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Key questions and answers on the bridge issue

Why is there a referendum? Under provincial legislation, the city must get voter approval, either through referendum or the alternative approval process (also known as a counter petition) for any borrowing where the repayment period is more than five

Why is there a referendum?

Under provincial legislation, the city must get voter approval, either through referendum or the alternative approval process (also known as a counter petition) for any borrowing where the repayment period is more than five years.

Saturday's referendum was sparked by a petition led by

johnsonstreetbridge.org, a group unhappy with city council's handling of the bridge project last year.

In April 2009, in a decision hurried to take advantage of infrastructure funding from the federal and provincial governments, council had voted to replace the bridge without, the group argued, adequately studying the possibility of refurbishment. In a city first, the group successfully led a counter petition last winter to force the city to hold a referendum to get the public's approval to borrow money to finance the bridge project, whether it replaced the span or fixed it up. They needed to get 10 per cent of Victoria's 63,426 eligible voters to sign the document; by January, they got 9,872, or about 15 per cent.

After several months of studying both options and consulting the public this spring and summer, council decided once again in August to replace the bridge -- and then ask the public to borrow the $49.2 million it needs for the $77-million project. The rest will come from a $21-million federal grant and $6.8 million through consolidating other capital works into the bridge project and land sale funds. The price does not include an E&N Rail line, which was cut to shave about $12 million. The city is looking for funding to pay for the rail crossing.

What's wrong with the bridge?

The Johnson Street Bridge, built in 1924, was designed by Joseph Strauss, the man behind San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, and is the only one of its kind in North America. Engineers' reports to the city say it's reaching the end of its life unless significant improvements are made. Studies say it will collapse in an earthquake of any significance. Its electrical and mechanical systems are obsolete and could fail at any time. And, there's extensive corrosion and rust on the steel structure.

What would need to be done if it were replaced?

Under the $77-million project, the new bridge would be constructed immediately to the north of the existing bridge. This would allow the old bridge to stay open during construction, estimated to take four years. The old bridge would be torn down when the new one is finished.

The new span would feature a circular counterweight you could stand in while the bridge is raised and lowered, on-street bike lanes, a dedicated sidewalk, a separate multi-use trail, improved road approaches (including eliminating the S-curve on the west side) and a wider navigation channel for boats. The span would last 100 years, and it could withstand an earthquake up to magnitude 8.5.

The 100-year maintenance costs are estimated at $22 million.

What would need to be done to refurbish it?

Foundations have to be seismically upgraded (here, the city refers to the concrete foundations; it admits it

doesn't know the condition of the wooden piles in the seabed, and if they are in poor condition, more work would need to be done).

All the surface rust on the steel structure has to be blasted away, and some steel would need to be replaced before resurfacing. The bridge is constructed using steel plates, meaning that before the rust in between the plates can be attacked, hundreds of rivets will have to be jackhammered out.

All electrical and mechanical systems are to be replaced. While some wiring has been replaced over the years, by and large the systems are the original ones built in 1924 and are obsolete.

The 800-tonne counterweights will have to be supported, and then removed, in order for work to be done on the main bearings. This could be very difficult, given that steel support beams are embedded right into the concrete counterweights themselves and they might have to be hammered out.

The city says refurbishment would mean the existing bridge would have to be removed for about a year so the work could be done. That closure is estimated to have a minimum negative economic impact on downtown businesses of about $13 million.

Under the $80-million refurbishment plan, the upgrades would give the bridge another 100 years of life, and it could withstand an earthquake up to magnitude 8.5. It would keep its existing three lanes of traffic, and have a dedicated sidewalk and a multi-use path, but there would be no on-street bike lanes, nor a wider navigation channel, and the road approaches (including the S-curve on the west side) would remain. And, to do the work, the bridge would have to be shut down, dismantled and taken away for a year, cutting off traffic and hurting nearby businesses to the tune of $13 million.

The 100-year maintenance costs are estimated at $42 million.

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