Facts and fibs on the bridge

by Sam Williams, November 2010

Did the City ignore the recommendations of their consultants on what to do with Big Blue? Or have they wisely adopted them? Did Delcan hype their report to profit from Infrastructure Stimulus Fund cash? Or will the bridge really collapse, as the Mayor has said, in any seismic event? Is a new bridge necessary for the greening of the City's transportation system, or is it being bought on impulse with little planning and knowledge of expected future use? Will fibs, big and small, win the referendum on November 20?

email

 An email from Dr Joost Meyboom, who was then Delcan’s point man for the Johnson Street Bridge condition assessment, to the City of Victoria’s Mike Lai and Hector Furtado. Meyboom, now with MMM Group, is the City’s lead consultant on the $89 million (with rail) bridge replacement scheme.

IT'S 10 a.m. ON A GRAY OCTOBER DAY and cameramen from local TV stations, along with Adrian Lam from the TC, have gathered near the eastern end of the Johnson Street Bridge. Victoria City Councillors John Luton and Lynn Hunter, along with staff from the City’s communications and engineering departments, are about to lead the journalists on an inspection. A truck with a hydraulic bucket has been made available—at taxpayer expense, of course—to hoist the cameramen high enough so they can see that, yes, the City has applied no paint to the bridge in over five years. A rented boat will then give them a view of the same from below.

It’s an interesting choice of tactics: the City is kicking off their $50,000 campaign to rally a “Yes” vote in the November 20 referendum by highlighting their own neglect, but repackaging it as evidence the landmark 86-year-old bridge is “at the end of its useful life.” They seem supremely confident none of the summoned media will make the connection between the rust and the lack of paint being applied to the bridge. Focus was not invited, but showed up anyway.

This morning, on the bridge, the City is pre-empting any in depth coverage of the bridge’s condition by making a superficial glance so convenient that it’s irresistible to the press. That they would use this tactic at the outset of their “Yes” campaign at least proves they are consistent. But it also suggests they haven’t yet fathomed that many Victorians think the City has spent the last year and a half violating a basic tenet of good government: truthfulness.

 

IN APRIL 2010 THIS REPORTER spent two gruelling weeks sifting through some 500 pages of documents and emails related to the conversation between the City of Victoria and their consultant, Delcan Corp, which had done a condition assessment of the bridge and then assisted in the development of a presentation to City Council on April 23, 2009 that prompted councillors to vote to replace the bridge. The most surprising thing learned from those weeks of research was that the City was allowed to influence the information Delcan presented to councillors. Most citizens, I think, would assume this would have been an independent presentation of objective facts about the Johnson Street Bridge. It wasn’t. For example, when Delcan showed the City that repairing the bridge would be less costly over a 100-year period than replacing the bridge, the calculations were fudged—the impact of inflation was taken out of the equation—so they showed the opposite.

This was surprising and I made inquiries with a professional engineer about whether this shaping of “facts” was standard practice between engineering companies and municipal governments. He said that in his long years as a professional engineer he had never heard of such a thing happening and that the provincial Attorney General’s office might be interested.

This got me wondering about whether that same dynamic might have been at play in the development of Delcan’s written report to the City, The Johnson Street Bridge Condition Assessment Report, which is the foundation for everybody’s understanding of what’s wrong with the bridge. Was this report a set of objective facts developed independently by Delcan, or was it more like: “Here’s a draft of our report. How do you want us to modify it so it supports what you want to happen?”

To see if anything like that might have taken place, Focus requested, through provisions of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act, all records and documents relating to communication about the Johnson Street Bridge between the City and Delcan from the time Delcan was given the job of doing the assessment until January 1, 2009. We wanted to see if early drafts of Delcan’s report showed any sudden changes in what they were saying. We filed this FOI back in June of this year. Under the Act, the City was required to provide this information within 30 working days. To date, the City has provided us with what we believe is an incomplete record and we’ve launched a complaint with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. We are determined to obtain the full record—if it has not been destroyed or deleted—regardless of the outcome of the November 20 referendum.

But what the City did provide is revealing. We reported on some of that in our September and October editions. Last month Leslie Campbell reported that neither of the first two draft versions of the report had been released. Since then, the City found a copy of the first draft report and released it to Focus on October 4.

But a critical piece of information, the second draft, which Delcan’s Dr Joost Meyboom contributed to, has still not been released. We reported last month that the day Meyboom made this report available to the City of Victoria, he emailed the City letting them know what recommendations it would contain. (See email above.) In brief, Meyboom recommended the City retrofit the bridge at an estimated cost of $8.6 million.

This is an extraordinarily different recommendation compared to the presentation made to councillors five months later at the time they decided to replace the bridge.

What happened in between? It’s a long story.

Ever since the Johnson Street Bridge became a public issue, the main focus has been on the bridge’s seismic vulnerability and whether the bridge is safe. Most City Hall bureaucrats and politicians have consistently portrayed the bridge as a disaster just waiting to happen. For example, on April 2, 2009 Mayor Fortin wrote a letter to John Baird, then the federal minister responsible for administering the Infrastructure Stimulus Fund, in which he described the bridge’s seismic vulnerability like this: “Any seismic event will bring it down...”

