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Climate Change Resiliency in New Brunswick: The Fall and Rise of the Kouchibouguac River Bridge

By Alain Grégoire

Canada's wide-ranging landscape is one of the country's greatest assets. Yet because of our country’s expansive geography, the impacts of climate change can be vastly different – making it difficult for each province and territory to develop resilient infrastructure. Over the past few years, many regions across Canada experienced record numbers of forest fires and flooding events. Ontario was recently awarded the moniker of Canada's Tornado Capital, and Atlantic Canada has seen an increase in the frequency and severity of high winds, flooding and coastal surges.

I recently partnered with our clients at the New Brunswick Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (NBDTI) to speak at the Transportation Association of Canada’s (TAC) annual conference. Under a segment on climate change mitigation, we discussed climate change resiliency in New Brunswick – specifically speaking to the strategies that influence critical decision-making and the practices that enabled our team to rebuild the Kouchibouguac River Bridge in record time.

Kouchibouguac River Bridge No. 1

When hurricane Dorian struck New Brunswick in September 2019, the province sustained more than $25M in damages. The Kouchibouguac River Bridge No.1 is a 95-metre commuter bridge and vital link for the Cap-Acadie community and its tourism sector. It was heavily damaged during the hurricane, resulting in its immediate and indefinite closure.

NBDTI quickly began strategizing on ways to address the loss of the bridge. By November 2019, the provincial government secured funding through the Disaster Financial Assistance Program (DFAP), a Federal-Provincial cost-sharing program designed to create both temporary and long-term solutions for the community.

The department opted to install a temporary modular bridge in March 2020 to maintain traffic flow. It followed up on this preliminary plan with a longer-term solution to reconstruct the bridge, leveraging a Design-Build project delivery model. Working within the original bridge footprint, the project team developed an innovative and cost-effective solution to fulfill a 100-year asset lifespan, while also addressing climate resilience. Built two metres higher than the original bridge, the new structure officially opened to the public in November 2023.

Key Project Takeaways

The Kouchibouguac River Bridge project is a great example of a province responding to community needs quickly, while also using sound strategy to identify a direction, evaluate risks, rank project priorities, and ultimately define both short- and long-term solutions to things like ice jamming and rising sea levels.

Four key lessons framed NBDTI’s success and helped the team achieve its project goals.

1. It’s paramount to engage key parties.

Early engagement in the planning process followed by ongoing, two-way communication is essential for success. It’s critical to ensure that multi-level parties and impacted groups understand and share the same primary concerns so you can mitigate risks and address project challenges as a team.

One of our main concerns with reconstructing the bridge was ensuring that existing environmental conditions were understood, and appropriate measures were taken to protect the land and its ecosystems. With protected wetlands, eelgrass and oyster beds, historical sites, and environmentally sensitive First Nations areas nearby, there were several parties to engage and consult with, not only during the planning stages of the project but throughout the design and construction phases to ensure construction activities did not disrupt the surrounding landscape.

2. Design-Builds support project efficiency.

Stay on track and save time and money by beginning with a thorough process review, in addition to an options and environmental analysis.

Once it was clear that the best plan of action was to raise and rebuild the bridge, we worked closely with NBDTI to evaluate different methodologies and select an approach that best suited both the needs of the community and the project. With several project constraints – including the need to stay within the existing bridge footprint – we drew on industry expertise to find innovative solutions that could move the project forward. By carefully crafting the owner’s statement of requirements, we shared a strict set of project constraints and selected a Design-Builder who provided a solution within the outlined budget and requirements. Approaching industry in this way allowed us to determine what was possible and select a single entity (versus separate design and build teams) that could move the project forward more quickly than a Design-Bid-Build approach or other comparable methodologies.

3. Plan today for the realities of tomorrow.

It’s never too early to prepare for the future. Natural disasters come without warning and can severely impact a community and its critical infrastructure within minutes.

For infrastructure to stand the test of time we need to plan for the realities of today, including challenges involving inflation, capital budgets and funding constraints. We also considered future realities, like whether raising and rebuilding the Kouchibouguac River Bridge in its existing footprint would enable the bridge to withstand rising sea levels, extreme weather, storm surges and ice jamming over the next 100 years.

Using climate change data is one way to future-proof infrastructure design. Engaging in open conversations and forums also provides local and provincial governments with a connection to industry experts who can share new or different solutions that support faster project delivery while also addressing climate change resiliency.

4. Industry is taking a more collaborative approach.

The construction industry is changing, and collaborative delivery models are increasing in popularity.

The Design-Build approach is shifting and is one step closer to being more collaborative. Methodologies such as Progressive Design-Build or Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) help promote early contractor involvement. Having industry actively participate in the early stages of a project enables them to identify alternative solutions and constructability issues that reduce – or eliminate – claims and change orders through a shared risk-reward approach. Select the best approach for your project needs and assess the best transfer of risk before breaking ground. As collaborative delivery models gain traction, industry is becoming more capable and open to taking on some level of risk.

The Kouchibouguac River Bridge No.1 project perfectly demonstrates how a provincial government used planning, strategy, industry collaboration and innovation to raise and rebuild a major commuter link in New Brunswick. The damage brought on by Hurricane Dorian presented the province with several challenges, but its recovery efforts offered our project team valuable lessons that we will carry forward as we continue to help communities build stronger, more resilient infrastructure.

Interested in learning more? TAC members can access the full replay of Live Stream – CC.2 Climate Change Adaptation through the virtual portal. Others can email questions or comments to info@colliersprojectleaders.com for more information.