Juking the stats

By David Broadland, November 2011

City of Victoria managers create misinformation that makes them look good and lulls the rest of us into a delusional stupor.

Let’s start un-juking the stats in Saanich. Compared to Victoria, Saanich is five times larger in physical size and has 30,000 more residents. The average income of a Saanich resident is almost 50 percent higher than the average Victorian. So you would think that a bigger, richer, more populous municipality would also have a proportionately larger, more expensive civic government. But Saanich and Victoria’s budgets are virtually identical.

In 2011, each municipality will spend close to $195 million keeping their respective communities policed, protected from fire, roads in good working order, etc. That works out to a cost of $1700 for each man, woman and child in Saanich, and $2300 in Victoria. Victoria’s higher policing costs represent only 30 percent of that $600 per capita difference. And while Saanich spends $358 per person on parks, recreation and culture, Victoria spends only $166. But Victorians pay an astounding 43 percent more, per capita, for its civil workforce than Saanich residents do. Are Victoria taxpayers getting good value for their money?

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been drilling down into a single City of Victoria issue—the Johnson Street Bridge controversy—trying to learn as much as possible about how the City’s civil service identifies problems, makes decisions and spends money. I’ve come to believe that the people at the top, the highly-paid managers operating the levers of power at City Hall, generally don’t want citizens—or even the citizens’ elected representatives—to know exactly how they do any of these things, especially when their predictions aren’t working out the way they said they would.

Instead, possibly to protect their well-paid jobs, they obstruct—as much as is legally permitted—legitimate inquiry into their activities. At the same time, they produce through the City’s PR apparatus an expensive, massaged public narrative about their work, the primary purpose of which seems to be to make the managers look as good as possible. They “juke the stats.” And for the most part, a cadre of obsequious City councillors plays right along with them.

Closing the barn door after the horse has left

Last January, a select group of City of Victoria managers met over a six-day period in a private room of the Hotel Rialto across Pandora Street from City Hall. They were attending a workshop led by Dr Francis Hartman, a retired engineering professor from Calgary and a former colleague of City Manager Gail Stephens, to consider the risks the City faced in building the new Johnson Street Bridge, and to create a project charter. And over those six days, they lunched on the taxpayer’s dime. 

Dr Hartman was paid $43,000 for his six days of work, which included $5,800 for meals and travel expenses from Calgary. The City also paid the Rialto Hotel $3100 for coffee and lunches for the small group, which included some of City Hall’s most highly-paid managers: City Manager Gail Stephens ($220,000 remuneration in 2010), General Manager of Operations Peter Sparanese ($198,000), Director of Finance Brenda Warner ($157,000), Director of Internal Audit and Risk Management Wael Fanous ($144,000), Director of Corporate Communications Katie Josephson ($143,000), Johnson Street Bridge Project Director Mike Lai ($131,000), City Solicitor Tom Zworski ($122,000), Manager of Supply Management Services Glen Oberg ($115,000), Comptroller Susanne Thompson ($106,000), and Director of Engineering and Public Works Dwayne Kalynchuk ($101,000). Joining the City managers at the free lunch table were Joost Meyboom and Jim Fowler of MMM Group. Meyboom is the lead engineering consultant on the project.

The mayor and councillors, too, were invited to attend, but only for the first two hours of the otherwise private six-day workshop. So they never heard the first-ever examination of risks associated with the project to which they had, with little solid information, given the go-ahead almost two years before.

According to documents obtained through provisions of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, among the 93 risks Dr Hartman helped the high-paid talent identify were three “serious” challenges to the “successful completion” of the new bridge. These included “potential increases in the cost of steel” (world steel prices have risen 10 to 20 percent since costs were estimated), problems with “steel and fabrication availability,” and additional cost and delays associated with the “Telus duct relocation,” should that prove to be necessary. They determined there was a “medium” risk that “bascule pieces [would] not fit/work.” On the positive side, it was their view that “disruption from FOI requests” constituted a “lower” level of risk to the project. 

Which makes it hard to explain why 12 of the 93 risks identified in the workshop were considered by the City too dangerous to be made public, even eight months after they were identified. These 12 risks were blacked out in the City’s response to our FOI. It’s not known if one of those risks was the risk of going over budget as a result of spending too much on free lunches and expensive workshops, but it seems possible. The estimated cost of the whole exercise, including City staff time, Dr Hartman’s take, and the free lunches was about $85,000.

