This website is one step of an awareness campaign. We are Victoria and Capital Region residents who believe the fate of the Johnson Street Bridge is an issue of vital importance, affecting our city's transportation systems, finances, and governance. Our goal is to provide a central information platform, with news and opinion from all sources, so citizens can make informed decisions about how to proceed with the most expensive infrastructure project in Victoria's history.
Last week, Victoria residents heard some shocking news: In August 2011, the City of Victoria’s finance department warned the Johnson Street Bridge steering committee, chaired by City Manager Gail Stephens, that at least $5.2 million in unbudgeted costs faced the project. But City staff didn’t advise Council about those missing costs for seven months — and, despite the finance warning, in October 2011 Stephens told City councillors the bridge was still “within the budget of $77 million” at a public meeting a month before a civic election.
The key document is an August 12, 2011 finance memo, contained in an FOI request recently received by jsb.org director Ross Crockford. On March 25, Crockford and 11 other residents sent a letter to Stephens, asking her to explain her conduct. The group also sent a letter to Mayor Dean Fortin and Victoria’s councillors, asking for an independent inquiry into the matter.
The August 2011 finance memo and email indicating it was sent to Stephens are posted here. Listen to Stephens’ October 6, 2011 statement:
The official minutes of that October 6 meeting, linked here, say this: “The City Manager advised Committee of the preparatory work undertaken by staff that is critical to the success of the new bridge. The project is on budget and within timelines noting that details, such as relocating the Telus utility line requires detailed work.” (Emphasis added.)
Stephens told a public meeting the bridge was “within the budget of $77 million”, even though the City’s finance department said it wasn’t
The memo and its implications received considerable media attention last week. FOCUS published a comprehensive story in its latest issue, which included Stephens’ replies to the magazine’s questions, stating she “believed the project was within the approved budget” in October 2011, and that further “due diligence” had been required.
On Monday, March 25, CHEK ran a story about the finance memo. On Tuesday, CBC conducted a hard-hitting interview with the mayor, asking him when he first knew the budget needed to be increased. (He didn’t answer the question.) Later the mayor was on CFAX, where — reading notes provided by City staff — he insisted that Council waits for staff to provide complete information; a business owner called in and told him: “If you wait until all the analysis is done, it’s too late.”
On Wednesday, the Times Colonist ran a story on its front page, and followed with an editorial stating “Council deserved to know that the $77-million figure was in question.” Councillor Geoff Young told CBC the $5.2 million in missing costs should have been reported promptly, as that was not an insignificant “detail”, and suggested the City’s finance director report directly to Council, as was the practice in the past.
On Thursday evening, Council discussed the matter. And on Friday morning, councillors Young and Helps went on CFAX. Helps said the need for real-time financial information about the project is urgent, because construction is about to start — after all, the $2.5-million contingency for construction is less than half of the $5.2 million Stephens considered “preliminary” in 2011, so there’s no room for error.
Most importantly, councillor Young told CFAX that he wants Stephens to provide her explanation in writing for the delay in reporting the missing budget items, and her October 2011 statement that the project was “within the budget of $77 million”. Young also said the explanation should be made public, so it can be reviewed by accountants and staff familiar with the events.
CHEK reported that Stephens will provide her explanation to councillors this Thursday, April 4. However, the online agenda of the meeting does not yet indicate this discussion, let alone whether it will be in an open or closed meeting.
We agree with councillor Young: Stephens must provide her explanation in writing, and it must be made available to the public.
Do you agree? If so, and you are a Victoria resident or taxpayer, please send an email to email@example.com, and we will forward your message to councillors later this week.
Tell our elected officials that civic managers must be held accountable for their conduct, and their statements.
UPDATE (April 4, 2013): Thank you for your letters, which have been forwarded to Mayor and Council. We will let you know if and when we receive a reply.
This past Monday, January 7, the City of Victoria held a media briefing to present some of the details in its new contract with PCL Contractors Westcoast (PCL), a contract that Victoria councillors had approved on New Year’s Eve, after a three-hour closed meeting.
As you can see in the news release and PowerPoint presentation of the briefing, PCL will be paid $63.2 million to construct the new Johnson Street Bridge, install surrounding roadworks and landscaping, and to remove the old bridge.
The City also outlined six “optimizations” to the bridge design proposed by PCL, which enabled them to get the cost within the City’s $66-million “affordability ceiling” for the construction portion of the project. In particular, these included
building the fixed approach spans out of concrete instead of steel
building the E&N Trail bridge over Esquimalt Road out of concrete instead of steel
simplifying the tapering trusses of the bridge to require less welding
simplifying the angled geometry of the west-side bridge pier
using hydraulic motors, placed under the big wheels, to power the lift mechanism
dramatically reducing the size of the east-side pier building housing the bridge mechanism and counterweight
So the PCL bridge will be duller and boxier than what has appeared in artists’ renderings to date. But PCL did eliminate several obvious problems with the tail-crank lift mechanism proposed by consultants MMM (e.g. road debris sliding into the machinery), and miraculously reduced the size of its counterweight. PCL also relocated the pathway through the big wheels so that pedestrians will be able to walk through it when the bridge opens, as promised in the City’s pre-referendum advertising.
In addition, the councillors hinted, there were other important details about the contract that the City hadn’t publicized.
