The latest cover-up on the $115-million project raises the question: What needs to change at Victoria City Hall?
LIKE MANY VICTORIANS, I visited the Johnson Street Bridge construction site in early December to check out the newly-erected rings. My attention was immediately drawn to two large, heavily-bolted plates attached to the underside of each of the rings at the 12-o’clock position. Uh-oh.
As you may know, I have been watching this project closely, for nine years. No such plates had ever appeared in any of the detailed construction drawings or project photographs that I had seen over the past five years of construction. I snapped a few photographs. At home, blown up, the photos showed that the welded steel rings—which took three years to fabricate in China—had recently been cut open. Steel plates, angle steel and hundreds of bolts had then been placed over the openings. This assemblage had a “quick-and-dirty” appearance, the kind of short-term repair you might expect to see on a bridge deemed to be near the end of its useful life—not at the start.
As a result of a flaw in its structural design, the signature feature of the new bridge—the rings—required the addition of external bolt-on plates (inset).
I sent my photos to Project Director Jonathan Huggett and asked him for an explanation. Over Huggett’s nearly four years on the job, I’ve sent him questions several times. Before this, he hadn’t answered a single question. In his last non-response, he had explained, “I am very busy trying to deal with a multitude of issues right now.” I didn’t expect to hear from him this time, either, but he surprised me.
In an email, Huggett revealed that Atema—the quality-control company hired by the City of Victoria to monitor fabrication in China of the large steel parts of the bridge—had issued a “non-compliance report” (NCR) on December 9, 2016 after an inspection of the rings. Atema’s report indicated the structure contained a design flaw that could leave the rings vulnerable to metal fatigue.
In response to discovery of the design flaw, Huggett says, “Lengthy discussions occurred in China and North America during the first half of 2017 and a number of different options to remedy the comments in the NCR were presented and reviewed. After discussions involving many experts in steel fabrication, the Engineer of Record agreed to design a bolt-on steel plate to ensure that the rings had not only the required strength, but also met the fatigue design requirements for the opening and closing of the bridge. This amended design was carried out and signed off by the Engineer of Record.”
Wow. That’s a dramatically understated admission that the project had gone dangerously off the rails. After three years of fabrication, the rings had to be hacked into with cutting torches and hastily repaired. Yet not one of Huggett’s public reports to City councillors even hinted at such a problem. Huggett apparently had no intention of publicly acknowledging the design flaw, or the repair, unless someone else brought it up. Were those his instructions from the City?
One question that immediately occurred to me: Is this the structure’s only design flaw?
Huggett, a private engineering consultant, was appointed project director in 2014 by the City of Victoria after a report he authored condemned the project for its lack of leadership. He billed the City about $300,000 for his services, including expenses, in 2017.
When pressed for more information, including the date he had informed City of Victoria officials about the design flaw, Huggett simply responded: “We have no additional information to provide.”
If Huggett had informed anyone at City Hall about the design flaw, it most likely would have been City Manager Jason Johnson, who hired Huggett in 2014. But Johnson was fired by City council shortly after the rings arrived in Victoria, so I was unable to confirm whether Huggett told Johnson about the design flaw and repair. Five emails to Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps asking her to confirm whether or not Huggett had informed City councillors all went unanswered.
I’ll come back to the question of why City Hall is reluctant to acknowledge what has happened, but first let me describe more exactly what was done to the rings after the design flaw was discovered. (If some readers have a hard time wading through this account, my apologies. I am hoping that an engineer with bridge design and/or bridge construction experience will come forward to comment on the repair that has been done to the new bridge.)
I provided Huggett with a written description of what appears to be a hastily-executed repair that has been made to both rings and asked him to correct any part of my description so that it would accurately reflect the “amended design” for the public record. Huggett provided no correction.
Sometime after the trial fit-up of all the major parts of the bridge in China in March 2017, significant, identical alterations were made to each ring. This included cutting out a section of steel plate from the inside flange of each ring. Steel appears to have been removed from the centre of each ring right out to their outer edge. This removal included about one metre of steel along the edge of the rings, including the weld.