Apparently, the reason for getting Dr Hartman involved was that City managers want to use the bridge experience to create a template for tackling some $500 million in unfunded infrastructure projects they say are urgently needed. (Two of those needs were the subject of a report to Victoria City council on October 20. The City is considering spending as much as $16.4 million on a new firehall. The cost of a new Crystal Pool has been estimated at $58 million.)

With the record these particular managers have of keeping project costs under control—they pumped a $23.6 million repair job on the bridge into a $77 million new bridge in barely the blink of an eye—that “$500 million” could rise dramatically. According to information obtained from the City through an FOI, of the $4.5 million that had been spent on the Johnson Street Bridge project to June 30 of this year, only $2.1 million had gone toward hard costs contained in the $77 million estimate.

And about that $77 million? Under Dr Hartman’s guidance, the City managers rated as “high” the risk that the accuracy of the cost estimate  was not “realistic.”

That City managers decided 10 months ago there’s a “high” risk the cost of the new project would go over budget will come as news to City councillors. Like the general public, they are still being told, despite all evidence to the contrary, the project is “within budget.”

 

Hiding the forest behind the trees

On October 6, a few of the risks City managers lunched over last January returned, like a bad case of dyspepsia. The occasion was the first “quarterly update” to council on how the bridge project is progressing. Although City manager Gail Stephens told the mayor and council the project was “within the March 2016 timeline,” was still within the $77 million budget, and would create “900 short-term jobs,” only the die-hard credulous were likely to swallow all that good news whole.  

In September, I wrote here about a contract, signed in April by Mayor Fortin and MMM Group’s Meyboom, that set the design parameters for the new bridge, including a shorter bascule leaf (the lifting part of the bridge) and a lower service life (75 years) for the approach bridges. Both of these changes are major downgrades in the quality and utility of the bridge.

The service life had been chopped to cut costs. But polling done by the City in 2010 showed a longer service life was considered by the public to be the most compelling benefit associated with a new bridge. So for the pro-replacement councillors and mayor, all of whom are seeking re-election, any bad news about the project needed to be carefully hidden to preserve their electoral chances. Which is probably why the downgrade in service life wasn’t raised at all. There was simply no way to spin a loss of 25 percent of the useful life of the bridge that wouldn’t reveal the project’s costs were underestimated.

The bascule leaf had been shortened because the City’s consultant was concerned a longer, heavier bascule leaf would have problems with reliability and operating costs. These concerns have never been fully explained and councillors have never asked hard questions. Why, for example, after reducing the area of the bridge deck by 30 percent when rail was taken off the bridge, did the bridge deck have to be reduced an additional 20 percent to make it reliable? Was the rolling bascule design even capable of reliably lifting a railway-highway bridge? Is that the real reason the new bridge won’t have rail on it?

One consequence of reducing the length of the bascule leaf is the new navigational channel will no longer meet the modern international standard first promised with a new bridge. But cutting the leaf size would allow escalating costs to be hidden behind other rationales, such as “The channel doesn’t currently need to be that wide.” At the council meeting, unlike the shorter service life, a discussion of a shorter bascule leaf couldn’t be completely avoided as navigational channel width was considered an essential aspect of the project’s scope, and required council’s approval. There would have to be a vote.

But the discussion and vote were moot: the mayor had already signed the $476,000 bascule leaf design contract with MMM Group’s Meyboom, committing to a narrower navigational channel. The contract required that “preliminary design” for the leaf be delivered to the City no later than September 26. The necessity of finding a fabricator for the leaf and getting a contract signed as quickly as possible—to head off delays and mitigate the rising cost of steel—was identified at Dr Hartman’s January workshop as crucial to managing risks. The bascule leaf is expected to take up to two years to fabricate. So there would be no time, money or appetite for going back to the drawing table and spending hundreds of thousands of additional dollars to redesign a more expensive, less reliable leaf. That is to say, a shorter leaf and narrower navigation channel were a done deal five months before the councillors’ get-together. But none of this was made clear to them on October 6.

The mayor, having acted on his own (assuming he actually read and understood the contract he signed), had earlier told Focus the reduced channel width was merely a “refinement” that would reduce costs.

Did that mean the project would cost less? At the meeting, just before the ceremonial vote to reduce the channel width, an exchange between the mayor, Meyboom and Project Director Mike Lai was telling. The mayor asked Meyboom about “potential cost savings, if any, related to the 41-metre vs 47-metre?” He didn’t get what he was hoping for. Meyboom answered, “I think it’s... ah... I don’t wanna... I don’t know. In all these cost estimates, when you do them, you’re high in places, you’re low in places.”