Reporters soon figured out some of those details. Victoria News noted that the PCL contract did not include an additional $640,000 for a retaining wall needed to keep the project from spilling into land leased by Point Hope Shipyard. CTV learned that the City is paying $250,000 to MMM to redesign the lift mechanism again, and that City staff will need to be trained to repair its complicated hydraulics — one of the reasons why MMM recommended against a hydraulic lift mechanism in its July 31 Project Definition Report (see page 86).
The City also confirmed that the steel bascule span will be fabricated in China; consequently, many of the “900 jobs” promised by the JSB project will be offshore. “There was no inference those jobs would be local,” engineering director Dwayne Kalynchuk told CTV — even though a news release issued by the federal government and the City last March cited “900 local jobs”, a claim subsequently republished elsewhere.
On Thursday, January 10, Kalynchuk and MMM’s Joost Meyboom went on CFAX to put a positive spin back on the project. The switch from steel to concrete was merely a “constructability preference,” Meyboom said, and the bridge’s original architect was still “engaged”. If the project budget had gone up since 2008, he asserted, it was because of delays and City-demanded scope changes — not his own failure to properly estimate costs and present viable designs. Listen to the program:
Later that day, Victoria councillors debated in a two-hour closed meeting whether to release more information about the bridge contract. (An editorial in Wednesday’s Times Colonist urged them to do so: “Councillors who are debating the information issue must push for as much transparency as possible. These are public dollars that demand public scrutiny.”) Unfortunately, because they hadn’t technically convened as a Council, any decision they reached to “rise and report” about further contract details was postponed until the January 17 Council meeting.
Then, late on Friday afternoon, the City posted the entire PCL contract online. Download it HERE.
We are now going through the contract. In our next post, we’ll identify some of its surprising features. Stay tuned.
We understand that on Monday, December 31, you will discuss a draft contract between the City of Victoria and PCL Constructors Westcoast Inc. (PCL) to build a new Johnson Street Bridge.
Pay attention, folks: this is the biggest contract in the City’s history
This is the biggest contract in the City’s history, worth $66 million or more. We urge you to review this document in detail, and not merely rely upon summaries of its contents. At the July 26, 2012, meeting of the Governance and Priorities Committee, the City solicitor said you would have sufficient time to demand any changes to the contract (transcript excerpt here). You must not be pressured to approve it without thorough analysis, and absolute certainty that it satisfies all of the City’s needs.
Staff must identify all of the contractor’s proposed “optimizations” to the new bridge, and explain how they will affect its cost and long-term performance. (Ideally, they should also provide a rendering of what the optimized bridge will look like.) Staff must identify and explain the specific clauses of the document verifying that the City’s interests are protected, and identify any clauses that might limit those protections. All of these identifications and explanations must be made on the public record, so future councils may refer to them.
We also want to remind you that the City made specific promises to residents when it told Victoria residents to “Vote Yes” to borrowing $49.2 million for a new bridge in the November 2010 referendum.
Those promises, which you can read in advertising circulated by the City linked here and here, assured citizens that the bridge would meet specific financial, safety, and durability requirements. Those promises are what the public expects from a new bridge. You must ensure they are included in the PCL contract. They include the following:
No further cost increases. In 2010, the City promised a “0% tax increase” associated with the new bridge. The City has already borrowed $49.2 million for this project, the maximum it can borrow without raising taxes to pay interest on its debts. Therefore, the contract must not contain any loopholes that allow the project cost to increase further — and the City must not sell public land or drain reserves to fund any shortfalls.
Maximum seismic safety. The City promised the bridge would be built to a “lifeline” standard, “the highest standard of earthquake protection”, able to withstand an 8.5 earthquake. That means the bridge must be able to remain open for emergency vehicles after a quake, including fully loaded fire trucks. Citizens expect more than a lightweight bicycle-and-car bridge.
100-year design life. The City repeatedly promised the new bridge would be “built for the next 100 years.” The Project Charter and the new contract with MMM, the City’s consultant engineers, require them to oversee construction of a bridge with a service life of “100 years for all main structural components” (see page 125). This requirement should be in the construction contract as well. The contract must ensure the quality of the materials, and the construction methods used. Ideally, the City should be entitled to withhold the final payment to the contractor for 10 years after completion, to ensure the bridge’s durability.
Furthermore, the contractor’s optimizations must resolve problems already identified with the current design of the bridge’s lift mechanism, including:
uncertainty about the bridge’s operation in high winds.
The contract must state that the bridge will operate in all forseeable conditions, and that the contractor assumes all responsibility if the bridge does not function as planned.
Economical maintenance. The City asserted the new bridge would cost $22 million to maintain over a period of 100 years, versus $42 million for a refurbished bridge. Responsibilities for maintenance can be included in design-assist contracts such as the one being negotiated with PCL; If such responsibilities are not included, the City must tell the public how it plans to fund future maintenance of the bridge.
This deal is not just about the price, it’s about getting a bridge that will last. City staff must ensure that all risks — such as cost overruns, delays, or problems with the unique open-wheel lift mechanism — are borne by the contractor, not by taxpayers. Council must ensure that the bridge contract satisfies all promises the City made, and that residents voted for. The public needs guarantees, and in writing.
