The $25 million stop sign

By David Broadland, December 2013

City officials ignored three red lights as they drove Sebastien Ricard’s dreamy bridge design into a solid concrete wall.

On August 1, 2012 a team of engineers from the City of Victoria met with top executives of WCC Construction Canada (Walsh), one of three companies competing for a contract to build the new Johnson Street Bridge.The meeting was held to discuss how the latest Sebastien Ricard-Wilkinson Eyre design for the project could be “optimized” to fit the City’s overall budget of $93 million. The Walsh team provided the City with an agenda. The first point on that agenda laid out in stark terms the “magnitude of the challenge” facing the project:“to reduce direct cost by at least $25 million.” The Walsh document went on to suggest a range of possibilities that could bring the cost down—from “modifications” (for example, eliminating  bicycle lanes) to “drastic scope reductions” (such as eliminating the third vehicle lane) to “wholesale design change.”

That Walsh agenda was obtained recently through an FOI request. It was part of the record of meetings the City held with each of the companies after all three said they couldn’t build Ricard’s design on the City’s budget. Other documents from the FOI show that Kiewit Infrastructure Group made similar suggestions for aggressively reworking or replacing the design. 

Both Kiewit and Walsh advised using conventional trunnion bearings to support the bridge at the centres of its rings, which meant those rings—the signature architectural element of Ricard’s controversial design—would become cosmetic rather than structural. Kiewit told the City this would produce “seven figure savings.” The Walsh and Kiewit analyses represented a slap in the face for the City’s project manager, MMM Group, and a glaring double red light for the project.

The documents also show the company that eventually won the competition, PCL Constructors Westcoast, took a subtly different approach to wooing the City. PCL didn’t overwhelm the City’s evaluation team with long lists of problems and unpleasant solutions, as Walsh and Kiewit had done. Instead, PCL highlighted the fact that their optimizations would bring back a feature that had been abandoned by Ricard’s team of engineers: a walkway that would allow pedestrians to pass through the bridge’s two 50-foot diameter rings, even as the structure lifted for passing marine traffic. PCL provided no renderings of what that walkway might actually look like, just the reassurance that, if the City went with them, the voter-popular walkway through the rings would return.

This design regression was made possible by another PCL optimization: a concrete approach bridge that passed between the rings, unbroken, to the edge of the channel. As simple as that may sound, it was a new idea. But the documents released by the City suggest PCL may not have fully worked out how their optimizations would conflict with structural elements of the design previously deemed necessary by MMM’s engineers. For example, a very large curved steel plate engineers had added to connect the lower halves of the two rings to stiffen them was shown in PCL’s drawings in their optimization meeting with the City. But that plate would slice through the concrete approach bridge when the bascule span lifted (the plate has since disappeared from PCL’s plans). If this is all too hard to visualize, don’t feel bad. Project Director Peter Sparanese, who led the City’s team at the optimization meetings, didn’t seem to notice this fatal problem. Instead, he noted on the back of a PCL optimization handout, “This is exactly what we wanted to accomplish as we contemplated the RFP.”

PCL’s soft-pedalling of the design’s problems—still a red light, but a flashy one—had made a welcome impression on Sparanese, a key player in deciding who would get the contract.

Even so, the City’s RFP had given it, at least on paper, the option of withdrawing from the project “because of the risk of a cost overrun” if even one of the three companies had indicated it couldn’t build Ricard’s design within the City’s budget. All of them had indicated that, but to completely abandon Ricard’s design might have been disastrous for the careers of Mayor Dean Fortin, City Manager Gail Stephens and the City engineers closest to the project, Sparanese and Dwayne Kalynchuk. The 2010 borrowing referendum had been won on the promise of Ricard’s design and a price of $77 million. After the 2011 election the acknowledged price had risen to $93 million and City councillors finally decided it couldn’t rise any further. The real world, however, was now pegging the price at $120 million. If halting the project would be bad for their careers, how could the project’s promoters get costs down by $25 million?

Let us count the ways in which the City met that challenge.

The most obvious course of action was to accept changes to Ricard’s design that would reduce the cost. Thus we have Ricard’s swooping, open walkway through the rings being “optimized” into a dim, low-ceilinged concrete bunker with small windows looking out at the bottom of the bridge deck. This space will be about as exciting to be in as a basement under a highway. Indeed, the architectural qualities of every aspect of the bridge have been reduced and simplified to the level of a Home Depot store. That dumbing down will no doubt save a few million dollars, but the dollars that would travel to Victoria to see an iconic bridge are now more likely to stay home. 

Even bigger reductions to the budget were found by allowing the lifting span of the bridge to be built in China. This is not, the City has said, inconsistent with its claim that the project would create 900 jobs. They never said, they now say, those jobs would be in Victoria. A conservative estimate of the saving here, without any consideration given to the loss of local economic opportunity: $5-$10 million.

The risk of having this critical work done in China was mitigated somewhat by eliminating the necessity of machining the rings. The close tolerances required by Ricard’s last design will now be replaced with epoxy grout sandwiched between critical machinery parts. Indeed, the overall quality of the structure has been reduced to such an extent that PCL’s warranty that “all work will be free from defects in material, workmanship and any design or engineering” runs for only two years. That’s less than the warranty on a cheap new car.

The City also quietly removed major components of the project. Thus the old bridge’s concrete piers will now be left in place for other people to deal with in the future; the cost of disposal of contaminated soil will go on some other bill; the replacement of utilities will be charged to some other budget; a major retaining wall necessitated by the project will be an extra on PCL’s bill; the cost of rehabilitating the S-curve lands is unbudgeted; etc, etc. A conservative estimate of these and other shifted costs is $10 million.

Perhaps the most efficient way of reducing visible costs, and public concern about costs in general, has been the spreading of the idea by City officials, including Mayor Fortin, that the contract with PCL is a “fixed-price contract.” PCL’s contract is not fixed. The contract allows for “change orders” and there’s no limit to what might be included as a change order. In fact, as of the end of August, PCL’s invoices to the City show that after billing for only three percent of the original contract price, the project had already gone through—by way of change orders—11.5 percent of the amount allocated for contingency. At that rate the contingency will soon be gone and if change orders continue likewise over the entire project, there will be a cost overrun of $8-10 million.

This badly-managed project has been hard on those closest to it. Peter Sparanese’s position with the City was terminated in September. City Manager Gail Stephens has gone into self-exile in Winterpeg. Former Project Director Mike Lai took a lower-paying job in Saanich. But the City is still hiding records, presumably to prevent further damage to the City’s reputation. Focus has been seeking the indicative price submissions and bid proposals of Walsh, Kiewit and PCL for over a year. In a series of cynical moves that have resembled a con artist shifting around the pieces in a shell game, the City has used provisions of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to keep this information out of public sight, likely until after the next civic election.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.