replacement because of the cost and instead run a trial “repair option involving strengthening existing welds and adding stiffeners to the tower steelwork” on the south west tower leg. If this proved successful, then this process would be replicated on the other three towers at a cost from 2013 to 2015 of £0.434 million – with the work slated to begin in March 2014.

     However, minutes from February this year reveal that this strengthening project has been delayed due to “issues with the quality of the existing tower steelwork; the difficulties of access and the existence of red lead paint, coupled with the loss of key management staff.” The new plan was to complete the trial work in May 2015 while conducting studies to “re-assess the current capacity of the links to carry Abnormal Vehicles” which could result in restrictions on heavier vehicles. If the trial work was successful, then it was recommended to Transport Scotland that work be carried out on the other tower legs as well.

     The reason for FETA having to recommend this action (and possibly why there was a “loss of key management staff”) was because the board was heading toward dissolution at the end of May – with its assets and functions coming under the complete control of the Scottish Government via its agency Transport Scotland and a contract for managing the Forth Road Bridge and the new Queensferry Crossing tendered to a private firm – Amey LG on June 1, 2015. Six months later, the crack in the truss end links on the north tower was found and the bridge was closed.

     The first response from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her government was to deny that that the maintenance cuts led to the closure of the bridge. In an interview with BBC Scotland, the First Minister responded to claims that the government had cut maintenance budgets on the existing Firth Road Bridge in the hope that it would last long enough until the new Queensferry Crossing would be complete next year by saying that is was ‘absolutely, unequivocally not true.’

  First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Image Credit:  Ninian Reid  via  Flickr   cc

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Image Credit: Ninian Reid via Flickr cc

     A Transport Scotland spokesman added that the 2010 strengthening program and the recently found crack were ‘unrelated’ and that the government had fully funded all schemes since abolishing the old bridge tolls and taking over FETA’s annual grant in 2008. The agency also said that the new bridge operators, Amey, had informed it “that the ongoing truss end strengthening works were to a different part of the linkage system to that which failed.” But this appeared to contradict Sturgeon when she had said that ‘there is a repair, before this fault was spotted, that has already been under way to the same part of the bridge’ and that the ‘required’ maintenance had either been done or underway.

     However, civil engineer John Carson – formerly head of one of Scotland’s civil engineering firms, Miller Engineering, and the leader of the team that had constructed the Skye Bridge in the Inner Hebrides – spoke out to say that the 2010 tender notice for strengthening the truss end links had “told the whole world that there was a problem with these truss rod ends”, and that he believed its withdrawal was the result of Transport Scotland exerting ‘pressures on the now defunct Feta (Forth Estuary Transport Authority) on budgetary control.’ He further condemned Transport Scotland for ‘incompetence’ by saying on the one hand that they knew about the ‘strengthening issue, but then seem to have ignored it for a long period. Now they are saying that a weld on the pin end which is on the truss end is a big surprise.’

     Indeed, Transport Scotland continued to say that the ‘the truss end link member, which transfers load to the pin linkage, and which has suffered a complete weld fracture near the pin joint, was not previously identified as requiring strengthening or to be at risk of failure’, and that ‘the unexpected nature of weld cracking leading to failure is highly unpredictable, and this issue is unrelated to the other strengthening works.’ The spokesman continued on by saying that the trial on strengthening the truss links on the south west tower had been completed in May, and that ‘following assessment of this trial, Amey is now proceeding with design and strengthening works at the other three tower legs.’

     (“Is now proceeding”? As in just getting around to it in December when it should have been done much earlier? If this is true, then there are some really serious issues at hand, especially considering again that had the same damaged occurred on the other side of the tower – the northwest part – “the road deck could have fallen by a minimum of 150mm (6in)”.)

     With growing calls for a parliamentary inquiry into the bridge and how we got to this point, Transport Minister Derek Mackay stood before the Scottish Parliament on December 8th to repeat the claims that there was no relation between the fault which was found and the work which was cancelled in 2010.

     However, the very next day on the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland radio program, Mackay admitted that the cancelled work “would have replaced the faulty section that caused its closure.” Specifically, he stated: ‘The 2010 works would have seen the replacement of that area and much more.’ But he further added that because it ‘was a much bigger job, beyond what [FETA] felt was proportional at the time, and it would have led to a much longer closure’, so the work was ‘rescoped’ on the advice of engineers who believed that ‘carrying out the strengthening works would remedy what they identified as the problem.’ Mackay also emphasized that FETA was in charge of the bridge, not the Scottish Government, which he claimed had ‘inherited’ the problems from the former authority.

