The City is refusing to provide records that would show who knew what, and when they knew it.
FOLLOWING OUR STORY LAST EDITION about the surprise appearance of bolt-on plates on the new bridge that Victorians had been promised would be “world-class” and “iconic,” the reaction from ordinary people who don’t receive a regular cheque from the City of Victoria was consistently forthright. An English bridge designer, who has written about such projects all over the world for the past 10 years noted: “The latest reports from Focus cover issues with the bridge’s steel fabrication. They highlight the discovery of a problem with the steelwork, which appears to have been covered over with a truly awful-looking bolted plate, a real bodge if ever you see one…Focus is quite right to criticize the detail. It’s clear from the photographs that nothing this awful should be considered acceptable as part of the finished structure.”
Controversial bolt-on plates on Victoria's brand-new $115-million bridge. The larger photo above shows the plate on the south-side ring.
On Vibrant Victoria, a local online discussion forum, “jonny” noted: “I am absolutely gobsmacked that our NINE FIGURE shiny new bridge has two, seemingly haphazard and last minute, bolted-on steel plates that look like they were envisaged and put together by a 9th grade metalworking student.”
“G-Man” responded, “Couldn’t agree more. It makes me want to puke. I could not care less whether or not an engineer says it’s okay. The brand new bridge should not have this. It is unbelievable. I am embarrassed as a Victorian.” Several days later, G-Man posted a photograph of the bolt-on plate on the north ring. Somehow a bolt had worked its way free from somewhere inside the ring and was trying to escape through a large gap between the ring and the bolt-on plate.
A rusty bolt caught in the opening between the bolt-on plate and the defective north-side ring. Photo by G-Man.
Martin Bache, a 40-year veteran of Canada’s structural steel fabrication industry, and a project supervisor with Canron in Vancouver before retiring to Victoria, wrote to Focus and commented: “I have never seen such an appalling patch.” Bache agreed that the plates would “promote corrosion” in the structure. He had contacted EGBC, BC’s association of professional engineers, which confirmed that the association’s bylaws require a third party independent review of the patches since they are on fracture-critical steel. No such review has been brought forward, or even mentioned, by either the City or the bridge’s American designers, Hardesty & Hanover.
I covered the initial response from City Hall in a second story posted at focusonvictoria.ca. To put that response as succinctly as possible, the City claimed our story contained “serious factual errors and inaccuracies,” but was unwilling—or unable, to say what those errors and inaccuracies were.
On January 25, Project Director Jonathan Huggett gave council his quarterly update on the troubled project. Huggett commented on the bolt-on plates: “There has been this inference by some that somebody found a piece of scrap steel, slapped it on as an afterthought, and put a few bolts in place. Whoever makes those statements clearly has no experience in engineering. As engineers we take great pride in our work. Nothing happens quickly or suddenly, and without due process and proper sign-off.”
Huggett also told the CBC our story was "an attempt to scare people unnecessarily." Presumably Huggett meant that there was an implication in our story that the plates were a public safety issue. We didn't, in fact, say or imply any such thing. The issue we raised is whether or not the plates represent a significant decline in value to taxpayers. Will the plates promote corrosion and therefore increase maintenance costs? Will they reduce the useful life of the bridge and thereby increase lifecycle cost? Do the plates not make a sham of the City's claim to a "world-class" or "iconic" bridge and raise questions about the huge amount of money wasted in pursuit of that futile endeavour?
The bridge engineers themselves may have metal fatigue concerns—that's why they added the plates—but Focus raised no red flags on that point other than to mention the project's own concern about fatigue. Huggett's claim of "an attempt to scare people unnecessarily" is simply deflecting attention away from the real issues.
The “pride” Huggett claims has gone into this project is hard to see when you examine closely the two patches on the new bridge. And, if they are any indication of the pride with which the rest of the bridge has been built, Victorians could be in for more embarrassment. But it’s Huggett’s claim that “nothing happens…without due process” that is the focus of my attention this time.
What has become evident is that Huggett may not have informed anyone at City Hall about the problem that led to the bolt-on plates, thus making it impossible to consider options that would have prevented the delivery of a defective bridge.
With Mayor Helps and Huggett refusing to respond to our questions, Focus requested relevant records under access to information law. So far, Huggett and the City have been uncooperative and Focus has filed a complaint with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
In my initial story I raised these questions: Were City councillors informed about the situation that led to the bolt-on plates? If so, were they given any options?
It’s vital to have answers to these questions. The plates reflect an unacceptable diminishment of the expected quality of the bridge. According to Huggett, people are comparing the bridge to scrap metal. The plates also reflect a lower-cost solution to the problem they were intended to address than a proper refabrication, but the parties building the bridge would have been responsible for any additional cost. Someone’s choice to overlook the public interest and accept a defective bridge has saved the companies building the bridge a lot of money, perhaps millions of dollars. Are councillors responsible for this bad decision? Or were they kept in the dark by Project Director Huggett?
Thus far, the only indication of what happened that led to the bolt-on plates has been the minimal response from Huggett that I reported in my first story, and a letter from Hardesty & Hanover’s Keith Griesing sent to the City on January 8, shortly after our story was published.
