Calling shenanigans on that

By David Broadland, October 2011

Was the early closing of the Johnson Street Railway Bridge staged to divert public and media attention away from a serious threat to the new bridge project?

Back on April 7 the City of Victoria suddenly announced they were closing the Johnson Street Railway Bridge after Stantec Consulting identified problems with the bridge. The City said repairs to keep it open for rail, pedestrians and cyclists would cost $120,000. Since this amount “greatly exceeded the annual maintenance budget for the bridge,” and because they were going to demolish the rail bridge in “early 2012” anyway, City council accepted their staff’s recommendation not to repair the bridge. Its closure shut off the main access route for cyclists and pedestrians into and out of the city via the Galloping Goose Trail and put the E&N Dayliner out of business.

In our May edition I noted that all the problems found by Stantec had been well documented by Delcan Corp three years previously. In the interim, City engineers had made no attempt to address these issues. Now those same problems had suddenly become “critical.”

At the time of the closure, many people rolled their eyes about the City’s claim that the rail bridge, which days before had successfully supported the weight of the 70-ton Dayliner, was now, literally overnight, unsafe for the weight of a dozen or so cyclists and pedestrians.

In short, the whole thing had the whiff of a phony emergency. 

The repairs that Stantec said needed doing were described in a five-page report the City made available to the public. They noted there were two “critical” repairs and two repairs that involved “less serious deterioration.” But the City itself didn’t provide any information on why these simple repairs—which involved welding short lengths of angle iron across deteriorated areas—would cost $120,000. (Stantec provided no cost information.)

On April 7, under provisions of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act,  Focus asked for the record of the City’s communications with Stantec on this issue. What the City eventually gave us included an email discussion by City staffers that suggested the $120,000 might have been dreamt up by the City’s communications staff.

So in June, Focus filed an FOI for details on the City’s claim the repairs would cost $120,000. In mid-September, with the City either unable or unwilling to provide proof substantiating that $120,000 claim, I took Stantec’s repair specifications to Ken Abrams of Victoria Urban Iron on Store Street and asked him for a quote on the work Stantec said was needed. Abrams has been in the metal fabricating business since 1973. I explained that this was for a repair on the Johnson Street Bridge and that the bridge has an inspection gantry from which the repair work could be accessed. I showed Abrams Stantec’s drawing of the “critical” repairs and got him to estimate the cost of doing that work. Abrams phoned AJ Forsyth, a supplier of steel, for the price of the 20-foot length of four-inch by four-inch by three-eighths-inch angle iron that would be needed ($149), and estimated how much work would be involved in welding six 32-inch-long pieces onto the bridge: 13.5 hours. Abrams said he could do the job for $1229 plus HST. Doubling that estimate so as to include the “less serious” repairs, we get a total of $2500 plus HST to make the bridge safe for pedestrians, cyclists and train traffic. When I told him the City estimated it would cost $120,000, Abrams said, “I call shenanigans on that.”

Note that Abrams’ estimate is only two percent of what the City claimed the repairs would cost.

The FOI we filed on April 7 provided an incomplete record of an email conversation between City communications staff and senior managers discussing how to present cost and other information about repairing the bridge to media and council. Remarkably, City staff seemed to be working on this issue even before Stantec wrote their report on March 30.

The record we have starts with an email sent at 9:05on the morning of March 30—the day after Stantec inspected the bridge—to senior managers from communications coordinator Kristin Quayle.

Quayle emailed an “Updated Issue Briefing.” and asked for feedback. (Focus doesn’t know exactly what that document said or when it had first been created; for some reason the City didn’t provide it to us even though they were required by provincial law to do so.) Fifteen minutes later, Quayle’s boss, corporate communications director Katie Josephson, wrote back and made several comments, including: “The level of detail about welding angle iron might be more than they need...as I’m sure no one will know what that is.” She also asked, “Are we confident on the estimates? Please weigh the risk/benefit of sharing these estimates now (before next week) as media and council will grab onto those.”

An hour and a half later, Quayle sent another email to the same managers with an updated “Issues Briefing.” (The City did provide us with this document.) Quayle had apparently sharpened her pencil based on Josephson’s suggestions. There was now no mention of “angle iron.” We don’t know if the estimated cost also rose in those 90 minutes in response to Josephson’s suggestion, but in her updated brief Quayle noted, “Estimated cost for repairs to continue to have the bridge open for pedestrians and cyclists is $10,000.” She added that to keep the bridge open for train service would cost “an additional $40,000” which “would require roughly four weeks of repairs...” Quayle’s brief also noted “the City has an annual maintenance budget...which would cover the cost of these repairs.”

One week later, the publicly announced price was $120,000, but apparently no written record exists to explain why.

There’s a strong suggestion here that the City manufactured a phony emergency and then came up with a phony price for what it would cost to make the repairs, money that City councillors would not agree to spend. The bridge would then be seen by the public as unquestionably at the end of its useful life. The question is “Why would the City do this?”

Perhaps because City managers had just learned that one of the major financial risks associated with the project—a 3-foot diameter Telus duct filled with sensitive fibre optic and copper cables lying right where the new bridge will be built—had abruptly reared onto its hind legs and was about to give them a vicious bite. 

On March 25, Joost Meyboom of MMM Group, the engineering company shepherding the project for the City, sent a memo to the City’s Mike Lai outlining the situation. Surveys had determined that the duct, which the City had known all along lay directly in the alignment of the new bridge, would have to be relocated rather than simply protected. 

But the City had only budgeted $1.3 million for the duct problem. A source at Telus has told Focus $1.3 million is unlikely to cover  even the cost of dredging for a new duct, let alone any of the other work involved. An official Telus spokesperson, Catherine Peters, declined to give Focus any details about the project in mid-August, noting: “We’re still working on our planning with the City.” (Focus has since filed an FOI with the City.)

Ironically, this is the same issue that contributed to huge cost overruns and lawsuits for San Francisco’s Fourth Street Bridge rehabilitation project, which several Victoria City councillors cited as influential in their choice to support a replacement bridge. The irony is that rehabilitating the existing Johnson Street Bridge would not have involved relocating the Telus duct.

So, suddenly faced with an embarrassing miscalculation and a cost overrun of millions of dollars even before shovels were in the ground, the City may have decided that, in an election year, the best defense is a good offense. Create a public perception of a dangerous, unsafe bridge that must be replaced. Hence the phony emergency and the massaged repair bill.

Will voters call shenanigans on that in November?

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus. He’s posted relevant documents below.

 

AttachmentSize
Timeline of events leading to closure of Johnson Street Railway Bridge and referenced documents.pdf3.71 MB
MMM memo to City of Victoria re Telus duct March 25, 2011.pdf918.89 KB