Engineers ignored their own recommendation, a Council vote and a referendum

By David Broadland, March 2015

Engineers recommended a high level of seismic protection for the new bridge and then, as their cost estimates went south, they secretly cut that level of protection to the bone.

A document obtained through an FOI shows that the new Johnson Street Bridge could experience “possible permanent loss of service” following a magnitude 7.5 earthquake that engineers have estimated has a “30-35 percent chance of occurring within the next 50 years.”

This is a much lower level of seismic protection than was recommended to the City of Victoria in 2010. Engineering company MMM Group strongly advised the City to pay an extra $10 million for a level of seismic performance that would protect the bridge in a magnitude 8.5 earthquake. Councillors voted to fund the recommended level of seismic protection and the issue helped win a referendum that approved the bridge.

By definition, a magnitude 8.5 (M8.5) earthquake releases 10 times as much energy as a magnitude 7.5 (M7.5) earthquake. 

Surprisingly, the document that specifies  the lower seismic standard was written by MMM Group. Their Johnson Street Bridge Seismic Design Criteria is a set of standards to which the bridge has been seismically engineered. It delineates the allowable impacts different strengths of earthquakes can have on the bridge (far right column of table below).

MMM’s seismic design criteria were created in August 2012, just as three construction companies were preparing bids for a contract to build the bridge. The design criteria were not included in the publicly-released Project Definition Report, a move that kept the lower level of seismic protection hidden from councillors and public view.

Discarding the M8.5 seismic standard recommended by MMM  would have cut costs and helped to keep the project within the council-approved budget. But that decision appears to represent a conflict of interest for MMM. If the City hadn’t received bids within its self-imposed limit of $66.1 million, the project likely would have failed. If that had happened MMM would have lost a $9.1 million contract for additional project management and engineering during the construction phase. So MMM had a financial incentive for dropping the seismic standard it had recommended.

The role City engineers played in the lowering of the seismic standard is unknown. The City’s Director of Engineering and Public Works Dwayne Kalynchuk did not answer questions posed to him about the lower seismic standard. Kalynchuk confirmed the bridge is being built to MMM’s 2012 seismic design criteria.

Johnson Street Bridge Seismic Design Criteria

When City councillors were asked to approve a construction contract for the project in December 2012, City engineers didn’t warn councillors about concerns raised by two of the three bidders, Kiewit Infrastructure and WCC Construction. Kiewit had advised the City the design “may represent a fundamentally high risk and expensive design approach.” Instead, City staff recommended going ahead with the project on the basis that the third company, PCL Constructors Westcoast, had provided the only bid within the City’s budget for the project.

Asked if City councillors had been advised about the lower level of seismic protection, Councillor Geoff Young said, “I would think I would have remembered if we had been told the seismic standards were being reduced.”

Young added, “I would certainly say that if indeed the new bridge has been designed to a much lower level of seismic protection than engineers recommended, lower than council requested, and lower than was promised in the referendum campaign, then this is a serious departure from what was expected. If so, I think we should request information from Hardesty & Hanover [the company that engineered the bascule leaf and main piers] about the design standard achieved, if only for the purposes of emergency planning and for planning of any Bay Street Bridge renovations.”

As Focus was going to press with this edition, City councillors met privately with Karen Martin, a partner in the law firm Dentons Canada, LLP. Martin’s resumé notes that she “practices in the areas of construction/infrastructure” and has “experience as counsel on large construction trials.”

Presumably the City is hiring Martin to represent it during coming litigation involving MMM, Hardesty & Hanover, and/or PCL. Since March, 2014 the City and the companies have been in dispute over delays caused by unresolved design issues, cost increases, and steel fabrication problems in China. Attempts to obtain records about these issues through FOI have been unsuccessful.

Whether or not the significantly diminished seismic protection of the bridge is at issue in the preliminary legal maneuvering is unknown, but the low level of protection implied by MMM’s Seismic Design Criteria raises questions about whether the new bridge is being constructed to adequate seismic standards. In 2009 City councillors voted to replace the current bridge after being told it would collapse in an M6.5 earthquake. In June, 2010 councillors met twice with engineers to consider what level of seismic protection the project should include. 

A presentation to City of Victoria councillors by MMM engineer Joost Meyboom on June 14, 2010 stated there was a “35 percent probability of a major quake (M7.0 to M7.9) in the next 50 years.” Meyboom recommended that a new bridge “be designed for an M8.5 earthquake.” He told councillors, “If you’re going to spend $100 million on a facility, the premium to pay for a very high seismic performance is a relatively low price for insurance.” 

