Victoria's bridge to nowhere?

By David Broadland, November 2012

Dramatic last-minute changes to the bridge project’s Request For Proposals may overturn the design approved by referendum.

City Hall’s eerie, self-imposed four-month silence surrounding the Johnson Street Bridge project procurement process will likely be broken this month. Bids for a replacement bridge are expected to be delivered October 30 by the three companies negotiating with the City for a construction contract. That delivery date had been extended three times, leading to speculation that the competing companies were having trouble meeting the City’s expectations on design and cost. The process is intended to produce price-competitive bidding and so an information blackout has been in effect while negotiations continue.

But concerns about the direction those negotiations might be taking have grown recently after the City quietly issued a dramatically different Request for Proposals in late September. The new document withdrew the condition of fixed-price bids. Each company can now offer a “not to exceed” price, the implication being that, for the Wilkinson Eyre design, none of the companies would, or could, commit to a fixed price that would bring the project in at $93 million. The amended RFP also offers the companies the option of assuming “technical design responsibility for the complete project.” That opens the possibility for the bidding companies to ditch the controversial Wilkinson Eyre design and come up with their own designs for the crossing.

Ross Crockford, director of the watchdog citizens group JohnsonStreetBridge.org, says the changes to the RFP could indicate the project is headed for trouble. “The City looks desperate to get a deal,” Crockford says. “The new document increases risk to taxpayers and may produce a different bridge from the one shown in pre-referendum advertising. These changes suggest the companies can’t commit to a fixed price because they don’t want to assume all the risk of building a one-of-a-kind bridge with an incomplete design.” In August, the City was pressured by Focus into releasing to City councillors the Final Project Definition Report. That document stated that detailed design and engineering work for the Wilkinson Eyre concept was only “30 percent complete” even though bidding was underway. Other signs that the project was ill-prepared for the bidding process included the appearance in mid-October of a geotechnical drilling barge at the bridge site. Core samples of the harbour bottom were needed to provide more complete information about the bridge’s pier building site.

Crockford compares the situation to that which produced the FastCat ferries and the Vancouver Convention Centre. He notes those projects “doubled in cost because construction started before the design was finished.”

With the design approved by the 2010 referendum now appearing to face long odds for survival, familiar battle lines are already forming. An op-ed in the Times Colonist, written by Victoria activist-citizens Diane Carr, Irwin Henderson, Judy Lightwater and Blair Humphrey, argued for a sober second look at the bridge project: “The public is feeling that its tax dollars have not been well spent or considered,” they wrote, “and the failure of information flow regarding the bridge and other capital assets has aggravated this situation....The bridge design itself should also be part of council’s sober second look, including the discarded option of refurbishing the existing structure.”

Former City councillor John Luton, who strongly favoured replacing the bridge throughout his one term in office, responded with his own op-ed, noting “some critics still can’t get past the referendum they lost two years ago.”

Luton was referring to the November 2010 referendum in which 60 percent of those who voted approved borrowing for a replacement bridge. But if current negotiations with construction companies produce a design significantly different from the Wilkinson Eyre design people voted for in the referendum, will the City be required to put the new design to another referendum? The validity of that referendum has already been challenged by changes made to the project since the vote was held. And information recently put together from documents obtained by FOI suggests the City intentionally misrepresented the cost comparison between the refurbishment and replacement options at the time of the referendum. 

To review: In 2009, the City hired a consultant to manage the building of a new bridge and it started to spend money on design, permitting and project management. But when the City attempted to borrow money for a $63 million bridge without seeking direct authority from electors, JohnsonStreetBridge.org led a successful counter-petition and forced the City to hold a referendum. To help it decide what question to put to voters, the City asked their consultant to compare the cost of a new bridge with rehabilitating the existing bridge. The consultant came up with two estimates: a new, higher estimate of $77 million for building a replacement bridge, and an $80 million estimate for a rehab. Both estimates were supposedly for bridges that would last 100 years and survive a magnitude 8.5 earthquake. An Ipsos survey of residents at the time showed the most important factor to people in determining whether they would support replacement or rehabilitation was overall cost. So the council of the day decided to put the cost of borrowing for a replacement bridge on the ballot, based in part on its lower cost.

But we have since learned that certain known costs for the replacement option were purposely excluded from the $77 million estimate. The City’s Assistant Director of Finance Susanne Thompson outlined those costs in a memo to City officials on January 6 this year: “Many construction/design related costs such as permits, technical review resources and City assist costs were not contemplated in the [$77 million] estimate. In addition the [$77 million] estimate was developed on a ‘go-forward’ basis and as such did not include costs that had already been incurred prior to its development.”

Those known-but-excluded costs, according to Thompson’s estimate, amounted to about $8.4 million. Had they been included in 2010, they would have pushed the replacement cost to $85.4 million.

So although a majority of people who voted in the referendum voted for a new bridge, the information they got during the referendum about what mattered to them most—the cost—was known by some at City Hall to be false.

Since the referendum, a number of revelations about both the replacement bridge project and other financial liabilities facing City taxpayers have surfaced.

A year ago Victoria residents learned the City withheld an engineering consultant’s report—completed eight months before the referendum—that concluded the City’s main firehall would likely collapse in an earthquake, trapping equipment and personnel that would be vital to rescue efforts following an earthquake. The report estimated replacing Firehall #1 would cost City taxpayers at least $16.4 million.

Then in March of this year the City announced the cost of the bridge project had jumped to $93 million and Focus uncovered evidence that the bridge’s mechanical design had changed dramatically. The unannounced changes meant elimination of a feature promoters claimed during the referendum would make the bridge “iconic” and “world class.” The nature of the changes also suggested that costs were likely to go much higher and raised serious doubts about whether the mechanical design of the bridge was “proven” as claimed. And all of this—the cost increase, the mechanical design questions, the risk of even higher costs, and the amenities loss—had all been hidden for seven months, keeping discussion of them out of last year’s civic election. 

Calls for a sober second look at the bridge project have become louder since it was revealed in the September edition of Focus that a study of the seismic risk associated with 16 City-owned structures had been hidden for 20 months—ever since the referendum. The report estimated it would cost $34 million to seismically upgrade the buildings. The peak occupancy of the most vulnerable buildings exceeds the peak number of people that might be caught on the Johnson Street bridge in an earthquake.

An account of the fast ferries scandal that shook public trust in the provincial NDP government in 2000 ought to be required reading for councillors before considering the recommendation City staff will make to them sometime in November. In that case, the province spent $454 million and ended up with nothing.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.