12 Apr 2019

West Coast's treasured Waiho Bridge to reopen

From Checkpoint, 5:45 pm on 12 April 2019

Franz Josef and Fox Glacier locals are ready to put access troubles behind them when the Waiho Bridge is reinstated tomorrow morning. 

The tourist towns have been without the State Highway 6 link for two-and-a-half weeks since it was swept away in floodwater, sparking a "significant" drop in visitors and staff cuts at local businesses. 

Billy Whiteman, the owner of Snakebite Brewery and Alpine Glacier Motel, said he is one of several hospitality operators who made the choice to lay off their casual staff members as soon as they heard about the bridge damage. 

"Most people had to react pretty fast. We knew as soon as the bridge went out that things would get pretty sticky," he said. 

Though Snakebite is usually packed, he said staff are now serving just 20-30 tables a night "on a good night".

He said his lack of staff could be "a bit of a problem" when the bridge reopens, if tourists surge back into town in large numbers.

"But I think we've all got that extra energy from sitting around for the past couple of weeks. I think we'll just go with the flow and do the best we can," he said. 

The bridge being reinstated is a Bailey bridge, a type of flexible structure traditionally used in military operations for quick assembly. 

Transport Agency contract manager Moira Whinham said it's the same design as the one that was swept away, but the most suited to the volatile environment of the Waiho River. Unlike a bridge with concrete piles, it is able to lift up when the river surges. 

Up to 45 people have been working on it at a time, including contractors, sub-contractors and army engineers.  

"It's been a big challenge having everyone on site, but they've pulled together amazingly well as a team of diverse people and diverse organisations," she said. 

Downer South Island general manager Scott Ford said there had been a lot of coordinating and logistics and a few challenges to overcome - including accessing the underside of the bridge in the heavy rain.

For second lieutenant Laura Bayfield, one of 16 defence force engineers at the site, it was the first time building a Bailey bridge apart from in army training.

She has had the job of wearing a harness and working underneath the bridge and said it has also been a good opportunity to learn.

"It's basically a free training exercise," she said. 

She said Franz Josef locals had also gone out of their way to thank the army and show their support - including leaving drinks vouchers and thank you notes in their hotel rooms.

The bridge will reopen with a ceremony at 11am tomorrow, before the first cars are allowed across at midday.