Much the same information was in a written report to councillors at a meeting on June 17, 2010. Signed by Kalynchuk, the report again warned councillors there was a “30-35 percent probability of experiencing a major earthquake (in the range of M7.0 to M7.9) in the next 50 years as per Natural Resources Canada.” The report added, “Staff agree with [MMM’s] recommendations that the seismic design should be at the highest level under the current bridge design code, which is for an M8.5 seismic event…”

At the June 17 meeting Meyboom told councillors: “The premium you pay to go from 7.5 to 8.5 is not a big number when you’re talking about spending in excess of $80 million dollars on a project.” That premium, Meyboom advised councillors, was $8.5 million. “I wouldn’t call myself an expert in seismic,” Meyboom said, “but I’m very knowledgeable about it…The risk of earthquake in Victoria, just to put it in perspective, is the highest in Canada, and it’s comparable to the highest in North America.” 

Following the staff presentation, councillors asked questions and expressed their understanding of the seismic issue. The City and others videotaped the meeting, so statements made by the engineers were recorded. The engineers’ recommendations—and the way in which that advice was understood by councillors—are unambiguous.

Then-mayor Dean Fortin told the meeting that one factor that convinced him the M8.5 standard was essential was “getting the emergency vehicles back and forth—and not only on that day [of the earthquake]—but for the next year or two or three or however long it takes.” Fortin also emphasized the need for the M8.5 standard to insure protection of the taxpayers’ “investment.” “Do you spend $70 to $80 million on a bridge and not get the insurance and then it falls down?” he asked. “That’s a bit of a penny-wise and pound-foolish approach.” The mayor summed up: “That’s the lens I’m putting it in. Do we go to that 8.5?”

A motion by then-Councillor John Luton to “approve the seismic design of both the rehabilitation or replacement options at the M 8.5 (‘lifeline’) level” was passed, with only Councillor Geoff Young opposed.

The imposition of this standard made the option of rehabilitating the existing bridge to the same seismic standard more expensive than replacement—according to MMM—making it easy for councillors to then decide to put the borrowing of money for a replacement bridge, rather than rehabilitation, to a referendum.

In that referendum, the City informed voters that it was essential to build the bridge to withstand an M8.5 earthquake. For example, brochures sent to every household stated: “The safety of the travelling public is top of mind. The bridge will be upgraded to a lifeline structure able to withstand an 8.5 magnitude earthquake—the highest standard of earthquake protection—to ensure the safety of users, disaster response capability, protection of investment and post-disaster recovery.” Those same brochures stated: “Victoria is located in the most active seismic zone in Canada and recent studies have indicated that there is a 30-35 percent probability of a major earthquake occurring in Victoria within the next 50 years.” The City’s referendum campaign material defined “major earthquake” as one having a “magnitude of 7.0 to 7.9.”

A majority of electors voted “Yes” to borrow for a new bridge in the referendum held on November 20, 2010.

That appears to be the last time anyone on City council or in the City’s engineering department showed interest in the issue of seismic protection or how much it was costing. By August 2012, at the time MMM produced its Seismic Design Criteria, that company’s concern seemed to have shifted from preventing the bridge from collapsing in an M8.5 earthquake to preventing the bridge project from collapsing under the weight of underestimated costs. 

A key question is this: Has a significant risk to the public’s investment been imposed by lowering the level of seismic protection, as MMM warned against back in 2010? Since ten times as much energy is released in an M8.5 earthquake as compared with M7.5 (see graphic below), MMM appears to have lowered the level of protection to only 10 percent of what it had previously recommended.

Comparison of energy released by various historical earthquakes

Moreover, the expected outcomes for the new bridge following even an M7.5 earthquake are much worse than the City expected following an M8.5 earthquake. Comparisons with the seismic design criteria used for Seattle’s South Park Bridge are telling (see table below).

That structure, which has a section that opens for marine traffic like the Johnson Street Bridge, was completed in 2014. The design chosen was a tried-and-true double-leaf bascule; it spans about the same channel width as the Johnson Street Bridge.

For the South Park Bridge, the expected impact following an M7.5 earthquake is “minor to moderate damage with some loss of operation.” The Johnson Street Bridge, on the other hand, can expect to experience “possible permanent loss of service” in an M7.5 earthquake. “Permanent” implies the bridge would not be repairable. The two sites have similar expected peak ground acceleration values, which are a measure of the expected ground motion for different magnitudes of seismic events. Given that, comparing seismic design criteria for each of the major elements of the two bridges gives the distinct impression that there is something fatally flawed about the Johnson Street Bridge’s design.

Comparison of seismic protection

One wee flaw: Although the bascule leaf is expected to weigh close to 2300 metric tonnes, it won’t be firmly attached to anything—no anchor bolts will keep it from jumping around in an earthquake. Instead, its two 15-metre-diameter rings will float on steel rollers. Moveable span locks at the west end of the leaf and at the east end of the counterweight—both of which will need to fit loosely so they can be easily operated several times a day when the bridge opens and closes—are all that will hold the bascule leaf in place during an earthquake. If they fail, the bridge could experience “permanent loss of service.” MMM’s seismic design instructions for these span locks in an M7.5 earthquake is: “failure may occur but this should not lead to global structural collapse.” The words “should not” are not particularly reassuring. Moreover, MMM’s seismic design criteria say nothing at all about what the span locks “should do” in an M8.5 earthquake.

Curiosity about what the bridge engineers had discovered from seismic analyses carried out on the design prompted me, in November 2013, to file an FOI for any analyses done on the design. For the South Park Bridge, engineers did extensive analysis of what was needed before they chose the mechanical design. Their analyses were made public even before construction began. For the Johnson Street Bridge, nothing had been released. In response to my FOI the City advised me they had “no records.”

Lisa Helps, a councillor at the time, offered to make a public request for these records, which she did at an April, 2014 council meeting. At that meeting Kalynchuk told Helps, “I believe that information has been requested under freedom of information and has been released.” Then-Mayor Fortin, who has always been quick to believe that his staff were doing a terrific job on the bridge project, 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.”

I filed a second FOI, this time for the “binders of material.” I also asked Kalynchuk if he’d seen the actual seismic analyses. Kalynchuk replied, “…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.”

Meanwhile, my second FOI for seismic analyses worked its way through the system. Once again, the City’s response came back: “No records.” I then stepped into the long queue at the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner and many months passed. Then, finally, an investigator from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner told me that MMM had informed the City the seismic analyses might contain “trade secrets,” so MMM wasn’t obligated to release them. The City admitted to the OIPC investigator that the company that performed the seismic analyses—Hardesty & Hanover—had provided only a verbal account of the results of the analyses to MMM, and MMM had provided only a verbal account to the City. No written communications discussing the seismic analyses by any of the parties had, apparently, taken place, because my FOI for those records also proved fruitless. If you’re getting the impression that MMM and Hardesty & Hanover didn’t want anyone to see those seismic analyses, then you’re reading this the way I am.

A couple of months ago, though, I asked Mayor Helps to intervene. She agreed, and between her assistance and the threat of dragging the City to an inquiry at the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, the word got back to Hardesty & Hanover’s New York office to produce something. I am reporting to you that as Focus went to press, 3183 pages of scanned computer printouts were delivered by courier to our office. Most of the pages contain long strings of numbers—the raw data that would be used to do the seismic analyses like those released for Seattle’s South Park bridge. A rough guess is that there are 687,096 of them—most seven digits long, and as soon as I figure out what they are and enter each of them into some—at this moment—unknown computer program, I’ll report back to you on what I discover. Don’t hold your breath, though. 

Back in 2010, when the City was deciding whether to rehabilitate the existing bridge or build a new one, MMM Group led the City to believe it could build a new “signature” bridge for $77 million. That included a $10 million premium for seismic protection of the City’s investment to an M8.5 standard. The City expected this level of protection to provide immediate access to emergency vehicles following a catastrophic earthquake. Although the cost of the bridge is now hovering around $110 million, the seismic standard has been significantly lowered. It would appear MMM never consulted with the City, officially, on lowering that standard. That will leave the City in the position of having no disaster response route across the harbour, a situation that Meyboom himself said back in 2010 the City needed to address. As Councillor Young has noted, this means the City may have to re-examine the extent to which the Bay Street Bridge is upgraded, which could mean expenditure of millions more than the City has budgeted. 

Any doubts about the level of seismic protection included with the new bridge could be cleared up by the City insisting that MMM and Hardesty & Hanover release comprehensive seismic analyses like those released for the South Park Bridge—not just raw data—that can be independently verified by someone not associated with the project.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.

 

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JSB Seismic Design Criteria Aug 17, 2012.pdf96.25 KB
South Park - Johnson Street Bridges seismic comparison.jpg264.72 KB
Full-updated-technical-presentation-June142.pdf3.89 MB
Decision Request (8.5 & Rail) June 2010.pdf1.66 MB
GPC JSB Options presentation June 2010.pdf1.58 MB
Stantec peer review June2010.pdf81.78 KB
2013-09-19 Responsive records - Part 1-28.jpg418.36 KB
JSB Aug 12 2015 changes.jpg191.7 KB