With kind regards,
The companies don’t have total freedom to redesign the bridge, though, because the City’s 2010 referendum bylaw only authorized Council to build a bridge “generally in accordance” with plans on file at City Hall. So the companies will likely propose bridges that look much like the one the City has been advertising for the past three years, with two big arched trusses attached to a single movable span.
But is building a facsimile of the original design a good idea?
Maybe not. Truth is, if the three companies were allowed to design a bridge from scratch to meet the City’s transportation needs, they could build it for $45 to $55 million — 20 to 30 percent less than the $66 million budgeted for constructing the new Johnson Street Bridge.
The new JSB is supposed to have three car lanes, two bicycle lanes, a sidewalk, and a five-metre wide “multimodal” pathway. It will also have a horizontal clearance of 41 metres. That last number is important because it indicates the length of the movable span(s) — and construction costs increase exponentially with span size.
Now, let’s compare that to four bridges the same companies recently built in Florida:
Boynton Beach/Ocean Avenue Bridge, Palm Beach County
Two car lanes, two bike lanes, two sidewalks
Horizontal clearance: 38 metres
Construction cost: $24.7 million
Won an architecture award for its decorative towers and wrought-iron railings and artwork. Download reports about its construction here and here.
SW Second Avenue Bridge, Miami
Four car lanes, two sidewalks
Horizontal clearance: 77 metres
Construction cost: $43.5 million
Third-longest bascule bridge in the US. Read more about it here and here.
NW Fifth Street Bridge, Miami
Five car lanes, two sidewalks
Horizontal clearance: 45 metres
Construction cost: $45 million
Contractor physically widened the canal and had to meet higher-level aesthetic requirements (note the “spoked wheels”). Download a report here.
NW 12th Avenue Bridge, Miami
Six car lanes, two bike lanes, two sidewalks
Horizontal clearance: 45 metres
Construction cost: $64 million
Consists of two staggered bridges using a hydraulic lift system. Had to meet higher aesthetic requirements, including control towers resembling a nearby Hindu temple. Download a report here.
(Nearly all U.S. examples of new movable bridges are in Florida, because states like New York and Illinois tend to repair their old ones. Florida does repair, too, though: download a report here on Miami’s NW 17th Avenue bridge, completely rehabilitated for $9.8 million in 2008.)
As far as we know, none of these bridges had to meet the “lifeline” seismic standard for the new JSB, which MMM’s Joost Meyboom told councillors would add $10 million to the cost. Assuming that’s correct — Meyboom’s estimates have been inaccurate before — a “lifeline” version of a Florida bridge of similar size to the JSB would cost $55 million.
The Florida bridges also differ from the JSB because they are double-leaf structures that open up in the middle, instead of lifting from one end. Curiously, before MMM got involved, the City actually considered building a double-leaf bridge. On May 21, 2009, then-City engineer Mike Lai noted some advantages, including potential cost savings (see a slide from his presentation below right): double-leaf bridges have two sets of machinery, but need far smaller counterweights and pier buildings because their lift spans are shorter.
A double-leaf span would have been cheaper. We’re building a massive single-leaf span because it’s better for rail
So why are we building a single-leaf bridge? Lai listed two reasons. One was potential difficulty getting power to the west side. BC Hydro says it has capacity for a 123 kVA load there, more than enough to lift the current road bridge, so that’s not a concern.
Instead, it seems the single-leaf design was mainly chosen to accommodate rail. As a member of the Citizens’ Advisory Panel at the early design meetings posted to the Vibrant Victoria forum on August 24, 2009, “If it is a twin bridge, with both sides lifting up then the weakest place for the seam is in the middle …. If freight rail was to go across it we would want a single bridge, not a twin. Then the seam could rest on a solid bank and be very stable.” The Panel also liked the “gateway” effect of having the bridge machinery at the downtown end. When MMM presented its prospective designs a few weeks later, all three were single-leaf bridges.
As we now know, Victoria councillors later cut rail from the design because Meyboom said it would cost $12 million extra. So we are building a rail bridge, without the railway.
Of course, there are also political reasons why the City will want to preserve the basic elements of the current design. Switching to a double-leaf bridge will make it obvious that the City has violated the 2010 referendum. If the City abandons the current design, the public might question why it has paid millions in fees to MMM and its architects. And the City has spent so much time and money promoting the design that it psychologically can’t change course.
Consequently, we will likely pay a premium for decisions made back in 2009 to build a single-leaf bridge, and to pursue MMM’s experimental “open wheel” mechanism, both of which have become unnecessary. The odds are increasing that Victorians will get a mock-iconic bridge — at an iconic price.
The bridge’s appearance, function, and cost are shifting
Victorians can be forgiven for wondering what’s going on with the Johnson Street Bridge. It has been nearly two years since the November 2010 referendum, and the only visible work has been to relocate a telecommunications duct and cut up the old bridge’s rail span. The City of Victoria is negotiating with companies to build a new bridge, but it has extended the bid deadline three four times, most recently to October 30 November 1.
Residents need to be concerned, because the City looks increasingly desperate to get a deal. On September 19, it issued a revised Request For Proposals (RFP) to the three companies bidding on the project — and the new document increases risks to taxpayers, and may produce a bridge different from the one shown in pre-referendum advertising.
