Bridge project setback #7342

By David Broadland, July/August 2012

Did the City get the “three green lights” necessary to proceed with building the Wilkinson Eyre design? It would appear not.

In a paper read to the Victoria Branch of the Engineering Institute of Canada on February 27, 1924, City Engineer F.M. Preston, who oversaw construction of the current Johnson Street Bridge in Victoria, left a little piece of advice for those who might follow. “The final cost of the work was 21.7 percent higher than the estimate,” Preston admitted to his fellow engineers, “and this has brought home to me that in future the right thing to do, when, as was the case of the Johnson Street Bridge, no money is available for preliminary plans and estimates, is to put a by-law before the people asking the authority to spend the necessary amount on preliminary work, and after these preliminary plans and estimates are prepared, to again submit to them a construction by-law.”

Preston went on to outline in splendid detail how the bridge was built. His descriptions of the physical difficulties the project encountered—the accurate positioning of caissons, for instance—and what the builders had to do to solve these problems, makes for heart-rending reading considering the physical neglect and verbal abuse heaped on the bridge in recent years by people who couldn’t build a toy raft out of popsicle sticks.

Obviously a man of great integrity and wisdom, Preston and his colleagues constructed a bridge for $918,000 that has served Victorians reliably for 89 years. His words indicate he understood that the Corporation of the City of Victoria was a mere servant to the wishes of the people, not the other way around.

How different things are today. A group of highly-paid engineers and upper-level City bureaucrats have been working on the new bridge project for three years and have only recently produced preliminary plans and estimates, all the while claiming the project is “on budget and on schedule” even as the price climbed from $40 million, to $63 million, to $77 million and lately to $93 million. Preston’s final cost was 21.7 percent higher than his estimate. The engineers trying to replace Preston’s bridge managed that level of increase just between their last two estimates.

The engineers and bureaucrats have now moved into the “procurement” phase of the project. The objective is to negotiate a contract to build a bridge. The City’s starting position is the Wilkinson Eyre design for $66 million or less. If they have a fallback position, it’s unknown. As part of this process, a closed-to-the-public meeting was held June 28. Three preliminary, confidential cost estimates to build the Wilkinson Eyre design, developed and submitted by three companies competing against each other, were presented. Later, the City issued a press release which stated, in part, “Council has been briefed by staff and consultants in-camera on the submissions and is aware of the indicative prices included in those submissions. No decision of Council was required.”

Were any of the prices submitted below the City’s “affordability ceiling” of $66 million? (Which would mean the bridge would cost $93 million once other expenses already committed to are included.) The City’s carefully-worded press release was intentionally devoid of any clues. Or was it? If all three submissions had been below the affordability ceiling, the project would have received what Mayor Fortin has called “three green lights.” That would have meant the Wilkinson Eyre design had survived its first real peer review—by the market—and the project would likely proceed intact. But if that had happened, the City would have been eager to tell us about it. They didn’t. Which probably means that one, two, or all of the bids were above $66 million.

And that would be bad news for the Wilkinson Eyre design. The City’s Request For Proposals to the three companies noted that “if any [emphasis added] of the Indicative Pricing Submissions are over the Affordability Ceiling, then because of the risk of a cost overrun, the City may, at its election and sole discretion” either “terminate this RFP” and proceed “in some other manner” or “review the scope of the project” to identify “adjustments that might be made” to bring the total cost down to $93 million. 

Why would the City take so seriously any construction estimates that exceeded their $66 million ceiling? Because it’s very difficult to over-estimate the cost of building something if you are thorough, a truth I learned from years of building houses, boats and machinery. There’s always at least one more thing to include. Accurately estimating the cost of building anything requires thinking through each step of a construction process and meticulously detailing every single quantity and cost involved. With the bridge, the highest estimate is very likely to have been done more carefully and thoroughly, and will more reliably reflect the true cost of the project.

So, facing at least one red light, the Wilkinson Eyre design has likely entered the kill zone. The “adjustments that might be made” to the design are limited considering the requirements of the $34 million in federal funding. The funding requires bicycle lanes on the outside of the three vehicle lanes and it requires a “multi-modal” pathway on the north side of the bridge. Losing the pedestrian walkway on the south side would make the project a political fiasco. Downward adjustments to the bridge’s life expectancy would negate promises made before the referendum. Moreover, an earlier design contract signed by the mayor lowered the expected lifespan of the approach bridges to 75 years, so that well may already be dry. Other characteristics of the bridge where major “adjustments” would be possible are specifications for seismic performance and the architectural elements of the design, including those big wheels. Once again, promises were made about both of these before the referendum. But something will have to go.

Who will decide what will be negotiated off the bridge is perhaps a more vital question than what could be jettisoned. The RFP says this decision will be made at the “election and sole discretion” of the Corporation of the City of Victoria. Does that include the elected council, to whom the electors have given authority to make decisions? Apparently not. Instead, secret negotiations with each of the three companies who are bidding for the construction contract will be conducted by the same people who have guided the project as the cost rose from $40 million to $93 million. No direct representation from elected councillors has been considered.

City councillors will be asked to approve a final construction contract sometime in the fall. You can be sure that overwhelming pressure will be applied to councillors to approve a bridge that has long since escaped their control.

It’s not just Preston’s bridge that’s being replaced. The project is also demolishing his idea, as old-fashioned as it may be, that the right thing for City Hall to do is seek authority from the people to spend their money.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.