Sunday, January 24, 2010

Drugs and the Law

One of the priorities of Victoria City Council is focused on harm reduction - treating drug addiction as a disease, and less as a law eforcement issue.

We don't have a lot of tools to advance this agenda, but we can act as advocates for a more sensisble policy approach to drugs and addiction issues.

We have put funding into health services for our street population, many of whom have addiction problems, and we have been working hard to increase the supply of affordable and supportive housing that can help people off of the street, often the first step towards helping people deal with addictions.

I'll write more about housing in another post because I think it's worth noting how much work we've done on the issue, but for now I'd like to direct you to another sensible voice.

I noticed that Victoria police officer David Bratzer signed up to this blog, and whenever I've seen his name in print, it's usually associated with his work on ending prohibition. Drug wars are an expensive policy failure that we need to consign to the dustbin of history. Doing so would leave us with more resources to deal with criminal issues that matter or so many other things that are more valuable than pouring money into the burdens of drug enforcement - like too much police time, too busy court dockets and too many crowbar hotels.

Here's an article David wrote for the Georgia Straight last year. Keep up the good work!

Going downtown by Rail

Been a busy week at city hall and I'm just now getting to some of the comments that have come up in the last several days.

First up will be the rail issue, and I'll save some of the other issues raised around Blue Bridge costs in another post.

Bringing rail into downtown across the harbour is critical to the success of commuter rail and other services planned for the E&N. That's the clear message from the new owners of the railway and the operators they are contracting with.

The E&N used to be the property of CP, who had no interest in a successful rail service. They would have been just as happy to let the rail fail so they could take the land and sell it off for development. VIA, the federal operator of our passenger service likewise has had little commitment to service here. Their focus has always been on central Canada where the high volume passenger services connect Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. The further you get from these centres, the less interest they have in maintaining service levels.

A few years back everything changed for our little E&N line when CP, in exchange for a sizable tax writeoff, turned over the line to the Island Corridor Foundation, a partnership of regional districts and First Nations from Victoria to Courtenay and west to Port Alberni. The new foundation, along with new operators Southern Rail, have been working diligently to identify the upgrades needed to support a variety of services that could operate on our railway.

Those services include freight, tourist excursions and commuter rail service. Freight opportunities might include things like gravel hauling, which invariably travels by truck over the Malahat from up island quarries and Texada Island off the Sunshine Coast. Moving the stuff by rail would be safer and more efficient.

Tourism services could include ski trains to Mount Washington, or day trips to various stops up and down the Island. For that service to be successful, a downtown, visible and accessible location is crucial.

Likewise, commuter rail service, and the Island Corridor Foundation is firming up plans right now on some proposals, planned to be a couple of trains running south from Nanaimo in the morning and back again in the afternoon, could appeal to the several thousand commuters traveling to and from the Nanaimo area and more particularly the Cowichan Valley northwest of Victoria. Moving the station to somewhere west of the bridge in Vic West, which has been suggested by numbers of commentators, will make the commuter run much less accessible and much less appealing. It's a recipe for failure.

Commuters are headed downtown to nearby workplaces, and a nice walk for a few hundred metres from a west side station isn't part of their plans. Like most commuters they are headed for a destination that they will want to get to in a timely manner and with the least amount of inconvenience. Regional transit planning that may include a downtown or pedestrian circulator would help disperse more of these commuters to nearby workplaces, but moving that transit or (potentially) a streetcar service out of downtown, becomes much more complex and much less appealing as a viable transportation choice for longer haul commuters.

Critics will continue to argue that people can walk across the bridge or get on a bus at the Roundhouse. But transportation planners need more certainty than what people "can" do. It's more a question of what they "will" do. In that sense, we need to look less at what works for us as individuals, and more at what is effective at attracting the significant numbers of commuters that will be necessary to support a viable commuter rail service.

For the experts who study rail transit and the new operators, who are committed to a successful rail service, making sure the rail comes across the bridge into downtown is essential to their business plans. Our plans for the bridge and our commitment to a diversity of transportation options that provide choice and continue to support a working city and a vibrant economy gives us clear direction - the rail stays downtown.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Answers to your comments

I've been getting comments back on the bridge discussion and here are some answers to some issues raised.

Seismic work - yes or no?

To the issue of what is important to seismically upgrade, the bridge is one of the most important pieces of infrastructure that is clearly in the city's care. The exposure of people the bridge versus buildings, it has been suggested, makes it less of a priority.

