A deafening silence

By David Broadland, December 2012

The proposed Johnson Street Bridge has undergone a quiet transformation in cost and quality since the referendum. So have the records of who knew.

City of Victoria engineering staff spent the first half of November considering the contents of bids submitted by three companies vying to build the new Johnson Street Bridge before deciding which bid to recommend to City council. Then, at an in-camera meeting on November 16, councillors gave them permission to negotiate a fixed-price contract with PCL Constructors West Coast Inc.

We only know that slim piece of information about what’s going on with the bridge project because councillors voted at the secret  meeting to “rise and report.”

Following councillors decision, the City’s PR department put out its usual murky world-class-within-budget-and-design-and-schedule statement that’s made them so beloved over the past three years of delays, hidden design changes and serial cost escalations. Mayor Fortin made his usual visits to media outlets and announced the moment was “an exciting place to be.” He also said, “the devil is in the details,” but didn’t offer any. When questioned by Gregor Craigie on CBC radio about whether the PCL proposal would have the same “design aesthetic” as the bridge voted on in the referendum, the mayor said “yes,” but then immediately started talking about “design optimizations.” Again, no details. 

The only thing certain was that the project had missed its long-planned December 1 construction start deadline. That now won’t happen until “early spring,” according to the mayor.

Councillor Ben Isitt, pressed for details of what might have happened at that November 16 meeting, said, “I can’t disclose information received in-camera.” But Isitt did say, “I can tell you that did I not vote in favour of selecting a preferred proponent. The primary reason is that I believe it is premature to negotiate a contract for a new bridge when council has received a legal opinion from William Pearce, QC, indicating that the referendum result is ‘unreliable.’”

Pearce is a former senior litigator for the provincial government and has extensive experience with major construction projects involving public funds. He made a presentation to council last June.

Isitt told me: “Mr Pearce bases this opinion on evidence suggesting that the quantity estimates relating to the costs of rehabilitating the existing bridge were inaccurate, and that the public therefore had inaccurate information at the time that it approved the borrowing bylaw. Until this question of the reliability of the referendum result and borrowing bylaw is resolved, I believe it is premature for the City to enter [in] to contracts that rely on these funds.”

Another aspect of the referendum’s “reliability” that Isitt and Pearce might want to pursue is whether the new bridge the City is currently negotiating a contract for will resemble that presented in the referendum. The validity of the referendum result was contingent on the final bridge “being generally in accordance with the general plans on file at Victoria City Hall.” That’s stated in the borrowing by-law.

Those “plans” were released recently by the City and it’s clear that even without the “design optimizations” hinted at by Fortin, the bridge has been reduced to a shadow of its pre-referendum “world class” self.

For example, the referendum plans show the main bridge deck had a width of 15.9 metres between the side trusses when the price was $77 million. But drawings by the architectural firm Wilkinson Eyre show that width had dropped to 12.9 metres by the time the price had climbed to $92.8 million. That three-metre reduction is 18 percent of the useful width of the bridge. What’s gone? The so-called “Clear Zone” on the outside of the bicycle lanes, a basic safety feature. There’s been no word from the City about that change.

It’s just one of many diminutions of the project that were made quietly, even as the price increased. Since the referendum, the navigational channel width was, without notice,  reduced from 47 metres to 41. The “world class” fixed walkway through the wheels was surreptitiously eliminated. And the design service life for the approach bridges was, without announcement, dropped from 100 to 75 years. Design optimizations, all of them.

Even the latest increase in price—from $77 to $92.8 million—was, for many months, accompanied by a deafening silence from project managers. More on that later.

Even though the bridge structure has become smaller and more lightly built, some of the problems inherent in the Wilkinson Eyre design haven’t gone away, and it will be interesting to see how, or if, the design optimizations attempt to address these problems.

Sebastien Ricard, the Wilkinson Eyre bridge architect who created the design, has said that the underlying design challenge for him was to create a moveable bridge that easily communicated to an observer how it worked. His big idea was to create a structure with large wheels that rolled in place on bearings fixed beneath them, with the road deck sandwiched between the wheels. 

But this design choice created several absurdities: to maintain the current road level, the roller bearings supporting the 16-metre diameter wheels had to be located just slightly above highest high water, making them highly exposed to salt water spray (and sea level rise for that matter). The bearings themselves, because of the wheel’s large diameter, will rotate at 11 times the speed of the wheels. The long-term performance of those bearings, in such exposed and demanding operating conditions, is unpredictable. Indeed, the bridge’s Project Definition Report notes that the bearings will likely need replacing, but offers no real prediction of how often or at what cost to taxpayers.

The report also notes the wheels themselves will likely need to have their bearing surfaces replaced “within the design life” of the structure. How often and at what cost is left to the taxpayer’s imagination. One thing is certain though: the tremendous pressure between the wheels and the bearings will soon remove any protective coating applied to them. The wheels will then have giant rings of rust running halfway around them, plainly visible from the east side approaches when the bridge is down. Over time these surfaces will become pitted and uneven and the resulting wear will make the bridge’s lifting mechanism unreliable and hasten the demise of the roller bearings. There’s a strong possibility that as the wheels and the rollers degrade, opening and closing the bridge will create a tremendous mechanical screeching  sound akin to fingernails being dragged across a chalkboard. The proverbial squeaky wheel.