Perhaps feeling a little betrayed, Fortin asked, “If there’s no cost savings, why wouldn’t you keep that 47 meters?” Meyboom, hedging again, added, “I guess...It’s a good question, and at the end of the day, we may be saving money on the [bascule leaf], but we may have costs in other places.” Fortin, still not seeing the forest for the trees, persisted and wanted to know how much was going to be saved. The City’s Lai intervened: “There would be, theoretically, some cost savings...I don’t think there’s a specific number that has been divined.”

It shouldn’t have been too difficult for Lai and Meyboom, both engineers, to “divine” that number before they came to the meeting, but the mayor, applying his golden rule of avoiding openly questioning his staff, gave up. Other councillors continued to hope out loud there would be cost savings on a shorter lifting span, but Lai and Meyboom, who had a better idea of the risks facing the project, including the “high” risk that the project estimate was not “realistic,” didn’t offer any solace. The council, following the path ordained back in April by City managers, rubber-stamped their recommendation to reduce the width of the navigational channel without any guarantee that costs would be lower and without really knowing why they were doing it.

 

21 months behind schedule 

Another of the “serious” risks identified back in January—the Telus duct—has also come into play, and in a much more threatening way than was made clear at the update meeting. Until recently, the City and Meyboom have been saying a new Johnson Street Bridge will take about four years to build and would be complete by late 2014 or early 2015. That’s the timing the project charter specified. But a document signed by Gail Stephens and circulated at the update meeting noted that relocating the Telus duct, a three-foot-diameter pipe filled with sensitive fibre optic and copper cables linking DND installations in Esquimalt with the rest of the world, would “take up to a year” once that work begins in November. But the project had already been stalled for nine months.

The Telus duct, located in the centre of the new bridge alignment, unexpectedly prevented an in-water geotechnical survey for the bridge from being done last February. The Vancouver drilling-barge operator contracted to do the work was advised at the last minute by his insurer not to proceed because of the potential for damaging the Telus line. And so the condition and profile of the bedrock and overlying sediments where the two massive pier foundations will be built remains unknown, effectively delaying design of the foundations that will support the bascule leaf.

That work will not be finalized until in-water geotechnical drilling is done sometime after the Telus duct has been relocated. And that’s going to take, according to the City, about a year. This means the bridge project will then be close to 21 months behind the hoped-for timing laid out in the project’s charter. Perhaps that’s why Gail Stephens simply said the project was within “the March 2016 timeline.”

Only Geoff Young, a steady critic of how the bridge issue has been handled by City council, dared to ask if the Telus duct would delay the project. MMM’s Meyboom answered, “No. It won’t.”

Meyboom told councillors the extra Telus duct work would add an additional $1.1 million to the cost of the bridge, which, along with the $2.4 million already spent on expenses not contained in the $77 million estimate, puts the project $3.5 million over projections even before shovels are in the ground.

The vulnerability of the Telus duct may introduce another complication for the City. It says it’s going to start demolishing the railway bridge in November. But can that work be done without endangering the Telus duct? That’s an important question for them to have answered because, if it can’t, another large, unexpected cost may be lurking on the south side of the highway bridge, which will be demolished once the new bridge is complete. A document Focus obtained through an FOI reveals that Shaw Communications has informed the City they have a 30-inch duct on the south side of the bridge. The City has budgeted nothing for relocating that utility should it become necessary.

Focus asked both Mike Lai and Joost Meyboom by email if the project was currently on projected schedule and budget. Neither responded.

If councillors aren’t exactly getting a crisp picture of the state of the project, neither are they—or the public—being given realistic information about the benefits that will derive from construction and completion of the bridge. For example, claims the bridge is “green” and will “create 900 temporary jobs” appear, on closer examination, to be another case of juking the stats by City managers—and once again accepted without question by City councillors.

 

Show me the jobs

Stephens’ claim at the October 6 meeting that the project will create “900 short-term jobs” was unencumbered with any details. Contacted later, the City said that number was based on a formula provided by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, but again provided no details.

But a much more refined figure for the number of manhours required to build the bridge was given by Advicas Group Consultants in their Class C estimates, which formed the basis of the project’s $77 million cost. If Advicas underestimated the manhours it would take to build the bridge, then the cost is going to climb. So what did they predict? If the Advicas figures are adjusted for rail having been taken off the bridge, they predict the project will create the equivalent of 83 full-time jobs lasting a period of 22 months. But even that number is misleading in terms of the jobs Victoria will see.

Advicas estimated 30 percent of the manhours required would be used to fabricate the bascule leaf. Unfortunately, no company in Victoria has the capability or capacity for building a piece of equipment this big. Those “short-terms jobs” will be created in some other city or country, possibly even China. 

