Johnson Street Bridge contract unspun

By David Broadland, February 2013

Have 200 tonnes of steel and 4600 cubic metres of concrete been concealed in the deal with PCL?

On December 31, a closed meeting of Victoria City councillors voted six to two to approve a contract between the City and PCL Constructors Westcoast to build a new Johnson Street Bridge. A week later, a press release issued by the City quoted Mayor Dean Fortin: “This is an important milestone in the life of this project. This fixed-price contract meets the design, project budget and timelines, and allows us to move forward with confidence on a project that will vastly improve cycling, walking and driving options to and from the downtown for generations.” Even councillor Geoff Young, previously a constant critic of the project, admitted on CBC Radio to voting for signing the contract, saying he had “grumpily” become a supporter of the project.

Councillors had been given the weekend before New Year’s to view the 394-page contract. Sworn to secrecy about the details, they were unable to consult with anyone in the community about what they were being asked to approve. At a closed meeting the following Monday morning, only councillors Lisa Helps and Ben Isitt declined to give their consent, stating concerns about potential cost overruns. 

Now details have emerged that cast the state of the project in a different light than that projected by the mayor and the City’s PR department. At that New Year’s eve meeting, City officials failed to disclose to councillors major cost risks in the contract.

Leading to the contract signing, the bridge design had undergone a four-month-long “optimization” process in which three construction companies bidding on the work offered ideas on how to keep the project within the City’s $92.8 million budget. Several design optimizations were included in the contract signed with PCL, changes that overturned practically every aspect of the design developed by the City’s project manager MMM Group over the previous 42 months, and put design of the bridge back to a conceptual level.

One of the design changes suggested by PCL involved the physical geometry of the bascule leaf and the manner in which its two 50-foot diameter rings would be attached to the rest of the leaf. For all practical purposes, PCL’s conceptual design for the leaf is identical to one first worked out by bridge architect Wilkinson Eyre and MMM between 2009 and 2010. But after a year and a half of development and consideration—much longer than PCL was given to consider the problem—MMM rejected this configuration. Why is the design now going back to one that was discarded?

Both MMM and the City have been secretive about why they moved away from their original leaf design. Nothing has shown up in the written record obtained through FOI. What is known is that in April of 2011, the City and MMM signed a $500,000 contract for “preliminary design,” and by that summer the original leaf design was taken off the drawing board. The next configuration of structural elements eliminated the possibility of walking through the rings while the bridge was being raised or lowered, a promise made when the City was seeking borrowing approval through a referendum. So, you would think, that reconfiguration of structural elements would not have been undertaken unless it was necessary.

In March, 2012 City engineer Dwayne Kalynchuk told a council meeting those changes to the design had been necessary in order to “stiffen” the rings. This stiffening was accomplished by adding two elements to the original design: a curved orthotropic steel plate that securely connected the two rings through almost half of their circumference; and by extending the lifting portion of the bridge deck right across the rings.

During the design optimization process, PCL would have been advised by City engineers of the rationale behind the MMM design and, in particular, the need to stiffen the rings.

But instead of building on what MMM had learned, PCL resurrected MMM’s discarded initial design, which would use less steel, would cost less, and would help keep them competitive with the other two contenders.

PCL’s step backward also allowed a return of that fixed walkway through the rings. PCL officials may have reckoned that referendum-wary City officials would appreciate the disappearance of at least one possibility for a court challenge of the referendum’s borrowing approval. But there’s a big risk to Victoria taxpayers in this situation. 

What will happen when PCL’s conceptual design is turned into a working design and engineering—which will be done by MMM—once again dictates that the rings be stiffened? Will the structural elements removed from MMM’s design—the orthotropic steel plate and the 60-odd feet of steel bridge deck—need to be put back?

If they do, the City will be on the hook. The contract price is only “fixed” if no more than 1785 tonnes of structural steel are used. Any more steel and the price the City pays goes up by the “actual cost” to the contractor, and that’s expected to run at about $10,000 per tonne. PCL says its stripped-down leaf will use 1795 tonnes, already more than the negotiated limit. If PCL has to put 200 tonnes back into the design to stiffen the rings, that could mean a $2 million overrun.

Will this actually happen? It depends on whether MMM’s 2011 design change was actually necessary or not. Either way, City Hall’s judgment looks bad. If that change was necessary, there will be a cost overrun and the question will be: why did City officials choose PCL’s optimized design? If MMM’s design change was unnecessary, then significant monies and time were wasted. If that was the case, why did City officials award MMM a new $9.1 million contract in November?

Of course, if PCL’s was the only bid that could be presented as appearing to be within the City’s budget, well what else could they do?