Ricard’s weird, hard-to-rotate design will also be much slower and less energy efficient than the current bridge: According to the PDR it will require 400 horsepower to operate and take 90 seconds to lift. By comparison, the Blue Bridge lifts quietly in 40 seconds using only 75 horsepower. (The destroyed railway bridge had a separate 37 hp electric motor.)

One obvious “optimization” would be to rip the heart out of Ricard’s design—those problematic wheels. A conventional moveable bridge has a highway deck that rotates on a fixed axis and would have been much less expensive. But Ricard’s whacky design has backed councillors into a blind alley: a bridge without those wheels won’t be “in accordance with the general plans on file at Victoria City Hall,” and would trigger a second referendum, a potentially suicidal move for the overdrawn project. One way around that would be to tack on to the sides of a conventional design fake “Ricard wheels” made of some cheap material—particle board?—that would rotate as the bridge opens. Mayor Fortin could justify that optimization as being perfectly in keeping with the faux-turret style of the Songhees’ architecture.

 

BACK IN AUGUST, the City filed for a section 43 authorization with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, which allowed it to ignore FOI requests from Focus. This unprecedented move came a couple of days after I requested the shorthand notes of City employee Sherri Andrews that she made at meetings of the Johnson Street Bridge Steering Committee. This is a small group of mainly senior City staff, including City Manager Gail Stephens, who make important management decisions about the project.

Late in October, after the City had withdrawn its Section 43 application and could no longer ignore our FOI requests, the City informed me the shorthand notes had been destroyed. “It is common procedure,” they wrote, “to destroy handwritten or transitory notes as soon as minutes are finalized.” Instead of the shorthand notes, the City supplied typed copies of minutes for Steering Committee meetings.

One of the documents included was for a meeting held September 12, 2011. I was very familiar with the content of that document. The City had previously released a copy of it in response to an earlier FOI. It was the document that prompted me to request Andrews’ notes in the first place. But when the contents of the second document were compared with the first—both purporting to be the minutes for the same meeting—there were dramatic differences in intended meaning.

The first minutes indicated the project was having “challenges” with the walkway through the above-mentioned wheels. There was a clear indication that cost estimates were being updated by “the quantity surveyor” and that new cost estimates would be provided to councillors “in the update report for the end of September.” (The update took place on October 6, 2011; neither of these issues was mentioned.)

The second set of minutes, the ones provided at the end of October, had much of the meaning of the first set of minutes removed. The “challenges” of the walkway through the wheels had disappeared. There was now no suggestion that councillors would be advised of new cost estimates at the end of September. Rather, these minutes simply offered a vague promise that “Any updates to the budget” would “be included in future reports to Council.” (The two different versions can be viewed at the links below.)

What possible reason could there be for altering this record? We now know from other documents that at the time of this meeting, some, or all, of the members of the Steering Committee were aware that the project cost estimate had been misrepresented during the referendum by over $8 million. Those who knew had a professional and ethical responsibility to inform councillors of the situation. But the project team had already identified as a risk to the successful completion of the project the possibility that there would be a “change of council” in the November 2011 civic election. So, for those who wanted the project to go forward, there was a rationale for not informing councillors—and city electors—of the project’s real cost. But, to do so would involve professional misconduct. Thus the altering of the record.

There is, naturally, another explanation for why the historical record of that meeting is in dispute. The City says the first set of minutes—supplied to Focus fully 10 months after the September 12, 2011 meeting—was a “draft” version. The second set, supplied on October 30, was the “approved” version.

But the full set of a year of Steering Committee  meeting minutes supplied by the City shows that when minutes were in dispute, the minutes of the following meeting would include notification of that. Minutes of subsequent meetings show no evidence that a dispute over the September 12 meeting minutes occurred. Moreover, the record provided by the City shows “draft” minutes were marked with a highly visible “DRAFT” watermark stamped diagonally across them. The original minutes for the September 12 meeting supplied by the City had no such watermark.

Did someone at City Hall doctor the minutes of the September 12 meeting once they became aware of why Focus was asking for them? Is someone trying to hide evidence that councillors—and city electors—were misled about the bridge project at that October 6, 2011 pre-election council meeting? Without those original shorthand notes, we can’t be completely sure.

Focus asked the City’s Director of Legislative and Regulatory Services Rob Woodland if the City has a written policy governing the destruction of records made by City employees. As of press time, Woodland had not responded. Stephens, too, failed to respond to questions by deadline. Their silence is deafening.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.


The two different versions of minutes for the September 12, 2011 meeting of the JSB Steering Committee:

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JSB Steering Committee notes Sept 12, 2011 version 1.jpg217.1 KB
JSB Steering Committee notes Sept 12, 2011 version 2.pdf35.17 KB