And, according to Advicas, 20 percent of the required manpower would be engineering related. But most of the “short-term” engineering jobs created so far have been in places like Vancouver, England, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, for specialist firms like MMM Group, Sharp & Diamond (landscape architects), Wilkinson Ayre (bridge architects), Stafford Bandlow (mechanical engineers), and HW Lochner (civil engineers).

So with up to 50 percent of the jobs required to build the bridge going to workers in other cities and countries, Victoria will be lucky to see the equivalent of 40 jobs that will last 22 months. And most of those won’t be new jobs, but work assigned to existing companies, like the concrete batch plants in Rock Bay, outfits supplying traffic control, and aggregate mines. Even such basic work as demolition of the rail bridge and building the new Telus duct are likely to go to workers from other cities. As of press time, none of the eight “pre-qualified” companies bidding on those two jobs were from the Victoria area.

But Stephens juking the stats of this project to impress Victorians just before an election is understandable. All but one incumbent councillor supports the new bridge and any change of council seats in the November election is likely to come as a result of lingering doubts about the bridge issue in voters’ minds, and that would be seen as a risk to the project by City managers. In fact, “change of council members” was risk #28 (low) identified at Dr Hartman’s workshop.

Besides, the managers have learned that juking the stats doesn’t seem to have a downside associated with it; most of the local press isn’t watching with a critical eye and the mayor and most councillors have proven eager to accept—even willing to help perpetuate—misinformation the managers have created about the bridge. Consider, for example, their claim that the bridge is “green.”

 

Greenwashing the stats

Before last year’s referendum on borrowing for a new bridge, the City’s communications apparatus distributed posters extolling the “green” virtues of the project. For instance, they said, “The entire bridge project has been subject to a triple bottom line analysis. That includes an emphasis on the environment, in addition to fiscal and social elements.” But two months after the referendum, Jim Fowler, MMM’s second in command on the project, emailed the City and noted that they now needed “to define how the Triple Bottom Line is to be applied on this project.” That analysis hadn’t been done after all. And how was Fowler’s suggestion received? With stony silence. The “triple bottom line” analysis was pure “public engagement strategy.”

A more serious case of City managers creating misinformation about the environmental implications of building the new bridge can be seen in the City’s proposal to the CRD seeking their approval for $23 million in Gas Tax funds. Although the rationale behind the GTF is based in science, the City’s application wasn’t.

In their proposal, the City said that “If current trends continue there will be 10,000 bicycle trips per day using the bridge by 2026.” By “current trends,” they meant the rate at which people are switching from driving a car to work to riding a bicycle to work, five days a week, all year long. The City went on to note that a switch of this magnitude “would reduce greenhouse emissions by 1700 tonnes per year; and, at the current carbon offset value of $25 per tonne, this would have a value of $42,500 each year.”

Through an FOI Focus filed with the City, we know the proposal was “engineered” for them by Infrastructure Engineering Consultants, a Langford-based firm which was part of the team that planned and executed Langford’s “Bridge to Nowhere.” Like that project, this one seems to be based firmly in exaggeration. To do the calculation of greenhouse gas emissions that would be avoided, IEC used two numbers the City provided: a current use of 3000 cycle trips per day on the bridge and a prediction that, with a new bridge, there would be 10,000 trips a day by 2026.

Focus also filed an FOI for the “Traffic Studies” the City’s Engineering Department used to determine these two numbers. And they appear to have been “divined”as opposed to actually measured.

They made three fundamental errors in their divination: First, they used a methodology for projecting daily volumes from peak afternoon rush counts that, counter-intuitively, had traffic increasing between the morning and evening commuter rushes. This pushed their projections higher than actual daily volume. Secondly, they assumed the number of cyclists, which they measured in summer at the yearly peak, is constant throughout the year. This, again, pushed the numbers higher than is actually the case. And thirdly, they treated an aspirational number—10,000 cycle trips per day by 2026—suggested to them by a special interest group, the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition (GVCC), as though it reflected some physical reality. It didn’t. Over the lifetime of the bridge, these errors compound into a large miscalculation.

But this faulty reasoning was good enough to fool some people. Victoria City councillor John Luton told Focus he believed the City’s numbers “will be at a pretty high level of confidence.”

By how much was the City juking the stats?

In 2010, before the railway bridge (the route most cyclists and pedestrians preferred) was closed, the GVCC did counts during afternoon rushes on peak weekdays for most months of the year. They show daily peak flows ranging from a low of 1450 in January to a high of 3600 in July (see graph above). Adjusting their figures to reflect variability within the work week (the GVCC’s Susanna Grimes says there are 10-15 percent fewer cyclists on Mondays and Fridays), the average number of cycling trips each day, on a year-round basis, works out to around 2,400.

