A failure to inform

By David Broadland, December 2010

Voters gave the City authority to borrow $49.2 million to replace the Johnson Street Bridge. But did they have all the information they needed to make this decision?

We’ll never know whether the Times Colonist’s last-minute, anonymous editorial endorsing replacement of the Johnson Street Bridge had any impact on the outcome of the November 20 referendum in which electors gave the City authority to borrow $49.2 million to replace the bridge. But it’s a fine example of the misinformation the paper provided citizens on the issue over the past year and a half.

For instance, the editorial claims “the federal government has agreed to cover one-third of the $77-million replacement cost.” But the federal government has only agreed to fund one-third of the project’s cost up to a maximum of $21 million. This is no small difference. Should the cost of a new bridge rise to, say, $105 million, the federal contribution will still be $21 million. At a critical moment, the TC writer misinformed the public about the facts of how the bridge would be funded.

The TC editorial also said, “The estimated cost of rehabilitation is higher than the cost of replacement...On a a [sic] dollar-for-dollar basis, replacement is the logical choice.” Had the TC applied to the bridge issue even a small portion of the effort they did for their serial mauling of the non-profit Land Conservancy of BC this September, they would have quickly found “on a dollar-for-dollar basis” the mayor and council were making illogical decisions on behalf of city taxpayers.

Here’s a small example of what they might have found had they looked. In a letter addressed to “Mayor and Council” dated January 11, 2010, Dr Joost Meyboom outlined to a closed meeting of Council  the options following their surprising loss in last winter’s counter-petition. Council sought to borrow $42 million to replace the bridge without first asking electors for approval. They were rebuked. Now, with Meyboom’s guidance, they were reassessing their position.

This letter, by the way, was obtained through provisions of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act from the City of Victoria.

And it is revealing. Meyboom told the mayor and councillors the $63 million estimate for a new bridge—which they had insisted during the counter-petition was firm—was actually based on “concept level design,” “limited engineering” and “preliminary geotechnical investigation.” Translation: Expect the price for a new bridge to rise.

Meyboom’s letter went on to outline various strategies council could employ to keep the cost of the new bridge from escalating. One of his suggestions was to “reduce the seismic design criteria from ‘Lifeline’ to ‘Other.’” Meyboom told the mayor and councillors “This would provide a very reasonable level of seismic safety suitable for this site.” Hold that thought and I’ll come back to it in a moment.

Meyboom’s letter also addressed the $35 million estimate for retrofitting the bridge. He made it clear to the mayor and councillors that $35 million included a $6 million “premium” that would cover “night work” and “daily set-up of traffic control for two years.” And why would “night work” and “traffic control” be involved? Meyboom reminded his audience, “The City has stated the retrofit would need to occur without closing the bridge...” [emphasis added] In other words, the City had insisted there be no closures and Meyboom was saying that, for $35 million, he could retrofit the bridge without daytime closures.

But was the $35 million retrofit estimate even sound? In his letter, Meyboom provided examples of bridges that had been retrofitted, along with their costs, and concluded, “...it appears that $35 million is reasonable value to estimate the cost to repaint, repair, rehabilitate and seismically strengthen the existing bridge.”

Meyboom subsequently told the City the seismic retrofit his estimate covered would be to “Other Bridge” standard, the same seismic design criteria he said, in reference to the replacement bridge, “would provide a very reasonable level of seismic safety suitable for this site.”

In effect, councillors were told by Dr Meyboom—the only person in the room who had any experience assessing the complex set of risks, costs and conditions involved—that a repair and retrofit would result in no daytime closure and would cost about $30 million less than a replacement bridge built to the same seismic standard, one that “would provide a very reasonable level of seismic safety suitable for this site.”

And the mayor and councillor’s “logical choice?” They chose to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get Meyboom to estimate the cost of retrofitting the bridge to “Critical Bridge” seismic standard, which meant the bridge would be available for use immediately following a magnitude 8.5 earthquake. That’s an immense seismic event that would likely collapse all the lovely heritage brick buildings lining the streets leading to and from the bridge, blocking access to it.

The resulting much-criticized process—which amounted to estimating how much it would cost to build a new bridge that looked like the old bridge—led to a near tripling of Meyboom’s $35 million estimate to “retrofit” the bridge. How was that “logical?”

At a recent meeting sponsored by the City as part of its taxpayer-funded “Yes” campaign, Meyboom admitted that no additional design or engineering work had been done on the bridge replacement project since January of this year. That means current estimates are still “conceptual,” “limited” and “preliminary.”

An independent review of these estimates, conducted by Focus, suggests the numbers the City eventually compared for the two options were tainted by a $7 million typo, included various omissions and miscalculations, and ignored a critical recommendation of the peer reviewer, all of which made replacement appear more favourable than refurbishment. Our review put the adjusted figures at $75 million for the rehab, and $90 million for the replacement bridge without rail on it. If rail is put back on the replacement bridge, the cost will inevitably rise to over $105 million. (You can read this review at www.focusonline.ca. Search for “The seven million dollar typo”)

The TC’s dutiful reporting of what was said by the mayor, councillors and City staff at Council meetings or press conferences about the bridge issue, seasoned by a quote from Ross Crockford, was all that most Victorians knew about the issue. That he-said-she-said form of coverage inevitably leads readers to believe they know all that needs to be known. But all they’ve really learned is what the City was willing to say in public. For journalists not to go beyond that is a failure to inform.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.