Editorial: Bridge project needs watching

Planning and building the city of Victoria’s most expensive piece of infrastructure — the new Johnson Street Bridge — is a complex undertaking that should be guided by a firm hand and a clear vision. That doesn’t seem to have been the case.

A consultant’s report released by the city last week says the project has been plagued by lack of leadership, communication breakdowns and complexity of design.

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Let’s hope the city takes its consultant’s report to heart and gets the project onto the right track.

In January 2013, the city signed a contract in which PCL Constructors Westcoast Inc. agreed to build the bridge for $63.2 million. Design, management, legal and other costs are projected to bring the total cost to $92.8 million.

When the contract was awarded, the design of the bridge was 60 per cent complete. Mayor Dean Fortin has always emphasized the “fixed price” aspect of the contract, and has insisted the cost of the bridge will not escalate and the project will be completed on time.

In March, the contractor submitted a change order for another $7.9 million and five-and-a-half months more time to complete the project. Such orders are standard procedure when the builder encounters such things as design errors or changes, unforeseen conditions on the site or incomplete details about the scope of the project.

At city staff’s request, MMM Group, the consulting firm responsible for the bridge’s design and which is overseeing the project on the city’s behalf, reviewed PCL’s change order and recommended rejecting the request. PCL said it was requesting the change order because of delays in design delivery and changes in the scope of the project.

Meanwhile, city manager Jason Johnson hired engineering consultant Jonathan Huggett to take a detailed look at the project. Huggett’s report is not comforting. The situation he describes conjures images of a multi-headed beast that can’t agree on which direction it should go.

“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 says in his report.

“After one year, there is still no detailed [project] schedule; disputes between PCL and MMM are common, involving such issues as design reviews and the like; the development of the detailed design of the bridge has taken considerably longer than projected.

“It is clear to me that the intended collaborative nature of this project has not materialized. Problems are not being dealt with on an expeditious basis, communications are poor, risks are not being identified and proactively dealt with, and there needs to be a fundamental change in the attitude of the project team.”

Fortin’s fixed-price fixation notwithstanding, Huggett has doubts that the project can be completed at the contract price.

“The project has turned out to be far more complex than originally anticipated, and this has resulted in changes to schedule, scope and risk,” his report says.

The city and Ken Jarvela, bridge project manager since September 2012, have parted company, and Huggett has been appointed interim manager of the project.

Huggett’s report contains troubling observations about the deficiencies in the way the project has been managed, but his call for fundamental change in the process is timely — better to deal with serious problems now than catastrophic problems later.

Rather than choosing an off-the-shelf bridge design, the city chose to go with a unique design that would become a Victoria landmark. But the city leadership must keep a closer watch on the process to ensure the bridge doesn’t become a monument to bureaucratic folly.

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