After reading our story, Griesing “felt it would be helpful if I gave you a brief summary of why those plates are there and how their use came to be.” Griesing is the project’s engineer of record.
Griesing disagreed with our characterization of the circumstance that led to the bolt-on plates as a “design flaw.” His letter stated: “There was no ‘design flaw’ by Hardesty & Hanover nor any other of the City consultants involved; it was assembly by the fabricator that did not conform to the design plan requirements nor to the applicable detailing and fabrication standards required in the specifications” that led to the need for the bolt-on plates.
Griesing’s need to make a distinction between a “design flaw” and “assembly by the fabricator” is understandably important to Hardesty & Hanover. If the bolt-on plates resulted from some error made by Hardesty & Hanover, they could become defendants in a legal suit if City councillors realize a world-class bodge has been foisted on City taxpayers. If the cause was solely attributable to an error made by the fabricator, then the company the City contracted to build the bridge—PCL—would be the defendant.
But Hardesty & Hanover’s concern is not equal to the public interest. Just because Griesing claims Hardesty & Hanover aren’t responsible for the weakness in the rings that required the plates doesn’t mean the City hasn’t received a defective bridge. City councillors ought to be focussed on which companies the City should consider suing, rather than resorting to talking points designed to relieve them of any responsibility for their failure to protect the public interest.
And just because Huggett tells City councillors there was “no design error” doesn’t mean his apparent concealment of the issue isn’t an issue. Councillors need to examine carefully the role Huggett played in the delivery of a world-class bodge. An examination of what information has been provided by the project shows none of the questions about who did what—and when and why they did it—have been answered. The bridge builders seem to have the support of Victoria City council in avoiding any financial or professional accountability for providing a defective bridge. Why?
In his letter to councillors, Griesing attributes the need for the bolt-on plates to errors made by the Chinese company ZTSS, hired by PCL to fabricate the moveable part of the bridge. Griesing states: “In the course of our routine quality inspections in the steel fabrication plant in China, [PCL’s] quality control team [Atema] discovered a violation of fabrication and welding standards in the particular area in question. This determination was confirmed by the City’s Quality Oversight consultant.”
According to Huggett, this discovery was made on December 9, 2016. What was found? Huggett provided Focus with a single sentence from Atema’s report. It stated: “Weld access holes in MW1 and MW3 to MF1 and TF1 at MW2 were unnecessary, not clearly detailed and may not have been evaluated to proper fatigue design category, and not fabricated to code requirements”.
That’s largely incomprehensible to most of us, but here’s the essential part: Atema found “unnecessary” weld access holes in steel parts close to where the bolt-on plates were eventually added. Weld access holes are openings into otherwise closed chambers inside the rings that allow welders to complete welds within those closed chambers. Why would ZTSS cut “unnecessary” holes if it didn’t need them?
With Huggett refusing to provide any information, I sought insight from the aforementioned Martin Bache, who has 40 years of experience in heavy steel fabrication.
Bache described the process that would have been used for determining where such holes are needed: “Weld access holes in fracture-critical members must be designed by the Engineer of Record [Griesing]. Competent detail draftspersons would be expected, during preparation of the shop drawings, to identify closed chambers where the EOR may have forgotten to show on his plans weld access holes without which the required welding cannot be performed. They would then issue an RFI [request for information] pointing this out, and asking the EOR how they should proceed.”
According to Bache, then, Griesing would ultimately be responsible for the design of every weld access hole that was required, since every steel member in the rings was designated “fracture-critical.”
Griesing has told the City that the fabricator was responsible for the weld access hole violations. In that case, the bad holes wouldn’t have appeared on the shop drawings Griesing was required to approve. That means they should have been discovered quickly by any robust quality assurance (QA) program. If found quickly, those holes would still be accessible and could be fixed immediately. Bache noted: “Under what we must imagine would be rigorous QA on this second attempt to fabricate a bridge, we would expect an error to be spotted very soon after the occurrence.”
But according to Griesing, “Because of its location in a critical area of the structure, this non-conformance was particularly difficult to correct.”
Why, exactly? If the QA teams were as diligent as Huggett claimed in his quarterly reports, why would “unnecessary” access holes just cut by fabricators end up being “particularly difficult to correct.”
From what Huggett has told Focus, we know that Hardesty & Hanover’s decision on how to address these unnecessary holes was delayed for six to seven months. During that time, fabrication of the bridge continued.
It appears that Hardesty & Hanover dithered on fixing the unnecessary weld access holes, which were made inaccessible by subsequent work and couldn’t be fixed. Did Griesing forget to tell someone to do something?
Bache wrote: “What amazes me is the tremendous time gap between the Atema non-compliance report and the attempted fixes. It sounds as though no one at Hardesty & Hanover could decide what to do, but the work continued and the bridge was shipped anyway to try to keep to a schedule.”
Griesing’s explanation to the City noted: “The design team and fabrication team designed and reviewed numerous mitigation options. We even consulted two internationally known experts in fabrication and welding for their input. After reviewing all options, the project team unanimously agreed that the bolted plates were the best option, all factors considered.”
