Legislature dome teetering; millions of dollars needed for critical upgrades

The B.C. legislature’s green dome is twisting toward collapse, and is just one example of millions of dollars in urgent upgrades that are needed to save the capital building from falling apart, politicians heard Thursday.

MLAs on the legislature’s management committee were told they need to find as much as $5.7 million for critical upgrades to stabilize the century-old building in the next year.

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“The dome is beginning to twist, which is a problem,” Craig James, the legislature’s clerk, told politicians.

“Engineers have looked at it and are assessing how much it will cost to fix the dome. The problem with every part of this building is when you go and fix one part of it, it’s attached to another part that needs to be fixed as well.”

The main copper dome — upon which sits a golden statue of Capt. George Vancouver — is connected to central columns through the building’s rotunda that engineers say should also be repaired, said James.

MLAs need to decide within two weeks what is “palatable from the taxpayers’ point of view” in available money, said James.

The $5 million is “just the tip of the iceberg,” said NDP house leader John Horgan, who sits on the committee.

“The overall budget according to the consultants is in the $50-[million] to $70-million range,” he said.

Politicians have long known the legislature is falling into disrepair, but have failed to invest the required money.

An engineering report released in 2011 said the building required $250 million in repairs and long-term maintenance to prevent the “real and increasing threat” of a catastrophic collapse in an earthquake.

It also called for millions in short-term upgrades and warned deterioration of the building would accelerate into “loss of asset” damage beyond 2015.

The legislature’s old brick masonry walls aren’t reinforced. The building lacks sprinklers and emergency exits, is overcrowded and contains obsolete power, plumbing, lighting, and communications systems, engineers have said.

But former Speaker Bill Barisoff insisted significant upgrades could only occur after all schools in the province had been seismically retrofitted.

Current Speaker Linda Reid, who assumed the job after the May provincial election, said there needs to be a five- to 10-year plan for improvements.

The teetering dome “may well be the No. 1 priority,” she said.

About 500 people work in the legislature when it is in session. The province’s 85 elected MLAs debate bills and pass laws in the legislative chamber, in the 115-year-old centre block, which is rated by engineers as a high risk for collapse.

“What the committee will do, recognizing the limited means available and limited tax dollars available, is try to chart a responsible course that ensures this legislative assembly, which belongs to the people, is properly maintained within the bounds of what we can afford,” said Finance Minister Mike de Jong.

Horgan said the upgrades are appropriate to fix the seat of government in the province.

The MLA management committee will vote on the issue Dec. 12.

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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