In Section 4.3(c) of the original RFP, the companies had to submit a fixed price to build the bridge. Now they may submit a “not to exceed” price, which the City can try to negotiate down to a fixed price later on.
In Section 4.3(a) of the original RFP, the companies could only propose “optimizations” to the bridge architecture. Now, a new provision — Section 4.5, Design Build — lets the companies assume “technical design responsibility for the complete project,” and have their own engineers design the bridge.
These new sections hint about what’s been going on in the private meetings with the companies. Back in July, the City’s consulting engineers warned that the meetings had revealed two high risks: “accuracy of estimate”, and “designer/contractor disputes over design optimization”. Now it appears that some (or all three) companies need to make more radical design changes to get their bids within the City’s $66-million construction budget. And some (or all three) won’t commit to a fixed price, because they can’t assume all the financial risk of building a unique bridge, especially if the design is still incomplete.
Staff told council to increase the budget to $92.8 million to retain architectural control. Now they’re giving the control away
These last-minute changes contradict previous advice given by the City’s engineers. Last March 15, they recommended that council increase the project budget by $15.8 million, and continue the “design-assist” strategy in the Project Charter, whereby contractors would help the City’s consultants — WilkinsonEyre architects, and MMM engineers — to design the bridge. (See the slide at right, and this video from the March 15 meeting where they explain the options.) Letting a contractor “design-build” the bridge, using standard components and its own engineers might save time, but it meant sacrificing architectural control, or worse. Now, with the new RFP, that’s exactly what the City is doing.
First, it’s unclear how much contractors can modify the design before the City violates its own referendum bylaw, which authorized Council to build a bridge “generally in accordance with the general plans on file at Victoria City Hall.” What was in those plans? Has the City violated the bylaw already?
Also, the bidding process is now likely to produce three very different bridges, in function and appearance. But the decision about which one to pursue will made by an “evaluation committee” (see page 3 in this September 20 staff report) consisting of City director of operations Peter Sparanese, director of engineering Dwayne Kalynchuk, new JSB project manager Ken Jarvela, and consultant Bill Larkin. These four men will effectively decide which bridge will sit on the Inner Harbour for the next 100 years.
After several weeks considering the bids, the evaluation committee will present their preference to councillors for final approval. However, councillors only get to say Yes or No to it, and will receive few details about bids #2 and #3. The mayor admitted on October 2 that the City has no “Plan B” if councillors vote No, so they will be under tremendous pressure to say Yes — turning our elected officials into a rubber stamp for approving a staff decision.
And through all of this, the public will be told nothing. The bids and their various designs will not be released. Council will get the evaluation committee’s decision in a closed meeting, and will vote on it in another closed meeting. The public won’t know what is in the contract until it has been signed.
In most municipalities, this wouldn’t be a concern: staff make recommendations and councils approve contracts all the time. But this is the biggest project in the City of Victoria’s history, and its current managers have a terrible record of withholding information from our elected officials at criticial moments. We are deeply concerned that they will do it again. And this time, if they persuade council to sign a deal riddled with loopholes to build a bridge that only a few insiders have seen, the consequences will be permanent, and catastrophic.
A panel of staff and consultants make key decisions about the bridge project, without telling councillors, or you
If there is any upside to the FOCUS affair, it’s that reporters are starting to pay attention to the Johnson Street Bridge Steering Committee — a panel of City staff that makes many crucial decisions about the bridge project, yet repeatedly neglects to report them to our elected councillors.
The Steering Committee was officially formed in February 2011, when the council of the day approved the JSB Project Charter. According to page 7 of the Charter, the committee members were City manager Gail Stephens, operations director Peter Sparanese, corporate services director Jocelyn Jenkins, and communications director Katie Josephson. They were empowered to make “significant scope changes” to the project, within the budget — they would only need to get Council approval to eliminate or reduce key “deliverables” like the three car lanes, two bike lanes, or the multiuse pathway.
In September 2011 the Steering Committee knew the bridge design was changing, but they didn’t tell councillors for six months
Bigger changes were coming. On September 12, 2011, the Steering Committee met and got a telephone update from MMM’s Joost Meyboom. A record of that September 2011 meeting (download it HERE), obtained by FOCUS under FOI, says the Steering Committee received “a drawing that demonstrates the challenges with a moveable pedestrian platform through the wheel” of the new bridge, and were told that budget “estimates are being revised in conjunction with work in progress by the quantity surveyor.”
City manager Gail Stephens wasn’t at that meeting, but her executive assistant Sherri Andrews was. This past August 3, FOCUS magazine filed an FOI request for Andrews’ notes from that and other Steering Committee meetings — and on August 7 (the first work day after the BC Day long weekend), the City filed its Section 43 complaint to the FOI commissioner, freezing FOCUS’s FOI requests.
So staff knew on September 12, 2011, that the design was changing, and likely knew the costs were changing too. But they said little about that in their update to councillors on October 6, the last bridge update before the November civic election. As minutes of that October 6 meeting show, staff only said that “extensive design and planning work” was “actively underway”, and that the project was “on budget and within timelines”; most of the meeting was about the Telus duct relocation and the span reduction to 41 metres, which had been withheld from councillors since March 2011.
