Thursday, June 24, 2010

Victoria does more affordable housing

Earlier this month we added to our portfolio of housing projects by investing $600,000 into two projects, partnering  with the Greater Victoria Housing Society to create 52 new units of affordable rental accommodation in the heart of the city.  It's another step forward in our ongoing efforts to increase and diversify housing options in Victoria.

Find out more about the city's housing sustainability program by clicking on the title.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Connecting with municipal leaders across Canada

Last month I joined municipal leaders from across Canada to shape policy and share ideas at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference in Toronto.  Some of the research I did shows up in other blogs.  The Cherry St. Bridge visit story has real local relevance.

 I also spent time exploring an emerging pedestrian commercial destination at the Distillery District, a development model that may have some exciting lessons for Victoria.  Toronto's street vendor culture isn't as exciting as what I've seen in Portland and Mexico City (grilled grasshoppers anyone?), but like Victoria and Vancouver, they too are trying on different models to liven up their streetlife and create new opportunities for small entrepreneurs.

Photos of my quick observations of a "scramble" signal where traffic is stopped in all directions to allow pedestrians to criss-cross a busy intersection will soon be posted at my flickr galleries of active transportation studies alongside the other nuggets from my collections.

The key message by local leaders from cities big and small was on partnerships and the challenge of addressing the municipal infrastructure deficit that we are all facing. 

It's a pretty current issue in Victoria where the costs of any one of the Blue Bridge project options under consideration are considerable and the complete package serves more than just Victoria's citizens who are footing most of the bill.  The federal government is poised to make the biggest investment in Victoria in our history but we have to choose the right project - seismic work included.  But where's the province and where's the region on the regional trail or railway elements that serve much more Greater Victoria and much of Vancouver Island?

Good questions.  Click on the title to catch up on the issues that got attention at FCM.  Mine joins a short list of blogs that FCM member politicians are writing across the country.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Bridge Update

Council had a detailed presentation on the Johnson Street Bridge options on Monday, technical and cost analysis for replacement in current dollars and the more detailed work demanded by the public for refurbishment of the old bridge.  Several hours later those working to save the old bridge began trotting out some of the same misinformation and more bizarre schemes for their preffered  project.

A new bridge makes so much more sense both technically and financially, but more discussions with Victoria residents will shape what decisions council makes in August that we will take to referendum in the fall.

I posted some detailed discuss on at "Vincent's Victoria", a blog written by local resident Vincent Gornall.  It's a thoughtful and balanced site and Vincent covers a lot of key issues in the city.  I'm happy to chip in when the subject draws my attention and I have the time to put some thoughts together.  It's well worth a visit.

Following the presentations at Council, Vincent wrote a very short post suggesting that "it looks like we will get a new bridge", a rational if somewhat premature conclusion.  As much as I would like to make that choice now, I don't think the critics will go away quietly and the right decision is anything but a sure thing.

Here's my rather longer response on Vincent's blog, covering many of the technical and costing issues emerging in the media.  For complete information, the link to this post takes you to the city's site where you will find the many presentations on technical, costing and economic issues presented to council.

New bridge? I don't think it is yet a done deal. Technical and costing reports pretty clearly point to the advantages of a new bridge, but there are still those who would derail any effort to move in that direction.

The city has done what the counter petition process asked for - a detailed analysis and costing of a refurbishment project to compare with the new bridge option. The city and a technical advisory committee (do you want good advice or political advice?) made sure that both options were designed and costed to compare apples with apples so Victorians can weigh in on the choices before us.

A full picture has been presented by our engineers and multiple teams of consultants - professional engineers with both the experience and expertise, and whose reputation for providing sound and unbiased advice is on the line (and the code of ethics governing engineers require that they provide only objective and unbiased information and recommendations).
Both the new bridge and refurbishment options will cost multiples of the figures estimated in the original condition assessment commissioned in 2007. One critic likes to use one number only from that report - the $23 to $25 million estimated for a very basic refurbishment, but conveniently ignores most of the other numbers and recommendations presented by the Delcan team.
The same report said a new bridge would cost around $35 million, which, like the orginal refurbishment assessments, provided a solid foundation for further work but, like any complex engineering project, subject to detailed costing and the budgetary shifts associated with changes in scope for both options.
There will be a campaign to save the old bridge - and that's the only agenda, and however stubborn the facts, expect an effort to question the credibility of both the engineers and council, and new roadblocks thrown in the way of making a timely and responsible decision.
That latest effort, conveniently revolving around accommodations for cyclists and pedestrians, (the top two issues for citizens who will own and use the bridge in the future).
The "newly" proposed 2 to 1 lane road diet won't work. My analysis can be found at my blog and on my website. I keep asking the engineers if the analysis is sound and have always been supported in their responses.
It's just another stall.
Costs have about tripled for a new bridge, and are about 4 times for the refurbishment option. That's easily enough understood - some big ticket items have been added to the scope of that project to meet some practical objectives.
A new bridge to connect the Galloping Goose and the E&N trail (in progress) is the only practical and effective way to provide what cyclists and pedestrians will need. The old bridge can't accommodate the weight and doesn't have the space to provide what was designed into the new bridge at the Class "C" stage of development last year. For that project the cost was estimated at $63 million. Road approaches work added about $11 million to the package on that one too, then a more limited scope change than those elements now woven into a refurbishment concept.
Complete replacement of the electrical and mechancial systems have been added to refurbishment estimates to extend the potential life of the old bridge to another 100 years, again making it comparable to the advantages of a new bridge, but, just as predictably, adding some cost escalation to the project.

