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  • The $130-million question

    David Broadland

    September 2015

    The Johnson Street Bridge project director says the new bridge will be “somewhat less robust” than the existing bridge. Why?


    CITY OF VICTORIA TAXPAYERS are now facing a price tag of $130 million for the new Johnson Street bridge project. That’s a tripling of the $35-40 million cost put on the project in 2009 when councillors first voted to build a new bridge instead of repairing the one city residents already owned. It’s more than double the $63 million that citizens were told a new bridge would cost when the City forced them, in the middle of winter, to counter-petition for a referendum on the project. It’s also $53 million above the price former City Manager Gail Stephens had in mind when she claimed the project was “on time and within budget” shortly before the 2011 civic election. And it’s almost $40 million above what “Fixed-Price” Fortin campaigned on just last November.

    That cost escalation is difficult for most people to understand, but the price tag is only one indicator of the whirlpool of confusion gripping the project.

    Consider this: Building a new bridge was initially justified on the basis of the existing bridge’s seismic vulnerability. Sure, there were other advantages touted for a new bridge, but the first and most compelling public interest rationale offered was that the existing bridge would collapse in a significant earthquake. Building a new bridge with a high level of seismic protection became the primary objective. The project has now generated enough data about itself—what the chosen objectives were and whether those will be included in the structure that’s been built—that we should have a clear picture of whether that seismic protection objective has been met. But do we?


    Project director fails to explain document

    Last March we published the story “Engineers ignored their own recommendation, a Council vote and a referendum” that considered the implications of a document created by the City’s project manager MMM Group in August 2012: Johnson Street Bridge Seismic Design Criteria. That document established the allowable physical outcomes for the new structure following earthquakes of different strengths. But those outcomes were very different than what was recommended to the City by MMM engineer Joost Meyboom in June 2010. At that time, Meyboom recommended that a new bridge “be designed for an M8.5 earthquake.” He told councillors, “If you’re going to spend $100 million on a facility, the premium to pay for a very high seismic performance is a relatively low price for insurance.” Meyboom put that premium at $10 million and characterized this level of performance as “Lifeline.”

    Yet MMM’s Seismic Design Criteria didn’t contain any provision at all for the outcome expected following an M8.5 earthquake, or, in the language used in the document, a 2500-year event. Moreover, the document stated that following a 1000-year event—a significantly less energetic earthquake—the allowable outcome was “possible permanent loss of service.” That wording suggests the bridge could be unrepairable. The document said nothing on the question of whether the bridge would be available for emergency services following that 1000-year event.

    In other words, MMM’s Seismic Design Criteria allowed a significantly lower level of seismic protection than Meyboom had recommended—and had apparently built into MMM’s cost estimates for the project.

    City council wasn’t consulted about this change in the project’s scope.

    Following our story’s publication, City councillors asked Project Director Jonathan Huggett to look into the implications of MMM’s Seismic Design Criteria. He returned to council on May 7 with a written report summarizing the seismic design of the bridge.

    His short report stated: “It was confirmed in writing by MMM and its subcontractor Hardesty & Hanover that the final design is based on the most comprehensive, onerous and relevant design requirements for bascule bridges in North America.”

    Furthermore, Huggett reported to councillors: “The new Johnson Street Bridge has been designed as a ‘Critical Bridge’—the equivalent definition of ‘Lifeline Bridge,’ which is the performance required by the City. The design of the new bridge will allow the bridge to be available to all traffic after a design earthquake of a [1000-year] return period. The bridge is expected to ‘be usable by emergency vehicles and for security/defense purposes immediately after a large subduction earthquake, e.g. a 2500-year return period event.’”

    Following his report, Focus filed an FOI for the confirmation “in writing” Huggett had obtained from Hardesty & Hanover (H&H), and we requested the source of the statement he had quoted in his report, specifically, that the bridge would “be usable by emergency vehicles and for security/defense purposes immediately after a large subduction earthquake, e.g. a 2500-year return period event.”

    We also asked for all the communications between Huggett, MMM and H&H on this issue. The email record shows Huggett scrambled for an explanation and couldn’t find one. At one point, in response to Huggett’s appeal for information on the seismic capacity of the bridge’s lifting mechanism, a senior MMM employee referred Huggett to a “briefing provided by H&H.” Huggett immediately wrote back to MMM stating: “Just to be clear—that briefing note was prepared by me last August…” [emphasis added]

    What the records released to us show is that H&H didn’t provided Huggett with the written confirmation he claimed, and they didn’t deny they had used MMM’s lower Seismic Design Criteria to design the bridge. H&H’s Keith Griesing wrote to Huggett and stated, “I think MMM would have to address the history and the decisions that were made to set the direction of the project. I don’t want to offer an opinion on matters that we were not involved with since it may lead to further confusion.” 

    Worse, the City could find no record to support Huggett’s claim—which he had put in quotes as if to signify that he was quoting  seismic experts at either H&H or MMM— that the bridge would “be usable by emergency vehicles and for security/defense purposes immediately after a large subduction earthquake, e.g. a 2500-year return.” 

