City shoots taxpayers in the foot, on the bridge. Again.

By David Broadland, September 2011

A report from the scene of the crime indicates City staff loaded the gun, but the mayor pulled the trigger.

Documents obtained through provisions of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act reveal the new Johnson Street Bridge project has barely got to the “preliminary design stage,” and has already undergone big downgrades in service life and sheer physical size. Even at this early stage there are clear indications the cost of the project was underestimated and promises are being broken in order to contain costs, without the knowledge or assent of elected council members.

Let’s start with broken promises.

Included in documents released by the City is a “Professional Services Agreement” (PSA) signed April 19 by Mayor Dean Fortin and Joost Meyboom, an engineer with MMM Group, the company guiding the City in their attempt to build a new bridge.

The PSA, a legally binding contract between the two parties, defines terms, assigns responsibilities and outlines the scope of the project. It also stipulates design criteria for the new bridge, and those are revealing. Although the bascule leaf (the part that moves) is being designed to have a service life of 100 years, the approach bridges on either side of the leaf (see image) will have a service life of only 75 years. Same goes for the pedestrian portions of the bridge.  As well, the “navigation clearance” for the bascule span has been reduced from 47 to 41 metres, which means the bascule leaf has been shortened. More on this later. 

I contacted Mayor Fortin and asked him if he was aware of these changes, and, if he was, why he was going back on promises made to electors before last year’s referendum. Fortin wrote back and stated  “There have been no scope changes and we have not gone back on any promises to the electors.”

However, the design criteria downgrades listed in the PSA and information gleaned from other documents strongly suggest the new bridge project is facing serious technical challenges and cost overruns, and City staff are responding by changing basic characteristics of the project rather than allowing costs to escalate. Before contacting Mayor Fortin, I asked two City councillors—Geoff Young and Philippe Lucas—whether they had been informed of these design changes; they hadn’t.

The bridge’s Charter requires that council be consulted about important changes to the “scope” of the project. But the durability of the bridge—its designed service life—is nowhere to be seen in the Charter. The mayor may be right about the change to a 75-year service life not being a “scope change” in a technical sense. But the promise of a 100-year service life was instrumental in determining exactly what question was asked on last year’s referendum: borrowing for a new bridge or borrowing to fix the existing bridge.

To understand why this is a broken promise, we need to review a little recent history.

It’s no secret that the people pulling the levers at City Hall wanted a new bridge as soon as the chance to get federal and provincial funding materialized back in 2009, and probably before. But getting grant money for rehabilitating the bridge—initially priced by Joost Meyboom at $8.6 million—would have amounted to chump change and no glory at all for staff at City Hall, who had stopped maintaining the bridge in 2005 in preparation for its hoped-for replacement. That City Hall manufactured the need to replace the bridge is evident in the thousands of pages of emails reviewed by this reporter. But when forced by rebellious taxpayers to put borrowing for their project to a referendum, the City rationalized its decision to replace the bridge by coming up with an “apples to apples” beauty contest in which the contestants—a new bridge and a rehabilitated bridge—would both have to survive for 100 years.

The apples-to-apples comparison had a profound effect on what would need to be done to the old bridge for it to remain in the contest. For example, the cost of rehabilitating the bridge’s mechanical system was estimated by mechanical engineering firm Stafford Bandlow at $700,000 in 2009. The City was told by its consultant, “With the implementation of the recommendations...the machinery on this bridge can be expected to provide reliable service for many years.” But once the apples-to-apples doctrine was in place, fixing the bridge’s mechanical system rose to over $17 million. 

This same absurd amplification of cost played out for every aspect of the rehabilitation estimate. Even so, the City’s apples-to-apples comparison, executed by a number of parties who were in a position to benefit more from a new bridge than a refurbished bridge, concluded that building a new bridge would cost $77 million, only $3 million less than taking the old bridge completely apart, re-building it from new steel, adding seismic strengthening, and then putting it all back on a new, seismically-improved foundation.

The comparison also concluded that 100-year maintenance costs for a refurbished bridge would be $42 million, but only $22 million for a new bridge. When all these cost comparisons were presented to city residents in a $73,000 Ipsos survey, a majority said they preferred a new bridge. The survey also revealed that “cost” was the most important factor in their decision. Armed with that information, City Hall put borrowing for a new bridge to a referendum—and won.

But before the referendum, many people pointed out that while the City seemed to be overestimating the cost of a refurbished bridge, they seemed to be underestimating the cost of a replacement bridge in order to sway public opinion toward that option. The City insisted their critics were wrong.

So now we have a new bridge project with major sections of the bridge being designed to last only 75 years. So much for the 100-year maintenance cost estimates. Engineers will be sniffing around the bridge in 65 years with dollar signs in their eyes. Why would the City break their promise?

To reduce costs. To keep within their $77 million budget and save face, they have to lower the quality of the bridge and shorten its useful life.

But it’s not just the quality of the bridge that’s being downgraded. It has literally shrunk. The bridge’s highway deck will be just slightly larger than half the physical size of the tumescent bridge illustrated in all those brochures you saw before the referendum, the ones that had rail on it.

Why has the City made this change? Well, for one thing, a much smaller bascule leaf should reduce costs. But it goes much farther than that.

Late last year, MMM produced a report on the impact a shorter bascule leaf—which would result in a narrower navigational channel—would have on commercial marine traffic. The rationale given for doing this reassessment stated: “Given the size and weight of the bascule leaf required to accommodate [a wider channel], 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.”

Now you would think that eliminating rail from the bridge might have been enough to solve this problem of reliability. With rail officially off, the deck size was reduced to 70 percent of its former brochure-glory size.

But apparently that wasn’t enough. The request for a narrower channel was accepted by Transport Canada, and the City went ahead with their consultant’s recommendation to shorten the bridge as well. So now it’s down to half-size.

You have to wonder, reading that consultant’s warnings about the connection between the weight of the leaf and its reliability, if it wasn’t the design itself that killed rail on the bridge. When the City’s project director Mike Lai emailed Joost Meyboom that council had finally taken rail off the bridge, Meyboom immediately wrote back with uncharacteristic enthusiasm: “Thanks Mike!” The scope of the project had just been downsized by $12 million and with that there would be a commensurate drop in the potential payout for MMM Group and Meyboom. Yet Meyboom seemed happy with that decision. Probably more like relieved.

And now Victorians are being told by several of the same politicians who voted rail off the bridge that a billion-dollar rail line from Downtown to Langford would be a very “progressive” idea. Hmmm. There’s some kind of logical disconnect going on here.

Look, it’s nice to have politicians that are progressive, but it’s essential to have ones who keep promises and are capable of using common sense to solve problems. The bridge project is being changed in fundamental ways that have reduced its expected life and will limit its ability to provide for the future transportation needs of the city. This is not what was promised.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.