123 years of rail service comes to an inglorious end

By David Broadland, May 2011

Why did the City of Victoria suddenly close the Johnson Street Railway Bridge?

On the afternoon of March 29, engineer Andrew Rushforth wrote a one-sentence letter to the City of Victoria. His message, stamped in red ink with the seal of a Professional Engineer, stated “Following our inspection of the Johnson Street Railway Bridge (bascule span) this morning, it is my considered opinion that it should be closed until emergency repairs are completed.” In a hand-written notation, Rushforth added, “To Railway traffic.”

The following day, Rushforth’s employer, Stantec Consulting—an American-owned engineering company with operations around the world—produced a remarkably un-detailed five-page report on what had been discovered the previous day (this report cost the City $16,000). Placed prominently in the report for greatest visual impact was a high resolution photo of dramatic corrosion near the base of a steel column. Stantec gravely captioned this “Figure 2: photo of Critical repair at Rail Bridge.”

Responding with unusual speed to Rushforth’s discovery, the City of Victoria quickly announced the Johnson Street railway bridge would be closed permanently to all traffic, including pedestrians and cyclists, starting April 11—about 10 months ahead of schedule.

On the first weekday following that announcement, as the morning rush to work began to build, freelance writer and photographer Pete Rockwell interviewed City officials along with cyclists about to cross the highway bridge. Rockwell spoke with one cyclist, Brenda Boyd, who had identified herself as a supporter of the new bridge and a member of the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition. When asked whether she believed the bridge was unsafe for cyclists, she responded, “My opinion, as a cyclist, is that I want to ride safely. Therefore, if somebody like the City says it’s not safe, then I’m going to believe them.”

Rockwell also interviewed Victoria City councillor John Luton and Johnson Street Bridge project director Mike Lai.

Lai told Rockwell, “In terms of cyclists and pedestrians, there was no immediate danger. But the engineer had also recommended that because of the unpredictable nature of deterioration and the pervasive corrosion that exists on this bridge, in his view it was better to close the bridge to all traffic.” John Luton agreed. “We’re erring on the side of safety. You may be familiar with the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis which collapsed without warning in 2007. Thirteen people died, dozens more injured. And, you know, we don’t want to roll the dice on people’s lives.”

What delicious irony. The very situation that is now officially safer and more predictable— bicyclists making the crossing on the highway bridge’s steel grate in the midst of heavy vehicle traffic—had previously been presented to voters as one of the main safety considerations for replacing the bridge. But we digress.

Let’s go back to Andrew Rushforth’s discovery. Rushforth, by the way, has played an active role in heritage preservation in Victoria, but has, at the same time, been publicly and consistently negative about the merits of preserving the existing Johnson Street Bridge. And, for the record, his company is involved in—and will profit by—work related to design and construction of a new bridge.

Rushforth was engaged by the City as the bridge’s “Engineer of Record” on February 22, 2011, a week after Focus questioned the City of Victoria about their plan to insure the safety and reliability of the Johnson Street Bridge during the next four to five years while a new bridge is built. A request for information filed with the City under the provisions of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act has revealed that previous to Rushforth’s appointment, no plan whatsoever had been developed by the City to implement any of the safety and reliability recommendations made by Delcan Corp in February 2009. Back then, Delcan told the City it needed to take action “within two to three years.”

It should be noted that the deterioration featured in Andrew Rushforth’s March 30 report had all been documented by Delcan, nearly three years earlier in June 2008. Rushforth’s “Figure 2: photo of Critical repair at Rail Bridge” is the same damage presented in a photograph on page 3-19 of Delcan’s report. Comparison of the two photos shows little has changed since the Delcan photo was taken.

If Delcan thought there was anything “critical” about the deterioration, they failed to mention it. They recommended no specific action and none was taken. The Delcan survey team that took the photograph, by the way, was led by the current lead consultant on the City’s new bridge, Dr Joost Meyboom. Back in 2008, after surveying the bridge’s condition, Dr Meyboom recommended that the City repair rather than replace the bridge.

The City’s dubious record on the issue of bridge safety and maintenance combined with their dumping of thousands of additional cyclists onto the highway bridge for an additional 10 months provokes one’s curiosity, does it not? What’s the real motivation behind their shock-and-awe closing of the railway bridge and hoisting it into the permanently upright position?

One reasonable theory I’ve heard mentioned is that there’s a municipal election this year (stifle that yawn). If things had proceeded as planned and the rail bridge wasn’t decommissioned until Spring 2012, then by November 2011’s campaign there would be no visible sign that “progress” had been made.

That’s an uninspiring platform from which to seek re-election. Instead, why not create a big fuss right now, raise the bridge so it’s visble for miles around and enjoy free advertising for eight months. The message is obvious: “See? The rail bridge has been condemned by engineers. We were right all along. And you, dear voter, were so right to trust us.”

 

Documents obtained from the City through FOI requests suggest the bridge project is not exactly proceeding as planned. In an email dated February 4 of this year, Mike Lai queried Joost Meyboom about why Meyboom was asking for an additional $700,000 for design work for rail on the bridge, noting that (I’m paraphrasing) it was Lai’s understanding that previous payments should have covered that design work. Meyboom replied, “The work done previously was for a larger span. We believe that NWPA [Navigable Waters Protection Act] will allow a channel width of 41 metres rather than the previously used 47 metres. 41 is still an improvement to the existing 39 metres channel and a better design.”

Heavens. The scope of the project seems to be changing rather dramatically. Another document obtained from the City assists in interpreting what this might mean. The Navigational Assessment: Addendum Report, prepared for Meyboom’s MMM Group, makes the case that the design the City thought it was getting provided an unnecessarily generous navigational channel, previously touted by the City as one of the project’s great benefits. But in the report, MMM seems to be backing away from that design, noting “the new bridge would require one of the largest bascule leafs in North America and Europe.”

The report then outlines various risks that would involve, including that “wear and tear on the corresponding electrical/mechanical equipment would be higher than with a smaller leaf. This leads to a potential reduction in long term reliability of the bridge and significantly higher operating costs for the City.” In other words, Meyboom was telling Lai they were going to build a different, smaller bridge. Less prone to mechanical failure and the high operating costs of his first design. So they had to kind of start over. And he needed more money, even though it’s going to be a smaller bridge.

In the same email, Lai asked Meyboom why the completion date for the bridge with rail on it had been pushed a year further away to late 2015 or early 2016. This is a critical issue. If the City doesn’t complete the project by March 2016, they won’t qualify for $21 million in federal funding. Meyboom told Lai that rail on the bridge would add five months for additional steel fabrication and seven months for laying track and building a new train station. 

So, with completion pushed to early 2016, there would be little or no buffer for the unexpected. On February 4, then, rail on the bridge was really a moot question. In spite of that, City councillors went on to approve expenditure of an additional $800,000 for design work to include rail on the bridge before eventually abandoning it.

Hmmm. You know, maybe closing the rail bridge isn’t an election year thing at all. Maybe it’s just a dramatic diversion from other issues at a time when the project itself seems to be headed off the rails.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.