That’s now. So what’s a reasonable projection for 2026? To make an educated guess at that you have to know by how much bicycle trips over the bridge are increasing each year. From the documents we obtained, we know the City hasn’t measured that. But the CRD’s 2006 Origin & Destination travel study shows that between 2001 and 2006, the number of cycling trips throughout the CRD increased by 42 percent. The GVCC’s Grimes, who has coordinated that organization’s bicycle counts on the bridge, says that reflects a 7.5 percent annual increase. The CRD itself is predicting a 4.3 percent increase out to 2026. Grimes says that’s “certainly not visionary.” So let’s be visionary and use the higher rate. The GVCC has argued (with little convincing evidence) that rate of growth would only happen on the Johnson Street Bridge if there’s a new bridge. So, assuming bicycle use bounces right back in 2016, when the bridge is complete, to where it was before the railway bridge was closed, and assuming trips made by bicycle will grow at 7.5 percent each year (although an ageing population argues against this assumption), there would be a year-round  average daily use of the new bridge in 2026 of about 5000 bicycle trips. When you do the arithmetic with that number the way the City’s consultant did, you get only 37 percent of the emissions avoidance predicted by the City, or 630 tonnes annually. (Calculations are posted below)

But another problem with the City’s Gas Tax proposal is that it assumed the average gas consumption in 2026 would be 10 litres per 100 kilometres, the same as today. However, the US government recently announced an agreement with auto manufacturers that will raise fuel efficiency standards for all automobiles by 2025 to over twice that used by IEC in their calculations. And that would cut the predicted greenhouse gas emission benefit to 270 tonnes a year—a far cry from the 1700 tonnes in the City’s GT fund application.

Over the 75-year life of the bridge, that amounts to 20,250 tonnes.

But, using the 2010 Canadian average for tonnes of emissions per million dollars of GDP, the $77 million cost of building the bridge would have an emissions price tag of at least 36,000 tonnes attached to it. In other words, building the bridge will create roughly 80 percent more emissions than 75 years of bicycle trips will avoid. And this doesn’t take into count any additional emissions resulting from the economic spin-offs spending $77 million might create.

By the way, the CRD board voted unanimously to support the City’s application for $23 million in Gas Tax funding, and a final decision on that is pending.

So the City managers responsible for determining this one basic aspect of the bridge’s benefits juked the stats and misled the community, potentially shifting millions of dollars away from more worthy projects.

Un-juking the stats

In Dr Hartman’s workshop on risks facing the bridge project, City managers saw the mitigating strategy for a surprising number of these risks as “communications” or “public relations.” But the City’s growing use of public relations to manage and manipulate public response is creating a negative reaction in the community. Communications-strategy-weary citizens are calling for less PR and more transparency.

That desire for greater transparency at City Hall recently launched a new electoral organization called Open Victoria. Among the founding members are Ross Crockford, a tireless critic of how the City handled the bridge issue and a constant thorn in the side of Mayor Fortin, and Paul Brown, who is running against Fortin for mayor.

So it wasn’t surprising, just before the official launch of Open Victoria, to see Mayor Fortin attempt to outflank this new political organization. His first maneuver took the form of an odd “news” story in the Times Colonist about councillor Marianne Alto announcing she intended to introduce a motion at a City council meeting to talk about the idea of “open data” at City Hall. But, as the story revealed, “open data” seemed to boil down, for both Alto and Fortin, to recording “yes” votes at council meetings and then a way for residents to search the City’s website for how councillors voted. As it is, this can easily be deduced by looking at who voted “no” in the council meeting minutes published on the City’s website.

In the TC article, Fortin was quoted as saying, “We make thousands of decisions and a lot are never discussed on the campaign trail. So it’s more about an opportunity for the citizens to choose the people that reflect their values.”

If that’s the extent of the mayor’s understanding of the transparency problems at City Hall, it seems unlikely he will be leading any movement for substantial change.

From the perspective of a reporter trying to shed a little light on how City Hall works, and in particular the areas where it needs improvement, it’s clear the City needs to shift financial resources away from its PR apparatus and transfer those to fulfilling their obligations under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act in a more timely and robust manner. But that’s not likely to happen without stronger public protest. As it is, the City is employing a virtual arsenal of weapons embedded in the Act that make it possible to redact, sever, delay and outright refuse access to information the public has the right to know.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.

 

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