The Chinese welding ruse

By David Broadland, December 2015

As the cost for a new bridge marches towards $150 million, explanations from City Hall seem designed to distract rather than inform.

In a recent Times Colonist op-ed about the new Johnson Street Bridge project, ironworkers union spokesperson Eric Bohne stated, “Deficient steel fabricated in China helped lead to a $63-million project estimate in 2009 ballooning to $100 million today and counting.”

Bohne’s message is compelling: Building the steel part of the new bridge in China has taken jobs away from Canadians. Defective steel has caused the cost to swell. He’s partly right. A union-friendly NDP-led council didn’t prevent a few bridge jobs from being shipped to China. On the second count, though—that deficient steel has caused project costs to balloon—Bohne is slicing pure baloney.

At a November 19 meeting of Victoria City council, Project Director Jonathan Huggett said that City costs related to problems at the Jiangsu Zhongtai Steel Structure Co Ltd factory amounted to “at least $1 million.” For a project that appears headed for an eventual cost of at least $135 million, $1 million is the proverbial drop in the bucket.

JSB likely costs to November 2015That fact hasn’t prevented Huggett from constantly highlighting the faraway Chinese problem ever since he was parachuted in to save the project in early 2014. Since then, Huggett’s choice to focus on Chinese fabrication has made it appear to be the central demon plaguing the project. Bohne’s op-ed indicates that strategy is working. On November 19, Huggett continued with that message when he told councillors that, because of new fabrication problems at the Chinese factory, PCL, the company contracted to build the bridge, had changed the project completion date to early 2018. But in a contradictory statement Huggett reassured councillors the steelwork in China would be completed in “three to four months.” According to other schedules previously provided by PCL, that would allow time for delivery of the six major steel parts of the bascule leaf to Victoria in September, 2016. Based on PCL’s schedule, that would put project completion in late 2017, which is the same general ballpark Huggett was batting into last July.

Huggett’s amping-up of problems in China with crack-by-crack accounts of the welding—and the impact those cracks might have on delivery dates—has had the effect of distracting attention away from deeper, more troubling issues with the project.

For example, one of the fabrication challenges Huggett related to councillors on November 19—an unsuccessful attempt to fit together large steel plates that form the 50-foot-diameter rings on which the lifting part of the bridge will rotate—actually stems from the strange design of the bridge, not the skill of Chinese welders.

A conventional lifting bridge rotates on an easily machinable shaft. The existing Johnson Street Bridge, for example, which has operated reliably for 93 years, rotates on simple trunnion bearings that support a shaft about 10 inches in diameter.

Nothing so elegantly simple and easily manufactured can be found in the new bridge. Its original designer, Sébastien Ricard, told Victorians in 2010 that he chose to mechanically rotate the bridge using 50-foot-diameter rings rolling on steel bearings placed beneath them because he wanted an observer of the bridge to be able to readily discern how the bridge mechanism worked. So, because of Ricard’s whimsical choice, the bridge that’s being built doesn’t have a fixed shaft through its axis of rotation. Instead, it has, in effect, a 50-foot-diameter “shaft” that rolls on 24 massive 4-foot-diameter steel rollers placed beneath it. Because of the extremely tight tolerances needed for this heavy machinery to function reliably over many years, the 50-foot-diameter “shaft” of the new bridge needs to be almost as perfectly circular as the 10-inch-diameter shaft of the current bridge. The result is that Ricard’s design doesn’t make much practical sense. It’s much more difficult and expensive to make a perfectly circular steel ring that’s 50 feet in diameter compared to one that’s only 10 inches. Hence the latest difficulty in China.

If the cost to the City of the problems in China can be summed up as “at least $1 million,” as Huggett put it, then what actually accounts for the ballooning of the City’s “fixed-price” with PCL? The answer to this question is complex, but once again it works back to Ricard’s design.

Ricard’s design was considered too risky to build—in terms of cost— by PCL’s two competitors for the construction contract, Kiewit and Walsh. Both rejected it outright in their bids and suggested more conventional designs. PCL, however, based its bid on Ricard’s wacky 50-foot-diameter shaft and got the job. Now here’s an all-important fact to remember about this project: The dissenting opinions of Kiewit and Walsh were never shared by senior City staff with City councillors. Why was this vital information withheld from them?

When Councillor Ben Isitt asked, at an open council meeting in September, 2012, why councillors couldn’t be shown the contents of the three bids, including the critical design reviews that were a requirement of the bids, City Solicitor Tom Zworski wouldn’t even allow his explanation to Isitt to be heard in public. So we don’t know what Zworski’s reasoning was and Isitt isn’t allowed to tell us. All we know is that Zworski successfully thwarted councillors—and the public—from learning about Kiewit’s and Walsh’s concerns until Focus obtained the bids two years later through an FOI request. By then it was too late and the project was already stumbling over Ricard’s impractical concept.

Not only were councillors kept in the dark about the engineering concerns with Ricard’s design, they weren’t told that Kiewit and Walsh had submitted significantly higher bids (for simpler bridges) than PCL did, which should have been a warning sign that PCL’s low bid price might not hold up as the project proceeded. But Zworski’s move to isolate councillors from vital information about the project kept them from knowing this and that kept them from making an informed decision. This sealed the project’s fate.

The key moment for the project, at which the council’s lack of information fully asserted itself, occurred on December 31, 2012, at a closed council meeting at which councillors were shown the PCL contract and asked to approve it before they left. It was New Year’s eve.

