By David Broadland, October 2014

With everyone asking for more money, is the bridge project still “on budget”?

On September 11, Johnson Street Bridge Project Director Jonathan Huggett dropped a bomb on an already contentious City of Victoria council meeting. Huggett announced that on July 22, “serious problems” with the quality of work being done at the Zhongtai Bridge Steel Structure Company (ZTSS) in Jiangsu, China, had brought a halt to fabrication of the project’s lifting span.

According to Huggett, a quality inspection team had found “seventeen issues” with the span’s welded steel parts. He held up drawings for councillors to see as he described the problems, one at a time: “There were multiple fabrication and quality violations; they are using fabrication details that don’t match the accepted shop drawings; they’ve permitted corrective actions to be taken without approval or inspection; they’re using uncertified welders; not all the quality assurance issues are being disclosed; there are numerous unapproved attachments; welding procedures have not been followed; there’s damage to the parent steel during fabrication; and there are discrepancies with the test results of ZTSS.” Huggett stopped at the ninth “issue” and added, “I think now you understand why I’m saying to you it’s a serious matter.”

Huggett’s performance was impressive. He has the remarkable ability to be deeply reassuring even as he sticks the knife into you and gives it a twist.

He summed up the situation for councillors: “There are two possibilities.” The first, his preference, was “to fix what we already have.” But, he added, “There is a very real risk that we are simply going to reject it and tell PCL to redo it all.” PCL is the construction company building the bridge in Victoria. They subcontracted the fabrication work to ZTSS.

Work in China would not start again until mid-October at the earliest, Huggett told councillors. This has some interesting implications. If the lifting span is scrapped and a new one started in mid-October, and assuming the new span is then delivered in the expected 18 months required for fabrication and delivery, it would arrive in Victoria—in several pieces—at the beginning of April, 2016. PCL’s work plan shows it would then take an additional seven months to erect the steel parts. The bridge would be operational sometime in the fall of 2016. Removal of the existing bridge would follow, with project completion in 2017.

Sharp readers might be thinking, “Didn’t the bridge have to be finished by March 2016  or it would lose federal funding?” For some reason that’s no longer a problem.

Likewise, the 2008 Delcan Condition Assessment Report advised the City to replace or rehabilitate the current bridge “within three years.” That advice formed the basis of a compelling public safety argument back then, at least for some, and was used to justify a quick decision in 2009 to replace the bridge without any public process. Now that it appears the old blue bridge will have to last until 2017, City Hall is silent on the public safety issue.

Huggett’s announcement also throws a wrench into the engineering department’s plans for the Point Ellice Bridge. A 2013 condition assessment of that bridge judged it in “poor to fair condition.” Then, earlier this year, City engineers reported repair work would require “an extensive period of closure.” That meant the work would have to be deferred until the new Johnson Street Bridge was operational. But the Delcan assessment of the current Johnson Street Bridge rated it as being in “fair to good condition.” From a public safety perspective, shouldn’t the Point Ellice Bridge have gone first? Had that been done, though, taxpayers would have learned how much less expensive rehabilitation is compared with replacement, and, well, there would have gone the chance for doing the grand project.

Huggett’s announcement followed a long  and at times heated discussion between councillors over whether a concrete retaining wall necessary to support the new roadway for the bridge on the west side should actually be attributed to the bridge project.

On one side of the argument was the always logical Councillor Geoff Young, who asked his colleagues to consider a hypothetical situation taking place in his back yard: If his neighbour filled his yard with dirt, Young imagined, and it spilled over into Young’s yard, wouldn’t it be logical to attribute the need for a retaining wall to his neighbour’s project?

Leading the anti-logic faction was Mayor Dean Fortin who said he was willing to consider  moving the $1.1 million cost of the retaining wall from the City’s Tax Sale Lands Reserve Fund into the Equipment and Infrastructure Reserve Fund, but he wasn’t willing to attribute the retaining wall to the bridge project. 

After much speechifying, a majority of councillors approved spending that $1.1 million from one fund instead of another. 

With council’s energy directed toward settling that issue, the contents of a letter from PCL and two letters from MMM Group, both asking for more money, went unquestioned. MMM is the City’s project manager.

So let’s consider what councillors avoided.

MMM’s letters enumerated additional expenses of $2.4 million, including more for the company engineering the trouble-plagued lifting span, Hardesty & Hanover.

An August 17 letter from PCL also warned the City of higher costs to come: “We wish to inform you that we continue to suffer damages from the issues explained in the [February] Change Order request and our costs have risen significantly since that submission. We will be revising the Change Order request and will be submitting it to the City by the end of [August].”

If PCL had submitted that change order, it was nowhere to be seen at the council meeting, and might not surface until after November’s civic election. For Mayor Fortin and the faction not wanting to acknowledge the real cost of the bridge—until, perhaps, sometime after the election—this was a blessing. But for voters who want to go to the polls armed with knowledge—not fabrications—we can make an educated guess at what PCL’s new change order might contain.

On September 15, PCL began lowering the cofferdam for the bascule pier, 3.5 months later than predicted in PCL’s detailed construction schedule issued around the time of the $9.5 million change order. Of that $9.5 million, PCL attributed $3.8 million to a 5.5-month delay caused by the bridge’s design being incomplete. Doing the dollar-per-month-of-delay math, we can reasonably expect PCL has already asked the City for at least another $2.5 million.

Before any of these changes, the project’s price tag was $92.8 million. The February change order was reduced to $7.5 million because the City accepted a cheaper, thinner highway deck for the lifting span. Adding all the changes, and including $1.1 million for that retaining wall PCL will build to support the new highway approach on the west side of the bridge, and throwing in a conservative $1 million for disposal of contaminated soils, we arrive at $108 million.

Will that be the final tab? Not likely.

The inevitable impact of MMM’s reinvention-of-the-wheel design is now exerting itself. In its August 17 letter to the City, PCL stated: “PCL also has expressed concerns over impacts stemming from the incomplete mechanical design…these and additional mechanical issues are critical. Inaction from [MMM] on providing design for these items has further delayed the project and the delays are ongoing.” Translation: Expect even higher costs ahead.

The conflict between MMM and PCL appears to be growing: PCL says its costs are rising because MMM cannot deliver a final design. MMM blames PCL for all delays to the design, even though delivery of the design is MMM’s contractual responsibility.

Why would PCL delay the project? MMM contends PCL’s optimized design was little more than a schematic drawing when PCL made its bid, which, as a consequence, was too low. Their presumption is that having underestimated the cost of the project, PCL is now trying to claw its way out of a hole. That may be true. Why, then, did MMM recommend that the City accept PCL’s bid in the first place, including the tiny four percent contingency PCL allowed? MMM is supposed to look out for the City’s interests.

Caught in between these expensive questions is the taxpayer. But the taxpayer’s representatives long ago misjudged the financial risk inherent in the odd design they picked from an artist’s rendering. Propelled forward by dubious advice from consultants and staff—which the anti-logic faction of Fortin and councillors Madoff, Thornton-Joe, Coleman, and Alto have willingly and enthusiastically accepted—councillors now seem reduced to playing the role of bystanders at a head-on collision. The stewards of the public’s financial resources are left to shifting money from one fund to another, creating new fabrications on top of old fabrications.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.