2000-2006: Go, NoGo
A bridge across the Mackenzie River at Fort Providence has long been desired, but considered too expensive for the GNWT to fund. So around 2000-2002 the idea arose to create a Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement, where the GNWT would cooperate with a proposed new private corporation to build the bridge. The corporation's majority shareholders would be the Fort Providence Dene and Metis organizations. This company would commission the design and development plans for a bridge, arrange for the significant financing required, and contract with a construction firm to build the bridge, which it own. In return, the government would agree to establish tolls for commercial traffic across the bridge, and convey those tolls, as well as additional money for operating costs, debt service payments, and a guaranteed return on equity, to the private corporation. This arrangement would last for 35 years, after which time the bridge would become the property of the GNWT.
The GNWT contributions (of around $1.4-$1.7 million) would largely represent savings from no longer running the ferry and ice road. The tolls would be equivalent of around $6 tonne, and would in part be offset by lower trucking company costs (no more waiting for ferries, dealing with ice roads, etc) and savings in north-side communities (no more breakup/freezeup shortages, stockpiling and helicopter freighting). While there were those who opposed the project, a cost-benefit study indicated there as a case for a net economic benefit from the bridge.
The Fort Providence groups and the government signed a Memorandum of Intent to this effect in November 2002, and the Deh Cho Bridge Corporation (DCBC) was formed. The government passed legislation in 2003 enabling it to negotiate a legal agreement with the DCBC (called the Concession Agreement, and to establish the eventual tolls. The DCBC and its consultants came up with design and development plans, and the Concession Agreement was agreed to in principle. The estimated cost was around $60 million, and the federal government announced it would contribute $3 million to the DCBC as part of a First Nations partnership program. However, a requirement to consider an environmental review and other problems delayed matters through all of 2004, and only $1.8 million of the federal money was actually paid out.
By 2005 the project achieved its environmental clearance, and tenders were issued in October. However, the pricing received was considered too high to be feasible. Another round of tenders in February 2006 produced similar results, and the project was effectively shelved. The GNWT made attempts to obtain federal infrastructure or other funding (a $50 million request), but failed.
2007: Joe's Going-Away Present
In 2007, failing federal funding, the GNWT committed to providing an extra $2 million annually to fill the funding gap. This would (although it would not become publicly known until later) essentially send the cost-benefit calculation negative. In July, Atcon Construction submitted a fixed price bid to build the bridge of roughly $130 million. With the addition of design, development and financing costs, and a $10 million contingency allocation, this brought the bridge budget to around $169 million. In late August a "Limited Approval to Proceed" was signed, and an official celebration held in Fort Providence. On September 28, just 3 days before the Territorial Election, the Concession Agreement was signed.
2007-2008: Fights and Bulldozers
Delays and trouble in finalizing the $5 million DCBC equity stake resulted in three additional amendments to the Concession Agreement, the last in late February, 2008. As a previous equity candidate dropped out, the general contractor, Atcon, offered to take up the $2 million equity stake. As the agreement had not been made public to that point, there was considerable debate in the Legislative Assembly about the unknown details of an agreement which they had no opportunity to consider.
On February 22, 2008 the debt funding of $165.4 million was provided to the DCBC, and construction began in March. At this point, a final design review approval had not been completed on the bridge design. The four support piers on the south side of the river were put in place during the 2008 construction season.
2008-2009: Oh, You Wanted the Good Design?
Sometime in 2008-2009 the GNWT's design review identified possible issues with the design of the bridge superstructure. Design changes were commissioned, and steel fabrication plans for the superstructure were suspended, delaying the project by a year. Separately, the general contractor Atcon and its major subcontractor Ruskin Construction were involved in a dispute which halted work for a week, and resulted in Ruskin's work being removed from Atcon's supervision and contracted by the DCBC directly from Ruskin. The 2009 construction year ended with three of the four north-side piers complete (the fourth had concrete issues identified during the review). Negotiations with Atcon for a revised contract for the superstructure based on the revised plans were conducted, but it was announced in December that no agreement could be reached. Atcon would be removed as the general contractor, and arrangements would be made to buy back the equity stake it had committed to.
2010: The Empire Strikes Back
2010 began with the DCBC searching for a new contractor to build the bridge; failing to have one in place by March 1 threatened another significant delay in the project. However, in February it was announced that the GNWT would be taking over the project management itself, replacing the DCBC and its team. It was also announced that an additional $15 million dollars would be required to complete construction, bringing the total to over $180 million. The Legislative Assembly approved these funds in late February. In March, under pressure of a default notice from the lenders, the GNWT announced that it would be seeking authority to assume and administer the assets and debts of the DCBC. This would mean the debt would be considered part of the GNWT's own borrowing limits, reducing (and potentially exceeding) the debt ceiling authorized by the federal government. A special session of the Legislative Assembly was held March 23-25 to pass legislation allowing the debt assumption; the Assembly also passed a motion asking the Auditor General of Canada to perform a special audit on the bridge project.
After negotiations between the GNWT and the DCBC, the Transition Letter was signed in June, setting out the parameters of the transfer of the Bridge project to the GNWT.
Also in June, Andrew Gamble and Jivko Jivkov filed suit against the DCBC in the Supreme Court of the NWT, claiming they were owed $534,000 and $818,000, respectively. In August, all parties agreed to arbitration.
2011: Mind the gap
In January, the Levelton Report was released to the public, with findings of significant deficiencies in quality control and a number of technical issues still outstanding.
In March, the Auditor General released her report on the GNWT's involvement in the Bridge. Also in March, the Gamble/Jivkov lawsuits were withdrawn, due to a confidential settlement at amounts the government described as "well below" the amounts claimed.
In May it was announced that delayed steel deliveries meant the schedule for building the trusses had been missed. Decking would not be finished until October, too late to pour the concrete covering. This and subsequent work will be delayed until warmer weather in 2012. The bridge is now hoped to open to traffic in late 2012.
In December, the Minister of Transportation announced that an additional $10 million was being allocated in the 2012/2013 capital estimates to cover shortfalls in the construction budget, bringing it to $192 million.
2012: Ponte facto Caesar transit
At the end of February, the two sides of the bridge are connected together. In June, it is announced that a further $10 million is required to complete the bridge on time in 2012 (and resolve claims with the contractor). And at the beginning of November, it is announced that the opening ceremony is scheduled for November 30.
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