Bailey bridges are here to stay. This pre-fabricated, truss bridge developed by the British during World War II for military use is the work horse of the Costa Rican transport ministry.
In its history, the Bailey saw extensive use by both British and the American military engineering units. Today, in Costa Rica, civil engineers are taking advantage of a system that requires no special tools or heavy equipment to construct.
The wood and steel bridge elements are small and light enough to be carried in trucks and lifted into place by hand, without requiring the use of a crane. The bridges were strong enough to carry tanks. But not 80 ton cranes as we learned the hard way last week.
Around the world Bailey bridges continue to be extensively used in civil engineering construction projects and to provide temporary crossings for foot and vehicle traffic.
In Costa Rica, however, they are a temporary-permanent solution to a problem stemming from the lack of maintenance of the country’s road infrastructure for more than two decades.
All over the country Baileys are being deployed. The objective is to allow movement of traffic while permanent repairs are made. But, again and again, a Bailey goes up and almost never ever comes down. The Ministerio de Obras Publica y Transportes (MOPT) finds it more acceptable to buy more Baileys than work on a plan for permanent structures.
A preliminary estimate by the Consejo Nacional de Vialidad (CONAVI) notes that there are more than 80 such provisional structures in use today country wide. So many that the CONAVI itself does not know for sure how many and where they all are.
Some have been in place for several years, becoming part of the natural landscape.
Rolando Castillo, coordinator of the Unidad de Puentes del Laboratorio Nacional de Materiales y Modelos Estructurales (LANAMME) – National Laboratory for Bridge and Structural Models Materials – explains that we should not look negatively at the Bailey, “provided they are used as a temporary solution”.
The expert further explains that in some countries, even the United States, Bailey structures are used in place for up to five years in some cases, allowing time for authorities to design and build a permanent bridge.
“The absence of a bridge management system should not be allowed’, says Castillo in criticizing the country’s lack of any type of plan for country’s failing bridges.
Defending the use of the Bailey is José Salas, head of the CONAVI. Salas says, “we should not lose sight of the main objective of the CONAVI and the MOPT, which is to ‘ensure the right of free transit’ regardless of the medium used to achieve this”.
In the eyes of some, like the LANAMME, the Bailey is viewed as a permanent solution for a ministry that is imploding under the weight of its own inefficiency and corruption. During the current administration, the not even three year old Chinchilla government is now on its third MOPT minister.
Some argue, however, that the country is not Bailey-dependent but rather using the Bailey as way of efficiently stealing public money. Up for an investigation any one?