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  • Unfinished business

    Ross Crockford

    What has Victoria learned in the 10 years since it first discussed replacing the Johnson Street Bridge?


    The engineers said it would cost $35 million to $40 million. But that was for a standard structure, they warned. An “iconic,” “architecturally significant” bridge would cost more.

    Nearly all the councillors wanted to replace the old bridge anyway. “While we are losing a piece of existing heritage,” said John Luton, leading the motion for replacement, “it is an opportunity to create something that is art as well as architecture that will become classic, or new heritage years down the road.”

    But a few also saw they might be approving a project they couldn’t control, and they were nervous. “There’s an interest in more than a standard cookie-cutter bridge,” said Sonya Chandler. “So I’m worried — can we afford this?”

    That was on April 23, 2009, and 10 years later, it’s still a valid question. The new Johnson Street Bridge has already cost us $105 million, and the work isn’t done.

    What’s left?


    Ongoing work includes an underpass, landscaping, public art, and three lawsuits

    Landscaping and pathways. Crews will soon start developing the boulevards on the west side of the bridge, and paving a pedestrian underpass below the east side that will form part of the David Foster Harbour Pathway. The underpass is needed because the City couldn’t get the over-water rights to continue a path through the bridge’s “wheels” — which have been fortified with a new security gate (often locked, cost unknown) after a skateboarder was photographed on the wheels last September.

    Public art. This month, City staff will provide a report on reusing steel from the old Blue Bridge for public art. The $250,000 “surfboard orca,” planned for the triangle island in the vast sea of asphalt east of the bridge, has yet to go out to tender for fabrication.

    Fendering. The bridge still lacks fenders on its north side, to protect it from ship collisions. In 2015, project director Jonathan Huggett claimed that PCL’s construction contract didn’t include this fendering, and said it would cost “upwards of $4 million” to install. At nearly every quarterly update after that, he told councillors he’d provide the potential costs and options “soon” — including at his last update, in April 2018.

    The fendering is complicated, partly because of earlier screwups. In 2009 the City hired the engineering firm MMM (now WSP) to oversee the bridge project, and one of its early tasks was relocating a submerged telecom duct, at a cost of $2 million; WSP has since proposed anchoring fenders by drilling into the harbour floor, but the duct is now in the way. In 2014, the City sold some land immediately north of the bridge at 203 Harbour Road, and now the fendering might impede the owner’s access to the water.

    Tug and barge operators also have concerns. “We had requested that the fendering be considered to take a five-knot hit, and through our discussions back and forth with the City, they indicated that they were intending to continue their design on the north-side fendering for a speed of 3.5 knots,” says Paul Hilder, Seaspan’s VP of marine operations. “And since then we’ve heard nothing. That was two years ago. So as far as [there] not being any fendering in, I don’t know — it’s a pretty expensive piece of infrastructure to build and not have any bumpering. Ultimately it’ll be the lawyers and the courts, if something should happen, that’ll hammer out who is liable.”

    In 2017, Huggett told councillors that the dispute with Seaspan over impact speed was “irrelevant,” and the City was only legally required to do what a “prudent owner” would do, which entailed hiring experts and building a “probability design.” It didn’t need to be overly robust, Huggett suggested, because “to our knowlege, in the past 80 years, nobody has ever hit that bridge head-on.” (Wrong: on April 3, 1959, the tug Salvage King slammed into the old bridge, nearly severing its main girder. Victoria Machinery Depot fabricated a replacement, City engineers spliced it into place, and the old bridge was open again after two weeks.)

    But how “prudent” is it to have no fendering at all? Last June, the City paid $112,200 for a $110-million, 18-month, multi-peril insurance policy on the bridge, which does cover “vessel impact” ($250,000 deductible). One suspects that if a ship hit the unfendered north side, though, the insurer might claim contributory negligence by the City and reduce its payout, in the same way that ICBC takes 25 percent off your injury claim if you aren’t wearing a seat belt.


    Still no fendering: one of MMM’s “solutions” requires drilling around the submerged telecom duct they relocated in 2011

    Legal Actions. As mentioned in the January/February issue of Focus, the City is named in a trio of bridge lawsuits, including one by MMM/WSP — which has already soaked the City for $15 million in fees since 2009 — claiming a further $300,000 for fendering design. Since then, Karen Martin of Dentons LLP, the construction lawyer representing the City, has filed a response and counterclaim against WSP, seeking unspecified damages “on the basis of breach of contract, negligence, duty to warn, and negligent provision of services.”