     Even so, with this “rescoping” of what has been considered to be necessary work, why was there not action taken soon afterward? Why were the repairs being deferred year after year? It’s worth noting again that even though the Scottish Government did not take official control of the facility until this year, it has had effective financial control since 2008 when it abolished the tolls which paid for its maintenance, and this left SNP exposed to the continued criticism that its budget cuts and other policies were at least partially responsible for the current situation.

     The next day on December 10th, First Minister’s Questions was dominated by the bridge affair, with Nicola Sturgeon coming under fire from the opposition parties at Holyrood. When directly asked by Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale if it was wrong to cut the capital budget by 65% in 2011, the First Minister said: “No, I do not.”She further defended the SNP government (in which she was Infrastructure Secretary from 2012 to 2014) by saying it had the “foresight” to “invest in a new Forth replacement crossing” and further noted that this was “hardly the hallmark of a government that was trying to save money. In addition, she insisted that the repair work which was considered in 2010 was beyond what was necessary and would have resulted in the closure of the bridge for “a number of weeks.”

     The man who was first minister during this period before Sturgeon, Alex Salmond, repeated this claim in a video statement by claiming that the structural issues facing the Forth Road Bridge were the impetus for building the new Queensferry Crossing, because the other option was to have the bridge closed for several weeks while repairs were conducted, and that this would have resulted in disruptions to the economy.

     His successor Sturgeon also brushed off opposition criticism about putting off repairs by suggesting that a ‘crystal ball’ would have been needed to predict the crack, and claimed that the “work that was being considered in 2010 was prompted by concern about another part of the truss end link, not the part that is now cracked” (and completely contradicting her own Transport Minister, Derek Mackay) and appeared to further mock the opposition by claiming that its criticism mounted to the FETA – not the government –  “deciding not to fix a part of the bridge that was not broken” five years ago.

  Aerial view of the Firth of Forth towards Fife. At left is the emerging Queensferry Crossing adjacent to the FortH Road Bridge.  Image Credit : © Copyright  M J Richardson  and licensed for reuse under this  Creative Commons Licence

Aerial view of the Firth of Forth towards Fife. At left is the emerging Queensferry Crossing adjacent to the FortH Road Bridge. Image Credit: © Copyright M J Richardson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

     The problem – as has been repeated – is that while the present crack in the truss end links was not found until recently, there had been warnings about their structural integrity, and therefore, the structural integrity of the bridge going back a decade and bridge officials have been wanting to do something about it. Even as late as February this year, as the FETA was in its final months of operation, Chief Engineer and Bridgemaster Barry Colford was concerned enough about the truss links that he informed FETA convener Lesley Hinds via email he was going to place a restriction which would “prohibit the passage of any Abnormal Vehicle weighing more than 150 tonnes” and require Abnormal Vehicles weighing between 44 tonnes (the maximum weight of a Normal Vehicle) and 150 tonnes to notify bridge officials of their proposed route. He further noted that of the 842 Abnormal Loads…that crossed the bridge last year, none were 150 over tones” and that such loads were expected only “every few years.”

     Nevertheless, the fact that he had to make this decision (which would still have implications for the hundreds of vehicles between 44 and 150 tons that typically cross the bridge every year) speaks to gravity of the situation after years of putting off repairs, and at the end of the email, he wrote: “The restriction needs to be in place until all the truss end links are either strengthened or replaced. This will not be done before 31 May 2015. TS (Transport Scotland) will have to make the decision on what to do with the truss end links after 31 May 2015.”

     When this was revealed on December 13th, Transport Scotland stated: “The restriction on exceptionally large abnormal loads was not related to the present defect on the bridge. It was related to potential unacceptable overstress to the truss end brackets and associated welds within the towers. This is being addressed by the ongoing strengthening works. ”

     The spokesperson continued by saying: “The defect which has resulted in the closure of the Forth Road Bridge was identified in the last few weeks. It was unexpected and not predicted by previous analysis that was carried out by Forth Estuary Transport Authority.”

     The defense expressed by the SNP Scottish Government boils down to saying that the crack in the faulty link could not be predicted, that FETA was in charge of the facility until this year, and that they are building a new bridge. Therefore, they can’t be held responsible for the current situation.

     Yo, Einsteins! Nobody, I repeat, nobody is saying that this particular crack on this particular truss end link could have been predicted by anyone – not even the engineers who have worked on the bridge every day. That’s just plain silly and nonsensical. However, several bridge officials and engineers over last decade have made repeated warnings about the truss end links, the stresses being placed on them, and the probably of damage caused by stress loads. Why else would the Chief Engineer place restrictions on traveling across the facility? Surely, he was not doing it just because he could.

