Thursday, November 18, 2010

Answers and Questions

Without rancor, here are some comments on the Vote No op-ed in today's Times Colonist.

The city has pursued the most cost effective option to deal with the Johnson St. Bridge.  The $30 million quoted in the article is a Class D estimate, which does not include quantity surveys or project details.  Class D estimates are at 30% of design while the more detailed work that goes into a Class C estimate provides typically 70% of design.  Class C is a better estimate of costs since it doesn't just identify what work needs to be done, but details more how it will proceed.  Critics of the new bridge know this and have thus far refused to acknowledget that they understand the difference.

The one year closure necessary for refurbishment is unrelated to the scope of the project, simply a requirement to protect the waterway from the lead-based paint that will have to be blasted off of the old bridge.  This cannot be done in place for this kind of movable bridge that opens and closes several times a day.  Imagine the cost escalation associated with mounting and dismantling scaffolding several times a day on the premise that this could preserve the functionality of the crossing during repairs.

Repair does not save money.  San Francisco's Third St. Bridge was a different project than ours.  It is a single bridge span that required only seismic work on one of two piers.  I spoke to the project manager in San Francisco who said that he told the bridge preservation campaign not to use their bridge for comparison; that every bridge is unique and must be assessed individually.  Why do the critics continue to hide from this advice and misrepersent the facts? 

The LaSalle Causeway Bridge project in Kingston was managed by the same engineers who are developing our project.  It was also funded by the same federal government that has committed $21 million to our bridge project.  The engineers wrote to detailing differences between the two projects.  This is information they don't want you to see.  For their investment, the federal government does due diligence on the projects they fund.  They've accepted our proposal and support a scope of work that critics suggest are superfluous.  "Cutting costs" will end up costing Victoria taxpayers more if we lose that funding.

The old bridge, if preserved, will cost twice as much to maintain, year after year after year.  How is that the affordable option?  A bridge in Saskatoon that got the "cheap fix" for a 20 year life actually only lasted 4 years.  That bridge is now closed.  How do we price that risk?

The scope of repairs spelled out in the Class D estimate that the critics are attached to would compromise the heritage of the bridge by cladding the lattice work in plate steel.  While preserving elements of heritage, it would be a different bridge than the one we know today.

The new bridge is not an experiment.  The design and technology are proven and much more sensible than the current design.  A similar design, at least for some of the mechancics of the new bridge, was the bridge Victoria should have chosen in 1922, according to the engineer who did the peer review.

Frills that critics want to cut include a harbour walkway that will be paid for from the city's capital reserves by shifting funding from other phases of the city's harbour greenway - a project developed with extensive public consultation and endorsed by citizens.  It makes sense to complete this piece in conjunction with the new bridge project, saving money and minimizing disruptions.  Other "frills" that critics now want jettisoned included improvements for cycling, walking and a better level of service for people with mobility challenges.  These are essential to shifting our transportation choices to more sustainable modes and are a must do element of the project.  Without them, funding from the federal government is at risk and the project cannot qualify for gas tax funding endorsed by the CRD.  They also help us meet commitments to action on climate change and a regional growth strategy supported by all municipalities in the capital region.  I do not conside those commitments to be dispensable.

The rail right of way will be preserved and the city is seeking regional funding.  Is it fair to load the cost of that regional piece onto the taxpayers of Victoria alone?  How will a rail link across the bridge serve if the region and the province do not invest in the other upgrades the rest of the line requires?

Seismic upgrading is required to secure federal funding and protect our investment.  The $10 million saving notionally attached to a reduced seismic standard will not be enough to retrofit the Bay St. Bridge where a more comprehensive and expensive project would likely have to be mounted.  Please explain how we save money by doing two bridges, one of which is in satisfactory condition?  Is it ok to spend whatever it takes, as long as the Blue Bridge is saved?

The city's engineering consultants have met with local suppliers to discuss the new bridge and there is local interest and capacity to bid on the project.  If the steel for a new bridge is imported, where does the steel for repair come from?

The city has retired debts that provide the borrowing room necessary to fund the replacement project.  There is a financial plan for our infrastructure.  Over the next 20 years, Victoria will invest $750 million in infrastructure.  Refurbishment is risky and costly and we would have to borrow, likely more, to fund that project, especially if we lose funding from the federal government or don't qualify for gas tax funding.

The city has continued to maintain the bridge to the extent possible.  Repairs or replacement of obsolete electrical and mechanical features are not feasible without disassembling the bridge and the focus of city engineers was to first complete a condition assessment, provide advice to council and move forward on a clear decision.  The peer review confirmed that the existing bridege was not built to be maintained, partly because material design at the time of its construction was predictably not as well advanced as that available today.  The seismic vulnerability of the bridge has no relationship whatsoever to maintenance of the bridge.

Council's decision followed a condition assessment that identified the poor shape of the bridge, the challenge of refurbishment, the costs associated with both options before us and the need to act with some urgency to protect the city against the consequences of possible closure.  For our taxpayers, it would have been irresponsible of council to ignore the availability of funding partnerships to help support any project.  The additional public engagement that has taken place over the last several months has confirmed that, given complete information, our citizens prefer replacement.

The city's advisory committee provides technical advice to staff and would be poorly served by turning it into an arena for a political debate.  Process cannot instruct the city to be negligent and does not change the condition of the bridge.

The critic's choice for minimizing closures continues to be a non-starter, information that has been provided both to the public and their organization.  Night work would be intolerably disruptive to downtown neighbourhoods and residential and hotel developments in Vic West.  The city could face liability costs, especially if that plan affected businesses.  How is that cost effective?  Night work also entails a significant cost premium to address overtime or shift work, as well as the safety of working in the dark.  Early estimates pegged that cost at more than $5 million.  How is that more affordable?

The op-ed again proposes that cycling and pedestrian facilities can be improved in a cheaper, reduced scope project.  Most cyclists who actually use the bridge understand what is proposed and will be voting for a new bridge.  Myself, I've been working with the city for more than a decade on developing improvements that have provided some help to cyclists, but we have reached the service limits the old bridge can provide.  Show me what successful cycling or walking projects you have supported, advanced, developed or designed in the Capital Region, if any.  I can show you a few that I've been involved in and, with all due respect, I've seen your plans, and they don't work.

1 comment:

  1. Another in a series of excellent, informative posts about the Blue Bridge project. Thanks and keep up the good work, John.

    My only regret is that as an Esquimalt resident I can't vote Yes in the referendum. I use the Blue Bridge daily, by car, bike and foot, and I've been doing so for about 30 years. A year-long closure would be a hugely unpleasant impact on traffic flow between downtown and Vic West.

    The current bridge is IMO ugly, subfunctional and unsafe for anything other than slow-moving car traffic. It would be so great in so many ways to see a new bridge with huge improvements in accessibilty, safety and efficiency for all transportation modes (and especially self-propelled ones, which are likely to form a much greater fraction of trips in the near future).

    The points about refurbishment involving ongoing high costs of maintenance and the risk of shorter-than-planned lifespan are very good. In any renovation project there often tend to be unpleasant surprises.

    All-in-all, replacement would seem to drastically lower the number of "unknown unknowns".