The project seems to be a complete fiasco. But is that just a perception created by something in the air?
IN A REPORT HE DELIVERED to Victoria City council in late March, Johnson Street Bridge Project Director Jonathan Huggett did a 180-degree flip-flop on one of the project’s costly screw-ups. Before I tell you about that, though, I have to provide the reader with a caveat-emptor kind of warning about my story. The fact is, I may be suffering from a mind-altering overdose of carbon dioxide. I don’t think I’m making this up, but I might be.
I came to realize this was a real possibility after coming across a 2015 study by research scientists at Harvard, State University of New York, and Syracuse University. I was earnestly googling away for what might be in the air that could possibly explain the widespread mental confusion we’re seeing south of the border these days. Is it something in the water? No, it’s in the air.
These scientists reported that human cognitive abilities are significantly and adversely affected by the concentration of carbon dioxide that we are now regularly exposed to inside many buildings. Their work confirmed two previous but smaller studies that had come to much the same conclusion. The cognitive functions most severely impacted, the research found, were the ability to use information and the ability to strategize.
So I need to warn you: I wrote this story while sitting inside a building. Moreover, my subject—Mr Huggett’s flip-flopping report—was presumably also written while the author was inside a building. Even worse, because of the likelihood of elevated levels of carbon dioxide wherever you are right now, your ability to process my potentially confused reporting of a potentially confused report could be compromised. By the end of this story, you may be completely dazed and confused.
Before venturing into that minefield, consider this: The only real solution to adverse levels of indoor carbon dioxide is thorough ventilation with fresh, outdoor air. But, as the level of carbon dioxide outdoors continues to increase as a result of carbon emissions from human activity, ventilation will increasingly fail to make any difference. How bad could this get?
The worst-case scenario is that global concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide will one day reach the levels that significantly affect human cognition. Confusion begins around 800 to 900 parts per million. Currently, outdoor levels are about halfway there and rising. Donald Trump seems eager to get all of us fully there, but being even halfway seems to allow for craziness enough.
So reader beware, and let’s look—for the billionth time—at the Johnson Street Bridge project, whose nine-year history so far provides plenty of circumstantial evidence that carbon dioxide levels during City council meetings in Victoria need to be carefully investigated.
JONATHAN HUGGETT, it turns out, is the most highly-paid official currently working for the City of Victoria. At $20,000 per month, he’s making more than even City Manager Jason Johnson, who hired him. Including expenses and taxes, Huggett is billing Victoria taxpayers approximately $295,000 per year. Not bad for a guy who lives in Surrey, only needs to report to City council four times a year, and isn’t required to answer questions from reporters.
Since he’s so highly paid—by taxpayers—and since some of his claims about the project have seemed to be at odds with the public interest, Huggett’s reports beg for a detailed examination by local media. He has told Focus he’s too busy to answer our emailed questions, although he has made frequent appearances on local talk-radio programs.
As Huggett’s open-ended contract with the City notes, the City also has a highly-paid “designer and project manager,” MMM Group. Since 2009 the City has paid MMM about $16 million for its services. As the “owner’s representative,” MMM, supposedly, would insure the City’s interests were given top priority by the company building the bridge, PCL Constructors Westcoast Inc. So why does the City need Huggett? Can’t MMM be trusted to do its job?
According to his contract, Huggett was brought in by City Manager Johnson in April 2014, to “undertake an independent review of the Project, including assessment of the relationship between the City, MMM and PCL, to evaluate the current status of the project and potential risks to its successful completion.” But after undertaking that review and providing a report in July 2014, Huggett was appointed “Project Director.” He has spent the time since then providing quarterly reports formerly written by City employees in collaboration with MMM.
The breakdown in trust between the City and its project manager became public in 2014 when both PCL and MMM began to present the City with claims for additional costs even though the City had been assured that project costs had been capped by a “fixed price” contract. Huggett’s first report to City councillor’s assured them that the City didn’t have a fixed-price contract. For some reason, councillors liked what they heard and Huggett’s monthly cost then escalated.
With an extended period of legal battles likely to follow physical completion of the bridge, Huggett can expect to receive a monthly cheque from the City at least through 2018. If that’s the case, his own work on the project will add roughly $1.3 million to the cost of the new bridge. It’s unclear whether that amount has been fully included in any of the quarterly updates Huggett has delivered to City councillors. It should also be noted that Huggett does not track the bridge’s costs. That’s done by the City’s finance department. As well, the City is represented by an outside law firm—as well as its own highly-paid legal staff—on legal issues related to the project.
Huggett has stated publicly a number of times that his job is to make sure the project gets completed. But Huggett has sometimes presented opinions to City council and the public that haven’t been based on facts. His use of—let’s call them alternative facts—have had the effect of protecting the reputations of professional engineers who have screwed up on this project rather than protecting the public interest.
One good example of Huggett’s use of alternative facts was his response to a story Focus published about how the level of seismic protection stipulated for the bridge—the seismic design criteria—was secretly downgraded from the level that MMM had recommended.