This project photo of the south ring in March, 2017 shows the intended design. Despite having known about the design flaw for over three months, the project then proceeded in such a way as to make it impossible to back-track and properly address the issue. Later, a large section of steel (in the area indicated by the yellow circle) was cut away from both rings and then covered over with bolt-on plates.
These cutouts in the rings would have allowed access to the interior of the ring. Work may have been done inside the rings to address the fatigue issue identified by Atema. A photograph of the rings taken during their fabrication (see below) shows an abrupt narrowing of the structural steel in the same area where, later, the bolt-on plates were installed. This abrupt transition in the structure, along with an internal access port, may have prompted Atema’s report.
The south ring during fabrication in China in July 2016. The yellow circle indicates the area of the ring later red-lined by Atema’s non-compliance report.
Whether or not any steel was then added to the internal structure of the rings is unknown. If not, the next step would have involved attaching the external plates, which are about two metres by two metres in size. That required drilling 180 approximately three-quarter-inch-diameter holes into each ring, with matching holes in the plates. The plates are bolted along the edge of each ring to a steel angle that protrudes from the gap cut in the rings. The angles are bolted to the inside of the rings’ side webs. Filler pieces roughly support the plates at their forward edges where the plates span an uneven surface. The plates appear to be deformed (bent) across this uneven surface.
One question that arises: Wouldn’t drilling a large number of holes, in a small area that had already been identified as having a weakness, further weaken the rings? The rings are considered “fracture-critical,” which implies their failure could lead to collapse of the bridge.
As well, gaps and joints between the rings’ original steel and the bolted-on steel parts, evident in photographs, seem to make it possible for moisture to get between the steel surfaces and from there into the bolt holes. If that happens, corrosion would occur. The plates, angle steel and bolts introduce the need for careful, ongoing inspection, additional maintenance and future repair that would not have been required if a properly fabricated structure had been delivered.
While many questions require answers from the City, what is known seems straightforward and damning: The design flaw was pointed out by a company whose actual job was to certify the grade of steel being used, monitor the quality of the welding, and ensure fabrication proceeded according to drawings that originated with Hardesty & Hanover, the company that engineered the steel lifting section of the bridge. Its drawings were supposed to be checked and approved by the City’s project manager, MMM Group, which has billed the City for close to $20 million for its services on the project since 2009. Fabrication of the lifting section began in China in early 2014. So it took nearly three years before anyone noticed this flaw in Hardesty & Hanover’s design, and then it was discovered by someone not responsible for the engineering of the structure. The structural integrity of this part of the bridge was judged to be so far below standard that an extraordinary intervention was required. It then took, according to Huggett, another six or seven months before a decision was made about how to address the flaw. Part of that decision included choosing to conceal the problem from the public. Another part of the decision was to do a quick-and-dirty repair. Is that because the rings had already been shipped to Victoria, precluding a proper repair at the steel fabrication plant in China?
So many questions with no answers.
While the Engineer of Record may have “signed off” on the bolt-on plates, the Engineer of Record works for the same company—Hardesty & Hanover—that engineered the structural flaw into the design in the first place. As engineers, their work is now suspect and their stamp of approval on their solution to a problem they created seems fraught with potential for conflict of interest. Wouldn’t City of Victoria councillors have wanted to obtain an independent, disinterested assessment of the proposed fix? Did they?
If councillors had been made aware of this flaw and its proposed remedy, and agreed to accept a substandard bridge anyway, they have a lot to answer for—public oversight of the project appears to have failed.
Until the City of Victoria makes it clear whether or not Huggett informed City officials of the circumstances related to the design flaw, it ought to be assumed that he did. If that’s the case, City councillors will need to explain the basis for their decision to accept a bridge that needed to be repaired. At the very least, they ought to provide public answers to the following:
1. When were City councillors informed about the design flaw?
2. When were they informed about the proposed fix?
3. Did the City of Victoria obtain an opinion from an independent professional engineer—one with no previous involvement with any of the parties undertaking the project—as to whether the City should agree to the proposed fix?
4. In return for accepting a substandard bridge, has the City of Victoria obtained a long-term guarantee from the builder (PCL), beyond the limited two-year warranty previously agreed to, that the damaged rings will be replaced by the builder if the repair shows any sign of deterioration or failure over the expected life of the bridge?
