Why we quit the Chamber of Commerce

by Leslie Campbell, November 2010

Scary stories in the last dash to the bridge referendum.

In my wanderings around town, I have been pleasantly surprised by the people who congratulate me on Focus’ coverage on the Johnson Street Bridge and tell me they plan to vote “No” in the November 20 referendum to replace it.

I think the City senses the public’s distrust of their plans, so are now pulling out all stops. They have earmarked yet another chunk of change—$50,000—to “educate” us on why we should vote “Yes” in this referendum. In the next few weeks, expect to hear some serious fear mongering. The mayor will be repeating his mantra that borrowing the funds to replace the bridge is the most responsible thing to do. He’ll threaten us that if the referendum fails, the City will just go ahead and replace the bridge anyway—raising taxes, or dipping into precious reserve funds, to pay for it. The City will continue to insist, that it knows what’s best for us.

The fear-mongering isn’t just coming from the City. The Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, of which Focus has been a member for many years, recently published an article urging its members to vote “Yes” that was riddled with misinformation and scare tactics.

Even a cursory reading of the reports on the bridge would have scuttled some of the Chamber’s byline-less author’s claims. If citizens vote “No,” it states unequivocally, “taxes will sky rocket in amounts double digit” which “could cripple businesses…businesses could close…” And so on, painting a dire picture indeed. The truth is, if the referendum fails, the City will know its citizens do not endorse their plan, period. And neither the sky nor the bridge will fall.

The Chamber article raises the spectre of the bridge being decommissioned, since “repeat engineering reports have deemed it unsafe.”

This is patently false. Delcan’s 2009 Johnson Street Bridge Condition Assessment Report is the only report (in recent history) that assesses the current bridge, and its findings form the foundation of all that’s known about the bridge. It discusses the repairs needed to minimize seismic risk, warns that action must be taken in the next few years in order to avoid more expensive repairs, but does not declare the bridge unsafe or mention decommissioning.

The Chamber further states that the Delcan report “has been peer reviewed by other engineering firms that have come to the same conclusion…” Perhaps such a peer review would have been a good idea, but in fact, the one carried out by Stantec (cost: $50,000; length: six pages) was conducted on later plans and cost estimates that accepted the findings of Delcan (contradictions and all).

Here’s another erroneous statement: “It appears that a maintenance job on the Johnson Street Bridge is not an option. Engineering reports note that the structure itself is close to the end of its life....”

In reality, the Delcan report states: “Based on the findings of this study either a repair or a replacement option could be justified from a cost perspective,” and shows how if some upgrades and regular maintenance are done, the bridge could be around for another 40 years. The two lead engineers employed by Delcan advised the city to rehabilitate the current bridge for a lot less money than is now being suggested. The first estimate was $8.6 million (November 2008); a second in February 2009 put it at $16.25 million; then, in the final draft of the Delcan report (April 2009), there was a Class C estimate of $23.6 million. After the counter-petition’s success, the City, for reasons I can’t fathom, directed another company, MMM Group, to come up with plans for a gold-plated refurbishment with no ceiling on price. This resulted in an $80 million repair-job, bringing it close in cost to a replacement bridge (though the latter excludes a rail bridge).

The Chamber article also cites a 1999 report (it was actually 1998) by Graeme and Murray (now Stantec) and says: “At that time, the City was advised that there was about 15 years of life left in the bridge, bringing the date to consider decommissioning to 2014.”

Really? That report’s executive summary actually states: “Rust prevention maintenance must be improved if the life of the bridge is to be extended for another 20 to 30 years.” As a result of its recommendations, approximately $1 million in repairs were done; the then City manager of transportation and development, Clive Timms, predicted those repairs would give the bridge “several more decades of useful life.” Basic math suggests decommissioning should not be in the cards for another decade or two—even without more repairs.

The sloppiness, misinformation and exaggeration apparent in the Chamber article—all intended to scare businesses into supporting the referendum—makes it impossible for Focus to remain a member.

 

As mentioned last month, Focus is hosting a “Hearing of the Public on the Matter of the Johnson Street Bridge.” We are busily lining up some great panelists, but the most important people there will be you, the citizens. This is your opportunity, finally, to speak. See page 33 for more details.

Please come. And please vote in the referendum. We need to make it abundantly clear that we are an engaged, concerned public—one that the City should have listened to more directly early on, rather than spending hundreds of thousands on suspect “public engagement” that smacks of “re-education.”

Dates to remember: November 12: the opening of the Paint That Bridge Art Show; November 17: Focus’ “Hearing of the Public”; November 20: the referendum.

 

Leslie Campbell is looking forward to discussing non-bridge issues next month. All Focus articles are available at www.focusonline.ca. The archives section has older editions.