PCL’s low starting price in the contract presented to councillors was, in fact, the highest price the councillors had been willing to approve. Their approval of an increase in the project budget from $77 million to $93 million 10 months earlier had been made on the condition that the cost would not go up “a single penny more,” as Councillor Marianne Alto put it back then. This condition was to be implemented through a “fixed-price” contract.

On that New Year’s eve, with the PCL contract in front of them and needing only their approval, councillors were given the impression that the contract with PCL was essentially “fixed-price” in nature, even though the term “fixed-price” doesn’t appear in the contract and the contract provides for change orders and increased costs. Again, councillors weren’t told about Kiewit’s and Walsh’s rejection of the design and they were told nothing about the companies’ significantly higher cost estimates for more conventional bridge designs. On very incomplete information, and under pressure to say “yes,” all of the councillors except Lisa Helps and Ben Isitt voted to approve the PCL contract. An eventual ballooning of costs was a certainty. Here’s why:

PCL based its bid on a modified version of a barely-developed version of Ricard’s design that had been provided by the City’s project manager, MMM Group. Unfortunately for taxpayers, MMM’s design turned out to be little more than a sketch on a napkin. As PCL’s altered version of MMM’s preliminary design was re-engineered in preparation for construction in the real world, it changed. PCL knew this could happen. They had prepared for that possibility by negotiating a contract that put all of the financial risk for both material changes to the design and delays in delivering the design squarely on the City’s shoulders. 

One of the first significant changes to the design involved the need for perfectly circular 50-foot-diameter steel rings. Rather than accomplishing that by using precision-milled bearing surfaces on the rings—too champagne-y for the City’s beer budget—engineers had to rely on the untried concept of pumping 4000 gallons of epoxy grout between the rings and a series of small “support segments” to create a more circular bearing surface for the 50-foot-diameter rings. To this day those engineers have been unable, or unwilling, to identify a single moveable bridge that uses epoxy grout in such prodigious quantities, and so the long-term viability of the design is in question. The grout could fail long before the Chinese welding does.

In any case, that and other changes to PCL’s bid design, all changes dictated by MMM which was responsible for engineering the design through to construction, have allowed PCL to change its price for building the bridge—considerably.

The City made public the first big change order request from PCL in April 2014. This was $9.5 million for “design delay” and “increases to the scope of the project.” (The net amount of the change order was $7.9 million because PCL offered to reduce its request by $1.6 million if the City agreed to thinner highway deck steel.) Since then the City has refused to provide any details about subsequent change orders. Focus has learned that there have been at least two additional change orders, but attempts to obtain details of these through FOI requests have been rebuffed by the City.

In early September, 2015, Focus filed an FOI with the City for the “Issued For Construction” (IFC) drawings that would show the final design of the bascule leaf (the section of the bridge that lifts), the main support pier, and the machinery that will be used to lift the bascule leaf. Photos of the anchor bolts in the bascule pier suggest that significant additions to the design of the bridge’s lifting machinery have been made. That would support PCL’s claim of “increases to the scope” in its first $9.5 million change order. It would also add to the evidence accumulated since mid-2012 that the bridge’s experimental design had only been minimally engineered by MMM during its first four years as the City’s project manager. Those IFC drawings will be critical in sorting out conflicting claims for more money, whether through mediation or in court.

The City’s response to our FOI request reflects the chaos in which the project now finds itself. Although the IFC drawings are a strict requirement of the City’s contract with PCL, and the drawings should be in the custody and control of the City, it told us the drawings couldn’t be found. The City was unsure if they even existed.

Huggett’s willingness to shift blame away from City officials to faceless Chinese welders is, no doubt, a relief to the City officials who hired him to find a way through what Isitt calls “this disaster.” But the project appears to have enough serious problems right here in Victoria without having to go to China. If even the most basic project documents can’t be found, then the City doesn’t have much hope of prevailing in any legal process. It is, of course, possible that the City does have the documents we requested but is willing to break BC information access law in order to hide the true nature of the mess it has got City taxpayers into and thus avoid accountability. We have an example of that, too.

Back in July, Huggett told councillors that fendering on the north side of the new bridge would cost millions of dollars that weren’t included in the City’s agreement with PCL. At the time, Isitt asked Huggett, “Could you remind us why the fendering isn’t included in the scope of the contract with PCL?” Huggett told the councillor that the north side fendering had been “clouded out” in a contract drawing, indicating that north side fendering was not included in the agreement.

Following that meeting, Focus filed an FOI for the “clouded out” contract drawing Huggett had referenced. Several weeks beyond the legal deadline for the City to respond, and only after serial prompting by Focus, the City’s FOI office told us that it couldn’t find Huggett’s drawing. When we asked that office, repeatedly, if it had asked Huggett for the drawing, it didn’t respond. After we sent a written complaint to Mayor Helps and councillors, the FOI office sent us a letter making it clear that there was no “clouded out” drawing of the fendering that was part of the contract with PCL, raising serious questions about Huggett’s version of the issue.

Recently, Huggett told media the north side fendering would cost “upwards of $4 million.” That’s about four times the cost that he’s attributed to problems with Chinese steel and welding. With the bridge project now looking like it has a realistic chance of topping $150 million, councillors might want to consider whether Huggett should be spending so much time on China.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.