Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Blue Bridge and the inconvenient truth

Just a couple corrections worth noting as new stories swirl around the media about who said what about the Blue Bridge and what it means.

Only the final report presented to the city by Delcan has any relevance when referencing numbers. Some want to take an impossibly optimistic figure as gospel to the bank and will be convinced that work should have stopped there and a project tendered for that amount.

Some of those same people, of course, argue disingenuously that only new engineering projects have been plagued by runaway cost overruns, deceptive politics and a host of other conspiracies that would never happen on a responsible restoration project.

Old bridges, no less than old houses, will present a range of costly challenges that have, and will, require the kind of detailed analysis ironically forced upon the city by the successful counter-petition campaign that demanded we seek approval for the borrowing we need to undertake to finance the replacement project city council has twice voted to proceed with.

There’s always a cheap fix – if you forget, for a moment, that a bridge still has to function as a bridge. But we can’t simply be curators of a museum or protectors of an artefact. The disconnect was probably best summed up in one survey I read among the several thousand returned to the city last summer. Answering the questions about which project they would prefer, this respondent was emphatic that the city not proceed with a new bridge, that restoring the old bridge was a “great idea”. “Any further comments?”, our survey asked. Yes, said the author, “I never use the bridge.”

I was often asked, when I was a bike mechanic, “how much is a tune-up?”, and I would give a price; but as often would follow up with something like “now let’s look at your bike”.

That’s our bridge, and that’s how our consultants approached the project. Here’s what we think your bridge needs to tune it up and extend its life, and this is how much the sort of project would cost. We’ll give you an estimate for a specific project when we finish our review of your bridge, the work it needs to meet operational, safety and lifecycle requirements, and we answer any questions you have.

The only number of value through that process is the $23.6 million estimated for a particular scope of works associated with refurbishment. Anything before that is incomplete guess work. I’ve lost count of the number of times Focus magazine’s fictional Sam Williams has insisted that I know exactly how many bikes are crossing the bridge every day before I decide on any project. They want to know exactly how much a new bridge will cost, to the penny, not that they would believe the numbers anyway.

When it comes to refurbishment though, they’ll pick a number, any number, and not just those notionally attached to our bridge, but to any bridge fix project that looks too good to be true, and mostly, they are.

Restoration of the 4th St. Bridge in San Francisco, for example, went wildly over budget, and the Ashtabula Bridge in Ohio revealed unforeseen problems that kept the bridge closed for 14 months. Saskatoon’s Traffic Bridge, where a cheap fix meant to extend its life for 20 years, is closed, only 4 years into it’s new lease on life. Here’s the CBC story on that one:

Like several other examples, the option of turning the bridge into a bike and pedestrian bridge only has been raised in Saskatoon, something that just won’t serve our transportation needs at the Blue Bridge crossing in Victoria. I’ve seen a couple of examples of some nice work saving old bridges for bikes and peds, but they are always at locations where the rest of the traffic has viable alternatives that we just don’t have available to us.

Here’s Walnut St. in Chattanooga:

And here’s a nice old bridge in Missoula:

There’s a good long list of other fibs from the bridge preservation campaign and the seismic issues keep on popping up in one spot or another. The most prominent bridge critic, a journalist and historian with a good body of work to his credit has lately said that Victoria was hit by a major earthquake in 1946 and the bridge didn’t fall down. At only 22 years old the then gun-metal grey bridge enjoyed some of the benefits of a newer concrete foundation somewhat more compromised now by another 65 years of pounding by the traffic above and the wash of seawater below.

What’s galling for a historian however, is that his research will have told him that the quake was centred near Courtenay, more than 200 km north of the bridge. It’s not a minor oversight. It’s deliberate misinformation. Focus insists our exposure is no worse than a 6 and we should plan accordingly, despite the incidence of the 7.3, a 6.9 and a 7.1 along the same fault line going back to that quake of ’46. As a matter of public record, those quakes and the ample information on their impacts should make the Focus proposal impossible to defend, but they continue.

Save the bridge campaigners once pointed to Toronto’s Cherry St. Bridge as a fine example of a cheap and easy fix for our bridge, something they seemed to have dropped since I brought back my own pictures of what they got for their $3.6 million. How would this work for you in a real earthquake zone (Toronto might get a few magnitude 4 or so shakes very now and again, barely enough to wake you up from a deep sleep let alone bring bridges or buildings down around you:

There are a million stories floating around the bridge and many blurring the line between facts and fairy tales. These are just a couple, and maybe already more than you want to read. I’ll try and add a few more to the blog over the coming days and weeks as we approach referendum day. Just like the critics insist, you need all the facts before you go to vote.