That's simply not a satisfactory response to the city's duty of care when assessing the condition of infrastructure and the consequent obligation to address known deficiencies and hazards. The legal consequences for the city where negligence is demonstrated may be much more expensive than the capital projects contemplated. If that negligence is willful or deliberate, councillors can be held personally responsible.

The bridge is in operation 24 hours a day, so the exposure is more constant than with other buildings. The collapse of the Point Ellice Bridge in 1896 is also instructive. 56 people died because a streetcar was in transit when the tragedy occured. The Johnson St. Bridge carries numbers of bus routes, which may also be full in peak hours.

Other city buildings have had some work done and other work is being planned to mitigate hazards or provide seismic upgrades. City hall, for example, has had several phased projects to reinforce the western addition and doorways, and the third floor has been emptied of heavy archives pending further seismic work. Public buildings that are the responsibility of other levels of government, like schools, are their projects and many have been upgraded.

The city has also foregone millions in tax revenue over numbers of years through heritage tax holidays to support upgrades to buildings downtown. The tax holidays are quite pointedly aimed at making seismic work financially feasible and occupancy is not permitted above a certain floor level on some older buildings until that work is complete.

Bridges are high on the priority list for protection from any hazard threat because the aftermath of disasters requires deployment of resources like emergency services and heavy equipment to address life and safety issues or to facilitate clean up and rebuilding after damage.

The other issue of economic dislocation is also critical. After life and safety issues are addressed, rebuilding and restarting the city's economy will be critical to our viability and vitality. While not all of the potential impacts are necessarily the city's direct responsibility, the failure of downtown or other affected businesses affects us all. Failed businesses don't pay their taxes. The consequence of ignoring the bridge deficiencies exposes the city to possible several years of economic impacts.

The Loma Prieta earthquake in California in 1989 was a case study in earthquake preparedness and mitigation. Post disaster research indicated that investing in seismic upgrades and mitigation had net positive benefits measured in socioeconomic impacts.

Whether refurbishment or replacement, full seismic upgrading is not an optional element for the city.

Cherry picking costs

I did not write that refurbishment (in the Delcan report), was pegged at $35 million. Check back on that section and you will see that this number refers to replacement. That is comparing "apples to apples". This much lower figure, like the Delcan estimate for refurbishment, is a "Class D" estimate" and is valid at a conceptual level, for order of magnitude costs, and is in 2008 dollars. Subsequent work on more detailed replacement costs elevated the price to establish costs at a higher level of confidence. Likewise, a more detailed estimate of costs for refurbishment ups those costs to a more current number of $35 million,.

Replacement costs have a higher level of confidence because there will remain unknowns associated with refurbishment. Research on the Ashtabula Bridge in Ohio, (same vintage Strauss project) should illustrate costly and problematic challenges we may also face from hidden deficiencies.

Talking to engineers

We have asked our engineers and consultants for more information on costs and project details of works associated with either refurbishment or replacement. Our engineers are professional staff and our consultants are chosen by an independent, competitive process. Councillors are not involved in hiring staff or choosing contractors. They are chosen for their competence, and with respect to consulting engineers, it will also be necessary that they have appropriate licenses or credentials to work in Canada.

The choice of a new bridge is council's decision and neither our staff nor our consultants have an agenda for refurbishment or replacement, only recommendations based on their professional assessment and competence. The engineers brought to present the case for refurbishment are no doubt competent, but very clearly were invited to support a specific agenda.

Our consultants have also been asked specifically to assess the feasibility of some of the suggested preservations strategies provided by those engineers and our consultants are competent to do so. Work continues on some of that costing but some information has been provided specifically in letters to the preservation campaign but has thus far been dismissed.

All of the information provided by engineers and consultants is available on the city's website and presentations have been in public. The information is there, but we cannot force people to read it. Clearly some of those whose interest is in refurbishment only continue to question the information provided, but it is both thorough and sound. Engineers are governed by a code of ethics that requires them to provide accurate, unbiased information.

Bridge locked closed? Or open?
The issue of the bridge locking is not a choice of the city, but a potential failure associated with a seismic event.

Bicycle levels of service and the rail bridge
While I haven't suggested a firm figure on the potential latent demand being suppressed by the poor levels of service provided by the current bridge, experience elsewhere in North America indicates that growth in bicycle traffic (a key objective of the regional growth strategy to which we are committed), is signficant where key pinch points can be addressed and safe, separated facilities are provided. Some references to cycling traffic research is on my website at and more will be posted.