The Steering Committee can get away with this because there are no duties or guidelines for municipal staff committees in provincial legislation or the City’s bylaws. Every staff committee sets its own rules. As far as anyone can tell, the JSB Steering Committee isn’t required to keep agendas, or minutes, or to report its deliberations in any detail.
(Note: The Steering Committee is not the appointed “Citizen Advisory Panel”, which rarely meets now, and only provides a façade of “public involvement” to the project. According to the notes of its last reported meeting on March 13, the panel was just a test audience for MMM’s March 15 pitch for a $15.8-million budget increase, and panel members did not ask any questions or express concern that the cost was escalating.)
The structure of the Steering Committee has changed, but City Manager Gail Stephens remains in control
But the Steering Committee does have to deal with other City staff. On January 6, 2012, the City’s assistant director of finance told project manager Mike Lai and the Steering Committee that she had identified $8.4 million in extra costs that weren’t accounted for in the $77M budget (download her memo HERE), and urged them to report the increases to Council “as soon as possible”. On January 12, she advised that the Steering Committee be told to impose stricter reporting on the project’s budget and procurement (download that memo HERE).
When Council finally saw an amended Project Charter in May, the director of finance had been added to the Steering Committee (and the structure changed so that it now reports directly to the City manager). So budget surprises may now be less likely. But the damage to public trust caused by the Steering Committee’s previous compromises and obfuscations is already done.
As you’ve likely heard, the City of Victoria has filed an application to limit the ability of FOCUS magazine and johnsonstreetbridge.org to make Freedom of Information requests for City documents.
In a letter (download it here) to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, the City’s corporate administrator said this:
I am the City of Victoria’s head under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (the “Act”). I write to request an authorization, pursuant to section 43 of the Act, to disregard requests from [FOCUS publisher] David Broadland, [FOCUS editor] Leslie Campbell, [johnsonstreetbridge.org director] Ross Crockford, and any persons acting on their behalf (collectively the “Applicants”) while an existing request from any of the Applicants remains active or an appeal in relation to any such request is pending.
Since 2009, the Applicants have made forty-nine requests under the Act. At this time, there are five active requests from the Applicants. These requests are part of a systemic and repetitious campaign intended to interfere with an discredit the Johnson Street Bridge Replacement Project (the “JSB Project”). The Applicants’ requests, due to their repetitious and systemic nature, have placed an unreasonable burden on the City’s limited access and privacy resources and on the operation of the JSB Project.
The new issue: is the City trying to stop FOCUS from finding out when staff knew that bridge costs were going up?
The letter is dated August 7, but FOCUS only heard about it in a phone call to the FOI commissioner’s office on September 20, and didn’t get a copy of it until September 27.
The story first broke in the Victoria News, in which former FOI commissioner David Flaherty called the City’s move “absolutely outrageous”. Victoria News followed up with another story, in which BC Civil Liberties Association director Micheal Vonn questioned the City’s claim that FOI requests were overwhelming its resources: “What is the analysis between the budget of the communications department and the budget [allocated to] Freedom of Information?”
Victoria CBC has also devoted extensive airtime to the issue. You can listen to an interview with David Broadland here, a reply from City spokesperson Katie Josephson here, an interview with councillor Marianne Alto here, and one with the BCCLA’s Vonn here.
The FOI Commissioner’s office has expedited the hearing of this dispute. The onus is on the City to prove that Section 43 is justified, and it must file its written arguments by October 10. FOCUS and johnsonstreetbridge.org must file responses by October 17. The City then has until October 24 to file a final reply, and the Commissioner will render a decision soon thereafter.
As noted in the articles above, Section 43 is a “crank” provision in the FOI law, to protect public bodies from harassment. Past decisions suggest that the Commissioner only uses Section 43 as a last resort, mainly against individuals who are trying to disrupt government offices by filing dozens of FOI requests, without any intention of informing the public. Apparently Section 43, or its equivalents in other provinces, has never been applied against a news media outlet anywhere in Canada.
What hasn’t received much attention, though, is that the City’s application goes even further. It seeks not just an order against Broadland, Campbell, and Crockford, but “any persons acting on their behalf”. In other words, the City wants the power to limit FOI requests from anyone it believes to be part of a shadowy conspiracy “to interfere with and discredit” the bridge project.
Anyone. This could mean you.
A geotech barge was probing the foundation site for the new bridge as late as October 1. Will the bids be delayed again?
All of this is crucial to municipal transparency and accountability, and to the rights of journalists and citizens to find out how decisions are really made at City Hall. But it may only turn out to be a temporary distraction from the immediate, practical concerns facing the bridge deal.
The City still doesn’t have a final agreement with MMM to oversee the project, which appears to be operating only on an hourly-rate interim agreement to conduct design work. A drilling barge was taking bedrock samples for the new bridge foundations as late as October 1 (see photo left) — even though MMM identified the need to do further geotechnical analysis of the site way back on March 15 — making it likely that the October 18 deadline for construction bids will need to be extended again. And major project decisions continue to be made by a staff-only “steering committee” that withholds crucial information from our elected officials for months at a time.
We at johnsonstreetbridge.org will continue to keep you informed about how this project develops … as best we can, under the circumstances.
