By A Correspondent- Lack of maintenance has seen the iconic Birchenough Bridge being turned into a one-way passage for vehicles weighing less than 25 tonnes as assessments of the structure revealed that it could pose danger to motorists if weight restrictions were not enforced.
A boom gate at each end of the bridge prevents more than one large vehicle from driving across at any given time.
There are cracks on both ends of the bridge’s tarmac entry points while the structure shakes each time heavy vehicles drive past.
The ageing Birchenough Bridge — a key tourist attraction — is evidently crying out for attention.
Locals who use the bridge daily as they walk or drive to and from the business centre, work and school are therefore now living in fear of having the 377-metre long structure crumble underneath them.
In fact, pedestrians now fear for their safety to the extent that they run past the bridge to avoid being on the structure concurrently with heavy trucks.
The bridge connects the road between Mutare and Masvingo as well as Buhera and Chipinge districts.
Birchenough Bridge is one of the oldest bridges in the country.
Foundations were commenced in April 1934 and were ready for steelwork in November.
The arch span was completed on June 17th, 1935, and the concrete roadway was practically complete at the end of September, 1935.
The iconic arch bridge was designed by Engineer Ralph Freeman and was built by Dorman Long.
The structure was named in honour of businessman, Sir John Henry Birchenough, who served as chairman of the Beit Trust.
However, lack of maintenance over the years has seen the structure weakening with the passage of time.
The bridge’s structures have also suffered battering from Cylones Eline and Idai-induced floods.
Around March 2019 when Cyclone Idai hit the country, Save River threatened to flood the bridge.
Locals and an employee at the bridge’s boom gate told The Manica Post that they have never witnessed any maintenance work being carried out on the bridge.
“We have not seen any maintenance works being carried out on this bridge. Misplaced or not, there is genuine fear among locals that the bridge might collapse anytime,” said the boom gate worker who declined to be named citing protocol.
When contacted for comment, Manicaland Provincial Road Engineer, Atherton Zindoga said it was safe to continue using the existing structure under the current load restrictions.
“It is safe to use the existing structure under current load restrictions.
“We are watching the structure. An assessment was carried out and we are enforcing weight restrictions.
“We have two options. The first one is to renovate the existing structure so that it can carry loads as required.
“The second one is to build a new structure next to the existing one. Both options require funding and unfortunately the funds are not available at the moment. We have applied for a grant from the Government of Japan,” said Eng Zindoga.
The debate on whether to construct a new structure or refurbish the existing is not new.
In 2018, the then Transport and Infrastructural Development Minister, Jorum Gumbo, ruled out the rehabilitation of Birchenough Bridge as he highlighted that it would be more economical to erect a new structure with a bigger carrying capacity.
Minister Gumbo told road authorities in Manicaland back then that while repairing the bridge would cost US$35 million, a new bridge would cost US$40 million.
He said the Government would rather construct a new bridge that is broader to allow the smooth flow of traffic.
In 2018, the Emerged Railways Properties who manage the iconic Victoria Falls Bridge introduced a toll fee for all vehicles crossing the bridge as a means of raising funds for the maintenance of the historic structure.