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  • The Wounded White Elephant


    We should call the new bridge what it is.

     

    VICTORIA'S NEW BRIDGE—variously dubbed “The Blew Budget Bridge,” “Fortin’s Folly,” and “The White Elephant”—opened on March 31, 2018. Notably absent from the group of officials presiding over the occasion were any of the former high-level City officials who lost their jobs as a consequence of the project’s long history of miscalculation and misrepresentation. The bridge’s original designer, Sebastien Ricard of Wilkinson Eyre Architects, who ended his connection with the project back in 2012, was nowhere to be seen. Nor was Joost Meyboom, the private engineer who first advised the City to fix the old bridge rather than build a new one, back in 2008, but then went on to become the City’s prime consultant on the new bridge project. Meyboom’s employer—formerly MMM Group, which changed its name to WSP—launched a legal suit against the City over the project earlier this year.

     

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    Opening of Victoria's new bridge

     

    No wonder all these folks skipped Mayor Lisa Helps’ $42,000 opening-day celebration. Back in April 2009, when City council voted to replace the existing “historically-significant” double-bascule bridge, those officials assured Victorians a new bridge would cost $41 million and take 18 months to build. Nine years later, costs have almost tripled while major elements of the project remain unestimated, unfunded and unfinished. Millions in costs directly attributable to the project have been hidden.

    The project’s record of underestimation and miscalculation, though, may be just a prelude to greater embarrassment to come. Certain aspects of the new bridge’s design and construction are so at odds with engineers’ warnings that, although the new bridge can, at this moment, open for marine traffic just like the old bridge, it’s highly doubtful whether it will come anywhere near to matching the old bridge’s 95-year record of reliable operation and minimal ongoing expense. While “The Blew Budget Bridge” does capture the huge miscalculation in cost, and “Fortin’s Folly” makes it clear that good people made bad decisions, only “The White Elephant”—which signifies over-the-top original cost and unjustifiable ongoing expense—provides a fulsome enough characterization of the so-far nameless new bridge. But even that needs updating. Here’s why I am leaning toward “The Wounded White Elephant.”

     

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    The new bridge 's opening span provides the same navigational channel width as the old bridge did, but at huge costs and with hundreds of "nonconformities" welded into its superstructure.

     

    The most eye-catching feature of the new bridge is its 50-foot-diameter steel rings. The counterweight lobes attached to the rings do happen to resemble an elephant’s ears, but that’s not the reason why this bridge should be named “The White Elephant.” You won’t find anything like those rings—or the gigantic machinery below them needed to support and rotate them—on any bridge anywhere else on Earth. Unfortunately, designing a bridge that required 1700 tonnes of structural steel in its moveable superstructure and hundreds of tonnes of machinery to support that—just to span a 41-metre-wide opening—is not the direction planet Earth needs to go. (Worse, largely unacknowledged by the project is the fact that the first attempt to fabricate the superstructure was scrapped and as much as 1700 tonnes of steelwork wasted; more on this later.)

    Good, common-sense arguments were made against building Ricard’s design by engineers, and it’s because all the decision makers over the years ignored those arguments that the bridge cost three times what it should have and took 108 months to complete instead of 18.

    Because of those officials’ dismal performance, the bridge promises to be an ongoing source of expense to City of Victoria ratepayers and hence deserving of “The White Elephant” moniker. Below, I’ll highlight just a fraction of what happened. To start with, though, let’s recall why Ricard put those rings into his design. This is key to understanding why the project flubbed.

    Just before the November 2010 referendum in which the City won elector approval to build a new bridge, Ricard explained those rings at a public presentation. He told a handful of people that the underlying design challenge, for him, was to create a moveable bridge that easily communicated to an observer how it worked. That’s it. That’s the entire argument for the rings. The rings were all about appearance and not about any substantive proven need particular to a crossing of Victoria’s harbour.