UPDATE (October 4, 2012): Lisa Helps’ motion to create Council oversight of future Section 43 applications did not succeed. Councillors Helps, Isitt, Gudgeon and Young voted in favour, but Alto, Coleman, Madoff, Thornton-Joe and mayor Fortin voted against, asserting that it would bring political interference into the FOI process. Listen to the proceedings below; the first three minutes concern an in-camera update to councillors about the FOCUS affair.
UPDATE (October 9, 2012): The City withdrew its Section 43 application today (read the letter here), claiming it did not need to continue because the numbers of FOI requests had recently dropped. This was a thin cover for a simpler explanation that the City was not willing to provide: it knew its case was baseless, and would not succeed.
The contest may not be over. The City says it “reserves the right” to apply for Section 43 again if our FOI requests (we filed two this year) place “an unreasonable burden” on its resources. Instead, the City’s mismanagement of those resources — and its deliberate burying of public information — need to come under greater scrutiny by citizens, civil liberties groups, and elected officials.
UPDATE (October 10, 2012): The City has extended the deadline for construction bids for a third time, to October 30.
Staff must not force Council to make a last-minute decision with incomplete information
This Thursday, September 20, at a meeting of the Governance and Priorities Committee (GPC), Victoria councillors will receive an update on the Johnson Street Bridge project. A staff report, which you can download here, suggests that most or nearly all of the information about the forthcoming bids from the three companies vying to build the bridge will be seen by only a few senior City managers, and project consultants.
This is a problem. The duty to ensure that the long-term interests of the public are served by this bridge ultimately falls to our elected officials, who must have complete information, and time to make a considered decision. For that reason, we have sent the following letter.
At Thursday’s GPC meeting, you will get an update on the bridge project. The very end of the staff report for that item says the construction bids will be submitted on Thursday, October 18. “The proposals will then go through a detailed evaluation process [conducted by staff], which may take several weeks,” the report says. “Following the completion of the evaluation, staff will report to Council on the selection of the preferred proponent.”
This raises two important questions:
1. What details will staff give you about the bids after October 18, and exactly when will they provide them?
2. How much time will you have to consider staff recommendations, and demand revisions to the proposals?
I raise the first because I am concerned that staff may ask you to make decisions with incomplete information. Staff should provide you with the prices for all three bids on October 19, and the complete documentation for the bids soon thereafter. They should identify and describe the design optimizations [changes proposed by the companies] in all three bids, not just the one they prefer. And they should show you all three proposed contracts, and compare them to the original draft contract (which you have not yet seen) so you know what warranties the companies are (or are not) willing to provide.
If so, this would violate council’s previous understanding of the procurement process. At the July 26 GPC update, while discussing the various risks facing the project, the following exchange took place between councillor Marianne Alto and City solicitor Tom Zworski:
Alto: I’m presuming that in addition to all of the mitigation factors that are there, really the ultimate mitigation factor is the Council’s ability to say No. Obviously we’re going to have some conversation around the potential optimization factors, and who knows what those will be at this point. Ultimately the final decree comes from this organization’s ability to say “No, we’re not happy with those optimization ideas, so you need to go back and find something better.” Is that a fair analysis of it?
Zworksi: Yes, the short answer is Yes. That’s a fair summary. Under the RFP, the City, or Council, retains absolute discretion to say No.
Alto: So we have the ability to say, “That’s not good enough, you need to do better, in order to meet the financial obligations and create something as close as possible to the bridge that we want.”
In other words, staff have said that you will be able to question and demand improvements to the bidders’ proposals. Staff’s description of the process in this week’s report does not reflect that at all.
You may be told that seeing all the documents will somehow “taint” the confidentiality of the procurement. However, you are already legally obligated by your office to keep in-camera material in confidence, and the public is relying on you — not staff — to make decisions concerning the biggest contract in the City’s history. You must be able to make those decisions with complete information, and with sufficient time to evaluate it. Staff must clarify this on Thursday.
With kind regards,
Back in March, Victorians learned that a much-promised feature of the new Johnson Street Bridge — namely, being able to walk through its open-wheel mechanism as the bridge moves — had been cut from the design. However, despite comprehensive stories here and here in the April and May issues of FOCUS magazine, it seems many are still unaware that the architects had to radically change the entire working apparatus of the lift mechanism after the 2010 referendum — and that the unusual mechanism will likely increase the project’s final cost and future maintenance.
On August 3, Victoria mayor Dean Fortin told CFAX (audio here) that the engineering of the new bridge is “tried and true”:
Q: Are we building a one of a kind bridge? The design that we’re using, is there anywhere in the world another bridge like this?
Fortin: If you’re talking about the engineering, it’s tried and true engineering. It’s basically the same type of bridge. The design, how it looks, it has a unique design to itself. But that’s design features, as opposed to the engineering of how the bridge moves up and down, how it’s put together.
The mayor doesn’t know what he’s buying. The fact is, the engineering of this bridge is unique. There are no working examples of bridges anywhere in the world with the lift mechanism that’s in the current plans.
To make the change more clear, here are some simplified drawings based on plans by WilkinsonEyre, the bridge’s architects. This is what the bridge mechanism looked like before the 2010 referendum:
As we pointed out in October 2010 (part 1 of our inquiry), this design had problems. Engineers with decades of experience in bridge mechanics doubted the giant rings would be able to support the movable portion of the road deck and the massive counterweight “tail” entirely on their own. But MMM, the City’s consulting engineers, dismissed such concerns, even though the bridge was only at a 20% “design level”. And it resembled two smaller bridges WilkinsonEyre had created for London’s Canary Wharf. So Victorians voted Yes to borrowing $49.2 million for it.
