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  • Victoria's iconic, world-class blunder

    David Broadland

    Project promoters are still claiming the new bridge will be “world-class” and “iconic.” Unfortunately, they may be right.


    IN A RECENT RADIO INTERVIEW, City of Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps described the new Johnson Street Bridge as “iconic” and “world-class.” Those words were optimistically attached to the project back in 2009 and Helps’ use of them eight years later is a bit like Donald Trump describing his popular-vote loss as “a massive landslide victory.” Both are ignoring, or don’t know, the factual history of their respective projects.

    So far, nearly four years of bridge construction has produced what looks like an ordinary concrete highway overpass with the middle missing. If the bridge is going to be “iconic” and “world-class” in the way that Helps meant, the missing piece will have to be so architecturally stunning and engineeringly remarkable that it’s able to lift the dull heaviness of what’s been built out of mediocrity.

    Unfortunately, evidence is mounting that the City has committed a world-class blunder.

    Fabrication of the missing part of the bridge—which will span a gap of 46 metres (151 feet)—has proved to be extraordinarily difficult for Chinese welders. They began work in early 2014 on a much-simplified version of the span originally designed by noted bridge architect Sebastien Ricard of WilkinsonEyre Architects in London, England. Not simplified enough, apparently. By mid-2014, quality control inspectors found the fabricated sections of the bridge had been made of such poor-quality steel, or so badly welded, that they had to be scrapped. Three years after starting, the Chinese welders were reported to be struggling to fit the pieces together. According to project reports, once the Chinese fabricators get the parts to fit, and assuming everything else goes smoothly from that point onward, both in China and Victoria, construction of the new bridge will be completed by early 2018. If that projection holds up, the 156-metre-long, 15-metre-wide (1) bridge will have taken five years to build. The City announced (2) the start of construction on May 17, 2013.


    Compare that with the indisputably “iconic” and “world-class” French bridge, the Millau Viaduct (photo below), completed in 2004. The 2460-metre-long, 27.6-metre-wide bridge (3) floats 270 metres above the Tarn River. It took three years to construct.


    A comparison of the project costs (4) (5) is also revealing. A standard method of comparing the cost of bridges is to divide the project cost by the area of the bridge’s highway deck (which are the dimensions given above). Doing that arithmetic (6) for the Millau and Victoria projects, we find that each square metre of bridge deck on the new Johnson Street Bridge will cost five times as much as a square metre of bridge deck on the Millau Viaduct (adjusted for inflation to 2016).

    So, in a way, Helps could be right. Victoria’s new bridge could very well be judged an “iconic” and “world-class” example of how not to build a bridge.

    The project’s problems go deeper than mere extreme cost and long construction delays, though. Many of the original objectives of the project—like architectural significance, a wider navigational channel, and seismic protection up to magnitude 8.5—had to be ditched as the project’s real costs became unhinged from consultants’ promises. But the story of why the project kept costing more, even as its promoters secretly stripped away promised benefits and features is, at its core, the story of what happens when old blunders are covered over by new blunders.

    The project was originally justified on the basis that the existing 1924 Joseph Strauss-designed bascule bridge had not been built to any seismic standard, and might collapse in an earthquake. Focus learned through freedom of information requests that City officials had been advised—in writing—by both of the first two engineers involved in the project, Joost Meyboom and Mark Mulvihill, that the City should seismically upgrade and rehabilitate the existing historically-significant bridge rather than replace it. Meyboom told the City that work could be done for $8.6 million (7). What followed was a long series of blunders and misrepresentations by City officials and private engineering consultants that, piled one on top of another, has led to a spectacular design failure and a series of cover-ups that have attempted to hide that failure. A full account of all the misrepresentations is beyond the scope of this article, but one particular misrepresentation, the impact of which is now working its way into the local economy, is worth exploring in depth.

    This particular misrepresentation was the inevitable consequence of rushing a poorly-understood design through a competitive bidding process in which all the bidders were warning the City that the project was risky in terms of cost and engineering considerations. Instead of doing the right thing—pausing the project to thoroughly assess the design—its promoters ignored the warnings and hid these concerns from elected decision-makers and the public.