The essential facts of that story are these: MMM recommended to the City in 2010 that the new bridge be able to withstand a magnitude 8.5 earthquake and the City agreed to pay an additional $10 million for that recommended higher level of protection. However, after initial estimates from the construction companies bidding to build the bridge were received in 2012, project engineers realized that the bridge would cost much more than they had hoped. At least one of the companies also expressed concerns about the unusual design’s inherent seismic risk.
For whatever reason—whether it was to reduce costs in an attempt to save a failing project or because the engineers realized the peculiar design could not withstand a magnitude 8.5 earthquake without irreparable damage—the project’s target seismic protection level was lowered. The decision to build the bridge to a lower seismic standard was made in secret—that is, without City council’s knowledge—and that broke the agreement City managers had made to seek elected officials’ consent to change the project’s scope. More importantly, the downgrading of the seismic design criteria meant the bridge could be more easily damaged by an earthquake. It also made it more likely the bridge would be unrepairable following a smaller earthquake.
When Focus published a story pointing this out, Huggett’s response was to obscure what had occurred. His explanations never acknowledged the existence of the Johnson Street Seismic Design Criteria document which proved the change had been made. This document was an integral part of the construction contract the City signed with PCL. Instead, Huggett provided City councillors with a report in which a critical paragraph of the building code governing construction of bridges had been altered so that it appeared that the lower standard to which the bridge had been built was in accord with the requirements of the (altered) code.
This was a truly remarkable sleight of hand, and I have wondered whether carbon dioxide might have been involved. What else could explain Victoria City council’s utter lack of ambition to look more closely at the issue? The City was in a position to demand that MMM return $10 million of its $16 million payment for its failure to provide a bridge with the level of seismic performance it had recommended. And what explains Huggett’s course of action? Instead of pursuing MMM, he misquoted the bridge code.
A partially-redacted email (it was obtained by FOI) from an MMM employee to Huggett following the creative rewrite of the seismic code, expressed MMM’s relief “since the seismic issues appear to be contained for the time being.” Huggett never publicly admitted that such “issues” even existed, but it’s apparent that MMM expected the issue might resurface.
So now we come to Huggett’s 180-degree flip-flop.
I RECENTLY REPORTED WHAT HUGGETT has said about the issue of fendering on the north side of the bridge. Fendering is the protective barrier placed around the support piers of a bridge to minimize the damage that could be done if a ship or barge accidentally hit the piers. Huggett told councillors in July 2015 that more extensive fendering was needed on the north side of the bridge than had initially been planned because, as it turned out, “The new bridge is somewhat less robust than the existing structure.” In explaining why this would add significantly more cost to the project than had been stipulated in the so-called “fixed-price” contract, Huggett told councillors that the north-side fendering had been “clouded-out” in a contract drawing. That indicated, he said, “It is not in the original contract.”
But a review of the “fixed-price” contract by Focus strongly suggested that the cost of the fendering had been included, even if the final design of the north side fendering had not been fully worked out.
In response to an FOI request from Focus, the City said it could not find the “clouded-out” contract drawing that Huggett had referred to, further eroding the credibility of his claim that the contract did not include the north side fendering.
In spite of these facts, Huggett continued to maintain that the additional cost of the north side fendering could be substantial and would have to be borne by City taxpayers. The cost has been rumoured to be as high as $10 million.
A rendering of fendering on the north side of the new Johnson Street Bridge from Jonathan Huggett’s March 2017 quarterly report to Victoria City Council, in which it was described as “one option.” One Victoria engineer estimated the installation could add $10 million to the cost of the project.
Who was Huggett representing by taking this position? He is being paid $20,000 each month by Victoria taxpayers. Shouldn’t his positions reflect that? Let me boil this down to two points.
First, why would Victoria be getting a bridge that was “less robust” than the existing bridge? Questions raised about the ability of the existing bridge to withstand the forces exerted on it by even a minor earthquake was the very rationale used for building a new bridge. Yet, according to Huggett, the new bridge would be less robust than the old bridge. Rather than openly accepting this apparent project failure, shouldn’t Huggett have been advocating for a better outcome?
Secondly, why didn’t Huggett take the position that the cost of all fendering was in the PCL contract?
In his report to City council in March, Huggett reversed his position and admitted that PCL’s fixed-price contract was “supposed to cover all fendering costs.” Huggett also provided details about the issue that have been kept secret for two years.
Huggett revealed two errors that were made. One was made before the construction contract was negotiated with PCL and one afterward. Both subsequently “impacted” the design of the fendering, and hence its cost, Huggett reported.
The first error was the relocation in early 2012 of an underwater duct bank containing numerous telecommunications cables, including fibre optic cables connecting CFB Esquimalt to the world. That $1.6 million project was engineered and overseen by MMM. According to Huggett, though, the duct bank “was not moved sufficiently far enough to allow for easy construction of fendering systems. Without additional protection measures, piles cannot be driven close to the duct bank as in the event of a ship collision the piles might move and damage the duct bank.”