By September 29, 2011, WilkinsonEyre had changed the mechanism, as indicated by dates on the current architectural drawings. The toothed open wheels, which once sat on cradles of gears, were now smooth, and sat on rollers. The counterweight hung from the road deck, now extended through the rings to stabilize them. The working machinery sat at the end of the counterweight tail, and lifted the bridge by cranking the tail down along a toothed rack.
So, as City staff confessed on March 22, the walkway has to tilt when the bridge lifts. But as FOCUS pointed out, a wonky walkway is merely the most obvious problem with the new design. Now the machinery will be exposed when the bridge lifts, and road debris can slide onto the toothed rack. And because the gears are extended so far from the axis of rotation, engineer Frank Nelson told FOCUS, the big wheels will have to be fabricated to “aerospace” tolerances to keep the machinery aligned. Consequently, contractors will likely add substantial “risk pricing” to their bids, to offset the increased chance that something will go wrong during construction.
We asked historians if they knew of other bridges with similar mechanisms. It turns out a few bridges were built a century ago with their working machinery on a counterweight tail, but they no longer exist — and none have ever combined that novelty with a hinge point that’s blown out to big open wheels, let alone built them to withstand an 8.5 earthquake.
“I question the hired consultant’s need to employ the design you have outlined,” said Nathan Holth, creator of historicbridges.org. “I fail to see any benefit.”
As Holth pointed out, many different movable-bridge designs were patented early in the 20th century. Nearly all disappeared, because only a few proved themselves in cost and effectiveness: the Chicago-type fixed trunnion [axle], the Scherzer rolling lift, and Strauss trunnions like the 88-year-old Johnson Street Bridge.
A cutaway of Portland’s 1958-built Morrison Bridge shows why the Chicago-type works: the machinery is fixed to the pier, the gears and rack are always covered by the lift span, and no energy is wasted translating torque to huge open wheels. As Holth noted, engineers improved this mechanism over many decades as they adapted it to different bridges. That’s why it is still used in new bridges today.
“Modern engineers fail to acknowledge that the designs found on historic bridges were reliable, safe, and cost-effective,” Holth said. “In contrast, engineers today are overly obsessed with things that don’t matter, and the materials they use will not last as long as the materials found on these historic bridges.”
Holth concluded: “I will be interested after they build the new [Johnson Street] bridge to see how many cigarettes and paper cups you can pile onto a tailpit-mounted rack before the bridge stops working.”
The bridge mechanism hugs the water, a bad idea if sea levels rise
Worse yet, this “100-year” “lifeline” bridge doesn’t seem to anticipate the disasters it’s supposed to help us survive. Recently, the City’s sustainability director said local sea levels could rise nearly a metre by 2100; if so, that will come awfully close to flooding out the bridge’s mechanism, which is partly below the waterline already. (See the drawing at right; HHWL = historic high water level.) And that’s not even considering what happens if Victoria gets hit by unusually high waves caused by an offshore earthquake.
So how did we get stuck with this turkey? How did cash-strapped Victoria end up conducting a costly experiment in movable-bridge design?
Back on April 23, 2009, a majority of Victoria councillors decided to replace the old JSB and pursue federal stimulus money. On May 30, City staff issued a Request For Proposals for an “owner’s engineer” to oversee the project. (Download a .zip of the RFP documents here.) On July 14, MMM submitted its proposal, asserting that it could deliver an “architecturally-significant” or “iconic” bridge by March 2011. (Read MMM’s cover letter here.) On July 24, City staff recommended hiring MMM, partly because of its affiliation with WilkinsonEyre, “a world leader in bridge architecture”, and council approved the choice. (Read the July 24 staff report here.)
Remember the “reverse bascule”? A giant overhead wing may be unwise in a seismic zone, but MMM proposed it anyway
On September 24, 2009, council chose the “rolling bascule”, largely on the unanimous recommendation of a citizens’ advisory committee. But there were no engineers on that committee, and the design never received thorough scrutiny. In June 2010, the engineering firm Stantec (a participant in other aspects of the project already) conducted a “peer review” of MMM’s plans, but mostly concentrated on the difficulties of repairing the old bridge, because the new bridge was only at 20% design level and still “in the early stages of structural evaluation.” (Confusing matters further, Stantec’s engineer wrongly said “the proposed replacement bridge has its ancestry in the Scherzer design,” leading some councillors to think it had a pedigree of reliability. The two designs are fundamentally different: in the Scherzer, the hinge point is a solid axle, and moves back as the bridge lifts; in WilkinsonEyre’s, the hinge point floats in space, and doesn’t change position.)
Now, in the competitive procurement process, WilkinsonEyre’s bridge is — for the first time — receiving thorough analysis, and by engineers who will have to actually build it.
