Tuesday, November 23, 2010

And now what . . .

For most of the last two years the Johnson St. Bridge has drawn the attention of council and the community while we worked, sometimes awkwardly it seems, to reach the point now where the path forward is clear and new tasks will be undertaken.

A strong endorsement of the city's request for our financing plan puts to rest the debate over saving the old or building something new.  Last Saturday's referendum generated a turnout, high enough by municipal standards, and clear enough with just over 60% support, to signal that our citizens have trusted that the work done to date on the key issues facing the city has pointed us in the right direction.

A new bridge has always been the most practical and sustainable choice.  The cost of restoring, and especially maintaining, the old bridge, have always been unpalatable, and too fraught with uncertainty.  The opportunities provided by building new too important to defer for the decades we might have extracted from the Blue bridge. 

It will be designed to withstand the most serious of earthquakes, an important consideration in Canada's most seismically vulnerable city.  It will incorporate the resilience of newer, more durable, and more sensible mechanics and electronics that will last a century.  Perhaps most significantly, it will democratize transportation for generations to come.  Nowhere in the capital is it more important to retool our infrastructure to better support cycling and walking.  And it will unfold in a manner that protects and supports a vibrant downtown that is the centrepiece of our regional economy.

We have much work to do.  Detailed design and the hands on work that will piece together the new bridge will begin in earnest soon.  We'll be watching every step, as will those excited by the new bridge and those who feel the loss of the old bridge more acutely.  They too, have spoken and we will do well to find ways to celebrate the eventual passing of the old bridge, seek opportunities to repurpose elements of the structure or preserve some of its history in our public art.

There is much else to be done.  Sometimes more quietly it seems, we have made much progress on issues of homelessness and housing.  We are inching forward on the sewage issue.  Building a vision of our future and shoring up the walkable and bike friendly villages across the city is hustling along through our community planning process.  Regional transportation, where we play a central role, is getting a makeover with new options for public transit to emerge in the new year.  There is so much more on the go.

And all the while, the exciting evolution of our new bridge will unfold before our eyes.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Answers and Questions

Without rancor, here are some comments on the Vote No op-ed in today's Times Colonist.

The city has pursued the most cost effective option to deal with the Johnson St. Bridge.  The $30 million quoted in the article is a Class D estimate, which does not include quantity surveys or project details.  Class D estimates are at 30% of design while the more detailed work that goes into a Class C estimate provides typically 70% of design.  Class C is a better estimate of costs since it doesn't just identify what work needs to be done, but details more how it will proceed.  Critics of the new bridge know this and have thus far refused to acknowledget that they understand the difference.

The one year closure necessary for refurbishment is unrelated to the scope of the project, simply a requirement to protect the waterway from the lead-based paint that will have to be blasted off of the old bridge.  This cannot be done in place for this kind of movable bridge that opens and closes several times a day.  Imagine the cost escalation associated with mounting and dismantling scaffolding several times a day on the premise that this could preserve the functionality of the crossing during repairs.

Repair does not save money.  San Francisco's Third St. Bridge was a different project than ours.  It is a single bridge span that required only seismic work on one of two piers.  I spoke to the project manager in San Francisco who said that he told the bridge preservation campaign not to use their bridge for comparison; that every bridge is unique and must be assessed individually.  Why do the critics continue to hide from this advice and misrepersent the facts? 

The LaSalle Causeway Bridge project in Kingston was managed by the same engineers who are developing our project.  It was also funded by the same federal government that has committed $21 million to our bridge project.  The engineers wrote to johnsonstreetbridge.org detailing differences between the two projects.  This is information they don't want you to see.  For their investment, the federal government does due diligence on the projects they fund.  They've accepted our proposal and support a scope of work that critics suggest are superfluous.  "Cutting costs" will end up costing Victoria taxpayers more if we lose that funding.

The old bridge, if preserved, will cost twice as much to maintain, year after year after year.  How is that the affordable option?  A bridge in Saskatoon that got the "cheap fix" for a 20 year life actually only lasted 4 years.  That bridge is now closed.  How do we price that risk?

