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.

Friday, October 15, 2010

City goes to bridge borrowing referendum

City Council has again endorsed a new bridge as the best option to address the aging Johnson St. Bridge connecting downtown to neighbourhoods to the west.  It's a critical crossing and an important link in an integrated and diverse regional transportation network.

I've written extensively on my blog and at about the research I've done to inform my vote on this important project.  We need a bridge to the future, not one that preserves the unsustainable design we've had for the last 86 years.  While we work to preserve our heritage, we can't be held hostage to it.

Refurbishing the old bridge would be expensive and disruptive and we'd still have an old bridge that would drain resources for maintenance and operations.  The peer review of both the replacement and refurbishment options confirmed what our engineers and our consultants have been telling us about the condition and the costs we face of either choice.  The new bridge is the most responsible and sustainable choice.

Beyond all of the seismic and structural deficiencies, providing for the many thousands of cyclists and pedestrians who use the bridge daily can't be built into the old bridge. Those numbers are growing fast and will accelerate when a new trail alongside the E&N is completed.  Helping people to make the choice to walk or cycle for many of their transportation needs is critical to the success of many of our regional transportaton objectives and one of our most effective strategies for addressing climate change at the local level.

This is the most critical project in the region, perhaps the most important of any on Vancouver Island.  It is the weak link in a busy cycling transportation network serving many neighbourhoods around Greater Victoria and it is the gateway to a rapidly expanding multi-use trail system that is connecting communities from Victoria to Nanaimo and beyond.  It's a key support for a growing cycling tourism industry that has so much more potential on the Island.

The next step is to make sure all of the funding is in place.  The federal government is kicking in $21 million and the Capital Regional District is endorsing our request for more funding to support the rail and the trail.  (Don't buy the fairy tale that gas tax funds can help pay for refurbishment - only projects that help lower greenhouse gas emissions are eligible and, without improvements to the level of service for cycling in particular, saving the old bridge just won't qualify.)

The city's funding will come from borrowing - it saves our reserves for other capital projects and allows us to finance the project without raising taxes.  A 25 year mortgage on a 100 year asset is a pretty good deal.  The new bridge will serve long after the loan is paid off.

Referendum day is November 20th and I encourage you to get out an vote.  It's important to endorse the borrowing so we can get on with the project.  You can read more at my pages of course, but you can also click on the posting title and connect with the city's bridge page.  There are a numbers of public events where you can find out more about the bridge and the borrowing.  I expect to attend some of them and hope to see  you there.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Low energy housing

Here's a tidbit about "passive housing", a concept in building design that takes advantage of solar, super insulation, appliance generated surplus energy and even body heat to warm and cool a house or a building.

Efforts to reduce our carbon footprint and re-orient our energy consumption to sustainable models are generating innovations in technology and design and this is one of the latest examples.  Click on the title and check out more through the Sightline linked article.

More info on housing, transportation and other urban issues are coming ahead in my blog.  A couple of weeks of conferences in September and a computer meltdown hopefully nearing resolution has put me behind in the news I've been able to share.  There's always lots out there.

And, of course, Victoria's bridge project is in the news with a borrowing referendum pending.  More on the facts and fairy tales coming soon.