Kelowna’s William R. Bennett Bridge will turn five this weekend.
Saturday, May 25, will mark five years since the first three lanes of the five-lane bridge opened, an event celebrated in 2008 by a public walk across the new bridge by the man it is named after, former B.C. premier Bill Bennett.
Bennett joined then premier Gordon Campbell and the pair led a large crowd across the westbound lanes, from Kelowna to West Kelowna, to celebrate the opening of the $144 million structure.
Sixteen days later, on May 31, the two east-bound lanes of the new bridge were opened and work started on the dismantling of the nearby 50-year-old Okanagan Lake Floating Bridge, which the new bridge replaced.
“It was a great job, I’ll always remember it,” said Kevin Hamakawa, who served as a marine superintendent during the three years of construction of the W. R. Bennett Bridge and who now is in charge of maintenance and operations.
“It was a really well-run job and, right from the beginning, there was a real team environment among the workers.”
The new bridge, long-sought and anticipated by locals, was built as a pubic-private partnership by a consortium selected by the province to design and build it and then maintain and operate it for the next 30 years.
Over that time frame, the government said it expected to pay the consortium, led by SNC-Lavalin, a total of $179 million, $20 million less than the estimated cost of building the bridge itself.
Using more than 300 workers in total—all of whom are named on a large plaque at the east end of the bridge—the consortium called W R Bennett Bridge Group, now known as Protrans—completed the work 108 days ahead of schedule and on budget.
Sections of the bridge were built at a specially constructed graving yard near Bear Creek on the west side of the lake and floated into position when complete.
Much of the work was done by local companies which were hired to do individual parts of the construction work.
The Liberal government of the day had revived the bridge project in 2005 after shelving it four years earlier when it came to power in 2001. After winning the 2001 election, it put all major government infrastructure projects in B.C. on hold.
The previous NDP government had also promised a new bridge but would only put up $100 million of the then estimated $120 million cost.
It said Kelowna had to come up with the remaining $20 million if it wanted a new bridge built. The city balked.
For years the old metal and concrete floating bridge that the new structure replaced, complete with a lift span, was an iconic symbol of Kelowna and, like its successor, served as the only bridge crossing on Okanagan Lake.
To replace the high-level access point for boats provided by the liftspan, the new bridge included a high-level arch at the west end. But it had its own controversy.
The elevation could have been lowered by several metres to save millions of dollars in construction costs but a handful of sailboat owners objected and the Canadian Coast Guard, which had to sign off on the deal, sided with the boat owners.
Build it 1958 and opened by Princess Margaret and Bennett’s father, long-time B.C. premier WAC Bennett, the three-lane floating bridge was slated for replacement after cost estimates for its annual upkeep proved more expensive in the long-term than building a new, wider bridge to handle the growing volume of traffic using the bridge.
The Bennett Bridge was designed to handle 80,000 vehicles per day and when it replaced the old Okanagan Lake Floating Bridge, there were already and estimated 50,000 vehicles crossing the lake each day. The old bridge had been designed to handle just 38,000 vehicles per day.
Currently, daily traffic volumes on the bridge vary, with Sundays generally having the lowest volumes and Fridays generally having the highest volumes. Volumes can range from as low as approximately 35,000 vehicles per day on a Sunday in the winter months to as high as approximately 63,000 vehicles per day on a Friday in the peak summer tourist months.
Part of the government’s annual payments to Protrans are based on keeping traffic flowing across the bridge.
The Transportation and Infrastructure Ministry said Thursday it is pleased with the contractor’s performance to date. There have been no significant maintenance or operations issues since the opening of the bridge.
“The ministry is satisfied with the operation of the bridge, the contractor has ensured optimal lane availability, performing most routine maintenance activities outside of peak travel periods to minimize delays to the public,” said a ministry spokeswoman.
“Attention to minimizing planned lane closures and the fact that the bridge is multi-laned has greatly improved corridor reliability for commuters and commercial carriers alike adding to the vitality of the central Okanagan.”
As part of the bridge project, improvements were also made to Highway 97 on both sides of the lake, including the most recent, and separate, $45-million Westside Road overpass project.
The Transportation and Infrastructure Ministry says it is pleased with the contractor’s performance to date; there have been no significant maintenance or operations issues since the opening of the bridge.
The ministry is satisfied with the operation of the bridge, the contractor has ensured optimal lane availability, performing most routine maintenance activities outside of peak travel periods to minimize delays to the public.
Attention to minimizing planned lane closures and the fact that the bridge is multi-laned has greatly improved corridor reliability for commuters and commercial carriers alike adding to the vitality of the central Okanagan.