The scope of repairs spelled out in the Class D estimate that the critics are attached to would compromise the heritage of the bridge by cladding the lattice work in plate steel.  While preserving elements of heritage, it would be a different bridge than the one we know today.

The new bridge is not an experiment.  The design and technology are proven and much more sensible than the current design.  A similar design, at least for some of the mechancics of the new bridge, was the bridge Victoria should have chosen in 1922, according to the engineer who did the peer review.

Frills that critics want to cut include a harbour walkway that will be paid for from the city's capital reserves by shifting funding from other phases of the city's harbour greenway - a project developed with extensive public consultation and endorsed by citizens.  It makes sense to complete this piece in conjunction with the new bridge project, saving money and minimizing disruptions.  Other "frills" that critics now want jettisoned included improvements for cycling, walking and a better level of service for people with mobility challenges.  These are essential to shifting our transportation choices to more sustainable modes and are a must do element of the project.  Without them, funding from the federal government is at risk and the project cannot qualify for gas tax funding endorsed by the CRD.  They also help us meet commitments to action on climate change and a regional growth strategy supported by all municipalities in the capital region.  I do not conside those commitments to be dispensable.

The rail right of way will be preserved and the city is seeking regional funding.  Is it fair to load the cost of that regional piece onto the taxpayers of Victoria alone?  How will a rail link across the bridge serve if the region and the province do not invest in the other upgrades the rest of the line requires?

Seismic upgrading is required to secure federal funding and protect our investment.  The $10 million saving notionally attached to a reduced seismic standard will not be enough to retrofit the Bay St. Bridge where a more comprehensive and expensive project would likely have to be mounted.  Please explain how we save money by doing two bridges, one of which is in satisfactory condition?  Is it ok to spend whatever it takes, as long as the Blue Bridge is saved?

The city's engineering consultants have met with local suppliers to discuss the new bridge and there is local interest and capacity to bid on the project.  If the steel for a new bridge is imported, where does the steel for repair come from?

The city has retired debts that provide the borrowing room necessary to fund the replacement project.  There is a financial plan for our infrastructure.  Over the next 20 years, Victoria will invest $750 million in infrastructure.  Refurbishment is risky and costly and we would have to borrow, likely more, to fund that project, especially if we lose funding from the federal government or don't qualify for gas tax funding.

The city has continued to maintain the bridge to the extent possible.  Repairs or replacement of obsolete electrical and mechanical features are not feasible without disassembling the bridge and the focus of city engineers was to first complete a condition assessment, provide advice to council and move forward on a clear decision.  The peer review confirmed that the existing bridege was not built to be maintained, partly because material design at the time of its construction was predictably not as well advanced as that available today.  The seismic vulnerability of the bridge has no relationship whatsoever to maintenance of the bridge.

Council's decision followed a condition assessment that identified the poor shape of the bridge, the challenge of refurbishment, the costs associated with both options before us and the need to act with some urgency to protect the city against the consequences of possible closure.  For our taxpayers, it would have been irresponsible of council to ignore the availability of funding partnerships to help support any project.  The additional public engagement that has taken place over the last several months has confirmed that, given complete information, our citizens prefer replacement.

The city's advisory committee provides technical advice to staff and would be poorly served by turning it into an arena for a political debate.  Process cannot instruct the city to be negligent and does not change the condition of the bridge.

The critic's choice for minimizing closures continues to be a non-starter, information that has been provided both to the public and their organization.  Night work would be intolerably disruptive to downtown neighbourhoods and residential and hotel developments in Vic West.  The city could face liability costs, especially if that plan affected businesses.  How is that cost effective?  Night work also entails a significant cost premium to address overtime or shift work, as well as the safety of working in the dark.  Early estimates pegged that cost at more than $5 million.  How is that more affordable?

