Engineering seismic folly

By David Broadland, July/August 2014

Are City of Victoria taxpayers getting ripped off by seismic sleight-of-hand on the new Johnson Street Bridge project?

By July 7, the City of Victoria should have released details on the 6-month schedule delay and $7.9 million change order claimed in February by PCL, the company building the new Johnson Street Bridge. Focus filed an FOI for that change order in April. The City refused to release the record to us, invoking a section of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that allows them to withhold a record that they intend to release to the public within 60 working days. The City must now release the change order by July 7. So watch for it.

What we can tell you from other documents obtained by Focus through FOI is that the City’s committee of senior staff monitoring the project knew by mid-December, 2013 that a dispute with PCL was emerging. Councillors were informed in late March and the public learned of it at an April 10 council meeting. At that meeting City Manager Jason Johnson referred to this as “putting the information out early.” In late May, the City’s project manager MMM Group said it didn’t think the City should entertain PCL’s claims. The City has been silent on the matter since.

During that April 10 council meeting, City of Victoria Director of Engineering and Public Works Dwayne Kalynchuk told councillors PCL’s claim for more money was based on “design delay” and “scope growth.” He offered no further elaboration. But the following day, during a CFAX Radio interview with Terry Moore, Kalynchuk linked PCL’s claim for more money and time to changes that were needed to “beef up” certain elements of the bridge design following “seismic analyses.”

Kalynchuk’s choice of venue to make this announcement was peculiar given an exchange that occurred at the previous day’s council meeting. Councillor Lisa Helps had asked a question about what engineers expected would happen to the bridge in a big earthquake. The lifting part of the bridge is balanced on top of 24 steel rollers. There’s nothing attaching the lifting span to the substructure.  This is like a house sitting on a concrete foundation with no anchor bolts to prevent the house from bouncing off the foundation during an earthquake. Helps asked, “Could the bridge be knocked off its rollers in ‘the big one’?”

In response, a Hardesty & Hanover engineer (MMM subcontracted the design of the bascule span to the New York engineering firm Hardesty & Hanover) acknowledged that a “full seismic analysis” of the design had been done, but his answer didn’t include the words “No, the bridge will not be knocked off its rollers.” The engineer said the bridge had been designed as a “Critical Bridge” and as such, “Collapse of the bridge is not permissible. There may be damage to elements of the bridge that will limit operation for a short period of time but its traffic carrying capacity will not be impeded after a seismic event.”

Helps didn’t know it but the engineer’s description of the expected level of service after “the big one” for a “Critical Bridge” wasn’t accurate. A more accurate description of the seismic performance expected for this “Critical Bridge” is contained in a document prepared by MMM in 2012, Johnson Street Bridge: Seismic Design Criteria. That document notes that after a “Cascadia subduction event,” otherwise known as “the big one,” bridge service would be “Significantly limited; limited access to emergency traffic is possible within days of the earthquake. Full access to public may resume in several weeks to months.”

That’s quite different than “its traffic carrying capacity will not be impeded after a seismic event,” as Helps was told.

More importantly, MMM’s criteria are a lower standard than City officials requested in 2010, when they told electors before a borrowing referendum that the new bridge would be built to "the highest standard of earthquake protection." In the lead up to the referendum, Councillors insisted the bridge should have uninterrupted access for emergency vehicles after “the big one”—that's the highest standard. After all, what good would access for fire trucks, ambulances and emergency rescue vehicles be if it takes “days” to provide that access? Fire would already have destroyed buildings and people trapped under rubble would already have died from their injuries if it took "days" to get emergency equipment to the scene. That's what councillors argued in 2010 when they imposed this condition on both a new bridge and a rehabilitation of the current bridge. MMM didn’t tell councillors that their request for "the highest standard" was unreasonable, MMM simply said that level of seismic performance would cost more money: $10 million more. They even said a lower standard, the one adopted by the Province in its seismic retrofit program, was "not recommended." So City councillors of the day voted to pay $10 million extra for that level of public safety. Now, taxpayers are paying for it, but they’re not getting it.

