Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A disaster in slow motion

Reading some comments in the media about the condition of our Johnson Street Bridge, I thought I would share a couple of lines from the condition assessment that reference the deterioration of the mechanical and electrical systems. This to counter suggestions that I'm just being "alarmist" by pointing out that some of the essential systems are nearing the end of their service life and the need to address those problems is immediate.

While the surprise that left the bridge stuck open for a short period was only a blown fuse, it is indicative of the general condition of various elements of the systems that keep the bridge operating.

The Delcan report said that:

"Corrosion is pervasive and the coating has failed. Pack rust is forming between plates of built up members."

The mechanical system is in relatively good condition but needs specific repairs. Many of the mechanical elements are obsolete and it may be difficult to find replacement parts.

The motor brake system should be replaced; and

The electrical system is obsolete and should be replaced to avoid unscheduled bridge closures."

Last week's incident left the bridge stuck open for only 30 minutes, but traffic quickly backed up around downtown and in Vic West. One of the possible refurbishment strategies would close the bridge for several months, although that may be less likely given how unappealing that would be for our transportation network and our downtown economy. It is, however, the least costly of several refurbishment options (but that too has some potential external liabilities).

Other options include some or partial closures or nightwork (which has been discarded as intolerable for our downtown and Vic West residents). I do have a picture of the traffic headaches of a lane closure on my website (johnluton.ca). Go to the "Blue Bridge and Climate Change" page and have a look.

The "alarming" possibility of "unscheduled" closures is very real given the condition of critical systems. Other, similar bridges, of a similar vintage, have been stuck for months (Ashtabula Bridge and the Charles Berry Bridge, both in Ohio) and those have been accommpanied by serious traffic problems and, perhaps more importantly, significant negative economic impacts in the affected communities. References are provided on my website or elsewhere on this blog. It could happen here.

We don't know what will happen next, but we will need to be prepared for some major headaches if something else, however minor, goes wrong. In the meantime, the city continues to work through more detailed estimates for possible refuribishment projects so that citizens can make a comparison with the replacement project offered before Christmas.


  1. The City has engaged in Demolition by Neglect, a charge the City itself leveled at Clara Kramer and other landholders deemed to be irresponsible and insensitive. By refusing to do even the most basic and essential of maintenance--painting--the present condition of the bridge is hardly surprising.

  2. I talked to our engineers about maintenance and they estimate they put about $100,000 a year into the bridge - hardly what you would call neglect.

    Painting won't be "basic" maintenance. It will require moving the bridge off-site or extended closures (mostly to avoid scraping paint off into the waterway below, for environmental reasons. It's a costly piece of the work the bridge requires and was one (but not the only) trigger for making a more rational decision.

    To be fair, the assessment of the bridge was commission by a previous Council, one I wasn't part of. The report landed at the Council table a few weeks after we took office and we've tried to act on that (though some clearly believe we are moving too quickly).

    While I haven't been involved in the discussion of the bridge condition prior to my election on council, I certainly have known about other deficiencies for a decade or more, and those too are important to a decision that considers not just form, but function.

  3. Yes, to be fair, this was dumped in your lap. The veterans at the table bear more responsibility.

    I acknowledge that Engineering did a good job maintaining lubrication and getting on top of the various electrical and mechanical fixes.

    But if Engineering decided way back in 2005 that "routine maintenance is no longer routine" and halted the bridge painting program, why didn't that immediately trigger a report? Why did we wait until 2008 to commission the Delcan report?

    By failing to maintain the coating for the last several years one can only conclude "the fix was in" and the corrosion was allowed to fester like a cancer until replacement appeared to be the only logical outcome.

    This was certainly not the expected outcome so soon after the 1999 rehab in which the bridge was expected to provide "several decades" of future use. It's outrageous that "several decades" translates to five years in the eyes of the Engineering department.

  4. My understanding from discussions with our engineering staff is that maintenance was kept up, including some painting. The failure of the coating is a result of aging infrastructure and a harsh environment, not neglect.

    The assessment in 1999, as I understand it, was meant to extend the life of the bridge, but not by decades.

    My conversations with Denise Savoie, who was a councillor at the time, indicate that council and staff understood that replacement or the extensive refurbishment under study would be required by about 2015 -the bridge is approaching its projected expiry date on schedule.

    As we can see by the challenges posed by process and community resistance to change, planning in advance for replacement was a prudent course of action. Bridges aren't built overnight and by the time we rebuild or replace, the project will be timely, if not overdue.

    With respect to the other deficiencies of the bridge, neither the seismic vulnerability nor the obsolescence of the electrical and mechanical systems are impacted in any way by the deterioration of the coating. Though some may choose to believe that the rusting superstructure is a sign of gross neglect, it has little to do with the essential vulnerabilities of the bridge that recommend replacement.