Saturday, August 7, 2010

Bridge Decisions Loom

Days from now Council will select the replacement or refrubishment option for the Johnson St. Bridge and proceed from that point to a borrowing bylaw and referendum.

A few of my thoughts on what I've been hearing and some responses to some of the comments I'm seeing out there.

Critics of replacement have always emphasized how unique our bridge is.  True enough, but every time I open the newspaper or check the web commentary, our "unique" bridge is just like all the others when it comes to repair or refrbishment.  That's not credible.

Lately, comparisons to the LaSalle Causeway Bridge in Kingston have been making the rounds, and some voices insist that if they could refurbish theirs for $3 million and change, we must be able to do the same.  It's a nice fairy tale but it doesn't add up.  The same Minister of Transportation, along with his staff, reviewed the details of our project and found them convincing enough to offer $21 million for our replacement bridge.  Maybe, just maybe, the analysis turned on the individual projects and not on the cookie cutter fixes critics are raising again as "proof" that our project is over-priced.

 One of the engineers I spoke to in San Francisco, who managed their bridge rehab projects cautioned me specifically against using their bridges as models for any project.  He said that every bridge is unique and needs to be assessed on its specific condition and the scope of work it needs.  He also said he told the same to the bridge preservation campaign, something they conveniently ignored during the counter petition campaign when they repeatedly used the 3rd St. Bridge as an example of how to do a cheap and effective refurbishment.

A couple of the differences with the bridge in Kingston should be instructive for those interested in the staging of repair works, or indeed, just what might be the relative condition of elements of either their bridge or ours, and how that might be relevant to costs.. 

The LaSalle (just one bridge, not two like ours) doesn't have to lift very often.  In fact, it is closed to marine traffic for the winter of course, when the lakeshore and channel are freezing up and no boats are going anywhere.  This enabled them to "bubble wrap" the bridge to keep stripped paint from dropping into the water without impact on marine traffic.  That's a non-starter in Victoria where the Blue Bridge must open several times a day for ships to pass through, so bubble wrapping in place would be logistical nightmare.  You'd have to raise and disassemble scaffolding several times a day for work to proceed.  It would be very difficult logistically to maintain safety and security of scaffolding on the bridge while it was going up and down.

In all likelihood, the relatively lower demand on the bridge from marine users may have extended the life of mechanical and electrical elements.  Suffice to say that the various engineers that have examined our bridge specifically confirm that mechanical and electrical systems are obsolete, face potential failure and should be signficantly upgraded or replaced.  That expense, by the way, is totally absent from the bridge project costing in Kingston.

Kingston, of course, is also not in what you would call a particularly vulnerable eathquake zone, so seismic upgrading planned for the Johnson St. Bridge was not part of the plan for the LaSalle bridge.  The handful of voices suggesting we dispense with seismic work to save money and preserve their beloved Blue Bridge are, at best, infected by wishful thinking.  In truth, that would be irresponsible at one level, and negligent at another.

Even in a low earthquake hazard zone, a bridge did collapse recently in a 5 plus earthqauke centered on the Ontario/Quebec border.  The town of Vla de Bois will take two years to recover from the impacts.  The condition assessment and subsequent analysis of various scenarios, comparisons with other events in our fault zone and our evaluation of legal precedent recommends a seismic upgrade that will protect life and limb, but also ensure we have emergency services access and the wherewithall to rebuild and restore an economy that would be battered by any earthquake event.  Taking shortcuts could expose the city to civil liabilities that would dwarf the cost of any bridge project.

One of the most predictable fallouts of the various challenges posed by a complex and costly refurbishment estimate is the calls to dispense with the improvements for cyclist and pedestrians integrated into the planning for both options.  This is particularly ironic coming from organizations that want the city to "listen" to the people.  Improved levels of service for cycling and walking topped the list of needs citizens have a for a replacment or refurbishment project in polling and surveys the city conducted in the aftermath of the counter-petition.  Now that it is clear that those improvements are not as cheap as a "can of paint a bucket of cement" those voices have been discarded as irrelevant.

The prospect of 20 or 30 more years of a woeful level of service for cycling and walking is a non-starter for me.  I will not support any project that does not address these needs adequately.  Our decision must be focused first on function, less so on form.  Suggestions that we sacrifice the option of reorienting the bridge function to better support sustainable transporation options, not to mention shortchanging the project on safety, trying to patch up electrical and mechanical systems to squeeze another few years of use from the old bridge, or looking for other shortcuts is a little self serving.  It says that there are no other values other than preserving the bridge as a museum piece.

When decison time comes, I will take also into consideration the comments I have heard from many dozens of Victoria residents I have met at our open houses, neighbourhood meetings or out in the community at events and other venues who, some critics will be suprised to hear, have little attachment to the old bridge and can't wait for us to get started on the new one.  Their voices will also be heard.

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