10 May 2023

Bridge over troubled water: Archer project facing massive delays

| Matt Nicholls
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The Archer River bridge was slated for completion this year, but won’t be finished until this time next year at the earliest, with a possible delay until 2024.

BASED on the successful tender document, there should have been a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Archer River in the coming weeks.

McConnell Dowell, which won the tender, ambitiously told the state government that it would be able to build a 230-metre bridge over the Archer this year.

That certainly isn’t happening and sources have told Cape York Weekly that there are also serious doubts about the project being finished next year.

The main issue is to do with the footings of the bridge.

While all bridge footings have to be secure, there is more pressure on the Archer due to the rare design structure.

It’s one of the few bridges in Australia that is designed to be completely submerged by water.

The Department of Transport and Main Roads says the bridge will go completely under for at least a few days per year.

However, finding appropriate rock in the riverbed has been an issue for the contractors.

Some sources said there was a lack of bedrock in the Archer, while TMR says there is bedrock, but some rocks in the area are “incredibly hard”.

Either way, it appears there was a stuff-up by the geologist who was contracted to assess the site.

Works on the approaches to the bridge won’t be finished until next year.

A TMR spokesperson said it was working with McConnell Dowell to find a solution.

“While the new bridge will significantly improve flood immunity and community resilience, it will still be submerged for periods during the annual wet season,” they said on Friday.

“It’s important we get the design for the bridge footings right, as it needs to resist much stronger forces than most conventional bridges.

“The Archer River crossing is made up of a large amount of bedrock. Recently, contractors have encountered some incredibly hard rock near the footings, which has slowed construction.

“We are working with contractors and specialists to determine the best way forward.”

TMR did not answer questions about when the bridge was due to be completed, or when a new design was expected to be finalised.

When asked about the tender process and whether it was misled when told a bridge could be built this year, TMR said: “Tenders are a closed process, however, the riverbed has been under water which has hampered progress.”

Fancy that – a river with water in it.

Funding for the Archer River project comes from both the federal and state governments at about an 80-20 split.

However, the state is in charge of managing the work.

The Archer River bridge will be at least eight metres higher than the causeway.

Not only does it seem that TMR was duped in the tender process – every other serious tender bid said it couldn’t be done this year – it has also stood by and watched lengthy delays to roadworks at the southern approach.

ASX-listed company Decmil was last year awarded an $8 million contract to seal 2.8km of road leading to the bridge and Archer River Roadhouse.

The work was meant to be completed this year, but now efforts are focused on preparing for the wet.

Locals are concerned that the road won’t be able to handle any traffic once the rain starts.

“Once it’s finished it’s going to be great, but they haven’t designed these bypass roads for the wet season,” one woman said.

“We know the river goes up every wet season but we can always get through to Laura when it goes down. I’m worried we won’t be able to get to Coen because of these works.”

A 2.8km stretch of road leading to the Archer River from the southern side of the PDR is already supposed to be sealed.

TMR said contractors were aware of the need to plan for the wet season.

“Progress on projects will always be subject to weather, particularly in the Cape York region, which experiences heavy wet season rainfall over several consecutive months,” the spokesperson said.

“Contractors across all Cape York Region Package Stage 2 projects will soon begin planning for demobilisation from site, in preparation for the upcoming wet season.

“In the lead-up to demobilisation, contractors ensure that all works to date are as best protected from the weather as possible, to allow for a smooth mobilisation to site to continue construction at the end of the wet season.”

In more positive news, TMR says more than 140 direct jobs are being created as a result of the Archer River bridge build and surrounding sealing works.

In partnership with Traditional Owners and Cape York Land Council, TMR developed the PDR Indigenous Land Use Agreement, which sets out economic opportunity, training, and local industry participation targets.

The Archer project will provide more than 11,000 hours of training and upskilling, with all projects completed under the first and second stage of the Cape York Region Package exceeding original goals.

Issues with rock in the riverbed have forced a re-design of the new bridge.

“We know how important training and skills are in remote and regional Queensland, which is why we ingrained First Nations engagement in the delivery of the project,” said Mark Bailey, the Minister for Transport and Main Roads.

“Hundreds of jobs are being supported by this package of work, so we want local businesses and local workers to be the ones who benefit.

“The sealing of the Peninsula Developmental Road will continue to unlock economic and tourism opportunities for the region, and maintain access throughout the wet season.”

The $44.87 million bridge build, is expected to reduce road closures at the crossing from 88 days per year, down to as little as two.

The new bridge is designed to be more than eight metres higher than the current crossing.

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