Hiding financial risk from councillors deep within the 394 pages of the PCL contract appears not to have been limited to iffy design optimizations. For example, consider the missing 4600 cubic metres of concrete.

The City’s cost estimate for the project has always included decommissioning the existing bridge. Documents obtained through FOI show those estimates were based on removal of both the bridge superstructures and their substructures. The superstructures are the largely blue metal parts, the substructures are the reinforced concrete piers and the wood pilings that support them. The City’s 2009 application to Transport Canada for a Facilities Alteration Permit clearly shows the project included removing those piers and piles from the navigational channel. The piers contain approximately 4600 cubic metres of steel-reinforced concrete.

But the PCL fixed-price contract contains mixed messages about those piers. A councillor locked up in his home for the weekend could easily have thought those piers were going to be removed. In a section that defines the project’s “Scope of Work,” the contract states the work to be done “includes removal of the existing bridge, including substructures and fendering, as required by the Contract Documents.” That seems straightforward and in alignment with the Johnson Street Bridge Project Charter, which lists decommissioning of the existing bridge under the project’s “scope.” But buried in an appendix at the back of the contract is a list of permits the City has sought, including one that would allow them to leave the existing piers in place after removal of the superstructures.

Indeed, the City’s Communications Director Katie Josephson confirmed for Focus that City Hall staff have decided to leave the piers in place and that PCL’s contract does not include their removal. Councillors Lisa Helps and Geoff Young both confirmed they had not been consulted about this change prior to being asked to approve the PCL contract. The Johnson Street Bridge Project Charter requires City staff to consult with councillors about changes in project scope.

If it was just a question of due process not happening at City Hall, then it’s a big yawn. But those massive chunks of concrete can have real-life consequences.

An examination of the contract conditions suggests PCL could end up removing the piers at additional cost to the City if “unforeseen issues involving the integrity of the existing piers or below-grade conditions associated with the existing piers” are encountered. What “unforeseen issues”? Recall that an engineer simply questioning the integrity of the piers and their ability to withstand an earthquake was presented as a primary reason why the bridge should be replaced in the first place. So it’s easy to imagine a second engineer coming along and saying, “Hey, if I happen to be kayaking past these suckers and the Big One hits, and they fall on my wife, I’ll be suing your City asses.”

But seriously, several questions arise: How much would it cost the City if “unforeseen issues” present themselves and PCL needs to remove the piers? Josephson acknowledged the City hadn’t sought a cost estimate for removing the piers and insisted they would be left in place and used to support fendering for the new bridge. Leaving the piers in place, she said, would reduce “the need for habitat compensation as the present piers are considered habitat by Fisheries and Oceans.” But the contract language leaves the door open for removal of the piers, and that would add an apparently unknown cost to the project, perhaps millions of dollars.

Originally, building a new bridge was supposed to bring the navigational channel to a “modern standard” of 47 metres, but that had to be dropped to 41 metres because of a miscalculation by MMM. Will leaving the existing piers in place create an even narrower navigational channel (also an issue of project scope) than if they were removed? Not if Josephson has her way: “The channel width using the existing piers does accommodate a 41-metre channel,” she says. But a look at the drawing that proves this was not particularly reassuring. It appears preserving a width of 41 metres now depends on fendering the existing piers with little more than thin rubber bumpers attached to hundreds of tonnes of unyielding concrete. More substantial fenders capable of absorbing the impacts of heavy barges laden with gravel or scrap metal would narrow the navigational channel below that magic 41 metres. Will vessels be adequately protected in a hard collision? If not, what liability claims might be made against the City? What environmental damage might be incurred? Councillors didn’t get a chance to ask these questions.

If the piers are left in place, doesn’t that block—or make more expensive—the future construction of a rail bridge, for which the City has committed to preserving a right-of-way? Josephson had all the answers. “A future rail span could be built above the piers,” she said, hopefully. “Engineers could consider using the piers as part of the design, or the piers could be removed at a later date.” But how could a new rail bridge, as Josephson suggests, be built on a pier that had previously been condemned as seismically unstable? And building a rail bridge “above the piers” would necessitate an overly long and expensive lifting span. Clearly, the cost of removing the piers has simply been put on the shoulders of another generation.

So why weren’t councillors consulted before they were asked to sign the PCL contract? “Significant matters,” Josephson said, “are brought to the attention of council.” Forty-six hundred cubic metres of concrete, it would seem, aren’t significant.

And lastly, a question I didn’t ask Josephson but one that ought to be considered by the more aesthetically-inclined councillors: Are you happy with the idea that 4600 cubic metres of aged and discoloured concrete will be featured prominently in the foreground of the hundreds of thousands of images that will be taken of this “world-class” signature bridge over its lifetime? Seriously?

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.