Although Fortin’s characterization of the risk was an exaggeration, the Delcan report circulating at that time at City Hall said, in its executive summary, “Analysis of the bridge in its existing configuration shows that the bridge will experience failure of its foundations and collapse of the counterweight towers under loads from a seismic event with a 35 percent probability of exceedance in 50 years.” In other words, Delcan was saying in what seemed like  pretty clear language that a certain-sized earthquake would cause the bridge’s timber pile foundations to fail, and that in turn would cause collapse of the counterweight tower.

Yet in the first draft of Delcan’s report, released to Focus by the City on October 4, the engineers simply stated “The bridge foundations will require modifications to establish a known foundation system.” The massive rows of timber piles supporting two of the bridge’s supporting piers are driven through marine silt to bedrock and Delcan made no attempt to assess their condition. This lack of information is acknowledged in their first report. Delcan never went back and gathered more information. So how and why did their report evolve to the collapse scenario outlined in the final version?

Were they prompted by the City of Victoria to play up the seismic hazard?

Of course not; such things aren’t possible, are they? Engineers are restrained by a professional code and could face the loss of their licence for such unethical behaviour.

But here’s the kicker. The executive summary of the final report says one thing, but in the body of the report there’s a longer section analyzing the bridge’s expected seismic performance and statements are made that completely contradict what’s in the executive summary. For example, Delcan says: “...analysis was carried out to determine what level of earthquake the bridge, in its current configuration, can resist without significant damage...this corresponds to a seismic event with a 35 percent chance of exceedance in 50 years.” Delcan went on to note that the “peak ground acceleration associated with this event is about 0.18 g.” In order to make this piece of information more comprehensible to readers, they provided examples of earthquakes in which a peak ground acceleration of .18 g had been measured, and listed four different earthquakes ranging in Richter Scale magnitude from M6.6 to M8.

In other words, the consultant was saying that the current bridge could withstand an earthquake somewhere in the range of M6.6 to M8 without significant damage. So long as the timber piles supporting the piers—the condition of which Delcan didn’t have a clue—did not fail.

“Peak ground acceleration,” by the way, is just a term used to express the horizontal force experienced by a structure during an earthquake, and is stated as a fraction of the force of gravity, g. We wrote in Focus in July 2010 about the State of Oregon’s experience at rehabilitating its heritage bridges. There, bridges as old as the Johnson Street Bridge that are supported by timber piles have been seismically retrofitted and are expected to survive, without collapsing, earthquakes in which peak ground acceleration ranges up to .6 g.

In other words, what’s in the body of Delcan’s report, the stuff that would have been written before anyone tried to summarize it, paints a picture of a bridge that an engineer would recommend be seismically retrofitted. But what’s in the executive summary sounds more like a bridge that would scare off any liability- conscious City councillor.

What event or process occurred that would result in an engineering report making two claims that pointed in opposite directions?  What could have happened between the time of Dr Meyboom’s recommendation to retrofit in November 2008 and City Council’s decision to replace the bridge on April 23, 2009?

Well, on January 27, 2009, Canada’s federal government established the $4 billion  Infrastructure Stimulus Fund and the pressure for engineering firms and civic governments to bring shovel-ready infrastructure projects quickly online across Canada became intense. Projects had to be put together, including obtaining approval from local councils, in little more than a three-month period. In this high-stakes, high-pressure situation, is it possible previously sober evaluations and recommendations were thrown out the window and replaced with more compelling rationales to convince councils to get their asses in gear?

Did that happen with the Johnson Street Bridge? Was the money dangling in front of Victoria City Hall enough to move the bridge’s condition from “We need to fix the bridge” to “Let’s use this opportunity to get rid of the bridge”? The second draft of Delcan’s report, made available to the City on November 20, 2008, would establish that one way or the other. 

As it turned out, Victoria’s bridge project was turned down by the provincial government. All the haste created little more than a bad feeling in the community that it had not been consulted, which led to 10,000 people signing a petition to stop the City from replacing the bridge. Yet here Victorians are, a year later, being asked to say “Yes” to a project of uncertain origins at a price now 10 times higher than first suggested by Dr Meyboom, who, by the way, is now leading the project to build a new bridge.

 

ALBERT EINSTEIN ONCE SAID “Anyone who doesn’t take truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted in large ones either.” But then Einstein never had to run a small city and get things done. In civic governance, fibs abound.

With that thought in mind, let’s go back to the bridge and rejoin the City’s “Yes” campaign kickoff. Most of the other media people have been lured off to gaze at the rust and poke at the paint blisters. But safely off the part of the bridge that could collapse at any moment, John Luton is being interviewed by CHEK TV.

He’s sporting a blue and white “Oui” button pinned to his sleeveless sweater, leaving little doubt which way he’ll be voting on November 20. Luton spearheaded council’s move away from fixing the heritage bridge toward building a new bridge that would improve access for bicyclists. He believes the bridge is a dam preventing the free flow of what should be a river of cyclists in and out of downtown each day. “This bridge has no role to play in the transportation infrastructure future of the city,” he intones, his clear blue eyes looking steadily at the camera.

