Saturday, August 14, 2010

Council Chooses New Bridge, Again

Victoria city council cleared another hurdle last Thursday when we voted, again, to replace the Johnson St. Bridge.

I think that those of us who voted in support of the new bridge are mindful of our commitment to heritage in the city, but for me I don't want to be held hostage to it.  As much as we appreciate our history and the unique character of "Big Blue", this is first and foremost, a bridge, not a museum piece to be preserved in perpetuity.

A bridge has to carry traffic, and ours will serve better if it anticipates what traffic will look like in the future.  It won't look like it does today and the old bridge can't adapt.

A consistent theme from our citizens in  Victoria and from users of the bridge, has been the need to make the crossing more sustainable.  It will carry a growing volume of bicycle and pedestrian traffic that the old bridge is ill-equipped to handle.  For many, this is a deal breaker that, given similar costs (at least on the surface), makes the new bridge the only choice.

Critics tried to acknowledge this with a variety of schemes floated in an effort  to respond to deficiencies identified by cyclists and pedestrians.  None of the strategies turned out to be feasible.  In the end, the bridge preservation campaign simply fell back on where they have always been -  it's too expensive to make improvements for cyclists and pedestrians and they should just suck it up and suffer the old bridge for another 20 or 30 years.

To be sure, the starting point for council's decision did not revolve around the traffic design that will now be fixed by a new bridge.  It has always been the deterioration of a bridge that will be almost 90 years old by the time it is decommissioned and, as one engineer commented, "it is more a machine than a bridge", and it has reached the end of its service life.

Electrical and mechanical systems are obsolete and have to be replaced and, despite protestations to the contrary, there are simply no easy solutions to deal with these problems.  The superstructure must be disassembled to get at these systems and the suggestion that half-measures or an easy fix are all that is needed is a convenient myth for those who have no agenda other than to save the old bridge.  That became clear in surveys and polling where some respondents ignored all other issues to emphasize that heritage was the only issue that mattered (costs were irrlevant), and that giving up $21 million in our federal contribution was acceptable if it meant saving the old bridge.

"Barring a major earthquake, this bridge can be saved" is how one of the engineers brought in by the preservation camp to support their campaign put it.  He recognized that the seismic deficiencies of the old bridge were terminal, but spoke to one of the other strategies promoted to hang on to the bridge for another few years.  The Johnson St. Bridge was built to no seismic standard whatsoever, and, as recently as today's Times Colonist,(August 14, 2010) an engineer much more intimately familiar with the structure noted how poorly constructed and badly deteriorated the foundation piers are.  In Canada's most seismically vulnerable city, ditching an earthquake retrofit is not just irresponsible, but potentially an enormous liability for taxpayers that could dwarf the cost of any project.

The preservation camapign shifts from time to time from the "do nothing" strategy to a "cheaper" seismic upgrade that would imperil either a new bridge or a refurbished structure.  Building to a a lower 6.5 magnitude standard would produce some capital savings, but expose the city to tremendous risk.  The 2001 earthquake centered in Washington state was a 6.8 magnitude that could bring ours down, even with some signficant upgrades.  The 6.5 standard would leave the bridge standing (at that magnitude), but make it unusable pending repairs.  With potential economic impacts to downtown amounting to $13 million a year for closures, the insurance premium of the extra protection of an 8.5 standard at $10 million earns a very quick return on investment.

Since day one the bridge preservation folks have ignored function  and jumped from one argument to another, most often in isolation, to try and identify flaws in process (as if that changes the condition of the bridge), or some magical, cheap, silver bullet repair that can save the bridge for pennies.  It just doesn't add up.

We still have our work cut out for us.  A referendum on the borrowing to build the new bridge will go to the voters in November.  A no vote potentially costs a 14% tax increase to pay for the project.  There is no third option.  It's a myth.  None of the various deficiencies or challenges of the old bridge can be viewed in isolation, and no responsible council is going to invest millions in minor repairs and leave the major works alone.  Nevertheless, expect to hear more of the same story over the next couple of months as critics attempt to derail the project.

When the "tough questions" are asked, the critics' case crumbles pretty quickly.  Don't buy the snake oil.  When referendum day comes, get out and vote.  We are going to need our new bridge and this is our best chance now to do it right.

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