The Longest Bridge in Victoria Is a 8,473-Foot Behemoth
Australia’s West Gate Bridge, which spans the Yarra River in Melbourne, is remarkable. Measuring 8,473 feet, it’s more than the longest in Victoria, it’s the third longest bridge in Australia.
Building such a massive structure wasn’t easy. The project took over ten years to complete and required additions decades later. The platform collapsed several years into construction, leading to loss of life and several years of delay in construction.
Despite hardships, the bridge is a vital pathway for commuters and shipping services today. The bridge is the primary form of transit between suburbs and business districts, accommodating an average of 200,000 vehicles a day.
A Feat of Engineering That Unnerves Some Drivers
West Gate Bridge became an iconic skyline silhouette from the day construction began. The platform rises a full 190 feet above the river at its highest point, with minimal visual support indicators beyond the box supports underneath. Due to the height, drivers on the platform may experience wind forces. At some angles, commuters are unable to see land or water beneath them. Upon completion in the 1970s, the bridge had lower-side guards. Later construction raised the height of the guards in response to heavier traffic as well as reduction of risk to drivers. While the bridge accommodates a large number of passengers daily, at completion the estimated daily traffic was 40,000 vehicles. Commuters often face delays due to congestion.
The Bridge That Almost Wasn’t
Before constructing the West Gate Bridge, the local government considered building a tunnel under the river. When a cost analysis proved expenses would be equal, officials decided upon a bridge. Building a bridge provided more flexibility to commuters and commercial shipping vehicles. Construction began in 1968. The original design specified that the vehicle platform be high enough to allow ferries and boats access to travel under the structure.
The Largest Industrial Accident in Australia
Just two years into the construction, a nearly 400-foot portion of the bridge collapsed on October 15, 1970. Before the collapse, a buckle and a small gap had appeared on the platform. Construction crews brought in weighted crates in an attempt to correct the buckle. Workers loosened some stays on support structures to allow movement. The weight was too great for the weakened portion, and the section collapsed. An investigation by officials later revealed that some of the construction materials used in the section that collapsed were faulty. Following the tragedy, construction halted for revision of the design. Construction, following new safety plans, resumed in 1972. Following completion, construction workers paid for and placed a plaque bearing the names of those killed in the collapse under the bridge.
The collapse resulted in the deaths of 35 construction workers. 18 others experienced injury but recovered. While many of the original construction workers returned to complete the project, memorials were erected for the lost. Today, the Clayton campus of Monash University displays six fragments of the original structure in the West Gate Garden engineering facility. Near the bridge, West Gate Bridge Memorial Park honors the workers who died in the tragedy. Built on the site of the rubble from the collapse, the park honors not only the West Gate Memorial construction workers but also those from other industrial accidents. The park, designed to include the original West Gate Bridge Memorial and sculptures, opened on October 15, 2004.
The West Gate Bridge Memorial Foundation holds an annual remembrance event on October 15, at the bridge.
West Gate Bridge, constructed of steel, follows a box-girder and stayed-cable design. Box-Grider refers to heavy, solid, double support systems under the platform that appear box-like. Stayed cable refers to one or more towers on the platform that hold steel cables, which provide support and tension. The bridge carries the West Gate Freeway over the Yarra River. The total construction cost for the original bridge upon opening in 1978 was 202 million dollars.
While the bridge was originally a toll bridge, Victoria stopped collecting tolls from passengers in 1985.
In 2007, the design was again revised as part of the Victoria Transport Plan. The primary focus of the expansion was to widen the platform to allow for five lanes in either direction. The structure initially underwent strengthening and stabilization in 209, then expansion before reopening as a 10-lane highway in 2011. The full cost of the expansion was 347 million dollars.
During the expansion, funds were also allocated to correct age-related structural defects that were reported in 2005. Corrosion was present on the bridge, as well as cracks. In 2022, workers completed the task of stripping and re-painting the bridge with anti-corrosive paint. The project took over three years to complete, 55,000 liters of paint, and an estimated 70 million dollars.
Pedestrian and Other Traffic
Outside of the Melbourne Summer Cycle event and other community events, the West Gate Bridge is closed to all non-motorized traffic. To accommodate other traffic, the Westgate Punt was built under the bridge. The punt is a foot ferry that runs from a jetty near Westgate Park and a jetty on the Hobsons Bay Coastal Trail. Pedestrians and cyclists can access it on weekends and holidays, as well as on-demand Monday and Friday.
The West Gate Tunnel
In 2015, the city of Victoria announced plans to build the West Gate Tunnel. Intended to reduce traffic on the West Gate Bridge, two tunnels containing three lanes each will allow crossing of the Yarra River. The projected tunnels are 4 km long, or just over two miles, outbound and 2.8 km long, or just under two miles, inbound. The project has a tentative completion date of 2024. Upon completion, the West Gate Freeway will expand from an eight-lane highway to a 12-lane freeway between Ring Road and the West Gate Bridge.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Asim Buday/Shutterstock.com