The op-ed again proposes that cycling and pedestrian facilities can be improved in a cheaper, reduced scope project.  Most cyclists who actually use the bridge understand what is proposed and will be voting for a new bridge.  Myself, I've been working with the city for more than a decade on developing improvements that have provided some help to cyclists, but we have reached the service limits the old bridge can provide.  Show me what successful cycling or walking projects you have supported, advanced, developed or designed in the Capital Region, if any.  I can show you a few that I've been involved in and, with all due respect, I've seen your plans, and they don't work.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An apology to Ross Crockford

You'll find an apology on my facebook page and some of my recent posts edited.  Ross Crockford, who I targeted in some of my comments, suggested it was unbecoming of an elected official, if not more, and I agree.  So I've removed references to accusations of fraud, which is over the top.  The posts remain, I believe, fair comment.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Just so you know

Bridge critic Ross Crockford wrote in a recent Monday Magazine article that the Johnson St. Bridge survived an earthquake that hit Victoria in 1946.  That quake's epicentre was at Forbidden Plateau, more than 200 km away.  Research from the 1989 California quake found that the extent of damage recorded reached only 100 km from the epicenter.  More at:  http://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/pp1551/

The "No" campaign is lately concerned about the suspected export of jobs that a new bridge might entail if contracts were let to off-shore firms.  By the way, local suppliers and fabricators have been contacted by the city's engineering consultants already to see if we have local capacity.  Some firms have expressed interest.

No word yet from the critics on the job impacts of the year long bridge closure estimated for a refurbishment project that calculates a $13 million dollar impact on downtown businesses.  The Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce thinks that figure might be too low.  See their news release at:  http://www.victoriachamber.ca/news_releases?id=251

Lately saw the "NO" poster that claims to be concerned about "maxing out the city's credit card".  We're about $300 million short of what we could borrow (not that we would at the moment), but how about a little concern about the real costs of keeping the old bridge?  Maintenance after any refurbishment would be twice the cost of the work we'd need to do on a new bridge.  That's about $20 million over the lifespan of the bridge, maybe something less if you don't plan on keeping it for too long.

Kind of inconsistent, though, to talk endlessly about how long these old bridges can be kept in operation forever while calling it unfair to cost out anything that will last more than 30 years.

Just aksing.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

More bridge fairy tales

Last night I took part in a debate about the Blue Bridge, where suspicions were levelled at the city's engineers and our consultations, and confident projections of a fixed price refurbishment contract that has nothing to do with the practical estimates and the complexity of the project.

Those of us who have worked hard on the evolution of our transportation system to better support cycling and walking know that many of the "fixes" proposed by critics will not work.  The relationship between infrastructure and growth in participation is well documented, (and you'll find some material over at my Capital Bike and Walk site - http://capitalbikeandwalk.org/)

The critics appealed a few weeks ago to the CRD to delay consideration of Victoria's request for support of an application for gas tax funds available to local governments to assist in the construction of infrastructure projects that help to shift transportation choices to sustainable modes.  An appeal was made to consider also a refurbishment project, but one that essentially makes no provision for cyclists or pedestrians - they've found, as both myself and our engineering department have been saying, that the improvements they had proposed for cyclists have proven to be unworkable).

What is lacking on the bridge is space and separation from traffic.  Pretty signage and a non-slip surface just won't make any difference.  The funding application for the regional facility, by the way, is a continuation of the Galloping Goose and the in-progress E&N rail trail.  The new bridge provides an expanded shared use pathway more than double the width of the tight quarters that cyclists and pedestrians struggle to share on the rail bridge and generous on-road bike lanes on the road portion of the bridge for commuter cyclists. 

Those on road improvements, it should be noted, are not part of the funding application.  The regional commitment and the only eligible project element is the trail piece.  No trail = no money.  Trail improvements under the refurbishment plan stop at the bridge.  We continue to hear that our plans for the bridge are poorly thought out, but the critics campaigned for a "two lane trial" long before they asked any engineers whether it would work or not.