5. Were councillors planning on informing the public of the design flaw and repair before the coming civic election?
It has taken 9 years and, if we’re honest, about $115 million to build a 156-metre-long bridge that needed to be repaired before it could be opened.Why has this happened to our city?
Long before this particular design flaw emerged and its cover-up commenced, the project had repeatedly reduced the value of the bridge being built, each time concealing that fact from the public. Focus has documented this sad history, right from the project’s origins in 2008. This seems an appropriate moment to recount why this troubled project has turned out the way it has.
THE LONG RECORD OF CONCEALMENT OF PROBLEMS with the bridge’s design and construction seems to be a natural consequence of the project’s controversial origins, and the haste with which a conceptual design was chosen. The project was born at the height of the world financial crisis in late 2008 and early 2009, when governments around the planet rushed forward with gigantic plans for infrastructure spending to stimulate the global economy. In Victoria, the possibility of a big federal-provincial grant appeared just after the City had received an engineering assessment of the condition of the 86-year-old Johnson Street Bridge. This unfortunate coincidence determined the fundamental nature of the project that followed: It was hurried, and therefore ill-conceived.
To justify going after a big grant, whose application deadline was only weeks away, City officials had to quickly manufacture a plausible rationale for replacing the Johnson Street Bridge. They did that by abruptly announcing that the Johnson Street Bridge had a serious seismic vulnerability. On top of that, the City claimed that repairing the bridge would require lengthy closure—at great economic cost to Downtown businesses. Since that repair would be only marginally less expensive than building a new bridge at $40 million, the City argued, building a new bridge was the best choice.
But before the City took that position, it had been advised, unequivocally, by two professional engineers on two separate occasions, to repair the double bridge rather than replace it. The first engineer to provide that direction, Joost Meyboom, told the City in 2008 that an adequate repair, including seismic upgrading, would cost $8.6 million. The second engineer, Mark Mulvihill, gave the same advice in 2009. Mulvihill based his recommendation on the structure’s “high and significant” heritage values. But Meyboom’s and Mulvihill’s professional recommendations were concealed by the City, and were only revealed through FOIs filed well after City council had committed to a new bridge.
That’s how the project started. Founded on a fundamentally deceptive approach to providing information about the project, City managers went on to repeat—for the next nine years—that same pattern of misrepresentation and concealment in response to every major challenge that came along.
Instead of following Meyboom’s and Mulvihill’s recommendations, the City placed its bet on a back-of-the-envelope concept created by Sebastien Ricard at the British architectural firm Wilkinson Eyre. Inexplicably, Ricard’s design depended on a novel open-ring (no axle) lifting mechanism that had previously been used for only two small bridges in the Canary Wharf development in London. Just a few years old, the bridges had almost no record of performance or durability. Nor was there any proof that the open-ring design could be successfully scaled up to the size proposed for Victoria. By July 2009 the City was estimating the project would cost $63 million.
When it tried to proceed without electors’ consent, a counter-petition—mounted in the middle of a cold winter by indignant Victoria citizens—successfully forced the City to put its plan to a referendum. The City’s response to that setback, in preparation for a vote, was to spend heavily on creating the perception that building a new bridge would be less expensive than repairing the existing structure, and that Ricard’s design would allow a number of highly desirable features: dedicated bicycle lanes, rail, a high level of seismic protection, a wider navigational channel and a “signature” structure with high-level architectural qualities that would make the bridge “world class” and “iconic.”
Sebastien Ricard’s glamorous, but hastily-conceived, 2010 design was approved by voters in a borrowing referendum.
Critics of the project, like Ross Crockford, a director of the watchdog organization that had forced the City to hold a referendum, pointed to the unproven, experimental nature of the design. To Crockford— who, unlike the City, had sought out the advice of bridge engineers not involved in the project—the design presented an unnecessary financial risk to City taxpayers. The design flaw discovered by Atema is exactly the kind of risk critics like Crockford warned the City about, before and after the referendum. The City ignored those warnings, and so did the majority of City voters. In the November 2010 referendum, electors approved the City’s now-$77-million-plan.
