Ross Crockford: What bridge are we getting, and at what cost?

New Johnson Street span may be redesigned, for an uncertain price

Victorians can be forgiven for wondering what's going on with the Johnson Street Bridge. It has been nearly two years since the November 2010 referendum, and the only visible work has been to relocate a telecom duct and cut up the old bridge's rail span. The City of Victoria is negotiating with companies to build a new bridge, but it has extended the bid deadline three times, most recently to Oct. 30.

Residents need to be concerned, because the city looks increasingly desperate to get a deal. Last month, it quietly issued a revised request for proposals to the three companies bidding on the project - and the new document increases risks to taxpayers, and may produce a bridge different from the one shown in pre-referendum advertising.

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In the original request for proposals, the companies had to submit a fixed price to build the bridge. Now they may submit a "not to exceed" price, which the city can try to negotiate down to a fixed price later on.

In the original RFP, the companies could only propose "optimizations" to the bridge architecture. Now they can assume "technical design responsibility for the complete project," and let their own engineers design the bridge.

These changes suggest the companies aren't willing to commit to a fixed price because they don't want to assume all the risk of building a one-of-a-kind bridge with an incomplete design. This sounds like the Fast Cat ferries all over again, or the Vancouver Convention Centre, which doubled in cost because construction started before the design was finished.

These changes raise other problems, too.

First, it's unclear how much the design can be modified before it violates the city's referendum bylaw, which authorized council to build a bridge "generally in accordance with the general plans on file at Victoria City Hall." What was in those plans?

Also, the bidding process is now likely to produce three different bridges, in function and appearance. But the decision about which one to pursue will be made by an evaluation committee of three city engineers and a consultant - not by councillors or the public.

The evaluation committee will then present its preferred bid to councillors, who only get to say Yes or No to it, with few details about bids No. 2 and No. 3. The mayor has admitted he has no "Plan B" if councillors vote No, so they will be under pressure to say Yes - turning our elected officials into a rubber stamp to approve a staff decision.

The public will be told nothing. The bids and designs will not be released. Council will get the evaluation committee's decision in a closed meeting, and will vote on it in another closed meeting.

In short, we're likely to get a different bridge, without a fixed price, and the entire deal will be negotiated behind closed doors.

This is tragic for many reasons, and one is that we would have saved time and money if we'd just let the companies design the bridge in the first place, instead of persisting with an architectural experiment.

One of the companies built a five-lane drawbridge in Miami in 2010 for $45 million. (Add $10 million for "lifeline" seismic capacity, and it would still be cheaper than the $66 million we're budgeting here.) Another built a six-lane drawbridge with bike lanes in Miami in 2009 for $64 million.

Those are conventional double-leaf drawbridges that open in the middle.

Victoria decided to build a single-leaf bridge, requiring a huge counterweight and pier building, mainly because that design is best for carrying railway traffic - which was later removed from the plans. That's another tragedy.

Some will say we've gone too far to change course now. But if we're headed in the wrong direction, relentlessly pushing forward isn't a good idea.

Ross Crockford is a director of johnsonstreetbridge.org

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