    Ricard wasn’t trying to reduce seismic vulnerability or to create a bridge less likely to be hit by a barge full of gravel and survive the blow if one did. Nor was he trying to reduce life-cycle costs or use scarce public resources more efficiently. No, it was enough for Ricard that a tourist from Iowa, standing on the Laurel Point walkway, would be able to gaze across the Inner Harbour and understand how the bridge lifted, at a glance.

    Perhaps there’s a similar, whimsical rationale at the foundation of every white elephant construction project, and maybe Victorians are no better or worse than any other community at sniffing out ideas that don’t have much merit. I don’t know. But what I have learned, after following Victoria’s project closely for 9 long years, is that there were real-life consequences that flowed from the project’s ill-considered underpinnings.

    Ricard’s whimsical central motivation radiated outward through the project with force, inflating engineering and construction costs, laying waste to political and public service careers, substantially increasing carbon emissions, straining the City’s coffers, and dividing the community. Ricard’s imagination even put a well-established Chinese company out of business. How did all this happen? Let me sketch in some details.

    Let’s start with a fundamental physical fact about the bridge that resulted directly from Ricard’s rings. Because of a quirk in Ricard’s design, every time the bridge opens, it has to lift and hold the span a full 2.5 storeys higher than it needed to. Indeed, people have observed that, when it is lifted, the new bridge is “so much higher” than the old bridge. Yet the new bridge provides the same navigational channel width as the old bridge. That extra height might be dramatic to observe—like a hopping car—but it’s otherwise pointless and that little moment of drama has come with a lot of negative long-term consequences.

     

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    The mechanical design of the new bridge results in it lifting the weight of the superstructure 2.5 storeys higher than necessary, an engineering feat almost as pointless as a hopping car.

     

    For example, every part of the bridge that moves had to be stronger than it would have needed to be in a bridge that used a fixed central axle with conventional bearings located as close to the edge of the channel as possible. That extra strength was obtained by using far more steel for the bridge—in the rings and trusses—than would have been necessary in a more conventional approach. Extra steel in the trusses meant more lead and steel were needed in the counterweights to balance that extra weight. All that extra weight in the superstructure meant the machinery that supports and rotates it needed to be immense compared to the shaft, bearings and machinery needed to rotate a more conventional moveable bridge.

    The higher lift of the span also meant that it would experience greater pressure during strong winds, and so that force, too, had to be offset with more steel and heavier support equipment, all costing more than a conventional approach.

    All of these additional weights and costs affected the approach bridges, too. It meant that for a given budget, less money could be spent on the approach bridges. Originally, to satisfy high seismic performance requirements, they were going to be built of steel. Instead, because of the inflating cost of the lifting span, there was only enough budget to use less costly reinforced concrete. But in order to include the use of concrete approach bridges, City officials had to secretly agree, during the procurement process, to place a rider in the construction contract that specified much lower levels of seismic performance than had been recommended to the City.

    The rider clearly states that its stipulations of (lower) performance take precedence over the seismic performance requirements of any of North America’s highway bridge building codes. This loss of one of the fundamental objectives of the project—a legally enforceable contractual assurance of a high level of seismic performance by the bridge if Victoria is struck by a large earthquake, can be traced directly to Ricard’s choice of rings in the lifting mechanism and the extent to which they inflated the cost of the project.

    City officials, the ones who later lost their jobs, were well-warned by engineers about the risk of Ricard’s open-ring design inflating costs.

    For example, during bidding for the contract to build the bridge, participating companies were required to provide a critical review of the design MMM had developed with Ricard, and they were invited to “optimize” that design so that it could be built within the City’s $66-million “affordability ceiling.” The winning bid by PCL was the only proposal that utilized Ricard’s open-ring concept. The only other serious bid proposal received by the City, from Kiewit Infrastructure, rejected the axleless design and predicted what would happen if the City went ahead with Ricard’s design.