Griesing, obviously, did not factor in jonny or G-Man. Maybe he should have. G-Man and jonny seem to represent the values and priorities of ordinary Victorians better than either Huggett or Helps.
It wasn’t until after the rings had arrived in Victoria, late last summer, that large holes were chopped in the rings and plates bolted over the holes. That work was done at Point Hope Shipyard in Victoria. The need for these large holes is unclear. Were they needed to allow someone to get inside the rings so bolts could be inserted from the inside and tightened? If so, what happened to the tightener? Hey, we just want to know.
Griesing’s letter provided no explanation for why a fix wasn’t made immediately in December 2016 when the unnecessary access holes would still have been accessible. So while Huggett and Griesing have successfully focussed the City on shooting the messenger, more important questions that need to be answered are being ignored.
Let me, just for the sake of thoroughness, offer an alternative story to that being told by Huggett, Griesing and Helps. Let’s start with Atema’s report. Although we’ve been provided with only one sentence from that report, let’s presume that sentence is the whole report and that Atema did find weld access holes that were unnecessary and that those unnecessary holes are the entire reason bolt-on plates were required. All of those assumptions are leaps of faith, but let’s jump. In that case, PCL would have been responsible for the cost of any refabrication necessary to meet the City’s agreed-upon specifications defined in the contract. If the City had been given all the facts about this when it happened, the City would surely have insisted on refabrication rather than accepting a bridge that would forever wear “truly awful-looking” bolt-on plates.
But wait. According to Griesing, the City did know about the issue. In his letter, Griesing wrote, “City Staff was fully involved in arriving at the best solution, particularly with respect to public safety, cost and schedule impacts.”
The “was” in that sentence suggests a single person from the City was involved, but we don’t know for sure. Who did Griesing mean by “City Staff”? Did he mean just Huggett? Or did he mean Huggett and other people at City Hall? Again, we don’t know the answer to this yet, because Huggett has refused to respond to a legal request for his records on the issue, and Helps won’t respond to questions. But this is vital to understand because if Huggett didn’t inform anyone else at the City of Victoria, we would have to ask why he kept that information from his client.
Until we see Huggett’s record of communication on the plates, no judgement can be made as to his conduct. But at this point, with Huggett appearing to have not properly informed his client, the City may need to seek advice about the implications of the plates from someone not involved in the project.
Griesing’s claim that it wasn’t a “design flaw” that led to the bolt-on plates is an open question until detailed information about what Atema found, and why it took six or seven months for Griesing to act, is released.
But there is a broader issue that deserves comment. In one sense there is no question that the bolt-on plates are the direct consequence of a design flaw. The design flaw was the open rings themselves. The choice of that particular design approach to creating a movable bridge made the structure unnecessarily complex, difficult to build and overly expensive. Of the three companies originally bidding for the project, two rejected the open-ring design and based their bids on designs that had proven track records. Kiewit’s engineers had concluded that the open rings posed “a fundamentally high risk and expensive design approach.” Bizarrely, the City’s scoring of the bid proposals actually penalized Kiewit and Walsh for not using the risky design.
As part of PCL’s bid, Hardesty & Hanover embraced this risky design. Victoria taxpayers have been paying the costs ever since. For example: two additional years of construction are attributable to difficulty in fabricating the open rings and fitting them to the trusses. Those extra two years of construction have made people in Victoria frustrated. That sense of frustration, especially in an election year, is not something politicians like Helps and her councillors want to aggravate with further delays. Their public promise to deliver the bridge by such-and-such a date meant that if any problem arose that would cause further delay, councillors were going to favour whatever solution was quickest. They telegraphed that to Huggett and Griesing. So that’s what councillors got, but in spades.
So when Griesing tells councillors that the bolt-on plates are not the result of a design flaw, he’s overlooking his company’s responsibility for promoting a design that other engineers warned the City not to build. Hardesty & Hanover’s risky and hard-to-build design created a whole chain of connected events that led inevitably to the bolt-on plates.
Don’t take my word for it. Huggett has already confirmed that the City's hired technical advisors have given it bad advice on the project. Last summer, in a rare moment of self-reflection in which councillors had an opportunity to openly consider why the project had encountered such difficulties, Councillor Pam Madoff offered the following: “I remember very specifically having this conversation [with the bridge’s designers and engineers] about the mechanics, you know, the—in simplistic terms—the cogs, the wheels, how it was going to lift. I remember at the time saying, ‘Is this basically just a larger version of the Meccano sets that we played with as kids, in terms of its actual mechanical operation?’ And, again, that was the assurance. To me it comes down to: how far does one have to go? We felt like we asked the right questions at the time. It turns out they may not have been the right answers.” In response, Huggett told councillors: “You were not given good advice.”
A question councillors might ask themselves right now: Why are we still accepting bad advice? Perhaps a sloppily-executed sign with those words on it could be hung from each of the bolt-on plates. With or without such signs, though, each time the bridge lifts and the bolt-on plates descend to the level of pedestrians waiting for the bridge to reopen, those present will be reminded of the bridge’s dubious origins.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.
Hardesty & Hanover's letter to the City of Victoria with its explanation of the bolt-on plates: