Big Blue: It isn't over

by David Broadland, September 2010

Round 2 in the battle of Johnson Street Bridge finally gets underway

"My recommendations and conclusions will be along these lines: Retrofit rather than replace...retrofit to lifeline standards can be achieved by installing a new, relatively flexible foundation to relieve the existing timber pile arrangement. Together with electrical/mechanical upgrades, painting and other rehab items this retrofit option is currently estimated to cost in the order of $8.6M." —Dr Joost Meyboom, November 21, 2008

At an August 12 meeting of Victoria City Council, Mayor Dean Fortin said “Now is the time, whether you are for refurbishment or for replacement, to recognize that...we have heard loud and clear from our community which... is the option that the majority of people—in this case up to 80 percent—find acceptable, that this is the option they would like to move forward. Now is the time to put the political swords down and aside and let us come together as community because fundamentally we need to fix this bridge.”

Everyone, including those fighting to save the heritage Johnson Street Bridge, knows “we need to fix this bridge.” But the mayor was talking about his council’s decision to go with replacement, based on polling results. City Hall had commissioned an Ipsos survey of 601 City of Victoria residents who, essentially, were asked if they’d rather borrow $56 million to build a new bridge or borrow $80 million to fix the existing bridge. Not surprisingly, most said they would prefer the smaller figure. The estimated cost of a new bridge is actually $77 million, but the City obviously wanted to highlight the difference so used $56 million in their survey. 

City Council’s decision to put the question of borrowing money for a new bridge on the referendum is exactly what the Blue Bridge proponents were asking them to do a year ago. Why did this now seem like a defeat? Perhaps it was in the carefully-orchestrated way  the City had used a gold-plated refurbishment estimate, along with a revved-up highly-paid in-house PR machine, to get the majority nod for replacement. Not only that. City Hall, it seemed, had just performed a rather brilliant reframing of the situation: City Council, forced to hold a referendum, was now back in control. 

City Hall’s victory may be short-lived, depending on how quickly the Ross Crockford-led Blue Bridge brigade gets its campaign rolling. They could do worse than start by out-polling the paid pollsters with a survey of 1000 or more Victorians on the following question:

“For which of the following would you prefer to pay?

1. A new bridge for $100 million (including rail).

2. Fixing the existing bridge for $8.6 million (including rail).”

Why should they poll on those numbers? Let’s briefly consider the $100 million cost for a new bridge, followed by—sorry!—a lengthy discussion of fixing the current bridge for $8.6 million.

First, $100 million for the new bridge. If City Hall wins the referendum on borrowing for a new bridge, how long will it take to get rail  back on the bridge and the June sticker price of $89 million (rail included) jumping up to over $100 million? A month? Two months? Examine the record of price escalation over the past year and if you can still convince yourself that anybody at City Hall has a firm grip on the real cost of their rolling-bascule experiment, then consider yourself a “Yes” man.

Now how ‘bout $8.6 million to fix the existing bridge? Let’s introduce the man who for the past year has been advising Victoria City Hall on the issue of the Johnson Street Bridge: MMM Engineering’s Dr Joost Meyboom. Dr Meyboom began working for MMM in 2009 when he became a partner in the company and currently holds the position of Regional Manager—Western Canada, Project Delivery and Management. Meyboom spent serious time at some very prestigious engineering schools, including Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich and the University of Toronto. This spring, under Dr Meyboom’s leadership, several engineering firms subcontracted by MMM developed a strategy for rebuilding the current bridge which led to the current $80 million price tag. The Blue Bridge must have seemed very familiar to Dr Meyboom—he had previously priced retrofitting the bridge while working for another company, Delcan Corp. But in that case he came up with an extraordinarily different figure.

In 2008 Dr Meyboom was a vice president with Delcan, the engineering company that did the original condition assessment of the Johnson Street Bridge for the City. In November 2008 he was the company’s point man on what became known as the Delcan Report. Focus Magazine has obtained documents from the City of Victoria (through the provisions of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act) that cover the time Dr Meyboom was working on the Delcan Report.

From those documents, we note that on November 21, 2008, Dr Meyboom sent an email to the City of Victoria’s Mike Lai in which he wrote: “Subject to confirmation of the replacement cost and the life cycle analysis which still need [doing], my recommendations and conclusions will be along these lines: Retrofit rather than replace; retrofit to emergency route standards would be less expensive than to lifeline standards and would probably serve quite well; retrofit to lifeline standards can be achieved by installing a new, relatively flexible foundation to relieve the existing timber pile arrangement. Together with electrical/mechanical upgrades, painting and other rehab items this retrofit option is currently estimated to cost in the order of $8.6M. I suggest that a ‘users manual’ for the retrofitted bridge be developed to ensure a systematic and appropriate maintenance program; I would suggest that our current study be extended to refine the retrofit concept and the associated costs.”

