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  • Bridge builder sues City of Victoria for bad design

    David Broadland

    The City has always denied the new bridge has any problems, thus limiting its ability to assert itself in legal fights over the project.


    JUDGING BY THE LEGAL SUITS claiming damages that have been filed (but not yet served) by PCL Constructors against the City of Victoria and the engineering companies involved in designing the new Johnson Street Bridge, history is about to repeat itself.

    PCL launched a similar legal maneuver against its partners on the project back in 2015, and that led to the City agreeing to “release and forever discharge” PCL, MMM Group, and Hardesty & Hanover “from all debts, claims, demands, damages, expenses and costs (including without limitation, legal costs) of any nature or kind that are in any way related to the Project and either known or which ought to be known by the [City] as of [April 23, 2016].”

    PCL now claims “The design provided by the City to PCL was not prepared in accordance with the standard of professional care normally exercised by recognized professional engineers experienced in the performance of design work such as required for the design of the New Bridge, and was not accurate and complete but rather the design information contained errors, omissions and misrepresentations.”

    PCL’s filing makes similar design-focussed claims against Hardesty & Hanover and MMM Group/WSP, the two companies that did the actual design and engineering on the bridge. PCL’s contract with the City stated that the City was legally responsible to provide the design.

    PCL’s latest claims have forced the City back into mediation. The head of the one-person company the City contracted to provide public relations for the project, Jonathan Huggett, has characterized PCL’s filings as simply placeholders to meet BC’s Limitation Act requirement of filing civil claims within two years of a construction project’s completion date. But at the same time, Huggett admits the City is in a new round of legal mediation with PCL.

    My guess is that PCL is looking to obtain a similar agreement to the one it negotiated with the City in 2016. This time it will want to rid itself of any future liability for what occurred after April 2016. One of those liabilities arises from the execution of what the original construction contract between the City and PCL called “a complicated joint.” This is the six-surface connection between each ring and each truss.

    If you watched the bridge parts being erected, you will recall that each ring was lowered into place separately and later the two side trusses with the highway deck attached to them were added as a single piece. To join the trusses to the rings, twelve different surfaces needed to meet in almost perfect juxtaposition. The mating surfaces were then fastened with internal bolts. The long-term structural integrity of these joints is dependent on all of the parts never corroding, especially the bolts and the holes through which they pass. Yet it’s obvious that oxidation at these joints is already occurring. Worse, caulking intended to keep the joints dry is already cracking away from the joints.



    Nine months into service, the critical joint on the south-side truss has lost caulking intended to keep water out and corrosion at bay.


    The bridge opened only nine months ago, but by December a section of the seal over the upper joint on the south side of the bridge had fallen out and the joint appeared to be corroding freely (photo above). Hardesty & Hanover’s design depends heavily on the durability of epoxy grout in a number of critical areas on the structure, yet the trustworthiness of that design choice is already in question.

    Kiewit Construction’s exquisite competing bid design called for this to be a field-welded joint, not a bolted joint, so there are legitimate questions about Hardesty & Hanover’s choice of how to execute this “complicated joint.”

    The City’s apologists for the project will likely deny there’s any problem and will argue that critical joints freely corroding is standard fare on such engineering projects—thus undermining the City’s legal position vis-a-vis PCL. Recall the six-foot by six-foot bolted-on plates that were needed as a result of incomplete design information being included in shop drawings. Those weren’t a problem, either, according to Huggett, just a “fabrication challenge.” Huggett’s public claim that the plates were standard fare for such an infrastructure project single-handedly defeated any future case the City could make in a court of law.

    Such “fabrication challenges” are now evident all over the bridge. My personal Top Ten would include the top chord of the trusses. In the original conceptual design by Wilkinson Eyre’s Sebastien Ricard—the dreamy image used to get a “Yes” in the 2010 referendum—the graceful sweep of the top edge of the trusses, from the top of the rings to the far western toe of the trusses, contained exactly zero abrupt changes in direction. These lines were meant to be sweeping and graceful.



    Wilkinson Eyre-Sebastien Ricard conceptual design, conceived for the 2010 referendum on whether to replace the old bridge.


    In the bridge PCL built, this sweeping line has about seven changes in direction. These range from inexplicably abrupt to “fabrication challenge” wobbles. The wobbles in the line of that top edge result in a series of bulges and dents in the sides of the trusses where there should have been a predictably straight and flat surface. Anyone with an eye for good form will perceive these deformations as serious flaws. To my eye, this aspect of the new bridge is the best example of poor design and workmanship at play anywhere in Downtown Victoria.



    Wobbles and abrupt changes in direction in the trusses of the design created by Hardesty & Hanover and MMM Group.


    This was supposed to be an “architecturally significant” structure, a “signature” bridge. What else could justify its eventual $120-million cost? Yet not a single mention of the project can be found on any of the websites of the companies involved in designing, engineering, and constructing it. None of them wants to put their corporate signature on the hodgepodge of metal confusion. But Victoria is stuck with it, the engineers claim, for the next 100 years.

    There’s a lot more that’s already gone wrong with the structure, and I don’t mean intoxicated men falling overboard. Enter the cavernous machinery room, for example, which, it was hoped, visitors would find “iconic.” Check out the cracked and spalling concrete overhangs that are supposed to keep rain off the hydraulic motors. Below them, look closely and you’ll see duct tape crudely applied to makeshift sheet-metal covers intended to keep rainwater away from the pinion shafts. After only nine months of service, the City has resorted to using duct tape to solve problems. Below the duct tape, note the pool of hydraulic oil that’s leaking from the drive motors. $120 million bought a certain style of iconic, but it’s more like Trailer Park Boys than Wilkinson Eyre. Watch for duct tape to appear over those “complicated joints.”



    Nine months into service, hydraulic fluid is leaking and duct tape has been employed.


    These are just some of the reasons why PCL is now likely twisting the City’s arm to “release and forever discharge” it from all responsibility it might have for everything that has already gone wrong, and everything that will go wrong in the future. City councillors will be told by their consultant that this is “normal” for a big infrastructure project and councillors will accept PCL’s terms, just like they always have.

    David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.

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