Luton wants to see motorists turned into bicyclists as part of the war against climate change. But to do that, this bridge, which Luton calls a “pinch point,” must be replaced with something more closely resembling a city street. His new bridge would have bicycle lanes on the outside of the car lanes, allowing cyclists to more easily and safely integrate with the flow of traffic.

Ironically, Luton’s campaign to get a bridge that’s safer for cyclists may end up taking the other green transportation option—rail—off the new bridge, at least for the purposes of the referendum. Putting rail back on the bridge would add $12 million to the cost of the project and the “Yes” side has been content to create the appearance that rail will be on the bridge without actually acknowledging the cost that would add to the bill.

So as it stands, what people are being asked to say “Oui” to is a bridge that doesn’t have rail on it but will be safer for bicyclists. Safer means more people will leave their cars at home and bicycle over the bridge to work. 

But what evidence is there that this hoped-for trend is worth jeopardizing the existing rail route into the downtown core? Is the 25-second trip across the bridge really discouraging large numbers of cyclists from using the bridge? As it turns out, even the number of people currently cycling over the bridge is not well known.

Back in February of this year, Luton told Focus there’s an average of 4000 cyclists a day crossing the Johnson Street Bridge. 

But Luton’s numbers aren’t supported by the few surveys that have been done. A count conducted by Focus in February projected a daily flow of about 1500 cyclists crossing the bridge. In June, the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition submitted a presentation to City Council, The Johnson Street Bridge & Cycling. The report outlined conditions that would make the crossing a more encouraging place for cyclists, but it also compiled the results from all available surveys of cycle traffic across the bridge between 1998 and June of this year. Some of the surveys were conducted by the GVCC and some by the CRD. Unbelievably, the four hours Focus spent on the bridge in February represents about 15 percent of the total time anybody has spent on the ground counting cyclists since 1998. 

Surveys done this year by the GVCC suggest that, over the year, the average number of cyclists crossing the bridge is about 65 percent of what Councillor Luton claims.

The GVCC’s report predicts bicycles will account for 10 percent of all trips, regionally, by 2026. But the most recent information from the CRD suggests 5.6 percent is more likely.

So what’s wrong with a little optimism? Well, practicing sustainability requires that we make all our moves very carefully, with full awareness of the the costs and the benefits well before we make the commitment to proceed. But overestimating the benefits by fully 35 percent, or promoting the idea that volume will grow nearly twice as fast as evidence indicates, suggests people are being guided more by emotion than careful analysis. This is the psychology of impulse buying, not sustainability.

 

THE YEAR AND A HALF LEADING UP TO the November 20 referendum has created two different narratives: the City’s and the rebel’s.

The City’s story goes like this: The City was suddenly confronted with an engineering study that said the bridge had reached the end of its useful life and would fall in any seismic event. With the opportunity for two-thirds funding from senior governments available for only a short time, they rapidly mobilized to replace the bridge. A consultation with the public on a design for a new bridge then ensued. When the two-thirds funding was unfairly reduced to one-third, they pushed on anyway. When a small, rebellious group of citizens signed a petition confronting them, the City graciously went back to the table to consider the option of rehabilitating the aging, rusty bridge. Once again engineers proved the bridge could not be rehabilitated at a reasonable cost. Even then the City let the people direct their path. Although a new bridge would meet the transportation needs of the future, the City felt that it was unfair that city taxpayers would have to pay for what amounted to a regional transportation necessity, and so took rail off the bridge. The City then consulted its citizens, comparing the new bridge with fixing the old bridge, and a subsequent telephone survey showed most people supported a new bridge, confirming the City’s original decision. On November 20, citizens will vote on whether to fund a new bridge by borrowing or by having their taxes raised.  

But the rebel’s story goes like this: The City stopped painting the bridge over five years ago to ready it for future demolition. The City then sought to prove the bridge had reached the end of its useful life by engaging an engineering firm to assess the bridge. Even though the engineering study recommended the bridge be retrofitted, the possibility of vast sums of money from senior levels of government made the City's plan for replacing the bridge suddenly feasible. Without any public consultation the City quickly mobilized to replace the bridge. Once again  they received a recommendation from their engineering consultant, this time on the basis of the bridge’s heritage value, to retrofit the bridge. Ignoring their consultant a second time, the City developed designs for a new bridge and asked residents to pick one. The City then ignored them and picked their own design. When the City also ignored citizen’s appeals to hold a referendum before proceeding, 10,000 residents signed a petition forcing the City to hold a referendum. The City then spent close to a year and $1 million justifying their original decision. On November 20, citizens will vote on whether to build the City’s new bridge—at an unknown cost—or go back to the engineering consultant’s original recommendations and retrofit the only-one-in-the-world heritage bridge at a reasonable cost.

How electors vote on November 20 will depend on which of these narratives they believe is closest to the truth.

 

Sam Williams is a pen name used by the publisher of Focus, David Broadland.