Soon after the referendum had been won, project engineers and City staff quietly began stripping away most of the promised elements of the project’s scope, even as the project’s cost continued to climb.
The first things to go were rail and a wider navigational channel.
Ricard’s renderings of the bridge from 2010 all show a bridge wide enough to accommodate rail and long enough to allow a navigational channel 47 metres wide. But records obtained by Focus showed that project engineers suspected Ricard’s open-ring design couldn’t actually accommodate either. By early 2011, MMM engineers were gathering evidence to help convince City managers, behind closed doors, that the City should build a much smaller bridge.
By mid-2011 the City had signed a design contract with MMM that, contrary to promises made before the referendum, eliminated rail, reduced the opening span from 47 to 41 metres, and reduced the required life expectancy of the approach bridges from 100 years to 75 years. There was no proactive disclosure of these latter two reductions in quality and scope. They only became known to councillors and the public later, through FOIs filed by Focus.
The shortage of truthfulness wasn’t confined to the engineers. Just before the civic election in 2011, City Manager Gail Stephens announced that the project “continues to be within the budget of $77 million and the March 2016 timeline.” But, as we learned much later, she was hiding the truth from both councillors and the public. An FOI filed in 2012 showed Stephens had been warned months before by City staff that the project was definitely over budget. Those staff advised her that councillors should be informed. Stephens failed to do so. As for her claim of being on schedule for completion by March 2016, the truth of that is now evident.
In mid-2012, while the City was working with three companies short-listed to bid on the bridge’s construction contract, two significant changes were made to the project’s scope. Each of these changes was made to lower the cost of the project after the three companies bidding on the contract made it clear the City’s recently-expanded $93-million budget would not cover the cost of even the shrunken bridge it wanted them to build.
The first of these changes was a decision to leave the support piers of the existing bridge in place. That would eliminate the cost of removing and disposing of the piers, but this also resulted in losing one of the primary objectives of the project: a wider navigational channel under the bridge. The width of the channel was limited by the existing piers which were 39 metres apart. Leaving them in place meant the navigational clearance would be virtually the same, with no reduction in the risk of marine traffic hitting the bridge. Project managers hid this change, too, from councillors, who were left to learn about it from the pages of Focus.
At the same time, in mid-2012, City managers secretly accepted a lower standard of seismic performance for the bridge. While no engineer can, with great certainty, guarantee that a bridge will be accessible to traffic after a large earthquake, MMM engineer Joost Meyboom had convinced the City that it should buy the highest level of seismic protection possible. Meyboom put the cost of that protection at $10 million and, during the 2010 referendum, electors were told the bridge would include that high level of protection.
However, after it had been established (in secret) by the three companies bidding for the construction contract that MMM’s estimate of cost was too low, MMM introduced a document into the procurement process that accepted a much lower level of seismic performance than Meyboom had previously advised the City to accept. This document’s reduced seismic design criteria allowed for the replacement of the planned all-steel approach bridges with more economical—but more seismically vulnerable— concrete structures.
Again, councillors were left in the dark. I’ll come back to the lowered seismic design criteria in a moment, because the way this issue was manipulated by the City when it was made public in these pages is a good indicator of how the City will respond publicly to the design flaw issue. But first, let me refresh your memory about the warnings about the design that were provided by the companies in their bids for the construction contract.
Two of the bid proposals rejected Ricard’s open-ring design outright as too risky in terms of cost, reliability, and repairability. The third bid, from PCL, rejected a part of Ricard’s design and altered what remained in a way that allowed PCL to meet the City’s price ceiling. But that alteration also resulted in material changes that PCL expected would reduce the life of the bridge before major repairs would be needed. PCL admitted its proposal would result in a bridge in which parts that were “subject to wear” would last only 30 years.
Senior City managers kept all these warnings out of sight of elected officials. Records obtained by Focus show that at a critical in camera meeting soon after the bids were received—a moment in which councillors could have been fully apprised of the companies’ warnings before committing to Ricard’s design—City staff didn’t even mention them.
In light of the design flaw discovered by Atema and its warning of the risk of metal fatigue, it now seems possible that one of those parts “subject to wear” is the entire section of the bridge built in China.