     He made it clear in his email to the FETA convener that this action was taken as a result of “further analysis of the loading on the Truss End Links.” After all this time, what else could have the analysis showed aside from the truss end links being stressed to a point where certain vehicles needed to inform authorities for an escort across the bridge and others were banned altogether?

     As it was, Colford and another engineer quit their jobs at the bridge back in August over the privatization (by the SNP) of its management and the takeover of the bridge by the Scottish Government via Transport Scotland from FETA, as well as amid concerns that the management firm Amey would not be as thorough with inspections due to its limited scope in running bridge.

     Meanwhile, the claim the FETA was in charge until this year is undermined by the fact that the SNP has been responsible for its funding since 2008 (much like local government councils, due to the council tax freeze), and it has been SNP budget cuts that have caused repair/replacement schemes to be deferred time and time again. At one point in 2012, FETA approached Transport Scotland for additional funding due to unexpected costs from another project and requested that the “legacy costs of the M9 Spur Extension/A8000 Upgrading Scheme…be removed from the Authority’s budget.” Both of these proposals were denied and without additional revenue, the “only option available” was to “defer further non-committed capital schemes” such as the truss end links, which was rated fifth out of 13 projects on the FETA’s “to-do” list.

     This alone puts paid to the idea that maintenance for the Forth Road Bridge was fully funded under the SNP. It also raises the wisdom of removing the bridge tolls, which were to be removed once the cost of construction plus accrued interest had been paid. This was achieved in 1993, but bridge authorities argued that the tolls paid for the upkeep and maintenance of the structure, and so successive legislation – first at Westminster, then at Holyrood – was passed to renew the ability to levy tolls. By 2008, the tolls cost motorists £1.00 and the annual toll revenues amounted to £16 million.

  The Toll Plaza of the Forth Road Bridge in 2007 - its last full year of operation.  Image Credit : © Copyright  Paul McIlroy  and licensed for reuse under this  Creative Commons Licence

The Toll Plaza of the Forth Road Bridge in 2007 - its last full year of operation. Image Credit: © Copyright Paul McIlroy and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

     Nobody likes paying tolls, but there is no such thing as a free lunch. One way or the other, funding had to come from somewhere, and the tolls provided the bridge and the FETA with the ability to be largely self-supporting. The whole point of toll facilities is so that they can have access to their own funds from the people who use it, which means that the authority does not have to depend (entirely at least) on general government funds from the overall tax base, nor on the budgetary decisions of politicians.

     Some of America’s greatest water crossings – such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel, and George Washington Bridge – have tolls to ensure they are funded independently of the state government, so that they are effectively off the state budget and fund their own maintenance through the tolls and fees they collect, and the public authorities that operate them may also finance and build new structures through the bonds they can issue. In 2014, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (which owns and operates the river crossings between the two states in the New York City Metropolitan Area) announced a $1.03 billion project for the 84 year old George Washington Bridge – the busiest motor bridge in the world, with a toll of $15.00 for most normal vehicles (and progressively higher for bigger ones) – that will see all of the bridge’s 592 suspender ropes replaced and its four main cables rehabilitated. This is without cost to the taxpayers of New York and New Jersey and also without undue political interference by either state government.

     Another reason for tolls on some facilities is to prevent overuse and ensure that they last as long as possible. It must be remembered that the Forth Road Bridge opened in 1964 with a planned lifespan of 120 years and a design capacity of 11 million journeys per year, but by 2004, the bridge was handling nearly 24 million journeys – more than double what it was designed to handle. Faced with this situation, the Daily Mail’s Alan Roden reported that FETA was “so desperate to find ways to alleviate pressure” on the then-40 year old structure, that it “announced plans for ‘variable tolls’, which would rise to £4.00 during the evening rush hour.” The plan also provided for halving the toll fees if a car had multiple occupants, thereby encouraging car-pooling and reducing the amount of vehicle traffic – and by extension, the stresses on the bridge.

     As it was, the Labour-Liberal Democrat administration – fearing a public backlash – decided against going along with the FETA’s variable tolls plan, and the £1.00 toll was kept. However, the SNP scented an opportunity and made a “cynical manifesto pledge” to get rid of the toll if it won the 2007 Holyrood election, even though – as Roden reports – modeling tests had showed that “removing the tolls would raise traffic levels 21 per cent, leading to ‘congestion and environmental damage far beyond that already experienced’.”