    IN MID-JANUARY 2017, a letter (8) from Seaspan Marine to the City of Victoria was leaked to media outlets in Victoria, including Focus. Seaspan is a prominent tug and barge company operating on the West Coast. It frequently pulls barges and guides other vessels through the narrow channel spanned by the Johnson Street Bridge. In the letter, Seaspan told the City that recommendations to lower the speed at which it and other operators could make such transits, coupled with the “doubling of the transit distance”—a result of the project’s hasty decision to leave the concrete support piers of the existing bridge in place—“undermines safety rather than enhances it.” As a result, Seaspan’s Vice-President of Operations Paul Hilder wrote, “we will have to curtail barge service to businesses above the bridge and cease performing bridge assists to other operators.” Hilder requested that the City “reconsider their position to seek a reduce[d] speed limit from Transport Canada and the Victoria Harbour Master.”

    The current speed limit past the bridge is five knots. The City would like that reduced to 3.5 knots. Interviewed on CFAX radio, current Johnson Street Bridge Project Director Jonathan Huggett was asked if the speed change was being brought forward because a lower speed limit would allow the use of less robust fendering on the north side of the bridge. Huggett said that the issue was one of whether spending more money on fendering would be an appropriate use of public resources. More robust fendering would cost more money.

    The public resources at stake are not insignificant. It’s rumoured that more robust fendering, which would allow the current maximum recommended speed of five knots to be maintained, could cost in the neighbourhood of $10 million. The commercial interests of the Middle and Upper Harbour customers that Seaspan serves are also significant. Whose interest should prevail? Lost in the ensuing public discussion of whether the City should pay for more fendering protection so that barges could be pulled at the speed the mariners thought was safest, were two underlying questions.

    First, why was the cost of fendering on the north side of the bridge left out of the construction contract—if in fact it was—when councillors were asked to approve the contract in December 2012? Secondly, why would the new bridge not be able to withstand a five-knot collision on its north side if it was protected with the same kind of fendering that has protected the existing bridge on its north side? The existing bridge has been able to withstand hits by vessels moving at five knots over its 93-year life without it incurring damage to its lifting mechanism. It continues to provide reliable service.

    The City has avoided providing factual answers to these key questions. No wonder. Factual answers backed by evidence would reveal why the Johnson Street Bridge Replacement Project will likely be an engineering case study on how not to build a bridge. To understand why, we need to go back to when the fendering issue first became public.

    Project Director Huggett brought the bad news about the north-side fendering into the public realm at a City council meeting on July 16, 2015. Back then, he had a slightly different story.

    At that meeting, Huggett told councillors that fendering for the north side of the bridge needed to allow for a five-knot speed and would add an additional $3 million—more or less—to the cost of the bridge.

    Councillor Ben Isitt asked Huggett: “Could you remind us why the fendering isn’t included in the scope of the contract with PCL?” PCL is the company building the bridge. Isitt was at the critical December, 2012 in camera meeting at which councillors were given the details of the contract and urged to approve it by City staff.

    In response to Isitt, Huggett asserted the existence of a contract drawing, one that Isitt apparently hadn’t been shown, in which the north-side fendering had been “clouded out,” signifying that it was not part of the agreement between PCL and the City. Huggett stated, “At the time we went forward with the contract it was left as an issue to be resolved.” A few moments later, again referring to fendering on the north side of the bridge, Huggett was even more definite: “It was not in the original contract.”



    After that meeting, Focus filed an FOI request for the document Huggett referred to as proof that the north-side fendering had not been included in the 2012 construction contract. The City was unable to locate any such document (9). Indeed, the PCL contract seems as explicit about the design and cost of fendering as it is about any other detail covering construction of the bridge and related structures.

