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Downtown and the Johnson St. Bridge

The bridge debate, as much so, if not more, for residents of downtown Victoria, has occupied the public agenda off and on since or last council decided to replace rather than refurbish what is the third bridge across the harbour between downtown and Vic West.

The icon of the old Blue Bridge, and I grew up with it being black, is a sentimental treasure of our a more industrial era when downtown was a different mix of a working harbour and ironically, a more densely populated centre. Losing it seemed unthinkable and every imaginable alternative to save the old bridge was trotted out for both council and citizens to consider.

It’s a unique structure with a heritage pedigree, designed by the same architect, Joseph Straus, who went on to build San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Still, there are numbers of other similar Strauss bascule bridges to be found around North America, and many more heritage structures of the same era. Ours, perhaps more so than most others though, is singularly unique because of the double span that also carried rail, but unfortunately, due to its equally unique location, had reached a critical decision point when choices were put before council.

The Johnson St. Bridge is not so different than others along the coast perched atop a major continental fault and vulnerable to seismic damage or complete collapse. Victoria is Canada’s most vulnerable city and the design of the bridge made it a poor choice of design in the first place. No fault of the city or its citizens, but nearly 90 years ago, when the bridge was built nobody really understood the deficiencies of design the bridge presented and it seemed like a good choice at the time.

What’s been more problematic for Victoria is the ravages of its location low to the tide line in a harsh, salt water environment. Corrosion is eating away at the superstructure from the inside out. Pack rust between riveted plates more so than that we see on the surface, has compromised the bridge to a point beyond repair. At the end of the day, the city had to balance a commitment to our unique heritage against our role as owners and managers of a diverse and integrated transportation system. As a central link in that network, we couldn’t afford to be museum curators alone, but had to look towards a long future and ensure the city works, both efficiently, safely and with a view towards creating more sustainable models for transportation.

For downtown businesses as well as downtown residents, the concept of refurbishing the bridge would have created enormous problems. Less so for those who live further away or for whom many of their trip destinations may not include crossing the bridge or coming downtown. The only conceivable strategy would have been to dismantle the bridge and close the crossing for a year or two. For downtown business that risked an estimated $13 million annually in economic losses. For every other taxpayer in a city where business carries half the load, failing businesses would put upward pressures on everyone else’s tax bill.

Engineer after engineer kept telling the city that the best strategy was to replace, and these were those directly familiar with our bridge, not just visitors bringing stories about their own experiences with different bridges somewhere else. As it turns out, the latest phase in the project – dismantling the rail span – is proving that saving the old bridge was never going to be feasible in any event. The steel is too soft and too fragile for any kind of restoration. Better to start with a new structure and modern alloys to give us a more durable bridge.

What’s emerging lately are new issues around costs and designs, and these should be of real concern to downtown residents.

The media has been quick to share the figures on new costs associated with the project, but no so effective at analyzing how the numbers add up. The extra bills are real enough, though federal partnership funding is still covering them all, but the real story here is that very little of the cost escalations are due to inflation or a lack of discipline in project management.

Some are just accounting changes – adding in costs accumulated in the run-up to the referendum and never identified as budget items when the project was being developed. It’s probably good accounting to add them in, but they can’t really be characterized as overruns.

Likewise, one of the most significant new costs has been spent already, though there should be no surprises on that one. From day one Telus told the city’s engineers to leave their secure data lines alone and the city budgeted accordingly. Subsequent risk analysis and a determination by the project engineers to find a workable solution finally convinced Telus to relent and agree to moving the duct up the harbour to protect it from the bridge construction project. It adds more than $4 million to the cost of the bridge but council knew that when the recommendation to proceed was brought to the table and the decision was made in public. Nothing to hide here and ironically, though a current capital cost, it potentially protects Victoria taxpayers from a much higher bill and more delays and complications had the project proceeded and somebody stuck a backhoe or some other piece of heavy equipment into the line.

Some of the other new costs in the project charter are likewise sensible enough, though critics on council and in the community are pressing the panic button. A good read through the city’s engineering reports should will show what the money is being spent on and for most, it should provide a level of comfort that nothing is being done that shouldn’t be, and that the project team has a good handle on costs, even though the new bridge itself is far from complete. No changes to the budget, in any event, especially those associated with scope changes, can move forward without council approval and anything that doesn’t involve a trade secret or proprietary information involving contractors bidding on the work has to come to them in public in any event.

A new fiction emerging focuses on the dubious cost savings to be achieved by ditching the current design and going back to a simpler, more mundane structure that might provide the function but none of the presentation embraced in the bridge put before the public in a referendum. Going back to the drawing board threatens schedules, partnership funding and can’t recover sunk costs for the new bridge. There aren’t really any significant savings in any event. For the new bridge, form follows function and the architectural expression, while adding some to the bill, really has very little impact on the overall budget. The biggest cost drivers are actually the extra width and capacity necessary to improve levels of service for cyclists and pedestrians, constituencies critics are paying lip service to, but nevertheless threaten in pursuit of demonstrations of frugality. Losing any of the amenities for cycling and walking is one of the bigger threats to the project budget since, at the very least, all of the gas tax funding ($16.5 million) coming into the city via the project, hinges on those improvements – without those elements, the money goes away and more of the bridge costs get dumped onto local taxpayers.

Perhaps more problematic for downtown business and downtown residents in particular would be the replacement of an icon with a catalogue bridge that would condemn a most prominent site in the city to a hundred years of mediocrity. Victorians are proud of the architecture of the city and our unique identify and the new bridge, as much as the old, is likely to be a key feature of our built environment. Building something that might fit better at Spencer Road or some other suburban location sure won’t add much for our important tourism market, and judging by the passion with which downtown residents, among others, defend the old and weigh in on the new, the architectural design of our downtown is important to them. The blank walls of Uptown or a new big box store wouldn’t fit the character of downtown, and neither will a cookie cutter bridge.

The city will come and present to the DRA and to others in the community, always engaged in the discussion about what works and what doesn’t and how various elements of architectural and system designs are moving forward and fit into a rational plan. Lots of questions have to be asked and answers sought but we need to keep our eye on the future. We’re building a new, more resilient and sustainable crossing that we need to celebrate, not another piece of drab, junk architecture that we’ll want to turn away from.

– by John Luton 

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