Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Nothing to see here . . 

A sparsely attended meeting of Victoria’s council sitting in committee heard from project managers on the progress of the Johnson St. Bridge.  Those coming to watch a train wreck were no doubt disappointed.

Recent reports notwithstanding, budget and time lines appear to be on track and critics are muted by the steady onslaught of the uncomfortable facts.

The question had to be asked again, though answered more than once or a thousand times, about maintenance of the old bridge.  While wrestling through the forecasts for touching up paint or recoating the bridge, the point seemingly had to be made that, had old blue been painted more diligently, it might have lasted longer.  The answer, as always, has been as consistent.  The old bridge, was state of the art, 90 years ago, using plate steel and rivets to create the structural members the define the structure.  Consulting engineers in attendance, like those that had come before, schooled the studiously uninformed, that the design rendered any scheme to coat surfaces between plates, at best, irrelevant, and, for all intents and purposes, near impossible in any event, at least in situ.

As those who have followed the project and who understand at least the basics of metallurgy, the existing bridge, despite some initial hopefulness, has never been a good candidate for refurbishment, whatever the scheme.  The steel is so compromised by the rust and corrosion of a salty environment and the damp winters of the wet coast that almost nothing of the original bridge would remain after the rust might have been scraped off, lead paint and all, into the water below.

The same voices who began their term insisting that an iconic bridge was too rich for Victoria are now as insistent that no expense be spared to ensure that the trail crossing that will connect the E&N trail to the Goose and the new bridge has all the architectural panache of the bridge project they once insisted would serve as well if it were a replica of the Spencer Road overpass.

Different storylines emerged that counter the recent and familiar noise from other critics.  Routine maintenance and schemes for replacement of load bearing mechanical elements of the bridge are designed into the management plan for the future of the new bridge, not, as some might have it, a sudden and surprising change to the lifespan project for the bridge, which remains at 100 years.  Proxies at the table were left looking for minutiae around how bearings might be replaced or paint touch up work might be arranged. 

The use of one sort of grouting or another to sandwich steel surfaces subject to loads and friction were revealed as  likewise commonplace, well protected from the elements encased within the structure where operational requirements demand.  Nothing to see here, and not so much to report, more than that most all of the 4,000, give or take a few, movable bridges across North America are using much the same elements of design. 

Engineers put paid to the notion too, that the mechanics of the bridge are untried or untested.  They went so far even as to share that the key elements of rollers and bearings, racks and pinions and the like were so commonplace as to be available off the shelf, should one or another piece require replacement.  That too, is designed into the bridge.  Due diligence will require maintenance, maybe repairs, perhaps replacement of some of those movable parts that will wear over time.  Unlike the current structure, however, everything is designed with maintenance and durability in mind.  The old bridge, not so much.

Rail service, as much as we would have liked to include it in the first go round, is protected, at least conceptually.  The right of way remains and, should a revival demand a downtown station, the logistics of approaches from the west side will be easy enough to construct, even as those most attached to bringing the train into sight of the city centre decry the expense of public space design that might require some rearrangement should a station be required or tracks need to be laid.

More practical approaches might be explored where a new station location that harkens back to the ‘70s, when rail served, more practically, deeper into Vic West.  Locations have more generous space that might be afforded a station, parking would be more readily available, transit connections could be designed, and local development would be anchored by passenger rail or long haul commuter services.  Not that the rail is operating yet, but the prospect of revival, however shaky, would best be served by functional realities more so than political posturing.

All of the noise around design milestones and the impatience with those elements still incomplete revealed some stark contrasts in approaches.  The public realm west of the bridge that will reclaim land currently supporting the dysfunctional S-curve is rightly unfinished on paper.  As much as the concepts of land use have been driven by community desires for more park space, it remains most crucial that the public be involved in the more detailed design that can follow the more immediate need to finish the bridge and road connections that will service the new crossing.

Further on up the road, or the trail, so to speak, the E&N rail trail continues to emerge alongside the increasingly decrepit track bed, though many of us still hope the train will be rescued as promised.  It will connect to the project and, truth be told, I would rather not have detailed design completed without having a good look at both functional design and architectural expression.  I’m uncomfortable enough with the continue characterization of the link as a “pedestrian” bridge, when it will also serve commuter cyclists and other wheeled travelers who will require different kinds of geometrics than those needed for foot travel alone.  I’m sure everyone involved understands this, but it needs to be spelled out as a design driver as the project proceeds.

Road links and fresh works connecting Harbour Road across to the Ocean Pointe Hotel are already in progress, and the ramp down to the road from the current E&N trail piece are fenced off for the next several weeks.  More effort could have been made to design better detour arrangements and more pointed communications, but it will be very short term, and the promise of dramatic improvements to cycling facilities that are central to the new bridge will draw more traffic despite new ideological skepticism emerging among some in the cycling community.

Something new will be emerging as city staff and project consultants work through the change order demanded by the contractor hoping to squeeze more money out of their fixed price deal, but that wasn’t ready for the council gabfest.  No doubt it will be fuel and fodder for the naysayers who aren’t much interested in the facts in any event.  While some may be journalists in their day jobs, they’ve lost any sense of objectivity on this project, leading the charge in opposition whilst pretending to be mere reporters.   Guess you have to give them credit for being consistent.

Project team members turned aside questions that had been raised about the ethics of designers assessing the changes.  They reminded council that their r professional credentials demanded that they provide accurate and fair information, and that anything they turned in would be run through city staff and were subject to audit, in any event, by federal funders who have a lot of skin in the game and have, thus far, found everything in order.

Me too.  I read all 483 pages of the report and voted yes for a new bridge.  Didn’t forget also, to read page 484 too – that’s the one where the referendum results showed the voters of Victoria made the same choice.  Haven’t seen anything new that indicates it was the wrong one.