23 May 2013

River Wear Crossing tenders returned

Tenders were due in for Sunderland's River Wear crossing on 22nd May, and presumably they have now been received. The tender date had been delayed twice, having originally been set as 20th March, and then extended once already to 24th April. The number of tenderers had also dropped, from the original shortlisted four, down to two, after Ferrovial and Balfour Beatty withdrew, leaving the field to Vinci and Graham.

While the bridge building world waits to see whether either tenderer has actually managed to come in below Sunderland Council's £118m project budget, I thought I'd post up a couple of items that are relevant, one in this post and then another to follow soon.

I posted a lengthy update on progress with the bridge almost exactly a year ago. Now, the bridge's lead structural designer, Techniker's Matthew Wells has responded to my post in the comments section.

Wells asks for the bridge to be judged distinctly in architectural, engineering and commercial terms. On the engineering, he notes that "the engineering has been involved and very enjoyable. My associates have demonstrated outstanding skills to realise it", which I don't doubt. Commercially, he says "Is it value for money? Perhaps best left to the client to judge where to spend his/her money." There, we part company. I've argued here in the past that the value a landmark bridge brings to its community is very poorly understood, even in purely economic terms.

Sunderland Council commissioned specialists to put a figure on the value a landmark bridge offered, particularly in how it could encourage investment and hence enhance employment, but this was long after the decision was made to press ahead with the "iconic" design, and comes across somewhat as post facto rationalisation put in place to keep central government funders happy. In short, I believe very few clients can present any real evidence to justify how they spend taxpayers' money once things move beyond simple journey-time benefits, and even those are often grossly miscalculated.

Wells also comments that "like all bridges, it's for 120 years, so questions of design in austerity need careful consideration". Here it may be appropriate to consider that this was a bridge conceived in 2005, at a time when Sunderland were probably still looking enviously at the money lavished on Gateshead's fantastically expensive Millennium Bridge. This was the back end of the millennial boom in iconic bridges, and the winner of Sunderland's design competition exhibited a compellingly flamboyant spirit (as did the designs from other entrants).

Now, in 2013, in a time of austerity, it may seem sensible to question not only the £82m of central government funding allocated to the project, but the £33m of Sunderland Council's own money, which I understood was to come by depleting the Council's financial reserves. Job creation may be cited in its defence, but the Wear Crossing will be nowhere near as effective at that as was, for example, Newcastle's Tyne Bridge, rushed onto site in 1925 largely for the direct employment its construction required.

As always, I'd be interested in readers' views on this subject, please click the Comments link on this post!


Brian Potter, PE said...

Unfortunately, the economic impact assessment doesn't seem to be available at the website. But based on the summary, it seems like there's a good chance of a pretty substantial selection bias.

From their summary:

"Our analysis examined case studies of major place-making investments that have stimulated new private investment and accelerated urban regeneration outcomes"

In short, it appears they looked at only the successful projects, and cheerfully ignored all the expensive attempts at "place-making investments" which failed to pay off, of which I'd imagine there are many. After all, it's not as if Salginatobel is a bustling metropolis.

The Happy Pontist said...

I think this is the economic case document here, section 4 is most relevant, and you'll note that most of the benefits cited for other landmark bridges are anecdotal rather than measured: http://www.newsunderlandbridge.com/page-downloads/6-4.pdf

Imre Laufer said...

If we consider the bridge as a massive investment into infrastructure, - here I mean investment in its most simple form, e.g. as buying stocks or investing into funds - it is no surprise that the cost-benefit-calculations are somewhat elusive, as stated by Brian Potter.
When you invest into some financial funds, you usually make your decision based on the performance of the field of the investment (recent performance of a field, e.g. agriculture, mining, biotechnology, whatever) to get a basic idea what you MIGHT expect from your future investment. If you have already deciced for a specific fund, you can look at its past performance, but this still doesn't say anything about what will happen to your invested money. Of course, the managers of a startup fund would also point out other similar and successful examples.
From the investment point of view, a "landmark" bridge is a startup fund for long term, with medium-to-high risk and rather uncertain yield expectations, where the one cannot "back out" on the short term.

Anonymous said...

Just curious about how the tender process works in the UK. Here in the colonies, for public agency projects, the tenders (we call them bids over here) would typically be opened in a public setting and the results announced immediately. It would be virtually unprecedented for tenders to be received and kept "secret" for days or weeks. Is this the process in the UK? Is anyone concerned that the results have not been announced? Does it mean anything?

The Happy Pontist said...

There's no legal compulsion to make the results public immediately. In particular, the authority may wish to have time to check they are compliant with the tender requirements, and to issue any queries or clarifications, before anything is made public.