We are not welcome to rip up the rails to provide that level of service. The rail connection into downtown is embedded in our Official Community Plan, is essential to the success of the rail, and we will not sacrifice that service to address the deficiencies for traffic management objectives associated with refurbishment.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Road diets and bridge capacity

A solution has been proposed for the existing Johnson Street Bridge to make it more bike friendly in particular. This is a critical issue driving the design (though only one of several elements of the replacement decision checklist), and supporters of preservation have been claiming that there is an easy fix to provide space for cyclists.

The idea is to close one lane of two for outbound traffic and turn the space over to cyclists. There are numbers of other reasons why this won't work, but firstly, the traffic demand on the bridge is beyond the design capacity that would work with the proposed lane reduction.

I'll put more up on the "tangled octopus" of trails and other design issues that challenge the old bridge, but for now, there's a link at the end of this post to a paper on "road diets", put together by Pete Lagerwey, who recently retired from his position as Seattle's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, and Dan Burden, who runs Walkable Communities from his home in Florida. Keep in mind that they are both advocates for sustainable transportation design and walking and cycling in particular and, given the numbers on our bridge, their work indicates that the proposed lane reduction would be unworkable.

I've made the point with my council colleague who has raised the issue more than once and suggested it to campaigners for saving the old bridge, but thus far none have even acknowledged that this might be a problem. They continue to promote the idea as an easy fix and, notwithstanding their insistence that we employ the expertise of bridge structural engineers, refuse to consider the expertise offered on other serious issues of bridge design and operation as far as it conflicts with their agenda.

The paper is at:

For Bernard

Thanks Bernard,

If you read the Delcan report, you'll find the "imminent danger" is owing to the seismic vulnerability. In any significant event, the bridge is in danger of failure, potentially catastrophic, and almost certainly with loss of life a real threat.

There isn't imminent danger from the condition, only from historic design deficiences, although deterioration of the foundations of the bridge are of accelerating concern.

The report also says, however, that we need to act within three years, and the report is now a year old. Planning for and completing work, whether replacement or refurbishment, is not an overnight project, so there is a great deal of urgency for council to ensure that steps are taken to address deficiencies in a timely fashion.

The more immediate dangers are not likley life threatening, but potentially have greater economic impacts. Electrical and mechanical systems are obsolete and a failure could leave the bridge stuck open, or closed.

I'll put up some links to information on the Ashtabula bridge in Ohio, another Strauss bascule that was closed for two years, killing businesses on one side of the river. While those are not direct financial consequences for the city, the Cambie St. merchants case provides some guidance for us insofar as project managers in that case chose a "cheaper" project to save themselves costs, but created a nuisance according to the judgement found against them - essentially transferring costs and risks to other stakeholders. That liability may be ours also, more certainly if the bridge is locked closed for any length of time and impacts the business of Point Hope Shipyards.

Any judgement against the city for economic dislocation owing to negligence (failing to meet our duty of care to keep critical infrastructure at least operational, if not safe), will likely incur costs greater than the capital costs of any bridge project.

Our engineers, and our consultants, are competent, have been thorough in their analysis, and have been quite forthcoming about the costs of replacement, which is much more predictable than refurbishment, and have repeatedly expressed confidence in estimates provided for that project.

Cost estimates for refurbishment have been repeatedly, and sometimes deliberately, misrepresented.

Delcan provided an estimate that has been treated as a fixed price contract. More detailed assessment of potential cost escalation risks pegs restoration at a signficantly higher figure, particularly with scope changes proposed by critics to address deficiencies of the current bridge.

For example, the current bridge does not provide an adequate level of service for cyclists and pedestrians on the Galloping Goose. A new trail alongside the E&N will likely add some thousands to the 4,000 bike and 3,000 pedestrian trips across the bridge on an average day.
We are parties to, and committed to, our obligations and objectives under the Regional Growth Strategy, which aims to shift travel choices from vehicles to more sustainable modes. Our succes, or lack thereof, will have region wide implications. With 80% of cycling trips in the region in the core, our key pinch point is the bridge is the most signficant barrier in our regional cycling network.

Notwithstanding comments suggesting there are easy fixes to provide a satisfactory level of service to cyclists in particular, and trail users in general, there are not. The bridge has been examined throughly for exactly this purpose, and the addition of cantilever structures to accommodate a trail facility complicates the balance of the bridge on bearings and gears, and overloads mechanical, electrical and motor systems. It would also require additional counterweight mass and create windload problems (when the bridge is raised). For all of these reasons, that solution is not feasible.