    Specifically, Kiewit told City managers it had contacted “a number of steel and machinery fabricators, who are experienced in movable bridge design and/or construction. All expressed the opinion that there were likely more cost effective mechanical concepts for a bascule bridge” than the open-ring design used by Ricard and MMM. Kiewit advised the City that “unknowns and/or unexpected costs” of Ricard’s “unconventional design” would “conflict with the City’s mandate to remain near or below the indicated Affordability Ceiling…Kiewit is of the view that the [design] may represent a fundamentally high risk and expensive design approach.”

    The company’s engineers noted that the counterweight in Ricard’s design was attached to the truss rings in a way that “would load the truss ring eccentrically, which could distort the ring—a highly undesirable condition.”

    The bridge proposed by PCL had the same eccentric loading of the rings that concerned Kiewit, but was going to have an added complication: In order for its bid to be within the City’s affordability ceiling, fabrication of the moveable part of the bridge would have to take place in China.

    In hindsight, it’s easy to see that the City listened to the wrong engineers, chose the wrong company to build a bridge, and built the wrong bridge. City officials were warned they were in danger of buying a White Elephant. Instead of heeding the warnings they insisted on having one as quickly as possible—and this meant hiding the critical reviews (which cost the City $150,000) from the public—and so Ricard’s whim rolled forward into the next phase.

     

    AS YOU MAY RECALL, the City of Victoria awarded a construction contract to PCL in late 2012 to build the bridge under a $63.2-million “fixed-price” contract. PCL made it clear it planned to have the moveable part of the bridge fabricated in China. This, apparently, raised no red flags at City Hall.

    At the time PCL won the construction contract, MMM Group were contracted to provide engineering, and it in turn subcontracted Hardesty & Hanover to provide engineering and design for the lifting span and the machinery used to raise that span. When PCL began construction in late 2013, the City of Victoria assured its ratepayers that the cost of the bridge could not rise since PCL had agreed to a “fixed-price” contract. But, by early 2014, PCL started to pepper the City with demands for more money.

    Those demands began soon after fabrication of the rings and trusses had started in China in March 2014. By September of that year, work in China had been halted. In January 2015, the City’s Project Director Jonathan Huggett reported that fabrication problems were so bad that “one of the rings is being replaced while the other is being repaired. The north truss steel will be replaced.”

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    The first attempt to build Ricard's bridge at ZTSS's plant. Shown above are fabrication of the bridge's rings, trusses and deck components in July 2014. All of the steelwork done up to January 2015 was scrapped.

     

    Notably absent from Huggett’s reports from this era is any acknowledgment that the thing the Chinese welders were screwing up was actually very difficult to build. Neither did Huggett tell councillors that the City had been warned by Kiewit engineers that this was likely to happen if the City attempted to build Ricard’s design.

    Instead, Huggett persuaded the City that simply increasing quality control would produce rings and trusses with adequate strength and structural integrity.

    In spite of such hopes, fabrication problems in China continued to accumulate in the bridge components. Recently, Huggett admitted: “We rejected an entire bridge at one point.”

    The City’s project director seemed to see the scrapping of “an entire bridge” as a good thing, a sign that people were doing their jobs properly, that quality assurance procedures were working, and that Victorians could be confident that the project wouldn’t accept crap for a bridge.

    But think about that: An entire bridge wasted. If we take Huggett at his word, about 1700 metric tonnes of steel were scrapped. That’s the weight of structural steel for the superstructure specified in the City’s contract with PCL. (The City did not respond to repeated requests for confirmation of the amount of steel that was scrapped.)

    But we should add to that heavy burden all the human effort and other costs—including associated environmental damage—that went with throwing away the warm-up bridge. Who was going to pay for that waste? As it turned out, it wasn’t going to be PCL.

    The City had acknowledged PCL’s first demand for more money—$7.9 million in early 2014—but then demurred from providing information about subsequent demands. In early 2015, about the time “an entire bridge” was rejected, the City admitted it had entered a “legal mediation process” with the companies building the bridge.

     

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    The second attempt to build Ricard's bridge, in March 2016 at ZTSS's plant near Shanghai.

     

    It wasn’t until April 2016, at the conclusion of the mediation, that the City acknowledged that PCL, MMM and H&H had demanded $27 million in additional costs.