LET'S GO BACK AND PICK UP THE THREAD about the project’s reduced seismic design criteria. The document mentioned above later became part of the City’s contract with PCL. Its presence in the contract protects PCL from any future legal claim from the City of Victoria in the case that the bridge suffers unrepairable damage—or is unusable by emergency vehicles—following a much smaller seismic event than that for which Meyboom had recommended the City prepare.
Keep in mind that Meyboom had put the value of that additional protection at $10 million, and the City had agreed to pay for this extra protection in exchange for an implied guarantee that the bridge would stand up well in a large earthquake. That $10 million had been included in the “$77 million” estimate in 2010. That extra $10 million was meant for such features as all-steel approach bridges, which have much better seismic performance than concrete.
Recall that questions about the seismic vulnerability of the existing double bridge had been the primary rationale for replacing it. Ironically, all four of its approach bridges were steel. But inclusion of the Seismic Design Criteria document in PCL’s contract meant the City had, in effect, agreed to a lower level of seismic performance, so concrete approach bridges could now be used in the new bridge. None of this was divulged to councillors when they were asked to approve a contract with PCL.
When the issue was brought to light by Focus in 2015, Huggett, by then project director, provided an extensive non-denial denial that carefully avoided even acknowledging the existence of the contract document that contains the lowered seismic design criteria. For readers unfamiliar with the expression “non-denial denial”: This is a term coined by journalists to describe a response from a subject that sounds like a refutation of facts, but, on careful examination, doesn’t actually refute anything specific in the reporting and doesn’t provide any evidence that disproves the report, yet isn’t, itself, untruthful.
EACH OF THE ABOVE DECEPTIONS was first divulged to the public in the pages of Focus. The City has never presented any evidence that what we have reported was inaccurate or untrue. Yet, in almost every case, some City official—often the mayor of the day—has appeared at other Victoria media outlets with vigorous non-denial denials of our reports.
The City hasn’t limited its defensive tactics to traditional obfuscation, though. They’ve been ground-breakers on keeping the record opaque. When Focus filed an FOI that sought evidence that Stephens had been advised the project was already over-budget in 2011, the City employed a legal maneuver—used against a media outlet only once before in BC’s history—that allowed it to delay responding to our FOI. On the very day the City was required to provide evidence to the Office of the Information Commissioner to support its tactic, the City withdrew its claim. Such self-inflicted wounds to the City’s credibility have not been without cost.
One cost of the serial deceptions has been a continuous loss of top-level City managers closely associated with the project: City Manager Gail Stephens, Director of Operations Peter Sparanese and Director of Engineering Dwayne Kalynchuk all “resigned” suddenly—or were fired. Others, too, have disappeared.
As well as that huge loss of senior personnel, the serial deceptions have had a corrosive effect on the community’s trust in its civic government. Why didn’t City councillors put a halt to the repeated cycle of beating down the value of the project and concealment of their actions?
The majority on council went along with the original rushed decision in 2009, and concealment of the project’s problems provided those seeking re-election in 2011 and 2014 with cover for their original error in judgment.
To be fair, in many of the cases in which City staff reduced the scope of the project in significant ways just to keep Ricard’s open-ring design alive, councillors were simply not informed. In some cases, once those issues were made public, senior staff soon resigned or were fired. But getting rid of project managers didn’t have any effect on the basic underlying problem: The initial decision to proceed had been rushed, and in that rush a difficult-to-build and under-priced design had been chosen.
That brings us back to the current issue of the design flaw discovered by Atema and concealed by…well we don’t know who yet, but when we do, we’ll let you know.
What we will likely hear from the City now, if past behaviour is any predictor, is an adamant non-denial denial. Regardless, Victoria is now stuck with a badly degraded version of Ricard’s problematic design, and the only recourse for electors seeking accountability is to get out and vote in November’s election.
UPDATE: A follow-up story has been posted here: Victoria City Hall continues cover-up of bridge design flaw
(This story was edited in June 2018 to reflect information about the physical size of the plates obtained by FOI. The plates are each about two metres by two metres in size, not one metre by one metre as we originally reported.)
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.