Bridge project increasingly looks like one for the record books

By David Broadland, November 2015

Would the new bridge survive a collision with common sense?

A thicket of 12 rusting steel pipes sprouted in front of the new Johnson Street Bridge’s bascule pier in mid-October. Now a permanent feature of the project, fendering was somehow left out of architectural renderings of the controversial project. The steel pipes are part of a redesigned fendering system. Engineers’ concerns about the ability of the new bridge to withstand the impact of a marine collision have apparently led to much more extensive (and expensive) fendering than originally anticipated. In July the City of Victoria’s Project Director Jonathan Huggett told City councillors the new structure will be “somewhat less robust” than the existing bridge and so the fendering needed to be beefed up.

An email obtained by Focus through an FOI shows that the company building the bridge, PCL Constructors Westcoast, submitted a change order to cover the cost of more substantial fendering late last March. That change order was based on fendering design specifications sent to the City on March 26 and is believed to cover all of the fendering except that required for the north side approach. The email did not indicate the dollar value of PCL’s change order request.

Huggett told City councillors in July he would seek their approval for the additional cost of fendering needed for the north side approach to the bridge, which he estimated would cost an additional $3 million.

But in mid-September Huggett described the additional cost of fendering as “upwards of $4 million” without indicating whether this was for the north end fendering plus the March change order amount, or just the north end fendering. The City has maintained that all PCL change order requests are subject to “mediation” and secrecy, so its likely the $4 million only applies to the north end fendering. The City’s strategy of discussing costs at in camera council meetings and publicly claiming that all costs are subject to mediation has created a situation where councillors are muzzled and FOI requests for records can legally be denied—sure signs that the project is headed for the record books.

Ross Crockford, a director of the project watchdog group JohnsonStreetBridge.org has other concerns related to fendering. “Trouble is, all the fendering in the world won’t protect the bascule span itself, “ Crockford told Focus. “The new bridge will take 90 seconds to open, 50 percent longer than the old one, and double what is legally permitted in Florida. Which means a greater risk of a direct collision with the lifting span.” The 90-second lift specification is part of PCL’s contract with the City.

Crockford referred me to a video on Youtube that shows a lifting bridge on the Welland Canal being lowered when it should have been lifting, and the subsequent spectacular collision between the bridge and the MV Windoc (images above). Shit does happen.

The unique design of Victoria’s new bridge means the lifting span will float on top of a nest of steel rollers. Span locks at either end of the bascule span, which are engaged only when the bridge is in the fully-lowered position, are the only thing anchoring the span to its supporting piers. If the span is struck by a passing vessel as it’s lifting or lowering—the most likely scenario—there’s nothing more than the span’s dead weight to keep it from being knocked out of position. Whoops.

The bascule leaf’s lifting mechanism includes two 50-foot-diameter steel rings rotating on 24 four-foot-diameter steel support rollers. Because of the substantial friction generated by all those heavy moving parts, the new bridge will not only be slower to lift, it will require substantially more energy to do so than the existing 92-year-old bridge.

Right now the project looks more like an ordinary unfinished highway overpass than the architecturally-significant “signature bridge” promised by early bridge promoters. At the very least, though, the $90-million gap between the project’s original cost estimate of $40 million and the current best guess of $130 for the final price will likely make the City a desirable destination for people on The World’s Most Badly Estimated Building Projects Ever Tour.

David Broadland likes to build stuff but hates estimating the cost beforehand.