Provincial audit of Johnson Street Bridge project won't go ahead

A provincial audit of the $105-million Johnson Street Bridge replacement project will not be completed before the auditor general for municipalities closes permanently in 2021.

The Office of the Auditor General for Local Government said in February it would review the project at the city’s request, but on Friday, the office issued a statement saying the audit had been affected by the pandemic and would not be done before the office closes around March 2021.

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Mike Furey, acting auditor general for local government, said the audit was initially on track to be finished before the office closure, but pandemic-related travel restrictions delayed the work. The normal procedure for an audit involves being physically in the office that’s under investigation, he said.

Some documents can be examined if they’re in electronic format, but Furey said not all the necessary documents would have been available electronically.

“It was a combination of, as I mentioned, the public health restrictions on travel, and the other health directives that we obviously follow quite carefully, and the timing of our office closing down,” Furey said. “I made the decision not to go forward because of those reasons.”

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps’s call for an audit in 2018 was supported unanimously by councillors after the project finished three years late and over budget.

The bridge was initially scheduled to open on Sept. 30, 2015, but was not completed until March 31, 2018. Victoria council at the time voted to replace the bridge instead of refurbishing the existing bridge, based on early estimates of $35 million for replacement, compared to about $30 million for a refurbished bridge that wouldn’t last as long. The cost for replacement rose quickly, however, to top $105 million.

Helps, who voted against the bridge-replacement project as a councillor, hoped an audit would provide lessons to the city for undertaking large and complex projects in the future. Although she would have liked the audit to go through, Helps said she doesn’t fault the auditor general for cancelling it as the office prepares to close.

“It’s the COVID reality, and it makes good sense to me,” she said.

Helps said the city has applied lessons learned from the Johnson Street Bridge project as it moves ahead on other capital projects, including a new $40-million fire hall downtown with 130 units of affordable housing slated to open in 2022.

“I think a lot of the challenges from the bridge have been addressed with our future capital projects. There hasn’t been anything that has come up over-budget since then. All the bike-lane projects are on time and under budget, and the fire hall is going well, so I think we learned our lesson,” Helps said.

Ross Crockford, founding director of the watchdog group johnsonstreetbridge.org, said he was disappointed that the audit won’t be completed.

“There are a bunch of outstanding questions with the project that I was hoping an audit could get to the bottom of,” he said.

Crockford still wants to know why the city decided to build an architecturally unique bridge, whether engineers involved were qualified to design the bridge and why engineers recommended an unusual design if it was likely to lead to increased costs and construction time.

He also wonders if the city made poor decisions in the rush to access stimulus money from other levels of government.

“The whole idea with the audit is other municipalities could learn from it. I was hoping there would be lessons for the provincial government, too,” he said. “Maybe it’s not appropriate for a relatively small municipality to undertake a massive engineering project.”

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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