Monday, March 19, 2012

Bloggin the bridge, again

Victoria’s Johnson St. Bridge project unfolds as it should.   I’ve been batting the issue around on Facebook too, throwing some pictures up on my flickr page – adding to my Johnson St. Bridge set, where images and more information on the project and the issues, at least  from my perspective are illustrated, some with more extensive text discussion as the mood hits me.  (

Today’s blog follows some more back and forth on Facebook, so it’s a little disjointed, focusing, as it does, on some specific issues and questions being raised.

The most current issue has been the cost “escalation” – the project’s $77 million budget is now nearly $93 million and concerns are being expressed on further cost increases.  For now, I’ll deal mostly with the current new costs, and most are genuinely new costs associated with scope changes rather than what is being characterized as a lack of fiscal responsibility or financial control.

Council had options on most of the new costs.  We could have said no to the recommendations at the time and press ahead with construction without moving the Telus duct (a secure communications conduit connecting across the harbour).  That would have saved over $4 million today, but would have dramatically increased the risk of the city project damaging the utilities and being liable for legal costs on top of repairs and associated delays.  The recommendations were presented to council in public, and the choice was made to pay that cost rather than expose taxpayers to the elevated risk.  Was that the right choice?  Incidentally, from the outset, Telus told the city that the project construction could not touch the line, so why then would anyone put it in a budget?  They acquiesced only after consulting engineers designed a feasible solution to move the duct and protect the connection. 

After the referendum Point Hope Shipyards came to the city proposing to build a new graving dock, giving them the option of bringing in larger vessels for repairs (shipbuilding might also be possible).  The project will create about 225 direct, sustainable jobs and provides the shipyard with a solid foundation for their business model that takes them through a 50 or 60 year time horizon.  New federal shipbuilding contracts were also announced well after the city’s referendum, and Point Hope works with the winning shipyards and will most likely secure numbers of subcontracts in the building phase for new vessels, and almost certainly for their long-term maintenance.  Improvements to fenders to protect the piers for the bridge or vice versa, to protect passing vessels, are a new cost, but again were spelled out in the most recent report and recommendations to the city and could have been deleted from the budget.  Would that have been the right choice?

Between the time of the initial decisions surrounding the bridge project and that most recent budget decision, industry standards for large projects changed, and more comprehensive insurance packages have become the norm.  Council could have chosen to delete that cost too, in public, from the budget, and save another million or so.  The insurance scheme allows the project to proceed without exposure to potential costly interruptions or schedule delays.  Was it a good idea to buy the extra insurance, or would we rather stick to the original package to save current dollars and stick rigidly to the original budget?

Critics continue repeating this fiction that there are these huge cost overruns being forced onto the backs of taxpayers.  That is incorrect.  Most of these additional costs, as described above, are associated with changes in scope, which are quite different.  All of them were on the table before council, in public and any one of them could have been challenged individually.  Contingencies are in place for escalations, but if new scope changes are proposed, then those would be put before council, in public, and they would have a choice to say no, item by item.  Nobody’s hand is being forced one way or another.

Many of the non-discretionary cost increases (sunk costs, material costs, tax change impacts etc.) would apply to any project, new bridge of whatever design, or fixes to the old bridge (not feasible in any event).  That too has been providing an unending source of material for cost fictions – the notion that one figure in an email or estimated in the original condition assessment were carved in stone and that everything else is evidence of ballooning costs.  That too is not supported by the facts and the logical fallacies are easily transparent.

No doubt the stories will be told that the old bridge could have been saved, that the architecture is a major cost driver that needs to be discarded, but those too are not supported by the facts.  The most reliable sources for that information will be found in the staff report, or in asking questions of qualified, credentialed engineers, not by reading Focus magazine, or from the incomplete or sometimes misleading information provided by the Blue Bridge preservation campaign.

One of the other postings asked where I get all this stuff.  I’m pleased to see someone at least reading through admittedly long postings.  The bridge replacement is a complex project and most of the media doesn’t have the space to cover all the issues.  The numbers get reported without much context and the letters starting coming in response and incomplete information turns into something more misleading.  Finding the nuggets of truth require a little more homework or a little more reading.

As to my sources, I did my homework on the bridge while on council; kept my personal files on the issues and yet still, haven’t yet dug into a lot of them to tell the more complete story.

 I didn’t ask Focus for their advice; I talked to the engineers, including the project manager in San Francisco for the bridges that the preservation campaign pointed to as a model of successful rehabilitation projects.  The discussions were quite helpful and pointed to a selective use of information and advice by the preservation campaign who chose to ignore the advice they were given. 

I visited the Cherry St. Bridge in Toronto, when I was there for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities on behalf of the city, a trip characterized by critics as a junket.  The Cherry St. Bridge is also a Strauss bascule design, and it underwent $3 million in repairs a number of years ago.  The preservation campaign used that as another example of a cheap fix.  While at FCM I spoke to the councillor for the area who told me she thought that their bridge would likewise be replaced in the not too distant future. 

I’ve got numbers of pictures of Cherry St. on my flickr pages, and I think the information I brought back helped to stop critics from using it as an example to be relied upon (despite the investment, it’s probably in worse shape than ours).  If my research on the ground there helped to steer discussions here in a more sensible direction, I think the net benefits far exceed the costs of the trip.  I think the criticisms of councillors who travel to conferences to learn how to do their job better is misplaced, but that’s a difficult argument to sell.

I keep my own blog on the issue; I still talk to the engineers and city staff (don’t forget they are still public servants and we are all members of the public) and I read the public reports.  I’ve also worked as a consultant on various engineering projects here and in Vancouver, though I am not an engineer.  Certainly those firms that I have done some work with have continued to express confidence in my understanding of traffic engineering and other issues.  At the very least, it helps me understand how the engineers and consultants  are developing the project and their recommendations.

I’m also a bike mechanic from a way back.  Now that will elicit guffaws from some, but metal is metal, and understanding alloys, stress cycles, corrosion impacts and other elements of metallurgy is as useful for big pieces of steel as it is for small.  I’d venture to say that even if you have tried to re-use a rusty nail or straighten out a bent one at home, you’ll understand the limits of various metals.  The metal in our bridge is no different, though a lot less sophisticated than now available alloys (the new bridge is likely to include molybdenum, a key alloy found in stronger, lighter bikes).  It’s not so hard, once you get past the rhetoric, to separate the facts from the fiction.

As much as any of the last council, the decision to build a new bridge is on my head, so I do take some ownership and more than a little interest in making sure it moves forward and meets our objectives.  I know costs are a concern and it’s a challenge to be managed, but no surprise that it is as much now a source of panic and politics.  Hopefully, as the conversation continues, the city makes the right decisions and we get the bridge we voted for.

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