Seeking answers and input

by Leslie Campbell, October 2010

Why did the City delete the original Delcan report?

Last month, Focus writer Sam Williams noted that the same consulting engineer who is now telling the City that a refurbished Johnson Street Bridge would cost $80 to $103 million, recommended—less than two years ago—a complete retrofit that would cost only $8.6 million.

Email from Delcan's Dr Joost Meyboom to City of Victoria's Mike Lai.

What gives? 

Admittedly the scope of the project has increased, but even allowing for meeting a higher seismic standard, the leap in cost is huge and needs to be explained in order for many of us to feel comfortable about how  we vote in the upcoming borrowing referendum on a new bridge.

One thing that would help all of us understand why costs have grown 10-fold higher—in a period in which construction experts say costs actually declined—is the original version of the Johnson Street Bridge condition assessment done by Delcan.

Through Freedom of Information requests filed in June, we have been able to obtain emails that refer to the original report (September 2008) and a second draft (November 2008)—including the reference to the recommended $8.6 million retrofit—but the City claims they no longer have those reports. From the email record provided to Focus by the City, we know the reports were available by download from Delcan, and the City’s engineering department refers to copies being sent to the City’s print shop. So it seems unlikely that both reports—in both paper and electronic form—would have completely disappeared. If the electronic versions were deleted, who pushed the “delete” key, and why?

On September 8, the City told us it would send a request to Delcan for the missing reports, but warned us that Delcan may be under no obligation to release them if in fact they still have them. Surely though, if the City, as a client of Delcan, makes a request for them, the company would do so. If not, why not?

No word on that score yet. Meanwhile, we asked Scott Clark, Assistant Director of Information Technology at City Hall about its email backup system and were told emails are backed up each night and kept for a year. So we are still hopeful the City will find the original report and the second draft of that report and make them public.

Why is this so important? Because there are many inconsistencies and unanswered questions around this largest-ever city infrastructure project. The original report represents more objective findings and recommendations from the consulting experts; as things progressed towards the final report (April 2009), we see in the email record more involvement by the City in shaping the report (see http://www.focusonline.ca/sites/default/files//Focus_2010-05_May.pdf).

There have been two occasions in the past two years, verified by the email record, in which different Delcan engineers contracted to advise the City about the bridge’s condition recommended the bridge be retrofitted rather than replaced, and at much lower cost than is now proffered. But each time these recommendations were made, they were barely commented on by the City, and then we see a shift away from refurbishment to replacement. Was it the City engineering department’s objective from the outset to get a new bridge, regardless of what option was more economic? After all, the City seems to have largely given up maintaining the bridge about five years ago (see http://www.focusonline.ca/sites/default/files//Focus_2010-04_April.pdf).

Our suspicions are also fuelled by a strange, very direct contradiction embodied in the final Delcan report: the chapter dealing with seismic risk states the bridge can withstand, without serious damage, the very level of earthquake that the executive summary says it cannot. The seismic risk, as we’ve seen, has been used to bolster arguments for replacement, so this contradiction is worrisome (see Focus, July 2010). It’s as though the original Delcan report was rewritten at some point. What did Delcan say in their original report? We’ll let you know when we find out.

As corny as it may sound in this cynical era, Focus takes its mission to speak truth to power seriously. Initially, I was very impressed with our new council; I voted for almost all of the present councillors. I am pleased to see their actions around housing and homelessness. But in the case of the bridge, something has gone seriously amiss. And so much is at stake. If the City of Victoria spends $100 million on a bridge, partly borrowed or not, it will have that much less financial power to devote to the many other challenges facing our city. Besides the financial burden, there are important considerations of heritage conservation, environmental stewardship, and proper process.

Speaking of the latter: At no time during the deliberations over the Johnson Street Bridge has the public been truly consulted about what, given its condition, they would like to see happen. Instead, council has narrowed the options to such an extent that public consultation has been a charade: Victorians were “consulted” about three designs for a new bridge last September—and even there, City councillors overrode the people’s choice. More recently, the consultation involved polling done around two “choices,” each with price tags in the $80-million range.

In the wake of the successful counter-petition last January, a chastened council could have chosen genuine consultation with the public on what options to develop. Instead, they directed their engineers and consultants to develop two “equitable” options of seismic performance, accessibility, multimodal transportation and the like—resulting in equitably shocking prices.

No one asked you, the public, if you’d be satisfied with something more modest in scope, say something in the neighbourhood of $20 to $30 million (or maybe even $8.6) that would buy us another 40 years, that would still replace the electrical and mechanical systems, see it properly painted, with a seismic retrofit to the latest provincial standards. That would involve only minor closures. That, finally, would enable us to retain a heritage bridge that engineer Michael Roberts, writing in Innovation (the journal of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of BC), states is “the last remaining Joseph Strauss-designed twin bascule bridge in the world.” 

For all these reasons, Focus has decided to host a “hearing of the public” a few days before the referendum on borrowing $49.2 million for a new bridge. At the hearing, we will have speakers from both the replacement and refurbishment sides, but most importantly, we will give the public a chance to speak on the issue. Please join us at Alix Goolden Hall on Wednesday, November 17, starting at 7:00 pm. 

Ironically, one of the first publications editor Leslie Campbell ever worked on was entitled Bridges (put out by the Winnipeg YWCA). Still, when she launched Focus back in 1988, she would never have guessed she’d be writing about bridges.