Monday, March 19, 2012

Bloggin the bridge, again

Victoria’s Johnson St. Bridge project unfolds as it should.   I’ve been batting the issue around on Facebook too, throwing some pictures up on my flickr page – adding to my Johnson St. Bridge set, where images and more information on the project and the issues, at least  from my perspective are illustrated, some with more extensive text discussion as the mood hits me.  (

Today’s blog follows some more back and forth on Facebook, so it’s a little disjointed, focusing, as it does, on some specific issues and questions being raised.

The most current issue has been the cost “escalation” – the project’s $77 million budget is now nearly $93 million and concerns are being expressed on further cost increases.  For now, I’ll deal mostly with the current new costs, and most are genuinely new costs associated with scope changes rather than what is being characterized as a lack of fiscal responsibility or financial control.

Council had options on most of the new costs.  We could have said no to the recommendations at the time and press ahead with construction without moving the Telus duct (a secure communications conduit connecting across the harbour).  That would have saved over $4 million today, but would have dramatically increased the risk of the city project damaging the utilities and being liable for legal costs on top of repairs and associated delays.  The recommendations were presented to council in public, and the choice was made to pay that cost rather than expose taxpayers to the elevated risk.  Was that the right choice?  Incidentally, from the outset, Telus told the city that the project construction could not touch the line, so why then would anyone put it in a budget?  They acquiesced only after consulting engineers designed a feasible solution to move the duct and protect the connection. 

After the referendum Point Hope Shipyards came to the city proposing to build a new graving dock, giving them the option of bringing in larger vessels for repairs (shipbuilding might also be possible).  The project will create about 225 direct, sustainable jobs and provides the shipyard with a solid foundation for their business model that takes them through a 50 or 60 year time horizon.  New federal shipbuilding contracts were also announced well after the city’s referendum, and Point Hope works with the winning shipyards and will most likely secure numbers of subcontracts in the building phase for new vessels, and almost certainly for their long-term maintenance.  Improvements to fenders to protect the piers for the bridge or vice versa, to protect passing vessels, are a new cost, but again were spelled out in the most recent report and recommendations to the city and could have been deleted from the budget.  Would that have been the right choice?

Between the time of the initial decisions surrounding the bridge project and that most recent budget decision, industry standards for large projects changed, and more comprehensive insurance packages have become the norm.  Council could have chosen to delete that cost too, in public, from the budget, and save another million or so.  The insurance scheme allows the project to proceed without exposure to potential costly interruptions or schedule delays.  Was it a good idea to buy the extra insurance, or would we rather stick to the original package to save current dollars and stick rigidly to the original budget?

Critics continue repeating this fiction that there are these huge cost overruns being forced onto the backs of taxpayers.  That is incorrect.  Most of these additional costs, as described above, are associated with changes in scope, which are quite different.  All of them were on the table before council, in public and any one of them could have been challenged individually.  Contingencies are in place for escalations, but if new scope changes are proposed, then those would be put before council, in public, and they would have a choice to say no, item by item.  Nobody’s hand is being forced one way or another.

Many of the non-discretionary cost increases (sunk costs, material costs, tax change impacts etc.) would apply to any project, new bridge of whatever design, or fixes to the old bridge (not feasible in any event).  That too has been providing an unending source of material for cost fictions – the notion that one figure in an email or estimated in the original condition assessment were carved in stone and that everything else is evidence of ballooning costs.  That too is not supported by the facts and the logical fallacies are easily transparent.

No doubt the stories will be told that the old bridge could have been saved, that the architecture is a major cost driver that needs to be discarded, but those too are not supported by the facts.  The most reliable sources for that information will be found in the staff report, or in asking questions of qualified, credentialed engineers, not by reading Focus magazine, or from the incomplete or sometimes misleading information provided by the Blue Bridge preservation campaign.

One of the other postings asked where I get all this stuff.  I’m pleased to see someone at least reading through admittedly long postings.  The bridge replacement is a complex project and most of the media doesn’t have the space to cover all the issues.  The numbers get reported without much context and the letters starting coming in response and incomplete information turns into something more misleading.  Finding the nuggets of truth require a little more homework or a little more reading.

As to my sources, I did my homework on the bridge while on council; kept my personal files on the issues and yet still, haven’t yet dug into a lot of them to tell the more complete story.

 I didn’t ask Focus for their advice; I talked to the engineers, including the project manager in San Francisco for the bridges that the preservation campaign pointed to as a model of successful rehabilitation projects.  The discussions were quite helpful and pointed to a selective use of information and advice by the preservation campaign who chose to ignore the advice they were given. 

I visited the Cherry St. Bridge in Toronto, when I was there for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities on behalf of the city, a trip characterized by critics as a junket.  The Cherry St. Bridge is also a Strauss bascule design, and it underwent $3 million in repairs a number of years ago.  The preservation campaign used that as another example of a cheap fix.  While at FCM I spoke to the councillor for the area who told me she thought that their bridge would likewise be replaced in the not too distant future. 

I’ve got numbers of pictures of Cherry St. on my flickr pages, and I think the information I brought back helped to stop critics from using it as an example to be relied upon (despite the investment, it’s probably in worse shape than ours).  If my research on the ground there helped to steer discussions here in a more sensible direction, I think the net benefits far exceed the costs of the trip.  I think the criticisms of councillors who travel to conferences to learn how to do their job better is misplaced, but that’s a difficult argument to sell.

I keep my own blog on the issue; I still talk to the engineers and city staff (don’t forget they are still public servants and we are all members of the public) and I read the public reports.  I’ve also worked as a consultant on various engineering projects here and in Vancouver, though I am not an engineer.  Certainly those firms that I have done some work with have continued to express confidence in my understanding of traffic engineering and other issues.  At the very least, it helps me understand how the engineers and consultants  are developing the project and their recommendations.