Following the engineer’s response to Councillor Helps, the councillor asked if that seismic analysis could be made public. Kalynchuk said, “I believe that information has been requested under freedom of information and has been released.” Mayor Fortin prompted Kalynchuk: “And posted to our website?” Kalynchuk provided a reassuring response: “Oooh, it’s binders of material, so I’m not sure that’s available. We’ll see if there’s a summary that can be posted.”

Kalynchuk didn’t say, “Oh, and by the way, the $7.9 million and 6-month delay were the result of the bridge design failing one or more seismic analyses.” Instead, he waited until he was safely in Terry Moore’s studio the next day to make that connection.

As it turns out, Kalynchuk’s “binders of material” didn’t exist. Focus had requested the seismic assessment of the new design last November and the City had told us it had no such documents in its possession. Following Kalynchuk’s answers to Helps and Fortin, we filed a second FOI for the “binders of material” Kalynchuk had referred to. The City again responded that they could find no such record.

I then emailed Kalynchuk and asked him about those “binders of material,” and inquired as to whether he’d ever seen the seismic analysis. Kalynchuk responded, “…the staff from [Hardesty & Hanover] stated at their April presentation a full seismic review was conducted on the bridge. While I assumed some data was provided to the City, this was incorrect.”

Since the new bridge was originally justified on the basis of the seismic risk associated with the old bridge, this seemed like an issue City officials would make sure they understood as fully as possible. I asked Kalynchuk, the senior City engineer overseeing the project on the public’s behalf, if he perhaps ought to have reviewed the seismic assessment for the new bridge before construction began, or at least before fabrication of the bascule span commenced.

Kalynchuk replied, “…it is the responsibility of [MMM] to assure the project is delivered in accordance with project specifications which includes seismic. As stated, [Hardesty & Hanover] have undertaken a full seismic assessment to assure the final product meets the specs. Upon completion of the job they will be required to provide letters of assurance to certify construction meets the specs and design. With respect to the seismic analyses, it is not expected that the detailed data would be provided to us as we are not structural engineers and probably would not understand it. We will rely on [MMM] to provide full letters of assurance.”

Is Kalynchuk’s faith in MMM warranted?

MMM's design, which it claimed in 2010 was “tried, tested and proven,” has undergone two major redesigns since. The two other companies that bid on the contract to build the bridge both declined to use MMM's design. One sited the design's apparent seismic vulnerability. When a version of the design finally made it through to a seismic analysis, it apparently failed. Kalynchuk can’t know how many times it failed, or if it ever actually passed—he’s never seen the analyses. MMM have never publicly acknowledged that its design will not be built to "the highest standard of earthquake protection."

The “design delay” all this hidden seismic analysis caused appears to be substantial. The contract between PCL and the City stipulated that MMM’s design would be completed, and advanced drawings provided to PCL, by May 20, 2013. But a revised project schedule delivered to the City by PCL last February (and obtained by FOI) shows that design work for the bascule span wasn’t expected to be completed until May 8, 2014. 

On the political side, Fortin has maintained the City has a “fixed-price contract” with PCL and doesn’t intend to pay one penny more. But is it a fixed-price contract? City officials may have misled the mayor and councillors in November 2012 when they said PCL had requested no amendments to the City’s draft contract. PCL’s bid proposal had indeed suggested amendments to the contract, although the City has refused to disclose the exact nature of those suggestions.

But a copy of the draft contract, obtained by Focus through FOI, shows substantial additional terms were included in the final contract the City signed with PCL. In the section covering “Changes,” for example, a clause was added that created a “Schedule of Prices”—an extensive list of possible sources of changes and an “allocated contingency” for each. Perhaps the mayor and councillors thought all possibilities were covered in that list. Unfortunately for City taxpayers, neither “design delay” or “scope growth” are included on that list and $7.9 million is over three times as much as the project’s entire completion contingency. That doesn’t mean the City won’t have to pay the $7.9 million. It means that the City must determine where the money will come from. Whether they will determine that in or out of court may become clearer after July 7.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.

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JSB Seismic Design Criteria Aug 17, 2012.pdf96.24 KB
City of Victoria claims no seismic analyses response letter.pdf92.11 KB
Referendum promises November 2010.pdf318.4 KB
Cost of highest level of seismic performance.jpg347.23 KB
PCL construction schedule January 2014.2.jpg229.63 KB