The Johnson Street Bridge undergoes one safety review after another.
THE JOHNSON STREET BRIDGE is an attractive structure, especially in the evening. Resembling a giant bird’s skull, awash in the glow of blue floodlights, it’s easily the most distinctive landmark on the harbour.
Lately, however, the bridge has been drawing the wrong kind of attention. At 11:40 pm on Saturday, October 19, a man fell over a railing near the southwest corner of the bridge and hit the shore, ending up in hospital with serious injuries. “Incidents like this serve as a good opportunity to remind people to be safe, be aware and take caution while crossing [the] bridge,” VicPD constable Matt Rutherford later told Victoria News—as if walking on the bridge requires greater caution than crossing, say, a Downtown street.
A report warned that allowing the public near the moving bridge presented “real concerns from a risk standpoint”
This was just the latest odd episode at the bridge, usually involving a man emboldened by drink. (VicPD said alcohol was “a factor” in the Oct 19 fall.) One Saturday last December, an inebriated man climbed a railing, fell into the water and drowned. And famously, on a Friday afternoon last July, a drunk guy ambled past a closed gate on the multiuse path, and ended up hanging 20 metres in the air from a railing as the bridge lifted for a passing ship.
After each of these incidents, the City of Victoria announced that it would conduct a formal safety review of the bridge’s equipment and operating procedures. Then, six months later, another mishap.
The previous bridge also saw accidents: in 2013, a 31-year-old guy died after falling from the overhead girders of the old bridge, where he’d been drinking with friends, and in 2006 a ferry skipper rescued an 11-year-old boy who’d been playing on the old bridge and fell into the harbour. But judging by the news archives, such incidents are occurring with greater frequency now.
For sure, this is partly an unfortunate side effect of the increasing numbers of bars, condos and pedestrians in the area, which the new bridge has encouraged. With even more condos coming, though, that raises an increasingly urgent question for the City: can the bridge ever be made completely safe?
JUST THREE DAYS BEFORE THE BRIDGE WAS INAUGURATED on March 31, 2018, the engineering firm WSP issued a safety audit of the structure, which Focus recently obtained. WSP identified several problems, including gaps in railings, an “increased collision risk” where the multiuse path enters Harbour Road, potential tripping hazards and deck slipperiness, the risk of debris sliding off the decks “into areas where the public will be permitted to stand,” and the fact that the bridge operator has to continually monitor a network of CCTV cameras to see all parts of the structure—increasing the operator’s workload during a lift, and “the potential for error in the complex steps associated with the process.”
In an annotated version of the report, Taaj Daliran, the City’s manager of civic services, identified steps taken by bridge contractor PCL and the City to fix these issues. They closed gaps in the railings, installed warning signs and larger CCTV monitors, and initiated a “comprehensive training program” for the operators. (Improving the Harbour Road connection is a future project.) But WSP also identified a more general worry: the risk of “aberrant behaviours” by pedestrians, especially around the lift span and the observation deck between the bridge’s open-wheeled mechanism.
“Standing in close proximity to a large moving object in the form of a moving portion of a large part of the structure within which observers will be standing, does present real concerns from a risk standpoint,” warned WSP—which was bizarre, considering that the publicly accessible, open-wheel concept was designed by WSP and MMM Group, which WSP acquired in 2015. “Deliberately allowing the public to expose itself to such a risk situation may not be appropriate from a general public safety policy or engineering standpoint, particularly when public behavioural aspects of that risk environment will be uncontrollable.”
The City partly dealt with this by installing a steel gate in front of the observation deck—immediately after a skateboarder was photographed riding the curved concrete edge of the north wall of the bridge’s bascule pier in September of 2018. The gate is open only when the bridge operator is present, usually from 8 am to 4 pm. But is it wise to let the public near the machinery at all? “It has been part of the design to allow [the] public to be close and watch the bridge lift,” the City’s Daliran wrote, in response to WSP’s warning.
Entry to the observation deck is usually blocked 4pm to 8am
Fraser Work, the City’s director of engineering, agrees that odd behaviour has been an issue at the bridge. Even before the guy rode the lift span in July, Work told me, “a lot” of cyclists and pedestrians were rushing past closed traffic gates, because they were too impatient to wait the seven minutes it takes to clear the bridge, raise it for a passing ship, lower it and reopen it. “We even had instances where people were stopped and taking selfies, and the bridge operator had to wait, which is very dangerous as a vessel approaches,” Work said. Consequently, the City installed additional CCTV cameras, improved the lights and signage, and is considering fortifying the gate on the bridge’s multiuse path.
“The systems are designed to code,” Work said. “These railings and these systems are designed that someone shouldn’t accidentally find themselves in harm’s way. But they’re not going to prevent someone who wants to find themselves in harm’s way from having accidents.”
Work emphasized that the City takes safety seriously. But there are limits to what it can do. “We ask ourselves, ‘What would a prudent bridge owner do?’ Would we add more infrastructure at potentially very significant costs to reduce the risk of any accident happening in the future, or is it adequate right now? So there’s an active dialogue about this stuff. We’ve had these incidents, we take them seriously, we look at them individually based on CCTV footage that we can review and statements by witnesses, and we look at them holistically over time, so we want to make sure we’re taking all necessary action.”
The bridge was also in the news this summer for its mechanical problems. On June 27, the City cancelled all lifts to investigate worries with the hydraulic system; marine traffic backed up in the harbour, and the City could only conduct two slow, scheduled lifts per day for two weeks afterward. As Focus revealed in September, the housings and O-ring seals of the system’s filters were breaking down, filling the hydraulic oil with particles that could permanently damage the motors. That concern hasn’t been resolved. Work says they’re still running the hydraulics at reduced pressure, so the bridge is at “about 50 percent” speed, adding two minutes to the seven-minute lift/wait/lower cycle. PCL is testing new filters, and may have to reconfigure the hydraulics. The repairs should be covered by the bridge’s warranty, which expires on April 1.
Then there are the ongoing lawsuits by PCL and WSP against the City, for unpaid work and losses the companies say they suffered due to design changes and delays during the bridge’s construction. In June, PCL served the City with its notice of claim, keeping its lawsuit alive. PCL’s lawyer filed a document in court advising that settlement discussions with the City were “expected to conclude, one way or the other, by July 31,” but that date’s come and gone. As City spokesman Bill Eisenhauer told me, “The litigation is still in abeyance as the parties explore the possibility of a consensual solution.”
The wheels of justice grind slowly, like the bridge mechanism. Don’t get too close.
Ross Crockford wishes everyone a safe and merry Christmas.