What America can learn from a bridge in Scotland

The Third Way: The new Queensferry Crossing across the River Forth, Scotland, nearing completion

The new Queensferry Crossing across the River Forth, Scotland, nearing completion. Image: John Mcsporran via Flickr

Cameron J. Bell
Researcher, American University in Cairo
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America’s infrastructure - the nation’s bridges, airports, dams, or levees - needs wide-scale repair and renewal.

The UK’s new Queensferry Crossing bridge, connecting Edinburgh to Fife in Scotland, offers an example on how to do it. Three good practices contributed to the high quality process and outcomes: the UK planners diagnosed the problem early; took their time with careful design upfront; and built and sustained an inclusive coalition of stakeholders. The evidence speaks for itself.

The Queensferry Crossing - a three-tower cable-stayed bridge with a length of 1.7 miles - opened in early September, well within budget and with a manageable 8 month time delay. This is a rare occurrence among bridges. According to research at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, nine out of 10 fixed links (bridges and tunnels) suffer an average cost overrun of 34% and a time delay of roughly 2 years.

Contrast the Queensferry bridge with that of the Bay Bridge (East span) in California, which connects the city of San Francisco to Oakland.

The American bridge - a self-anchored single tower suspension bridge with a length of 2.2 miles - blew its budget, costing US$6.5 billion, and took roughly 24 years to complete, nearly a decade past its initial projected completion date. Conversely, the Queensferry, comparable in scope to the Bay Bridge, took roughly 11 years to plan and build at almost a quarter of the price. The Bay Bridge cost estimate drifted upwards through its life: it started at $1 billion (in 1996) and was revised upwards several times: to $1.3b (1997); $2.6b (2001); $5.5b (2005); and finally to the actual cost of $6.5b (actual outturn cost in 2015). The pain has not gone away since the opening of the bridge: costly litigation and quality disputes continue. Meanwhile, San Francisco commuters pay the price at the tolls every day.

Despite the divergent performance, the two bridges had much in common. The design and the physical scope of the two bridges were comparable. For example, the construction consortiums for both links even included the same engineering firm, American Bridge, and the same Chinese steel manufacturer for the superstructure. Yet the cost, schedule, and quality outcomes were remarkably different.

Both bridges were also critical pieces of infrastructure that had to be renewed. Doing nothing was not an option. The need for the Queensferry Crossing arose because cable inspections of the nearby Forth Road Bridge between 2003-2005 raised red flags and sparked calls for the construction of a new bridge to reduce loads. In the case of the Bay Bridge, the question was how to rectify the damage wrought by the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and prevent future failures.

Many similar large infrastructure projects are arising in the 21st Century out of necessity: to renew aging (and vital) assets, many of which are at a risk of failure. The Oroville Dam and coastal levees in the U.S. are the latest examples of structures in need of urgent care.

Renewing ageing infrastructure is a formidable challenge because multiple issues have to be fairly balanced: cost, safety, time, benefits, environment, access, impact on the communities and aesthetics, among others. The Queensferry sets a new global standard in prudently adjudicating among such competing concerns. Three good practices were at work.

First, the Queensferry planners diagnosed the problem early before a catastrophic event. Rigorous routine inspections of bridges in the UK created an early alert to either refurbish or replace the old bridge at the Firth of Forth in Scotland. The timely public discussion of the issue triggered a well-paced planning process that resulted in the decision to build the new crossing. In contrast, discussions to deal with the Bay Bridge’s (East Span) did not begin until after the catastrophic failure brought on by the 1989 earthquake. A similar malaise is in view with other American bridges, dam, and levees, many in alarming disrepair. Thus, while the Scottish bridge needed medicine for a long-term illness, the American bridge needed to be rushed into the intensive care unit—both challenging situations but the latter much more so. The American bridge’s predicament prompted knee-jerk political reactions, which plagued the project from its infancy.

Second, the UK planners invested time and resources in the upfront design process. Allowing themselves and multiple stakeholders the time to think clearly in the early phase resulted in a design that masterfully balanced competing imperatives such as cost, safety, and aesthetics. A joint venture (JV) between Jacobs and Arup worked to simplify the design, for instance, reducing the bridge width by showing that the existing Forth bridge could be converted to support a light rail system in the future, if required. Strategically using a natural rock outcropping as a tower foundation further reduced costs. Unusually for mega-projects, the project’s cost estimate was revised downwards several times: £4.22b (2007); £2.35b (2008); £1.61b (2011); £1.45b (2013); £1.39b (2014); £1.35b (actual cost in 2017)—a multifold decrease. Despite lowering costs, the Queensferry Crossing is a stunning structure: the longest three-tower, cable-stayed bridge in the world, and the tallest bridge in the United Kingdom.

Third, the Queensferry Crossing is also a testament to how building an inclusive coalition of stakeholders early in a mega-project’s life delivers lasting value. The UK planners used an integrated project delivery (IPD) framework—a measured approach to bringing together key participants from the government, civil society, and the market from the beginning, and working with all constituents throughout the project. The Forth Estuary Transport Authority (FETA) in the UK—the Scottish government’s agency legislated to take charge of the ageing infrastructure—projected a confident vision for the project and engaged the public early and candidly about a variety of solutions. FETA also created parallel workflows of government and regulatory milestones (the environmental impact statement, the bill drafting in Scottish Parliament, and finally the Forth Crossing Act) alongside the design and contractual milestones (construction documents, a very well-thought out specimen design, competitive bidding and award). The project thus gathered momentum and buy-in.

The project’s momentum was self-reinforcing: wide public support for the project resulted in a relatively rapid green light from Parliament, which then allowed the project bidders to focus on value engineering and reducing costs, instead of spending time and resources on an iterative design process. Contractually, the crossing was a design-build, fixed price, at risk contract awarded to the Forth Crossing Bridge Constructors (FCBC). The contractual framework called for several specific features, such as a multi-party contract; early involvement of contractors and key participants; collaboration and risk sharing, and jointly developed project goals. Individual stakeholders were disincentivized to vie for influence, or worse, a zero-sum win in claims or arbitration. As a result, the Queensferry Crossing offered a level of quality design, price certainty and value for money that is rarely matched.

The Bay Bridge, in contrast, had an unhappy start from which it never recovered. From the beginning, there was a range of public agencies with unaligned interests and competing visions for what the right solution was: the Mayor and local politicians; Caltrans and state agencies; the Department of Transportation at the Federal level; and the U.S. Navy. A stakeholder coalition was not formed or engaged.

The design of the East span of the Bay Bridge was ostensibly chosen for noble reasons - playing to the public’s aesthetic aspirations - but with disregard for other imperatives such as procurement risk. In the absence of early contractor involvement, the American bridge attracted a lone and wildly off-priced bid. Loose project governance and weak standards exacerbated an already shaky relationship among stakeholders when quality control problems later materialized. Neither the process nor the outcomes of the renewal of the Bay Bridge proved satisfactory.

The errors of the Bay Bridge need not be repeated. Three cures are essential: attending to the infrastructure renewal challenge proactively instead of waiting for catastrophic events; resisting the typical political urge to fast-track a project and instead investing resources in careful design; and, building on the great American democratic tradition, establishing a sensible stakeholder coalition early in a renewal project’s life. American leaders should look across the pond for inspiration.

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