     Nonetheless, that populist election pledge may well have been a factor in how the SNP won that election (by one seat) to become a minority government, and eventually, a majority government four years later. But abolishing the tolls – popular though it may have been – may have contributed to increased bridge traffic on the already overburdened structure and further aggravating its structural issues – a classic "Tragedy of the Commons" scenario.

     One thing for sure is that it meant that the taxpayers had to foot the annual £16 million in lost toll revenue – ironically soon after the toll plaza had gone through a renovation – and the FETA was now entirely dependent on funds from the general public purse, so that its budget was set by SNP government ministers who may have had other spending priorities, like funding the council tax freeze, free university tuition, free prescriptions, and of course, the new Queensferry Crossing. (And just as with the council tax freeze – now going into its ninth year – it is difficult to imagine a brave enough politician from any party advocating the reinstatement of tolls on the current bridge and/or placing tolls on the new one. Indeed, the vote to abolish the tolls was unanimous in the spirit of embracing a popular measure which may have been good politics at the time, but has not been good for the bridge's well-being. It may well perhaps lead to the sort of circumstances which birthed the poll tax, as explained by Brian Wilson in The Scotsman.)

     As was said earlier, this new bridge has become something of a trump card for the SNP. There had been talks of constructing a second road crossing since the 1990’s, but the ball got rolling in the mid-2000’s when it become clear that the current bridge had structural issues (including corrosion of the main cables) and was overburdened compared to what it was designed to handle. In the days since the shutdown of current bridge, the new bridge has become a way for them to claim they are on the job because they took the initiative of building it.

     This of course, does nothing for the fact that the current bridge has been shut down and the new one is still under construction, which has lead to the charge that the SNP was hoping that the new bridge would be finished and open for all traffic before the structural issues with the old one were manifested to force a shutdown prematurely. And why not? They could have hailed themselves has having kept traffic running while the new crossing was constructed, and then close the old one for much needed extensive repairs for its role as a carrier of public transportation and/or light traffic.

     If true, it was a big gamble that has gone belly-up in the worst way possible. One way or the other, this day was going to come, and the SNP should have prepared for it, but failed to do so.

     Had they left FETA alone with tolls, it would not have had as much blame and more questions would be raised about the FETA’s role in this. As it was, the SNP – in one of their first centralizing policies – that took away the toll revenues from the current road bridge and made it dependent on the public purse at the same time those precious public funds were being used for the new bridge while the old bridge still had to deal with increased capacity beyond what it was designed for, all while the engineers made repeated warnings about the need for urgent repairs and outright replacements of parts of the current bridge to prevent damage of the type which has forced the current structure to close down before the new one can be completed, which has caused massive disruptions for tens of thousands of commuters between Edinburgh and Fife, to the local economy, and implications throughout Scotland and beyond.

     In his Facebook post, Andrew Carrie discussed the potential effects of the traffic re-routing (and the scale of it) based on his past experience with the bridge. He said that it was the job of engineers to come up with alternative driving routes and alternative modes of transportation altogether, and then said:

“But there's a problem. I was involved in intensive destination surveys at the bridge 20 years ago, and at that time, we found that half of the people travelling to Edinburgh city centre, already travelled by train. We also found (contrary to the view of the councils) that only about a third of the traffic (I think it was even less than that but my memory is failing!) on the bridge at that time was going into central Edinburgh. A huge proportion was going to West Lothian, Glasgow, Lanarkshire etc, or around Edinburgh to get to Midlothian, East Lothian and the borders etc.

So more trains help, but they do not get more than about a third of the traffic to where they want to be.

So no matter how many more trains, hovercrafts, ferries, water-ski boats, coracles etc you provide between Fife and Edinburgh, you will still have most of the traffic still crossing at Kincardine, because they need the car to complete the onward journey.

And freight. How do you get those goods across (and the answer isn't "trains" because again, they are going all over the place, not just to central Edinburgh). That'll be Kincardine again, then.”

     Already, haulers – represented by the Road Haulage Association (RHA) – are warning that they may seek compensation for extra costs of £600,000 pounds a day. Even with dedicated lanes on the A985 for heavy goods vehicles (HGV) and the relaxation of working hours, the RHA has said that the main diversion route is adding an extra 30 pounds in fuel costs for each of the estimated 10,500 HGV’s that normally use the bridge every day.

What was usually a 2.5 mile journey that could take 30 minutes can now ‘amount to approximately a 60 mile round trip’ taking three hours, said RHA chief Richard Burnett, who also stated that knock-on effects were already coming into play – such as reduced overall efficiency of the haulage industry, the inability to compete for contracts, and passing down the cost to customers, which is being met “with a great deal of resistance.”