Here's what you get with a refurbished bridge:  30 more years of this:

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The numbers game and the Blue Bridge

Asked about numbers of cyclists on the bridge I responded that I "guessed" an average based on regional counts reported to council on fact sheets prepared by our engineers and communications department.  Turns out someone reversed pedestrians and cyclists on one sheet and, because the inquiring journalist was working to a tight deadline, I didn't have time to chase the source of the error.

It's been blown into a bigger isse than it needs to be, so here's some thoughts on what's really happening on the bridge.

First, it's been noted elsewhere often enough that the bridge needs replacement for a number of reasons, including seismic vulnerability, deterioration of the superstructure and its electrical and mechanical systems, a costly and unproductive repair bill and an unacceptable economic penalty for a project of uncertain benefits. 

A new bridge addresses all of those issues, but offers as well attractive opportunities to improve traffic safety, and provide much higher levels of service for cyclists, pedestrians and those with mobility challenges.  One of the more exciting elements of that service will be an important new link in the city's planned harbour greenway - a piece of the trail that threads through the new bridge and connect to a path that will eventually run from Rock Bay to Ogden point.  It delivers some benefits in more rational land use on both sides of the bridge, and how we take advantage of that opportunity will be the subject of a conversation we need to have with the community as we move forward.

The dust up on numbers has been about how many cyclists are on the bridge every day, and how many there might be in the future.

Transportation systems are designed to carry maximum capacity at peak hours, so while averages and daily counts are useful indicators of volumes, a bridge, a road, a bus, a ferry system of a bike path really need to be ready for high tide.  On a good day there are 4,000 bike trips back and forth across the bridge, demonstrating the determination of people to get to and from the Galloping Goose by bike despite convoluted routing, an uncomfortable ride on the road or an all to narrow and congested sliver of the rail bridge.

That's probably one of the more important numbers to remember in assessing how well the current bridge performs for cyclists in particular.  An incomplete count, off peak hours, in the middle of winter, is not a good metric by which to judge how many cyclists are using the bridge.

The next important numbers will be what the bridge will need to carry.  Cycling and pedestrian traffic has been growing steadily on the bridge over the last several years.  Completion of key sections of the Galloping Goose along Harbour Rd and the arrival of new developments in Vic West are contributing to that growth.  The bridge itself, however, remains a barrier.  Cyclists and pedestrians need more space that will be provided on the trail piece of a new bridge, and on road bike lanes will support numbers more commuter cyclists.

Elsewhere in the region and across North America, the addition of supportive infrastructure has been shown to dramtically increase cycling on improved corridors and facilities.  There is no reason to doubt that completion of a more friendly crossing at the Blue Bridge will do the same here.  The current bridge is not, and cannot, be equipped to absorb that growth.  It will be increasingly less safe and more frustrating for all users.

Critics who insist that better approaches or even just better signage will do the trick simply have no concept of how cycling facilities work and how infrastucture connects to participation.  What's further missing from their understanding of that relationship is the absence of any acknowledgement of the new growth that will be generated by the new trail under construction alongside the E&N railway.  Thousands of new trips are likely to pressure the carrying capacity of the bridge, not to mention the Goose, which already is experiencing user conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians during peak hours.

So while for some, an instance where one set of numbers got turned around is a fatal flaw that must sink the new bridge, it really is just clutching at straws to find something that supports a simple agenda - save the bridge at any cost.  That's a legitimate objective to articulate, but wrapping it up in misleading, if not fraudulent, attacks on the project does a disservice to those who have a genuine sentimental attachment to "Big Blue".  More importantly, it's a myopic view of a complicated and comprehensive project that is informed by so many other factors that, taken as a whole point clearly to the new bridge as our best option.

Our borrowing referendum needs to pass, and with that we can turn not just to building a new bridge, but perhaps too, to how we can celebrate or preserve something of the old one.  It's time for a new landmark and a new era in transportation in Victoria.

The E&N trail is coming:

Can it handle the traffic?