Those engineers are expected to “optimize” the design. But will they be allowed to replace the open-wheel mechanism? The walkway through the wheels is redundant anyway, because the City says it will build a separate pedestrian pathway under the bridge along the eastern shore. But MMM and WilkinsonEyre insist the mechanism is “integral” to the bridge’s architecture, and have retained near-total design control. On March 15, City staff convinced councillors to keep going with plans for contractors to merely “design-assist” the project (Option 1 in the chart at right), instead of giving contractors greater power to “design-build” — by questionably asserting that an ordinary lift bridge would cost $92 million (Option 2), or would have to lose so many amenities (Option 3) that it would jeopardize federal funding and trigger a new referendum.
If the contractors’ bids come in over $66.1 million on September 10October 18 October 30, the mechanism will likely be the cause. The function — and the future — of this bridge literally turns on its hinge.
UPDATE (August 30, 2012): Today, the City announced that it is extending the deadline for final bids again, to October 18. This will leave councillors very little time to consider the bids and get advice before signing a contract: MMM and staff have repeatedly said they need a deal signed in October to start work on the foundations before the fisheries window closes on February 15.
The three firms in the running to build a new Johnson Street Bridge were originally scheduled to submit their bids to Victoria City Hall on Friday, August 17. Now the deadline has been extended: according to an addendum to the Request For Proposals on the City’s website, the new date is Monday, September 10.
Why the extension? On August 16, the Times Colonist reported that the City was “considering extending the deadline if that would lower costs.” An update emailed to councillors the following morning said the new date would “provide the Proponents and the City with additional time to consider optimization opportunities which should result in best value for the City.”
It’s great that the City is trying to reduce the impact on taxpayers. However, the extension compresses the amount of time council will have to sign a contract or look for alternatives — contractors must have coffer dams for the new foundations in place by February 15, when the federal “fish window” closes until next July. The deadline extension also suggests that some or all of the bids are still above the City’s “affordability ceiling” of $66.1 million for construction — adding more fuel to the fire of recent concern that the project cost is about to increase again.
The latest concerns were sparked on July 26, when Joost Meyboom of MMM Group, the consultant engineers, presented Victoria councillors with an updated list of some 90 risks facing the bridge project. Tellingly, the two risks rated High — that is, likely and significant — were “[un]realistic accuracy of estimate” and “designer/contractor disputes over design optimization.” (CTV covered the meeting; watch their report HERE.)
Then, on July 31, Victoria News broke the story that City staff knew in January — two months before telling council — that the bridge was outstripping its budget. On January 6, the City’s finance department sent a memo (get it HERE) to bridge project manager Mike Lai stating the $77-million total project estimate from 2010 was at least $8.4 million short. And on January 12, the finance department sent another memo (HERE) warning that the City would have to hire more staff to administer the project — and noting they were also contemplating giving MMM the authority to sign contracts on the City’s behalf.
On August 3, mayor Dean Fortin went on CFAX to explain. Staff withheld information because they had to get solid facts before going to council, he said. And the borrowing amount for the new bridge hasn’t increased since the 2010 referendum, so the impact on taxpayers hasn’t changed. Listen to the interview:
But the basic question remains: how did the cost of this project spin out of control?
For the answer, let’s go back in time ….
April 2, 2009: City and Delcan engineers tell councillors it will cost $25 million to repair the existing bridge for 40 years, or $35-40 million for a new bridge that will last 100 years. (Here’s a slide from the engineers’ presentation.) Using those numbers, on April 23, 2009, council votes to pursue replacement, and tells staff to apply for infrastructure stimulus funding.
May 21, 2009: City engineers tell council that they’ve applied for stimulus funding, using a new project budget of $63 million. (The mayor told CFAX this was a meaningless “Class D estimate”, but it wasn’t indicated that way at the time; here’s a slide from the engineers’ presentation.) Nobody knew what the bridge would look like, or who would build it. Nevertheless, according to the minutes of that meeting, nobody complained about the increase, or worried that the City would get stuck with the bill if the stimulus application failed.
June 14, 2010: The quantity-surveying firm Advicas presents a “Class C” estimate of $85 million (later $77 million without rail) — the first time an estimate has been generated for the “rolling bascule” design unveiled by architects WilkinsonEyre and engineering constultants MMM in September 2009. The fine print says Advicas based its estimate on information provided by MMM, as did Stantec’s “peer review” of MMM’s replacement scheme. Consequently, the $77-million price tag used in the November 2010 referendum is never independently verified.
March 15, 2012: MMM presents council with a new budget of $92.8 million. The City’s finance department warned in its January 6 memo that the bridge was far more expensive than the $77 million estimated in 2010 — “Many construction/design related costs such as permits, technical review resources and City assist costs were not contemplated in the Class C estimate” — but City engineers do not tell council about this screwup. Instead, Fortin says “every line item is kinda reasonable”, and council reluctantly approves the increase.
July 26, 2012: MMM presents council a list of some 90 risks facing the bridge project, including the high risks of “[un]Realistic accuracy of estimate” and “Designer/contractor disputes over design optimization”. Joost Meyboom warns that the final bids may vary by as much as “40 percent” — in other words, they could be 40 percent above $66.1 million — and that MMM still has to do more geotechnical analysis of the site. (Download an MP3 of the meeting HERE), and follow along with MMM’s presentation and City staff’s risk report.)
So this is how costs escalate: step by step, via a combination of staff withholding crucial information at key moments, and council failing to hard-cap the cost of the project or independently pursue alternatives.