Afixing a more suitable surface to the bridge deck creates similar issues, although more feasible because it doesn't create the imbalance of a cantilever. This, however, would be quite expensive owing to the cost of high-tech, lightweight steel and epoxy surfaces to provide a non-skid surface over the current deck.

It would also be very ineffective at addressing the challenges the treatment is proposed to solve. Cyclists need, more than improved surfaces, addtional space and/or separation from traffic. It is a significant barrier to growing additional bike trips, which is again embedded in our regional growth strategy.

It is ironic that critics continue to insist we consult more extensively with bridge engineers with specific experience in rehabilitating heritage structures (although our consultants have this experience), but they refuse to acknowledge the recommendations of those with expertise on the cycling and walking issues that they claim to have a solution for.

None of the bridges in Portland that have been retrofitted with bicycle facilities are practical equivalents to our bridge. The Hawthorne Bridge, for example, provides facilities on both sides of the bridge, eliminating the problems that would be associated with an unbalanced cantilever fixture. It is, in any event, not a bascule drawbridge, but a lift span, which has quite different characteristics.

The only viable solution is a separate structure for trail users. (The many calls to move the train west of the bridge and convert the rail bridge for trail users will almost certainly kill the railway and is not consistent with our official community plan or our commitments to our regional partners and the Island Corridor Foundation that now owns the railway). A separate bridge in current dollars will cost approximately $12 million. With that kind of additional expens refurbishment makes little sense.

The Delcan estimate for replacement, by the way, was $35 million, far below the current price tag of $63 million, but of course that figure includes more detail work on options for a new bridge and roadworks to take advantage of better alignment opportunities and more efficient and attractive land use, particularly on the west side. It is simply not credible for critics to continue to cherry pick the $23 million refurbishment estimate from the same assessment report to undersell the likely real cost of preservation. Our homework on refurbishment estimates pegs the cost, including a separate bridge to support trail traffic, at $57 million. This figure has simply been dismissed by critics who continue to suggest that the $23 million figure is complete, even as scope changes are promised to address issues that are clear deficiences of any refurbishment scheme.

The interest costs of financing (as are building and material costs), most favourable now and will rise in the future. The counter petition success may already have cost us 1% in additional interest liaiblities because of the time limits of various borrowing opportunities.

One of the other problems of of refurbishment is the need for extensive closures, which again have external costs associated with economic dislocation. This was explicity recognized in construction of the Blue Bridge (which of course you will know used to be black, or gun metal gray). The original alignment is what will be used for a new bridge to keep the old one open while a new one is built. The Blue Bridge flipped original alignments to keep the first bridge open during construction for the same reasons informing our decision. Our responsibilities include maintaining a viable and operational transportation system that supports our downtown economy and extensive closures, which, again, notwithstanding claims to the contrary, are unavoidable with refurbishment (more research on bascule rather than other heritgage designs will be more useful in confirming this problem). And again, the Cambie St. merchants case may be a useful precedent in this respect.

Although we can't obviously guarantee that the courts would find against our choice to sacrifice the interest of our businesses downtown in pursuit of a "cheaper fix", but given the case in Vancouver, we can be relatively confident that claims will be made against the city if we choose that path and business does suffer as a consequence.

I have attended some of the events where outside experts have been brought in and have found them to be interesting, but not always relevant. For those whose primary interest is in saving the bridge at any cost (and they are willing to wrap our transportation system to the point of disfunction around the bridge), no amount of information will be sufficient and all of it has been held to be suspect in any event.

We have absolutely nothing to hide and I'd be very happy if people made the effort to dig into the information we have had presented to us at council or to do more research, as I have done. (And despite what some commentators are swallowing from critics, there is no group think here - no one else on council has seen this blog or my website papers as far as I know; I write my own stuff and draw my own conclusions.)

We will have to make our best efforts at informing the public and letting them draw their own conclusions, but those should be based on facts, not fairy tales. Facts tend to be more stubborn.
We have had numerous check-ins along the long road to this point (I just don't buy that 8 or 9 months of consideration is hasty and given the timeframes suggested by the Delcan report, I believe we are being responsible). At any point along the continuum we could have, on the basis of questions raised (and everything presented so far as questions has been answered), rescinded the original decision.

I don't know who else on council regularly talks to our engineers and asks their own questions about some of the issues, but I have been doing so frequently.