    In its response to our FOI request, the City informed us it had “eight fendering drawings created in 2013 for the north side of the new bridge” that they said “do contain three drawings in which portions are clouded to identify portions of the fendering system that were put on hold.” But that was well after the councillors were shown the details of the contract and asked to approve it.

    In other words, there was nothing in the PCL contract itself to signify that north-side fendering was not included, but, as the project advanced, changes to the proposed fendering were contemplated.

    The City also informed us that it would not release those 2013 documents because the fendering was part of an ongoing legal mediation with PCL and release of the documents “could compromise the City’s negotiating position at the mediation table.”

    In other words, north-side fendering was included in the 2012 construction contract approved by councillors, but it has since become a bargaining chip in the unfolding legal dispute between the City and all of the other parties involved in the troubled project.

    Focus has obtained records (10) from the City that show Huggett had been made aware that senior City staff had agreed to a deal with PCL with respect to the cost of fendering, a deal which apparently didn’t include seeking approval from Councillor Isitt and other elected officials. Huggett was informed of this before he told councillors at the July 16, 2015 meeting that north-side fendering was “not in the contract.”

    Focus contacted Huggett for his explanation but he did not respond to repeated emails. So let me back up a bit and address the other fundamental question about the fendering issue that the City doesn’t want to answer: Why would the new bridge not be able to withstand a five-knot collision on its north side with the kind of fendering that has been protecting the existing bridge?

    At the council meeting at which Huggett first made this issue public, he also explained to councillors why fendering was so vital: “The new bridge is somewhat less robust than the existing structure,” he told councillors. Bingo. He continued: “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 $100 million invested in the water here and I’ve got to protect it.”

    What Huggett was saying, in effect, is that if an outgoing barge loaded with scrap metal hits the new bridge, it is more likely to be made inoperable than would be the case if the same barge hit the old bridge. By “inoperable” we mean unable to lift or lower the moving part of the bridge.

    For a project that was originally justified on the basis of the existing bridge not being robust enough to survive the forces imposed on it by a significant earthquake—and thus posed a threat to public safety—this is an extraordinary admission of project failure. Huggett’s admission, by the way, apparently went right over the top of councillors’ heads.

    What characteristic of the new bridge makes it “somewhat less robust” to marine collisions than the existing bridge? We put that question to Huggett but he didn’t respond. But it’s not difficult to understand what’s really at issue.

    The first thing to note is that the north side of the main pier has been left unprotected since it was completed. This structure is called the “bascule pier.” It will house all of the machinery used to lift the bridge, and it supports the weight of the “bascule leaf”—the moving part of the bridge being fabricated in China. If protecting the pier itself was so critical, wouldn’t that have been put in place as soon as the pier was finished? Many loaded barges have been towed past it already. From the absence of protection, it’s not unreasonable to infer that it’s not the pier itself that’s vulnerable, but the bascule leaf that the pier will support. But why would that be so vulnerable?

    Imagine a tug pulling a barge full of scrap metal headed south from  the Upper Harbour toward the new bridge—which in real life is a regular occurrence. The bridge would lift to its upright position to provide clearance for the tug and barge. But imagine that a strong tailwind suddenly catches the barge and the combination of wind, an ebb tide and a narrow channel result in the barge swinging around and striking the main pier of the bridge with great force. What would happen to the bascule leaf?

    Try to picture it: the erect span projects 50 metres into the air above the bridge deck—as high as a 15-storey building. When the barge hits the pier, how will that heavy steel projection behave?

    This is a particularly crucial design issue for this bridge, which has a one-of-a-kind feature: The bascule leaf’s 15-metre-diameter rings float on steel rollers and are not attached to the bascule pier. There is no central axle that’s bolted to the pier that will hold the leaf in place if the bridge is hit by a barge or an earthquake. There’s nothing but the leaf’s own weight to keep it in place. And, bizarrely, when this bridge is in the fully erect position, it’s top-heavy.

    As the bridge lifts, its centre of gravity actually rises. When it’s in the fully-raised position, more than half of the weight of the moving part of the bridge is above the highway deck and there is nothing—other than the wide stance of the rings—to keep the bascule leaf from being tipped to one side in reaction to the pier being hit by a barge. If the bridge were hit in a strong northerly wind that was already pressing the top-heavy leaf sideways, what would happen? Would there be enough momentum from the loaded barge transferred to the upright bascule leaf to tip it over sideways or shift it enough to damage the lifting machinery? Could the bridge get stuck in the upright position with no way, as Huggett put it, “to get it back again having knocked it out of alignment”?

    You might think that all of this would have been worked out years ago. But it wasn’t.

    Only in 2016, seven years after the open-ring design had been chosen, did the project evaluate “the severity of forces on the bridge and its associated structures resulting from impacts during tug and barge transit through the waterway between the Upper and Lower Harbors passing through the new Johnson Street Bridge when open.” The study, undertaken by Seattle’s Pacific Maritime Institute, determined that the worst probable impact would occur to the north side of the bridge’s main pier. The force of such an impact was estimated to be 1200 tonnes. What effect would that have on the bascule leaf in the open position? The City isn’t saying, but what we do know is that the project proceeded in 2013 without such an evaluation. Now the City faces the additional cost of ensuring that a 1200-tonne impact never occurs.

    Let me summarize: The City can’t provide any evidence of Huggett’s assertion that the fendering for the north side of the bridge was explicitly excluded from the 2012 PCL contract. And, although the City and Huggett would not answer questions about the positional stability of the unattached bascule leaf in a barge collision, what is known suggests the project realized—after construction had begun—that the experimental design created an unforseen vulnerability.

    This has been the modus operandi of the project since 2009. At critical moments, when it was realized the open-ring design would produce a construction-cost risk or a seismic risk or an operational risk, the project’s promoters hid the risks. They misled councillors and the public about the flawed design to get more money to keep the project moving forward. The most iconic, world-class moment on this long downhill slide occurred in November 2012 when City managers made their recommendation to councillors on the three construction bids.

    At a closed-to-the-public meeting, the managers urged councillors to allow them to begin negotiations for a contract with PCL, even though the company had produced a design in which every single element of the bridge had changed significantly from the design envisioned by the City’s project manager MMM, and WilkinsonEyre. Even though it wasn’t in the interest of any of the three bidding companies to alienate the City’s influential project manager, all had produced polite but scathing criticisms of the design and supporting engineering done by MMM. Two of the companies’ bids were based on completely different mechanical lifting concepts. PCL’s quickly-produced adaptation was the only option left to City managers for proceeding with the project. The City officials failed to relate any of the information in the critical reviews to councillors. Rather than accepting the realities exposed by the companies’ critiques—that MMM had greatly under-priced and under-engineered the design—the officials instead hid these concerns, and the accompanying financial risks, from councillors.
    Many of the senior City managers who played a direct role in this deception later departed abruptly as the implications of a hastily-conceived design on cost and construction duration became clear. Their replacements have been kept busy ever since hiding the ways in which the project had to be scaled back, including seismic protection, fendering, and the original architectural vision. WilkinsonEyre has now removed all traces of its association with the project from its website.

    As for the deceived, although then-Mayor Dean Fortin was removed by voters, most of the councillors who had the wool pulled over their eyes are still sitting around the council table, asking Mr Huggett polite questions about pathways and the kind of grass being planted on the bridge approaches.

    At a December council meeting City Manager Jason Johnson told those councillors that a “mid-term lessons learned” exercise on the project had been completed by City staff. Focus asked Johnson whether that exercise had included public input and whether the results were available to the public. In his response, Johnson didn’t answer either question directly but said the City “will release all of the findings when the bridge is finished.”

    More likely, the project will be protected under a shroud of legal advice for years to come, and making the “lessons learned” public would—and I’m just taking a wild stab in the dark here at what the City will say—“compromise the City’s negotiating position.” Thus City officials, former and current, will be spared public exposure of the role they played in the building of Victoria’s iconic, world-class blunder—and will be free to move on to other projects.

    David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.

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