Dr Meyboom left Delcan in January 2009 and soon after surfaced at MMM. By the way, his successor on the bridge file at Delcan, Mark Mulvihill, also recommended retrofit to the City of Victoria’s engineering department in March 2009.

Focus recently wrote to Dr Meyboom and asked why his estimate to fix the bridge was $8.6 million in 2008 but is now $80 million. Dr Meyboom did not respond to our inquiry.

Mayor Fortin is likely not even aware of the $8.6 million estimate given all the numbers that have flown through the air over the past year or so. But he has tried to explain the jump from the City’s earlier estimates of $35 million for refurbishment and $63 million for replacement to the current bloated prices as resulting from “extremely escalating” construction costs. However, an expert in bridge design and building told Focus that current conditions in the industry are “a buyer’s market.” As well, Greg Baynton, president of the Vancouver Island Construction Association has said that construction costs have dropped since 2008.

The Class C cost estimates for retrofitting the bridge done for MMM Engineering by Advicus Group Consultants provide some insight about what has actually caused the price escalation.

Here’s an example: In 2009 Delcan estimated the cost of upgrading the bridge’s mechanical systems to be $400,000. Their estimate was based on an inspection and report by the mechanical engineering firm Stafford Bandlow. According to Delcan, “With the implementation of the recommendations...the machinery on this bridge can be expected to provide reliable service for many years.” But in the new Advicus estimates, which are again based on costs provided by Stafford Bandlow, the price for mechanical work jumps to $10.4 million. Stafford Bandlow note they based this new number on the same inspection and report they did for Delcan in 2009. But it gets worse. In the Advicus estimate, that $10.4 million gets compounded by a 20 percent design/construction contingency, a 20 percent engineering contingency and a 12.33 percent increase due to “escalation.” It comes out in the Advicus estimate as a $17 million cost.

If “WTF?” is not going through your head right now, your BS meter is seriously out of order. The sad reality is that Victoria City Council’s insistence on basing the retrofit estimate on an extreme seismic standard and a 100-year life gave the engineering companies license to produce a completely bizarre result: $17 million to replace the bridge’s mechanical system that a year before needed only $400,000 to “provide reliable service for many years.”

It’s my guess the Advicus estimate includes other absurdities reflecting the intended purpose of producing a number that no one in their right mine would say “yes” to, but would be very handy—in the context of an Ipsos survey—to suggest wide support for replacing the bridge.

The City has argued that the extreme seismic standard they imposed on the retrofit option only reflects their need to put “public safety first.” To that end they’ve promoted the notion that Victoria is about to be hit by the Big One and have told city residents “there is a 30-35 percent probability of a major earthquake (magnitude 7.0 - 7.9) occurring in Victoria within the next 50 years.” But the information on seismic risk they provided—while it pretty much guaranteed long term damage to the City’s reputation as a safe place to live and visit—ignored more detailed information provided by the Delcan Report: a determination of risk of loss.

Frank Nelson, the noted American bridge engineer who has extensive experience rehabilitating heritage bridges, told Focus making the right decision about whether to rehabilitate a bridge or replace it involves a 10-step process starting with a condition assessment.  Done. The second step, Nelson says, is to do a “determination of risk of loss.” Delcan did that as well. Their analysis considers the condition of the existing bridge, looks at different levels of seismic events, notes the probability of each occurring at the bridge and predicts what physical effects these different earthquakes would likely have on the bridge. It then assigns costs for getting the bridge back to serviceable condition, predicts the cost for traffic detours and delays and predicts the loss of human life. For what Delcan calls a “major seismic event,” they assign a probability of occurrence of .002564 per year. Over a 50-year period, that amounts to a 13 percent chance of occurrence. And what would happen to the bridge in a “major seismic event?” Delcan predicts the bridge would be out of service for six months, would cost $12 million to repair and would likely result in no loss of life. This, mind you, is for the existing bridge—without any seismic retrofitting, the do-nothing scenario.

On the 13 percent chance this might happen in the next 50 years, the City has chosen to spend at least $80 million to build a new bridge.

Focus asked Dr Meyboom if MMM Engineering had included a determination of risk of loss as part of their retrofit estimate. Dr Meyboom did not respond.

Which brings us back to Dr Meyboom’s $8.6 million for retrofitting the Blue Bridge. Isn’t it up to him to prove that he was wrong when he so confidently recommended the City retrofit the bridge for that amount? C’mon Dr Meyboom, tell us the truth: how much would it cost today to do the retrofit you were promoting less than two years ago?

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.