    It appears Huggett simply lifted a paragraph from a bridge design code and then added the word “subduction.”

    Records of Huggett’s billings to the City for his first year show he was paid $177,605. The report Huggett provided to councillors, then, was very expensive misinformation. Huggett hadn’t received written confirmation from H&H, and his conflation of a subduction event with a 2500-year event was pure fiction. In Victoria, the impact of  a Cascadia subduction zone event would be minor compared to that of the 2500-year event for which Meyboom recommended the bridge be designed.

    Don’t take my word on this. Here’s what MMM said in its Project Definition Report: “Given the location of the bridge, the Cascadia Subduction Earthquake was also considered as an important event. A comparison of site specific response spectra, however, showed that the spectral acceleration for the Cascadia event are lower than the 1 in 475 earthquake and this is therefore not a critical design consideration.”

    In other words, in Victoria, the seismic threat posed by the Cascadia subduction zone is not a critical design consideration, at least when it comes to constructing new bridges. It’s impact here, according to MMM’s analysis, would be less than an M6.5 earthquake.

    So what kind of earthquake is “a critical design consideration”? Sharlie Huffman, when I spoke with her a couple of years ago, was the Province’s Bridge Seismic Engineer. She identified shallow crustal earthquakes, like the M7.3 earthquake that occurred near Campbell River in 1946, as being particularly concerning. Could such an earthquake occur near Victoria? Yes. According to the scientists of Natural Resources Canada, the peak ground acceleration predicted for the Johnson Street Bridge site in a 2500-year return period event is .607g. That value of peak ground acceleration is similar to that measured in the vicinity of earthquakes having magnitudes in the range of M8.5. As Meyboom told City councillors back in 2010, Victoria has the highest level of seismic risk of any city in Canada.

    MMM’s seismic engineer, Jianping Jiang, provided Huggett, in writing, with his understanding of the bridge’s expected seismic performance at M8.5. Jiang told Huggett: “With respect to the bridge performance after a 2500-year return period seismic event, we wish to clarify that the 1:2500 year event is not part of the seismic design criteria specified in the JSB 2012 Project Definition Report and was not analyzed in the design.”

    Why, then, did Huggett report to councillors that the bridge would be available to emergency vehicles following a 2500-year event?

    We asked Dwayne Kalynchuk, the previous project director, whether MMM’s Seismic Design Criteria had been used in the design and construction of the bridge. Here’s the statement Kalynchuk gave Focus, in writing: “H&H Consultants are the Engineers of Record for the bascule design. They confirmed that the standards that are reflected in the August [17th, 2012] Seismic Design Criteria are still current and are incorporated in the final bascule design which is now in the process of construction.”

    Focus also asked the City for records that showed when and why MMM’s Seismic Design Criteria had been developed. The records provided show the new criteria were developed in the midst of the RFP process, after the City had learned that “indicative price” submissions from all three companies bidding to build the bridge were higher than the City’s affordability limit. MMM’s Seismic Design Criteria, which provided a lower level of seismic protection than Meyboom had recommended, would have allowed for a reduction in construction costs. The document was officially added to the RFP process on August 24, 2012 after an overnight consideration of its impact by Kalynchuk.

    Records obtained show that on December 12, 2012, as the City was trying to finalize a contract with PCL, MMM’s Meyboom prepared a list of urgent actions that needed to be undertaken “to finalize contract discussions.” At the top of Meyboom’s to-do list was “a letter from H&H stating that the design as developed during the bid with PCL is feasible from a seismic performance point of view (bridge needs to be Lifeline).” Focus filed an FOI request for that letter; the City determined that the letter was never written.

    The Seismic Design Criteria document was listed in the PCL contract as a “regulatory document,” which, the contract states, “forms part of the contract.”

    All of the records we have obtained are consistent with our original story’s contention that MMM’s Seismic Design Criteria were used by H&H to engineer the bridge, and that the bridge’s ability to withstand an earthquake is much reduced compared with what was originally recommended by MMM. If the City can provide hard evidence that’s not true, they should produce it. Hard evidence would include a complete explanation of why MMM’s Seismic Design Criteria are part of PCL’s contract.


    New bridge “somewhat less robust” than existing bridge

    If the new Johnson Street Bridge isn’t getting the full measure of seismic protection the experts said was needed, how has the project done on other objectives? 

    One of those goals was a wider navigational channel. Way back, the project intended to expand the distance between the new bridge’s piers by 8 metres compared with the existing bridge, thus reducing the risk that passing barges and other vessels would collide with the bridge. That improvement was effectively eliminated—to reduce project costs—in 2011. But that saving is now being offset by the cost of more substantial fendering—the bridge bumpers that would cushion a blow from a passing vessel. At a meeting on July 16, Huggett told councillors that fendering for the north side of the bridge would add an additional $3 million—more or less—to the cost of the bridge.

    Councillor Ben Isitt, who was in the room when the details of the PCL contract were supposedly laid out for councillors before they approved it back in December 2012, asked Huggett, “Could you remind us why the fendering isn’t included in the scope of the contract with PCL?”

    Huggett offered a complicated explanation involving a contract drawing that Isitt apparently hadn’t seen. My review of the contract’s details around fendering doesn’t support Huggett’s claim; the risk of additional cost of fendering seems to have been covered in the contract’s list of allocated contingencies, and limited to $462,500. Design, although incomplete, was to be covered by PCL. It’s in the contract. MMM’s own estimate of the total cost for fendering in the Project Definition Report was $1.3 million. Huggett’s prediction of an additional $3 million would mean MMM’s estimate was off by a factor of three. Hopefully Isitt will recall whether or not he was shown Huggett’s mysterious drawing and, if he wasn’t, try to save taxpayers $3 million.

    In any case, Huggett explained why fendering was so vital: “The new bridge is somewhat less robust than the existing structure,” he told councillors (emphasis added). “The last thing I need is a barge to hit the rest pier and knock it two inches out of alignment. For one, I don’t know how I’d get it back again having knocked it out of alignment and then I’m faced with an inoperable bridge. You’ve got a $100 million invested in the water here and I’ve got to protect it.”

    The news that Huggett’s bridge will be “somewhat less robust” than the existing bridge ought to have come as a shock to councillors. After all, wasn’t the robustness of the bridge—its capacity to absorb the energy of a suddenly applied force without permanent damage—the very reason why the project had been undertaken in the first place? That capacity to absorb energy is the very same characteristic required to withstand an earthquake. Huggett was now telling councillors that his bridge had less capacity to absorb a blow than the existing bridge. If any councillors comprehended the disconnect between what Huggett told them back in May about the bridge’s seismic capacity and what he was telling them now, they kept it well hidden.

    What some of the councillors did seem to comprehend, though, is the way in which the escalating price is a measure of the project’s fundamental lack of integrity. First-term Councillor Jeremy Loveday complained, “I feel handcuffed by past decisions and bad contracts and contingencies that are too small. As a member of the public I feel that I was misled by politicians at the civic level.”

    Those politicians, the records show, were misled by City staff, who, in turn, were misled by MMM Group. Take Loveday’s concern about the small contingency, for example. At the time councillors were being asked to approve a contract with PCL they were told by City staff that the four percent contingency included in the contract had been recommended by MMM. Once the project started to go off the rails, though, MMM argued that PCL should have included a 40 percent contingency. Both must have known from the start the cost would escalate dramatically. For whatever reason, neither warned the City.

    MMM has been the City’s project manager since the summer of 2009 and in 2010 it told councillors that “project management and engineering” should cost 12 percent of the bridge’s construction cost. On a construction cost then estimated at $65 million, MMM said its fee would be $7.7 million.

    But according to documents obtained by Focus through FOI, the City has already paid MMM close to $15 million. The $1.842 million Huggett obtained for MMM from councillors on July 16, along with $2.4 million the company has previously claimed, will bring their take to $19 million—or 90 percent of the $21 million federal grant.

    Shortly before Councillor Geoff Young voted to give MMM more money, he spoke at length about what could be learned from this project: “I don’t think it’s helpful to reflect overmuch at this stage on the project or where it will come out or its degree of success. I think it may be worthwhile to draw lessons from the project because, indeed, we are now embarked on another major project at the regional level. I think it’s worthwhile thinking about where we’re going with that one.”

    Young’s unwillingness to “reflect overmuch” on the project is understandable. Politicians who make bad decisions, or even those who fail to persuade their colleagues from making a bad decision, have a natural preference for forgetting. He’s right, in one way, though. It’s not the politicians who have been sitting around the table while these bad decisions were made that should now be doing the reflecting on what lessons should be learned. Judging by what councillors Pam Madoff, Chris Coleman and Charlayne Thornton Joe said at the July 16 meeting, they are oblivious to the dimensions of the disaster they have facilitated, starting with the moment back in 2009 when they all voted to replace the existing bridge. When they made that decision, there wasn’t a single aspect of the project that had been sensibly or accurately evaluated. Each bad decision they made afterward was just piling dead weight onto a poorly constructed foundation.

    In my life as a designer and builder—of physical structures and machinery—I learned early on that as soon as I realized I had made an error in measuring something in a job I was working on, I had to go back and fix the error or it could multiply into an even bigger problem. In politics, unfortunately, admitting to having made an error of judgment is rare. 

    In the case of the bridge project, there were a number of points along the way where City staff’s failure to accurately assess, measure or understand some fundamental parameter—seismic risk, estimated cost, the risk associated with using an experimental design, the amount set aside for contingencies that might arise, the integrity of the City’s partners—should have been obvious to City councillors and set off alarm bells. But the majority of councillors, ill advised by highly-paid staff, continued to make bad judgment after bad judgment and the foundation of the project ended up being based on ignorance and risk instead of knowledge and certainty. As a consequence, the taxpayer is getting a bridge that’s over three times as expensive as originally estimated and “somewhat less robust” than the bridge it will replace.

    David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.

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