    The details of that $27 million claim were never made public, but it is believed PCL’s share was about $25 million. After out-competing two other companies for the contract and assuring the City Ricard’s bridge could be built for $63 million, what circumstance could possibly have justified PCL’s demand for over 40 percent more money?

    The timing of the start of PCL’s demands, you may have noticed, coincided with the beginning of fabrication in China. As major components of the bridge were rejected, PCL’s claims against the City increased. The company may have realized that the lifting span being (badly) fabricated in China could carry a huge risk of future legal claims by the City. By demanding more money and halting work in China, PCL may have simply been creating the conditions for dumping all of that risk back on the City. And that’s exactly what happened.

    The City settled the $27 million in claims by agreeing to pay an additional $2.4 million and making changes to the terms of the contract. In a news report at the time, Mayor Helps claimed: “I think it’s better news than anyone could have hoped for.”

    But an FOI filed by johnsonstreetbridge.org revealed the City agreed to “release and forever discharge” PCL, MMM and H&H “from all debts, claims, demands, damages, expenses and costs (including without limitation, legal costs) of any nature or kind that are in any way related to the Project and either known or which ought to be known by the [City] as of [April 23, 2016].”

    This was hardly “better news than anyone could have hoped for.” Whatever problems have been built into the bridge by PCL, MMM and H&H are now City taxpayers’ problems. One of those problems was brought to the public’s attention in the last two editions of Focus (stories posted here, here, and here). And this is where the “wounded” part of “ Wounded White Elephant” comes into our story.

     

    MANY of the risks PCL adroitly shifted back onto the City arose directly from the bridge’s open-ring design. That such risks would have actual physical consequences became clear shortly after the rings were erected at the bridge site last December and Focus pointed out that the rings had already been repaired with metre-square bolted-on plates, apparently required because of a structural weakness in both rings.

    The bolted-on plates definitely eliminated any chance of the bridge winning any awards for excellence in engineering or construction. But much worse, they may signify a more pervasive problem with the lifting span.

    The City has refused to provide a full explanation for the plates, but we have since found a photograph taken during an open house at Point Hope Maritime’s shipyard last October that unintentionally captured details of the repair. The repair was made in Victoria after the rings had been shipped from China. The photograph (see the close-up below), taken before the bolted-on plates were added, reveals not only the make-shift nature of the repair but also at least two holes cut into the “fracture critical” steel with a cutting torch. That damage may have created the need for the plates, at least in part.

     

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    This photograph shows the repair that was made to the north ring at Point Hope Maritime’s shipyard in October. The lines of small holes were drilled in China and would later allow the bolted-on plates to be attached. The trapezoidal-shaped opening cut into the ring was made at Point Hope. The holes circled with yellow are believed to be “rat holes” cut into the rings by an unknown welder in China. These rat holes may be part of the reason why bolted-on plates were added to both rings. The City’s Project Director Jonathan Huggett has acknowledged that the bridge has hundreds of such “non-conformances.”

     

    I emailed the photograph to Martin Bache, a 40-year veteran of the heavy steel fabrication industry in Canada, most recently with Canron as a project supervisor.

    About the burned-in holes that seem to have created the need for the bolted-on plates, Bache commented, “The cuts are similar to what are termed ‘rat holes’ in steel fabrication. These allow continuous welding of two members to take place through the member with the hole. But, I have never seen two rat holes coming together in two planes as these appear to be. A welder in China may have just taken a torch and cut out two large rat holes to make life easier for himself, but damaged the structural integrity in the process. But that would not seem to require such large bolted-on plates to correct, so I really don’t know what the real story is.”

    Around the time the photograph was taken at Point Hope Shipyard, someone had removed a trapezoidal-shaped section from the ring and had added some light steel supports for two edges of the bolted-on plates. Of the repair that was done in Victoria, Bache observed, “Not only this bizarre rat hole but also the other pieces of steel in the photo appear to be butchered to an astounding extent. No competent steel fabricator works this way. So, what the hell is going on here?”