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  2. What makes you so sure that the replacement bridge isn't going to be vastly over budget? From what I saw in the presentation last Monday they still aren't that far along in their design (haven't touched it since January!) and really don't have much of the seismic modelling done that will turn your light structure into a tank if it's really supposed to withstand an 8.5 earthquake.

    And why shouldn't we be suspicious of a project that started with a price and then got a design? From everything I've read or seen so far the City is still on course to massively overshoot the time and price goals that were set out. Are you familiar with the work of Bent Flyvbjerg? No doubt he will have plenty to write a case study for mega project cost over-runs on the JSB replacement if and when the project is completed. Perhaps if you get a chance you could download an electric copy or two from him on subjects such as "Underestimating Costs in Public Works Projects: Error or Lie?".

    You accuse people in favour of refurbishment of cherry-picking their facts when you do it yourself constantly: in your example of the pro-refurbishment survey from a person who doesn't use the bridge you could have contrasted it with some equally ill-thought out surveys from people who want a new bridge simply because they don't like the way it looks. I am sure there were many to choose from in the pro-replacement pile.

    Another example of your cherry-picking is continuing to use the the 4th Street Bridge restoration project as comparison to the Johnson Street Bridge rather than the very similar 3rd Street Bridge in San Francisco. It's a Strauss designed and built bridge that's only 10 years younger than ours and it made it through the 1989 earthquake with nary a scratch while a lot of newer buildings and roadwork crumbled. Oh, and where was the epicenter for that 7.1 earthquake? It was about 150 km away from the bridge in Santa Cruz!,+San+Francisco,+CA+94102,+United+States+(San+Francisco+Government+Offices:+Francis+Lefty+O'doul-Third+Street+Bridge)&hl=en&geocode=FYAvNQId-E28-A%3BFeZkQAIdanq0-CGaPKzHctYk3w&mra=pd&mrcr=0&sll=37.407283,-122.138668&sspn=0.914134,1.149445&ie=UTF8&ll=37.159222,-122.069778&spn=0.458577,0.574722&z=11 So maybe we can compare it to the Courtenay earthquake after all. They managed to do a complete overhaul of it, including basic seismic upgrading for less than $14 million if I am not mistaken. That's a pretty good apples to apples comparison if what we want is a simple fix to the existing bridge no and future improvements to the approaches and bicycle access later, wouldn't you say?

  3. When we go to tender it will identify a budget within which the we will instruct our contractor to work. It's simply not credible to suggest that only new projects have cost pressures that never, according to the critics, impact on refurbishment.

    Certainly some of the modelling will need to be done, but geotechnical work has been done and an understanding of the seismic needs for our new bridge have been assessed thoroughly enough to determine material quanitities and the scope of work necessary. That provides a good level of confidence in the costing to date.

    The 4th St. Bridge is not the only bridge that has faced challenges during refurbishment.

    We don't know what the impacts of a more direct hit to the 3rd St. bridge might have been. Suffice to mention that San Francisco was sufficiently concerned that the 1999 project upgraded the bridge to withstand significant seismic events. They did only find they needed to upgrade one pier and it is a single bridge, not two, like ours. Costs will be quite different considering the scope of works. The project engineer in San Francisco reminded me that we should not use their bridges as models for our own work; that every bridge is unique; and that he told someone from your organization the same thing, something thus far kept hidden. There is simply no apples to apples comparison here.

    The quote I chose is illustrative of the blindness of some who support keeping the bridge. They would like us to preserve it as a museum piece, regardless of functionality. People are free to express or quote opinions.

    Cerry picking facts is quite different. What I take issue with is deliberate misrepresentation of the facts. Focus continues to claim the refurbishment proposal developed by Delcan is a Class C estimate and refuse to correct this fraud. It was a Class D estimate and your successful counter petition forced the more detailed Class C that has more realistically estimated costs.

    Likewise, the suggestion that Victoria was hit by an earthquake in 1946 is also fraudulent. Our engineering requirement will be to protect our asset from something closer than 200 km distant.

    Your simple fixes are better characterized as simplistic.