We have a disparate group on council, and only one has shifted to opposing the bridge (he was satisfied, I think, when the original decision was made, that it was the right choice).
It should give some pause for thought that our most stalwart defender of the city's heritage has assessed the information and, despite her attachment to the historic values of the old bridge, decided that a new bridge is the right choice, however painful. Others no doubt have common reasons for their decisions, but no doubt have unique perspectives and rationales for making and sticking with the decision.

With respect to other infrastructure that has seismic issues, everything we own, including the Crystal Pool and City Hall, are or will be undergoing some sort of planning for seismic work. The Crystal will likely be replaced in the not too distant future and space allocation needs for city staff are being analyzed to assist in planning logistics for phased seismic upgrading (you can move people and operations around to allow for work in various parts of most buildings. That is what happened, for example, at Monterey School). I don't know what is currently planned for the firehall.

The bridge is not identified as an emergency route simply because our engineers know only too well its deficiencies and vulnerabilities. A 2006 hazard report spelled this out pretty clearly. Why it is important as a top of list priority is because replacing or rebuilding will be an immediate priority after life and health issues are addressed in the aftermath of any earthquake event. Having a functional transportation system with some redunancy will be critical.(Another reason Portland is rolling the dice with seismic upgrades is that they have 8 bridges crossing into downtown from the southeast side - we have two).

We are in the most vulnerable earthquake zone in Canada so we are compelled to meet the most comprehensive and current standards. We have seen what has happened with other earthquakes along the Pacific Coast and various levels of damage have been evident. Cities have nevertheless recovered and got back to work. It is not an option to be cowered by the work we have to do.

We need to get to work, and will, as we have been obliged, review information and seek to answer any more questions that are raised. It is unfortunate that some stories continue to circulate the suggestion that we haven't done our homework, but in many cases I believe that the same questions are being asked repeatedly not in a quest for information, but as a deliberate strategy to stall.

Wish everyone could be as thoughtful as you. Thanks for the comments.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Counter peition and the blue bridge

Ok, so a citizen counter petition today put a stop to our borrowing bylaw to finance a new bridge. Not what we would have wanted, but a splash of cold water in the face is a good reminder of who the boss is I guess.

Still, it doesn't change the condition of our existing bridge or dull the good reasons to replace it. Guess I'll be hard at work over the next couple of months trying to wrestle with how to move forward.

Part of the problem will be that many Victorians don't want a new bridge and for them the cost and the challenges of refurbishment, and there are many, are not relevant. I'm pretty sure I can't make them happy - there will always be those who do not support decisions that pose a threat to icons of our community that they hold sacrosanct.

It's a tough one. I like the old bridge, though many of those supporting our new bridge project can't wait to get rid of it. It's a funky old piece of industrial architecture. Unfortunately, it is increasingly vulnerable to the frailties of age and serves cars and trucks almost exclusively.

There are no fixes that make the old bridge a net positive contributor to a sustainable transportation system and that has to govern my decisions on how we prepare for a future in which the threat of climate change will increasingly overshadow so many other issues.

I take the challenge of thinking globally and acting locally seriously. I have two children who will grow up to face an increasingly expensive challenge in maintaining or replacing deteriorating infrastructure and, particularly with our transportation systems and structures, design biases that discourages sustainable choices.

With 60% of our GHG emissions in Victoria coming from transportation, it is the most important target for changing behaviour, and without changing the infrastructure, we won't change peoples choices. Carrots work better than sticks.

I want a new bridge that acts as a carrot, so we aren't sticking it to cyclists and pedestrians for another 30 or 40 years. That's where I'll be spending my political capital and I guess, submitting myself for judgement.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The city and rail transit

A key issue for followers of the bridge debate is the necessity of bringing the E&N rail into downtown. Aboslutely for the viability and vitality of both tourism related rail services and commuter rail, a downtown station is critical. Accessibility and visibility is key to what makes rail appealing. For Victoria, bringing rail across the bridge is our contribution to a valuable regional transportation option and while we are continuing to seek funding from other regional partners and the provincial government, we must commit to ensuring rail comes downtown.

Downtown rail keeps an important service in the city and preserves options to connect with downtown LRT or streetcar lines that the city and our regional municipal partners are considering.

For much more on the value of commuter rail and other rail based transit services, check out the presentation by Charles Hales, who helped establish Portland's LRT networks and who brought his message to Victoria in 2007 courtesy of Island Transformations.

View the presentation at: