The new Johnson Street Bridge broke down after little more than a year of service. What else did the project’s leadership bequeath future taxpayers?
ON JUNE 25, just shy of 15 months after it opened, the new $115-million-plus Johnson Street bridge was unofficially broken. The City officially acknowledged the problem on June 27. A mechanical issue—the exact nature of which has yet to be revealed—had caused abnormally high pressure in the bascule bridge’s hydraulic lift system. The bridge could not be opened for waiting marine traffic.
Twelve days later, on July 6, the bridge was still not operating properly. On that day the City’s Director of Public Works and Engineering Fraser Work told the Times Colonist, “I’m not staring down the barrel of a huge, big maintenance burden or a huge, big replacement of gear and equipment. No one is talking about anything like that. It’s just about proving the system is working the right way and making sure we get the confidence back in the system.”
In July, Focus filed an FOI requesting the record of Work’s communications regarding the breakdown. The partially redacted record provided by the City shows that critical elements of the hydraulic system were failing, including o-rings coming off pressure filters, plastic filter end caps degrading, and indicators designed to show when filters were clogged indicating the filters were clogged even though new filter elements had been installed. The question of whether all these elements were failing simultaneously because their manufacture had been defective, or, alternatively, that they were all failing because they were experiencing higher fluid pressure than they were designed for, is not answered by the released records.
The records show that suppliers of the failing equipment flew in from as far away as Florida to consult on what was being referred to as the "hydraulic system failure.".
Even after equipment that had failed was replaced, warning indicators kept triggering. The record provided by the City shows that, after new equipment had been installed, the speed of lifts and lowerings had to be reduced to slightly more than half-speed. Presumably that condition is still in effect.
If the bridge’s hydraulic system is now operating at higher pressure than it was a year ago, the hydraulic drive motors may be experiencing greater mechanical resistance. One possible explanation for greater mechanical resistance is that the rings on which the bridge rotates have slowly deformed since the counterweights were attached in early 2018. Kiewit Construction, one of the companies that bid for the construction contract in 2012, warned the City of that possibility. They noted that the counterweight “would load the truss ring eccentrically, which could distort the ring—a highly undesirable condition.” Kiewit rejected the City’s novel mechanical lifting system in favour of a system that had proven to be reliable over many years of service.
If the rings have deformed, as Kiewit engineers predicted they might, the drive system would encounter greater resistance than expected when the bridge was being lifted or lowered, and thus would operate at higher hydraulic pressure.
Notably absent from the City’s public explanation of the bridge’s hydraulic system failure was the formerly high-profile Project Director Jonathan Huggett.
Focus has raised questions over the ten years it took to build the bridge about the value of the services provided by consulting engineers like Huggett. The emergence of the hydraulic problem adds yet another layer to those questions. In a written quarterly report to City council in April 2018, soon after the bridge opened, Huggett advised councillors: “Maintenance of the new bridge is expected to be minimal, with the main item being greasing of the joints and moving surfaces from time to time. The hydraulic system is a closed system, meaning there is little opportunity for outside contaminants to enter the hydraulic system, and so maintenance is minimized.”
The new bridge had been leaking hydraulic fluid for over half a year before it experienced "hydraulic system failure." This photograph was taken in December 2018.
The bridge’s current hydraulic problems show that Huggett’s expensive advice was actually expensive nonsense. There are other, even more striking examples of Huggett’s advice not serving the public interest. I think of them as Jonathan Huggett’s Greatest Hits.
In 2015, Focus published a story about a document we had obtained through an FOI request to the City. This document, titled Johnson Street Bridge Seismic Design Criteria, had been quietly created by the City’s project manager, MMM Group, in August 2012 while the City struggled to obtain a financially viable bid to construct the bridge. It was later attached to the construction contract the City signed with PCL. By accepting the provisions of the Seismic Design Criteria as part of the contract, the City accepted a much lower level of seismic performance than had been originally recomended by MMM’s own Joost Meyboom.
For example, the Criteria stipulated that following a large Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, access to emergency vehicles only needed to be “possible within days of the earthquake.” Yet Meyboom had advised the City to accept only a performance level that would provide uninterrupted, immediate access across the bridge for emergency vehicles after any earthquake.
The worst-case earthquake scenario for Victoria is not a Cascadia Subduction Zone event. Provincial emergency planners know that the rupture of a fault much closer to Victoria, like the Devil’s Mountain Fault, could produce a M7+ earthquake centered only a few kilometres from downtown Victoria. Such an event would produce much stronger seismic waves, albeit for a shorter period of time, than a Cascadia Subduction Zone event. Following this type of earthquake, the Seismic Design Criteria allowed a service level of “Possible permanent loss of service.” In other words, the bridge could be so badly damaged that no vehicles, ever again, would be able to cross it. That would mean zero access for emergency vehicles. This low level of seismic performance was completely at odds with MMM’s engineering advice provided before procurement of the bridge had been committed to by the City.
When Focus brought this issue to public attention in 2015, City councillors asked Huggett to explain MMM’s Seismic Design Criteria. City staff had never told the councillors about the document’s existence or its purpose. In response to the council’s request for an explanation, Huggett made two presentations, one to councillors and one to media. Neither provided a single word of explanation of why the document was created, what it contained, what its provisions meant, why it superseded all other bridge code requirements or what impact it had on the bridge’s contractually required seismic performance for emergency vehicle access and repairability. The councillors didn’t notice that, amongst all the irrelevant engineerese Huggett provided, there was no explanation of the Seismic Design Criteria document. For a longer description of this fiasco, perhaps Huggett's greatest hit, see "Seismic rip-off on the Johnson Street Bridge."
What the document’s inclusion in the City's contract with the builder, PCL, means is that the City will have no legal ground to sue any of the parties involved in building the bridge if, following a major earthquake (greater than M6.5), the bridge can’t provide immediate access to emergency vehicles and/or becomes unrepairable.
Here’s another of Huggett’s Greatest Hits: In 2015 he informed City councillors that protective fendering for the north side of the bridge had not been included in the construction contract with PCL. He told councillors it had been “clouded out” in contract drawings. As a result, he told them, this fendering would add extra millions to the project cost. Focus filed an FOI for the “clouded out” contract drawings Huggett had referenced. The City informed us that no such drawings could be found. It was made clear by several documents that did exist—including the actual contract with PCL—that the north side fendering was part of the construction contract. Yet Huggett promoted the idea that the City would have to pay several million dollars more for physical protection on the north side of the bridge. Four years later, after numerous expensive updates on the fendering issue by Huggett, the bridge continues to be unprotected on its north side.
An artist's rendering of the protective fendering proposed—years ago— for the north side of the new bridge. The bridge continues to be unprotected from outgoing marine traffic, including tugs pulling loaded barges.
Another great hit: in early 2018, Focus published a story that revealed the bascule leaf of the bridge had undergone a major, last-minute repair after four years of fabrication in China. Large holes had to be cut into the structure’s fracture-critical rings. Six-foot-by-six-foot steel plates had been crudely bolted over the holes. We sought an explanation from Huggett, who provided next to no information about who knew what, and when they knew it. Later, he complained to City council that we had claimed the plates were scrap steel. We had not.
Bolted-on plates added in Victoria to repair a flaw in the rings that traced back to incomplete shop drawings, which were ultimately the responsibility of the bridge's designer, Hardesty & Hanover
Huggett supported the position of the company that had designed the bascule leaf, Hardesty & Hanover, which blamed the Chinese company that had fabricated the bridge for the circumstances that led to the need for the plates. But documents later obtained by Focus through an FOI showed that the problem that led to the bolted-on plates had been known for over a year before any attempt had been made to address it. That long interval of no action—during which the Chinese company waited for a decision from Hardesty & Hanover but also kept building on top of the problem—had necessitated the crude application of the plates.
The documents obtained by FOI also showed that the root cause of the problem was incomplete details on shop drawings, which were ultimately the responsibility of the designer, Hardesty & Hanover. The documents showed that Huggett had been kept informed of this serious problem by PCL, but that he had failed to inform any City official about the problem. The best option, from the City’s perspective, would have been to re-weld that section of the rings as per the intended design. But Huggett never even informed the City that the problem existed, let alone that there were options for how to fix the problem. If Focus hadn’t raised the issue, no one at City Hall would have known why those big, bolted-on plates were there.
The visual defacement of the intended design that these plates created caught the attention of a British bridge designer, who wrote: “It’s clear from the photographs that nothing this awful should be considered acceptable as part of the finished structure.” As well, a steel fabrication expert told Focus the plates would likely lead to long-term corrosion and maintenance issues.
Records obtained from the City by FOI regarding Huggett’s remuneration for professional services and expenses show that during the last half of 2014, for all of 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, and for the first four months of 2019, he was billing the City for about $25,000 per month for professional services and expenses. In 2018 the Times Colonist observed that Huggett was the most highly remunerated person drawing from a municipal public purse anywhere in the CRD in 2016 ($303,087.05) and 2017 ($308,299.37).
Of Huggett’s monthly billings, $20,000 was for “professional services.” The balance was for expenses. Itemized breakdowns of his expenses, obtained by FOI, show that he had been billing the City about $2500 per month for a monthly pass on Air Canada to fly between Vancouver (he lives in White Rock) and Victoria.
Huggett’s May 1, 2019 billing was for $22,571.20, but by June 1 that had suddenly dropped to $6,530.80. The City was finally requiring an itemized accounting of his billable hours. The latest shows that in June, 2019 he billed the City for a total of 22 hours, three of which were spent on “calls” about “hydraulic system failure.”
In all, up to the time the bridge broke down, Huggett had been paid $1.407 million for his services and expenses. It’s unclear whether any public accounting of bridge project costs has included that cost.
It’s not easy to ascertain exactly what Huggett did for the City. That’s because there’s no complete public record of what he did and why he did it. Working from his home in White Rock, he wasn’t required to use a City of Victoria email account through which his City-related emails would have—or should have—been recorded and archived and accessible by FOI. When we asked the City for Huggett’s communications regarding the bolted-on plates, not a single email was provided that would show how Huggett had responded to communications from PCL or Hardesty & Hanover. Those emails, paid for dearly with taxpayers’ dollars, are in the sole custody of Jonathan Huggett.
In the end, besides the largely boilerplate quarterly reports he provided to City councillors, he seems to have been valued at City Hall as someone who would assist them with public relations on a disastrous and embarrassing project. When Focus asked Mayor Helps if she had known about the bolted-on plates, she devised a non-response response and sent it to Huggett for his consideration first. (She accidentally copied us on that response when she sent it to Huggett.)
In 2017, when the City staged a public “Lessons Learned” exercise about the project, then-Councillor Pam Madoff told Huggett: “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.”
Huggett’s response to Madoff was short: “There is no question that you were not given good advice.” On that point I heartily agree.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.