Comparable levels of seismic protection and some detailing meant to preserve the heritage features of the bridge are also costly elements never anticipated in the original refurbishment works envisioned in the condition assessment.
The suspicions cast around costs and the rate of inflation are a bit simplistic, if not disingenous. Apart from the many scope variables, the assurances that, when council first chose a new bridge, costs were at historic lows have proven prescient. The delays mean painful if predictable increases in material prices and other costs. The Financial Times reports that steel prices are set to jump by a third in 2010 alone and elsewhere in the construction industry media, analysts are observing some significant upward pressure on concrete prices as well.
The things you and I buy follow the rate of inflation, but large scale municipal infrastructure projects have their own set of financial dynamics and our input costs are quite different from your grocery bill.
Watch for the bridge campaign to push for a couple of "cheap" fixes. Cut out the rail, drop the bike bridge and leave the seismic work out of the project are emerging as the latest do nothing strategies. Paint the house while the foundation is crumbling and save the bridge for cars and trucks for another 50 or 100 years. Now that's sustainable!!??

How and with what we move forward with will still be debated around Victoria. Those that are losing the techical arguments will fall back again on process, but this really still is about the bridge.
What we need is a new one, something that echoes the old and fits into our cityscape, but something too that is purpose built to meet the transportation needs of the future, not the past. The safest and most durable investment and the best value for money has always been the new bridge.
The old bridge is not just a steadily deteriorating liability as is, but perhaps most surprisingly, not a very sound or effective design for the purposes for which it was built.
The bridge engineer who did the peer review (and who has experience in heritage work, bridge design and decades of direct experience with the Blue Bridge), said as much during his presentation. He concluded that, even with a reasonable and prudent project proposed for the refurbishment, he could not be certain that it would work as intended.
The best we can do might still uncover suprises (and costly ones), because there are structural elements that have not been examined or maintained since the bridge was built. Those same features might preclude any effective maintenance or protection against the pack rust steadily eroding the superstructure -rusting out beams and stressing rivets.
How ironic that many of the "charms" of the old structure are hastening its demise. Rust never sleeps.

By August we'll have a decision and November's events will include a by-election and referendum on the choices we make. It's not an easy task but I hope people can see more clearly what must be done. I'm working to help get us there.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A virtual tour of Toronto's Cherry St. Bridge

Toronto's Cherry St. Bridge has been touted as an example of a cheap and effective refurbishment project that could inform our analysis of Victoria's Johnson St. Bridge.  It's a few years younger than ours but was designed by the same engineer and, though a little more graceful in design (note the more sculpted counterweights), is very similar to our bridge.

A 2007 refurbishment project, costing some $2.7 million shows up at as an example of a cheap and effective model of what we should consider here in Victoria.  Cherry St. is not in a particularly vulnerable seismic zone - an earthquake is a much bigger threat on the west coast so no doubt none of the work done had to address those issues, but looking at the bridge now, one has to wonder what the money was spent on.

I was in Toronto to attend the Federation of Canadian Municipalities a couple of weeks ago, a conference, where local government leaders have a chance to meet to share strategies and develop policy to help municipalities speak with a single voice on issues of national concern.  The need for ongoing senior government help to repair or replace aging infrastructure was, coincidentally, a major theme running through the conference, as was the need to build more sustainable communities to meet the challenge of climate change.

I made sure I took some extra time to visit the bridge - a long walk from downtown but well worth the exploration (and I'll share some thoughts on outdoor and central food markets, street vendor carts and pedestrian neighbourhoods, as well as transit models I checked out, but I'll do that in another blog.

In the meantime, check out a few of my photos from the Cherry St. Bridge.  I wouldn't use it as a model refurbishment project.  The sculpted counterweights look like they are in good shape and maybe that's where the money was spent.  Everywhere else the bridge is covered in rust and showing serious deterioration.  Concrete sidewalks are crumbling and railings tilting over.  Can't say that a bridge signed "use at your own risk" inspires a great deal of confidence in its structural integrity.

It's pretty clearly not as critical a link in Toronto's more extensive transportation network but it does carry some traffic, notably cyclists heading for the waterfront east of downtown and routes towards "the Beaches" in the east end.  A nice ride with little traffic but like our bridge, not ideally set up for cycling.  Given the neighbourhood though, pedestrian traffic is probably pretty light and cyclists have the sidewalks mostly to themselves.

Toronto's councillor for the ward that includes the bridge also thought their bridge, given its age and condition, wasn't likely to be there much longer.