     As was mentioned earlier, all of this comes at a particularly bad time due to the Christmas season – with people wanting to shop, visit families, and show up for work in order to pay for both of those. Within the statistics of the macroeconomy taking a hit are individual people whose livelihoods and prospects are going to be adversely affected for at least the next two-and-a-half weeks.

     However, you wouldn’t think this was a serious matter given the nonchalant Twitter behavior of two senior SNP MP’s. The deputy leader and MP for Dundee East, Stewart Hosie, tweeted a message to mock the criticisms of the Labour Party with regard to the bridge’s condition and the SNP’s handling of it.

     This did not go down well with many ordinary residents on Fife, Edinburgh, and surrounding areas who were put off by what appeared to be Hosie’s ignorance with regard to the traffic disruptions – with many responding to his tweet by asking him to join them on their morning commutes.

     The following day, his colleague Pete Wishart, MP for Perth and North Perthshire and the SNP’s Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, mocked the press coverage of the situation.

SNP - Wishart.jpg

     If I were them, I wouldn’t get too cocky about this, for it is a very real and serious situation for many people. The next Scottish Parliament election is just five months away, and though the SNP is riding high in the polls with virtually every projection showing that it will retain its majority – perhaps even extend it – the bridge fiasco is the sort of issue that “may just provoke the kind of anger which sways floating voters”, as Scott MacNab of The Scotsman said on last Monday.

     Of course, it has seemed as though nothing will cut through the recent rock-solid popularity of the Teflon SNP. However MacNab makes an argument that the disruptive impact of the bridge closure – with thousands of commuters “struggling to get across the Forth for work in the morning, as well as the knock-on effect for childcare and public services, while businesses are losing millions of pounds in trade” – is inconvenient and displeasing to voters. Furthermore, the “growing perception that maintenance shortcomings were behind this closure won’t bode well for ministers.” Meanwhile, it has helped to breathe some life into the opposition parties – especially Labour beginning to “act like an effective opposition” – and the SNP has not appeared on top form with each new “damning revelation” and the apparently conflicting stories from ministers.

     It is good therefore, that there will be an inquiry by Holyrood’s Infrastructure and Capital Investment Inquiry Committee into the matter of why the bridge was closed and whether preventative action on the truss end links could have been taken at an earlier time, though an independent inquiry may be preferable to get to the bottom of all relevant issues and find all the facts of how we got to this point (because this blog post and other writings are very likely not going to cut it).

     As for the bridge itself, here’s to hoping that the repairs will be completed by the projected date of January 4th, if not earlier, for everyone’s sake, and I have admiration and respect for the engineers who are working around the clock to ensure the repairs are made with all due speed – albeit ensuring the safety of the structure itself. Also, props to those who have been working to keep Scotland running as smoothly as possible in these circumstances.

     Such admiration could be showered upon the SNP government for taking swift action to get the repairs underway, but it comes after years of repeated warning about the overstressed nature of the truss end links, removing the tolls and their failure to fund repairs and/or replacement in the past, and what appears to be their gamble of hoping that the new bridge would be finished before a situation such as this arose.

     In The Scotsman on Wednesday, the former MP for West Lothian, Tam Daylell, wrote about how he – as former president of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry – and others in 2007 warned the recently-elected first minister, Alex Salmond, about the bridge following a presentation by FETA’s then bridgemaster and board manager, Alistair Andrew.  He further stated how he felt a “duty” to look after the bridge as an MP for the bridge’s south side following an appeal from the construction chief, Jock Hamilton, and that he was in a “position to assert that it is inconceivable that any Secretary of State for Scotland, Tory or Labour, from Michael Noble or Willie Ross onwards until responsibility was devolved to Holyrood would have countenanced the ditching of plans to strengthen part of the bridge, were it deemed advisable.”

     Daylell then launched an attack in which he said, “shame on Holyrood politicians” for wanting to pass the blame of the bridge shutdown to the very officials who tried to do something about it, but were stymied by those who were “blethering about more powers, and vanity projects geared principally to the referendum, [who] have taken their eye off the ball.”  

     If this if true, then we should not be surprised at this coming from a party that nearly gambled Scotland away during the referendum on a wobbly and overly-rosy prospectus, especially given the price of oil as it stands.

     In the end, rolling the dice did not work on the Forth Road Bridge – one of the most paramount pieces of infrastructure in Scotland and throughout the UK – and now people are paying the price for the SNP’s policies.

     Stronger for Scotland, indeed.

 

Special thanks to Dr. Scott Arthur for providing the links to relevant sources, timelines, and insights on his blog, Dr Scott Thinks.