Unbelievable but—according to Huggett—true.
By the way, the duct bank was relocated even before the City had a final bridge design, let alone a signed construction contract. At the time, City managers insisted such work needed to proceed in order for the project to meet its March 2016 completion deadline so that federal funding would not be lost. (Arbitrary deadlines and high levels of carbon dioxide are a truly awesome combination of conditions under which City councillors are asked to make important decisions, don’t ’ya think?)
The second error identified by Huggett involved the City’s property at 203 Harbour Road. According to Huggett, “The City sold 203 Harbour Road to Ralmax as it was assumed the land was not needed for the construction of the bridge. This impacts an economical design since access to the water side frontage of 203 Harbour Road must be preserved.”
That’s not quite true, though. The City actually transferred 203 Harbour Road and other adjacent properties to the Province in 2014 in exchange for the Crystal Garden property on Douglas. The Province then sold the Harbour Road properties to Ralmax.
Regardless, Huggett is implying that whoever negotiated the transfer of 203 Harbour Road to Ralmax apparently neglected to obtain an agreement that would have allowed a minor intrusion on its riparian access to 203 Harbour Road to allow economical fendering for the bridge project. Wow. I bet the negotiating room had poor ventilation.
Following delivery of Huggett’s March report to councillors, he appeared on CFAX. Among other things, Huggett told listeners the City hoped to recover, through legal action, the additional cost of fendering from the bridge’s “designer.” In Huggett’s contract with the City, the bridge’s “designer” is identified as MMM.
A review of what MMM committed to in writing on the design and cost of fendering suggests that the City will have little chance of recovering that cost from MMM. But still, this is a complete flip-flop from Huggett’s previous position that the cost of north-side fendering was explicitly excluded from the original contract—and so the City would have to suck it up.
Could he also flip-flop on the seismic issue and assist the City in getting MMM to return $10 million for that fiasco? Not likely. To flip-flop on the seismic issue would require that Huggett explain why he rewrote the bridge seismic code for a council report. That would be awkward for him to explain. Perhaps he could invoke a carbon-dioxide defence.
SPEAKING OF CARBON DIOXIDE, one of the original premises used to justify building a new bridge in 2009 was that the existing double-bascule bridge presented a daily discouragement to thousands of would-be cyclists who, promoters claimed, were just waiting for a new bridge so they could abandon their daily commute by car. That would reduce carbon emissions, they said.
Bicycle access across the railway bridge was eliminated in April 2011. If the bridge was a choke point before then, it has been even worse in the six years since. The prolonged disruption of vehicle traffic—with long waits on both sides of the bridge only adding to overall vehicle emissions—was never part of the bridge promoters’ calculations. The longer the bottleneck lasts, the more ridiculous the claim of reducing carbon emissions becomes. When will it end?
The project has been on hold for months, waiting for completion in China of the lifting part of the bridge, which will span the remaining 41-metre gap. So far, fabrication of that one section of the bridge has taken over three years. How is that going? Explaining the project’s schedule—and why the bridge won’t be finished anytime soon, has been a major part of Huggett’s $20,000 per month assignment.
In his September 2016 report to the City, Huggett said that Chinese fabricators had been working at fitting the rings to the trusses in preparation for a “trial fit-up.” “Painting of the structure will commence shortly,” Huggett reported. Three months later Huggett’s report noted that Chinese fabricators experienced difficulty fitting the first ring to the first truss, but Huggett expressed optimism that what the fabricators had learned would speed up fitting the other ring and truss together. It didn’t. Almost four months later, Huggett presented photographs that showed most of the major components had been fitted together, although there was no photographic proof that the north-side truss and ring had been matched.
Photos published by the City showed Chinese workers apparently ready to lift the north-side truss into place on March 16.
The photographs suggest painting of the bridge parts might be weeks—if not months—away. Yet Huggett had reported six months earlier that painting would “commence shortly.”
So when is Victoria getting its new bridge?
According to PCL’s original construction schedule, it would take slightly more than six months between the date the steel components were delivered to Victoria and the date the bridge could be opened for traffic. It would take another three months after that before the Blue Bridge could be removed and the project completed.
So far, PCL hasn’t completed any of the tasks on its original schedule in less time than predicted. So, with the final shipment of steel components not expected to get to Victoria until September—according to Huggett—six months after that would put the bridge opening for traffic in February 2018, and project completion in early May 2018.
One has to wonder: If those Harvard scientists are right about carbon dioxide affecting human cognitive function, did Shanghai’s notoriously dirty air play a role in the Chinese fabricators’ stumbling performance on Victoria’s new bridge? That seems possible. And there’s plenty of evidence of mental confusion at play on this project right here in Victoria, too. If there’s something in the air that’s making it more difficult for people to make good decisions, it’s a global phenomenon. Which means, of course, I, too, could be dazed and confused on the Johnson Street Bridge. How about you?
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.