    The steel members of the bridge that were cut into by both the Chinese welder and the workers at Point Hope are considered “fracture critical.” That designation, according to the US Federal Highway Administration, applies to “any steel member in tension, or with a tension element, whose failure would probably cause a portion of or the entire bridge to collapse.”

    Given the apparent low quality of the repair evident in the photograph, Bache is concerned the repair has not been executed properly. “Any modifications or repairs done to fracture critical bridge components must be performed to detailed procedures approved by the Engineer of Record (EOR) and must be inspected by the EOR or his agent to confirm 100 percent compliance with the procedures. It seems inconceivable that Hardesty & Hanover are accepting all of this butchery,” Bache wrote.

    Butchery. Wounded. Get it?

    Bache added, “With all due respect to shipyards, they are not generally expected to work to the same standards of quality and accuracy as bridge fabricators. I would have needed a lot of evidence to persuade me that a shipyard could handle modifications to a fracture critical bridge. Which party approved Point Hope as capable of doing this?”

    Bache had difficulty understanding who was/is looking out for the City’s interests: “Regarding third-party inspectors, they range from highly competent individuals with substantial levels of practical experience on fabrication shop floors, all the way down to people with absolutely no knowledge of steel and no ability to read drawings but are tasked only with receiving paper reports such as steel mill certificates and weld test reports prepared by others. In 40 years of fabrication I never heard of Atema, so I googled them. They appear to sell inspection equipment and offer to train others in how to run quality control programmes. They make no mention of having vast hands-on, shop-floor experience which would be necessary for confirming that complex fabrications are being made exactly to approved drawings and specifications. So, I don’t know how good a job Atema did in China but I have reason to be very suspicious. I know PCL very well and its hard to believe they would not have hired top level practical inspectors to go to China, but who knows? I wonder at what stage MMM ceased to be of real practical help to the City, including fabrication monitoring. After that its doubtful that [the City’s] interests were being handled by anybody.”

    Unfortunately, Focus can’t provide the answers to any of Bache’s concerns. The City has dismissed any such concerns about this repair, explaining only that it was the result of a “fabrication challenge.” This is just one of over 150 similar “non-conformities” recorded by the project, according to Huggett. The City’s idea of providing the public with information about the issue has been, in effect: “Why worry us about that one problem? The bridge contains hundreds of them.”

    The City continues to refuse to release records related to this one repair that were requested by Focus back in mid-December through BC’s access to information legislation. Until the City provides the basic communications about the issue between the City and the engineers who were responsible for resolving the issue, we will keep insisting on seeing those records.

    Martin Bache’s final comment was this: “What an absolute disaster that this bridge was not made in BC.”

    This raises an interesting point. PCL based its 2012 bid on a quote from a Chinese fabricator and that allowed it to sneak under the City’s affordability ceiling. That miracle required everyone involved to pretend that a 4 percent contingency would cover any errors in cost estimation and that Chinese labour really was “lower-cost.” If a few people had been smarter, Ricard’s rings would never have been built. Instead, Victoria got a disaster. Ironically, ZTSS did even worse.

    That company suffered significant financial losses during the time it was building Victoria’s bridge. (It was a publicly-traded company, so its financial performance is a matter of public record.) The cost of having to build the bridge twice, along with bad international publicity about “cracked welds,” no doubt harmed ZTSS’s ability to get new work. By November 2016, trading of the company’s shares had been halted.

    In August 2017, as Ricard’s wounded rings were finally arriving in Victoria and being readied for repairs at Point Hope, ZTSS announced it planned to sell the operation that had fabricated Victoria’s bridge. By January 2018 the company had undergone a corporate name change and was transformed into Beijing-Kaiwen Education Technology Co., Ltd.

    With a such a history, it’s unlikely that anyone would want their name on Victoria’s new bridge. What it deserves is a nickname that truthfully reflects its troubled 9-year-long birth. I respectfully propose “The Wounded White Elephant.”

    David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.



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