    Reading the City’s response is like a trip down memory lane, studded with potholes. Martin points out that MMM insisted it had accurately estimated the cost of the new bridge in 2009, 2010, and 2012, only to blow those estimates months later. Martin claims the pattern repeated with the fendering: at various times, MMM estimated the fendering would cost “$1,327,093.00,” said the fendering was included in PCL’s contract, and signed a 2013 deal to provide all the remaining design and engineering services to complete the bridge for a fixed fee, but submitted extra invoices anyway. (Why the City continued to use the firm, and didn’t file complaints with the engineers’ professional association instead, remains one of the unsolved mysteries of the project.) Martin also says MMM did not provide any “reasonable options” to the City for fendering “until in or about late 2018” — which we are still waiting to see.

    It’s hard to guess how successful the City’s claims might be, or how much we will have to cough up to settle the three lawsuits, but it won’t come cheap. In 2016, City taxpayers paid $2.46 million to PCL and MMM in a mediated settlement of some $27 million in change orders they’d filed against the City. Another $1.57 million in legal fees was paid to Dentons in 2015 and 2016 while the settlement was negotiated.

    City Hall. Some unfinished business concerns the practices of the City itself.

    It’s hard to overstate the disruptive effects the bridge has had at Centennial Square. Lisa Helps and Ben Isitt got on council in 2011 by bumping off pro-replacement councillors such as John Luton; Helps won the mayoralty in 2014 largely because Dean Fortin kept insisting the bridge was “on time and on budget” when it clearly wasn’t. Every staffer associated with the project between 2009 and 2014 has since been fired, retired, or has jumped ship to government jobs elsewhere. Though they deserved their fates in some cases, they also took years of institutional knowledge out the door (another hidden cost), and left their jobs to newcomers with the potential to commit the same mistakes.

    The City has introduced policies to ensure that doesn’t happen. When Huggett was hired to trouble-shoot the project in 2014, he said that nobody seemed to be in charge of it; now the City has a Project Management Framework that requires “clear and unambiguous allocation of authority for decision-making.” The bridge’s costs kept increasing because Council approved a construction contract with a puny allowance for contingencies; now the City has a Capital Cost Estimate Policy, requiring that large contingencies be built into early estimates, and that an independent third party conducts a value-for-money analysis of the project. (This is partly why Victoria’s new main fire hall will be part of a private condo development: a 2016 analysis said the City could build the firehall itself, on the site of the old one, for $30 million, but once the policy’s required contingencies were added, it seemed cheaper to pay Jawl Residential $34 million to build it instead.)

    When one looks at recent events, however, it seems little has changed. Council and staff made crucial early decisions to replace Crystal Pool, like the bridge, based on the belief that most of the cost would be magically covered by federal-provincial infrastructure grants. (Now the mayor is talking about a new central library. How will that be paid for?) The City too often favours shiny new assets instead of fixing what it’s got, and staff who allow an existing asset to deteriorate rarely suffer any consequences. Despite all its policies, the City still doesn’t appear to have a basic checklist for big projects: there was no analysis of the annual cost of operating a new, vastly larger Crystal Pool, for example, and neighbours weren’t asked whether they actually wanted a new pool until the last minute.

    The City has been lucky over the past decade. In September of 2009, then-Assistant City Manager Mike McCliggott warned that borrowing $63 million for a new bridge would “financially strap the City,” forcing it to raise taxes for other projects. We’ve already paid more than that for the bridge, some $68.1 million, added to the $37.5 million we got from the feds. But the City has grown. It’s added millions in new property-tax revenue every year, and saved more, too. In 2009, the City had $34.6 million in its equipment and infrastructure reserve; now it has $131 million. This past year the City increased its property-tax revenue by $3.5 million, and while Council is on track to spend $1.5M of it hiring more employees (34 in total, the Times Colonist says) it’s also putting $1.8 million into reserves — which will surely get tapped when the bills for the fendering and lawsuits finally arrive.

    So it seems Victoria has been able to afford its “iconic” bridge after all. That’s the good news. The bad is that in April 2009, when councillors worried about paying more than $40 million for a bridge, the City thought a new Crystal Pool would cost $58 million. How much will it be now?

    Ross Crockford is a director of johnsonstreetbridge.org, the group that gathered 9,872 residents’ signatures on petitions to force the 2010 referendum on the bridge project.

    Edited by Ross Crockford

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