Big Blue gets Luton, Hunter and Lucas booted off council

By David Broadland, December 2011

Is the political accounting for the bridge fiasco over? Or just starting?

The biggest loser in the City of Victoria’s civic election last month was Lynn “no-referendum” Hunter who saw her share of the vote drop 23 percent below her 2008 showing, pushing her into the ranks of the unemployed. Hunter, you may recall, opposed holding a referendum on whether to replace the Blue Bridge, calling referenda “an affront” to democracy. She was joined in unplanned retirement by the new bridge’s most fervent salesman on City council, John Luton. Philippe Lucas, elected as a Green but who then switched allegiance to the NDP and seemed to have forgotten his 3 Rs in the process—particularly “reuse”—was also dumped by voters.

Mayor Dean Fortin, on the other hand, appeared to be the big winner, increasing his vote by 31 percent over his performance in 2008. But with Luton and Hunter gone from the “Dean team,” the mayor no longer has a stranglehold on a council majority, which, in effect, makes him some kind of loser too.

Fortin’s most reliable opponent, Geoff Young, topped the race for councillor with a 23 percent increase in the number of voters giving him the nod. In 2008 he came fifth behind Charlayne Thornton-Joe, Pam Madoff, Sonya Chandler and Lynn Hunter. But this time around both Thornton-Joe and Madoff joined Hunter in seeing significant erosion of their support. (Chandler wisely moved to Europe.) Young, remember, was the only City councillor opposed to replacing the Blue Bridge.

Other big winners on November 19 were Lisa Helps and Ben Isitt—both bright, progressive voices—as well as businesswoman Shellie Gudgeon. All three were elected to council without being part of any slate. Helps rose all the way to third spot in the race, and Isitt, a well-known two-time candidate for Victoria mayor, came a strong fourth.

Ironically, the outcome of this election could have been vastly different (I suspect Fortin would have gladly joined Chandler in European exile) were it not for a provincial Liberal government decision in 2009. The Liberals inadvertently saved Dean Fortin’s political skin when they turned down the City of Victoria’s request for a $42 million Infrastructure Stimulus Fund grant to build a new Johnson Street Bridge. Let me explain.

Documents obtained by Focus from the City of Victoria through provisions of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act have revealed that a key assumption made by the City and its consultant, MMM Group, in 2009 when the project was first being planned, was wrong—and that error would have made it impossible for the project to be completed by the March 2011 deadline had the City received support from the provincial government. The City would have invested millions in the project before discovering it could not meet the timeline imposed by the federal-provincial funding.

The key assumption made by the City and its consultant was that a Telus utility, buried beneath the channel and lying in the middle of the new bridge’s proposed alignment, would not have to be moved in order to construct the bridge. But surveys done earlier this year showed the utility would have to be relocated, and that work would involve dredging contaminated sediments. A 2007 Transport Canada study indicated sediments in the vicinity of the bridge contain 18 different toxins at concentrations greater than those which, for any one of the contaminants, would qualify the area to be designated a “contaminated site” under BC’s Contaminated Sites Regulation.

So the City’s request to Transport Canada to approve the Telus relocation triggered an Environmental Assessment, which in turn delayed the project’s schedule. Transport Canada reports that because they received no expressions of public concern during the Environmental Assessment period, no public hearing was required. Which may explain why you are hearing about this for the very first time. If a public hearing had been scheduled, that would have delayed the project even further. The City, which has made extravagant claims about the bridge’s environmental benefits, didn’t want the public to know about the assessment for fear of a public hearing and additional delay, and has simply characterized the change in schedule as “Telus needed a year’s lead time.”

All of these setbacks would have happened back in the winter of 2009-2010 had the project received Infrastructure Stimulus Fund money. The project would then have been delayed throughout 2010 with no chance whatsoever for completion by March 2011, the ISF’s deadline. In other words, the project would have been dead in the water.

And drowning alongside it would have been the political fortunes of Dean Fortin and other councillors who supported the spectacularly hasty decision (characterized by many in the community as “leadership”) to seek ISF money and replace the bridge.

But the political toll the bridge may eventually take is still an open question. Although the next civic election will be held long before the bridge is completed, if costs go up, more political careers could be derailed. And the City’s recent announcement on the first hard costs for early works on the project suggests it may be headed for a large cost overrun.

In June 2010, the City’s consultant estimated it would cost $1 million to remove the rail bridge and $1.335 million to protect the Telus duct. Including contingency, engineering and escalation allowances, the City predicted these two costs would not exceed $2.64 million.

Now the City is saying these works will cost $3.745 million ($1.9 million for work to be done by Telus plus $1.845 million for work to be done by Ruskin Construction). The difference between the consultant’s predicted cost and the Telus/Ruskin work is $1.105 million. That’s a 42 percent increase in cost over what was predicted. If that level of underestimation plays out for the whole project, the new bridge will cost $109 million, or $32 million more than the City budgeted.

The misplaced optimism that propelled the City into believing it could get the bridge built in a year and a half back in 2009 may have also driven the cost estimating that came a little later. If that turns out to be the case, anyone at the council table who doesn’t create a public record over the next three years of asking hard, critical questions about the project’s costs, progress and staff recommendations is likely to suffer the same fate as Luton, Hunter and Lucas in the next election.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.