Massively over budget and years behind schedule, the fact that the new Johnson Street Bridge will officially open today and actually goes up and down is well-nigh a miracle.
The project began in the spring of 2009 when, armed with a consultant’s opinion that the deteriorating then-85-year-old bridge would fail in the event of a significant earthquake, Victoria councillors opted for replacement.
Refurbishing the old Blue Bridge would cost between $25 million and $30 million and add 40 years of life, while a new bridge would cost $35 million to $40 million and likely last 100 years, councillors were initially told. A month later, when the city (unsuccessfully) applied for federal-provincial stimulus grants, the new-bridge estimate was already $63 million.
By 2010 the budget had jumped to $77 million, and by 2012 it was $92.8 million. It now stands at more than $105 million with bills still coming in. (The federal government ultimately agreed to provide $37.5 million in infastructure and gas tax funding. The province, not a cent.)
The decision to replace rather than refurbish was met with organized opposition, culminating in a successful counter-petition campaign that forced a referendum on borrowing money to build the bridge.
Citizens approved the borrowing.
Residents were asked to choose their favourite of three bridge conceptual designs — only to watch city council ignore the people’s choice.
Most popular, with almost 50 per cent support, was a cable-stay design but city councillors opted instead to build an “iconic” circle-pivot design because of its “cool” factor. A system with giant rings would lift the bridge to allow marine traffic to pass. People, councillors were told, would be able to walk through the rings while the bridge was lifted. Cool would prove costly.
Building a house without finished plans is not recommended, but somehow it made sense to take the biggest infrastructure project in the city’s history and design it on the fly.
Prior to the bridge contract being awarded in 2013, the city’s consultant MMM Group (now WSP) had prepared an indicative plan that was about 60 per cent complete, but the forecast cost was too high, said Jonathan Huggett, the project director brought in mid-project to assess the situation.
The city put out a call to the private sector to see if the bridge could be built for less through project “optimizations.”
“They got three bids back in a six-week proposal call, which isn’t very long to put something together. Two of them were up around $90 million and PCL was about $20 million cheaper,” Huggett said. “They came in and said here’s what we can do. But it was very much a concept. It wasn’t detailed out.”
In other words, when PCL Constructors Westcoast Ltd. was selected to build the bridge, much of the design, including the support and lift mechanism, was nothing more than a concept.
“So that’s been the challenge. For the last three or four years we’ve been designing this as we go,” Huggett said in an interview. “In fairness, PCL accepted that responsibility.”
Jason Johnson, city manager at the time, hired Huggett in 2014. Huggett quickly discovered he had walked into a project in disarray.
“During my review, I asked everyone involved a simple question: ‘Who is in charge of the project?’ Nobody could provide me with an answer,” Huggett famously wrote in a damning project report shortly after he was hired.
Ross Crockford, founding director of the watchdog group johnsonstreetbridge.org, who argued for refurbishment of the old bridge, said there were warning flags raised early on and council could have changed direction.
Crockford cites, as one example, an in camera report where council was advised through a letter from MMM that the old bridge could be seismically upgraded for $34 million and the work would require only night bridge closings. But the letter didn’t become public until after the borrowing referendum was held, surfacing through a freedom-of-information request.
“What was strange was that for a while the city administration just pretended the warnings didn’t exist,” Crockford said. “When council was presented with information that suggested they were on the wrong path, some people were interested in hearing it and other people plugged their ears.”
What proved to be a major complication down this rocky road was the fact PCL had decided to have the bridge steel fabricated in China.
“Manufacturing a highly specialized steel structure to North American standards at a plant in China raised complications around language, distance, familiarity with North American requirements and the like,” Huggett said in a lessons-learned report. It proved to be an understatement.
In fact, Huggett now refers to the bridge as bridge 2.0 — as all of the first steel in the first bridge was rejected because of substandard welds. A new bridge had to be fabricated.
“We rejected an entire bridge at one point,” Huggett said.
The contract the city signed had limited financial wiggle room. It included only a four per cent contingency whereas 20 per cent would have been more appropriate, Huggett said.
Councillors were told at the time that they were agreeing to a “fixed-price” contract, but the reality is that there was no such thing, Huggett said.
Again, an understatement. Bridge cost increases resulted in the Canadian Taxpayers Federation awarding the city a Teddy Waste Award for the worst example of municipal government waste in all of Canada.
Now that it’s built, Huggett gives full marks to PCL and MMM/WSP for “hanging in.”
“There were days when I just looked at it and I thought I’m not sure whether this was doable.
“But nobody gave up. Everybody hung in there and there were days when it was pretty dark in there,” Huggett said.
As for the finished product, Huggett said people will be impressed. “It moves beautifully. It’s almost silent. It’s definitely a spectacular bridge at the end of it all. After all this trouble that we went through the finished product is well worth it.”
And, Huggett adds, refurbishment of the old bridge may not have been as rosy as some argue.
“Every time you rehabilitate something that’s old, as soon as you open up something that you thought was there you find out it isn’t in the condition you thought it was and all hell lets loose as you try to figure out what to do about it,” he said.
“So this notion that somehow rehabilitating the old bridge was going to be way cheaper and way better is a ridiculous idea, and of course people get away with it because it was never tested out.”
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, who as a councillor voted against the bridge contract, said it’s time to turn the page on how the city got here and instead look to the future. “I don’t know that we need to keep looking back saying: ‘Oh, the bridge was such a terrible project.’ We’ve all said that enough times,” Helps said.
“At a certain point — and I’ve got to turn this psychological page in my own head — I think we need to say: ‘We’ve got this bridge. It was more expensive than it needed to be. The project wasn’t good but [now] we’ve got this 100-year asset. It’s working well and it will provide a connection even after a large earthquake, which we know is coming.’ ”
Helps notes that as a result of the bridge project, the city has adopted new policies for large-scale projects including evaluation by a third party.
Crockford, who has called for the provincial auditor general for local government to conduct a value-for-money audit of the project, hopes other municipal governments will learn from Victoria’s experience so that when they have to replace their moveable bridges “they think twice when consultants present a bunch of unusual designs.”
The rule of thumb, he said, is pretty simple: “If the bridge is unusual, it’s going to take longer and it’s going to cost more.”
As for the new Johnson Street Bridge, “I hope everyone is happy with it,” Crockford said.