I’m also a bike mechanic from a way back.  Now that will elicit guffaws from some, but metal is metal, and understanding alloys, stress cycles, corrosion impacts and other elements of metallurgy is as useful for big pieces of steel as it is for small.  I’d venture to say that even if you have tried to re-use a rusty nail or straighten out a bent one at home, you’ll understand the limits of various metals.  The metal in our bridge is no different, though a lot less sophisticated than now available alloys (the new bridge is likely to include molybdenum, a key alloy found in stronger, lighter bikes).  It’s not so hard, once you get past the rhetoric, to separate the facts from the fiction.

As much as any of the last council, the decision to build a new bridge is on my head, so I do take some ownership and more than a little interest in making sure it moves forward and meets our objectives.  I know costs are a concern and it’s a challenge to be managed, but no surprise that it is as much now a source of panic and politics.  Hopefully, as the conversation continues, the city makes the right decisions and we get the bridge we voted for.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Blue Bridge costs green

Cost issues getting a thorough airing on facebook, and I'm still working on longer piece for my website, but in the meantime the issues around the bridge are breaking fast.  Here's my latest letter to Victoria city council on the project,   It's getting more difficult with cost pressures, but it is still the right project.

Mayor and Council
City of Victoria

Please endorse the recommendations of your staff and approve the new budget for the Johnson St. Bridge project.   I appreciate that the additional costs are a concern for council and the community but believe your staff report details where costs are ramping up and a sound rationale for moving forward.

Not all costs appear to be new.  Some appear to be changes in accounting for the project that fold in sunk costs and work conducted to support of council’s decision in advance of the referendum.  At that point, voters made a clear choice in favour of a new bridge.  Other costs are clearly outside of your control and many would apply to any project design.

It is clear from current work on decommissioning the rail bridge that refurbishment was never a feasible option and emphasizes that major capital projects sometimes face uncertainties or necessitate scope changes that add costs but at the same time protect critical infrastructure and costly city assets.

None of the new scope changes fundamentally alter the project presented to voters in the referendum.  Relocation of Telus lines reduces risks that could disrupt service and expose the city to more costly claims.  Improving fenders for the navigation channel not only protects the bridge asset, but provides some comfort for Point Hope Shipyards as they plan for an expansion that will bring jobs and new tax revenue to the city.  I expect that investment, at the very least, to return net benefits to Victoria that should be welcomed. 

It appears to me also, that the additional works to protect Telus lines and build support foundations for the harbour pathway are new cost drivers that were outside of the scope of the original project.  Adding those costs to the project budget makes sense for construction staging, but I do not believe that it was anticipated when the city sought voter assent for borrowing.  In that sense, like some of the other costs, it is not an inflationary pressure, but rather a sensible and responsible addition to the project scope that delivers more value and better efficiency to the construction project the city will undertake.

None of these features significantly alter the fundamental scope of the project or the proposal presented to the electorate in the city’s referendum for the borrowing authority.  The fact that the city’s financial commitment is unchanged should confirm that a new referendum is unnecessary.

Returning to the drawing board to add rail or make significant changes to other amenities or systems design would as likely add more delay, more costs and require voter assent to endorse those major scope changes explicitly excluded from the project charter at the time of the referendum.

Finally, I believe it would betray the interests of Victoria’s citizens, our businesses, our visitors and future generations if you were to direct staff to revisit the bridge design in a vain effort to find minimal savings by degrading the architectural expression of the bridge.  Your report suggests that the costs associated with the architectural integrity of the chosen design are less than $1 million – far below the exaggerated numbers suggested by those who believe they can find windfall savings.  For the most part, form follows function.   Please do not build a monument to mediocrity to straddle our Inner Harbour.

I appreciate that you face a difficult decision, but the new bridge is still the right decision, and moving forward the best way to protect the city against further cost pressures.  We need a bridge, it needs to meet the functional needs of an integrated, diverse and evolving transportation system and it must complement the unique beauty of Victoria’s natural and built environments.  Thank you for your consideration.

John Luton, Executive Director
Capital Bike and Walk

Friday, March 9, 2012

Support for Rail Investments

The Island Corridor Foundation owns and maintains the E&N Railway corridor.  Today I sent a letter to the Federal Minister of Transport supporting their request for federal funding to help restore the rail to active service.

Following is the content of my letter.

Honourable Denis Lebel,
Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities
Government of Canada

cc:           Prime Minister Stephen Harper
                Island Corridor Foundation

Re:  Island Corridor Foundation Request for Support for Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway

I write in support of the request of the Island Corridor Foundation (ICF), who have already secured significant funding commitments from the province, and are now asking for an equivalent level of support from your federal government.

Victoria and the Capital Region, like so much of Canada, relies on an integrated and diverse transportation system that should include passenger and commuter rail, as well as rail services for freight movements that will enhance safety and convenience for many road users, and add value to  local economies along Vancouver Island.

The Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway, now owned by the ICF was originally constructed as part of the terms of entry by British Columbia into confederation.  Islanders and others have been working ever since to protect the service.

The E&N could serve regional and Island travel demand not always well served by other modes.  It connects south island communities to the Victoria area, and could work particularly well for day commuters traveling from outside of the region to CFB Esquimalt, home of our west coast naval fleet, and a major regional employer. 

It also offers an alternate means of transporting freight and, in particular dangerous cargo like fuels, or heavy loads like gravel from up island destinations to the Victoria area, keeping the single highway route over the Malahat Summit free for vehicle traffic and other goods and service vehicles that don’t pose as much of a threat to safety or the environment.  There have been numbers of tragedies and most recently, a catastrophic fuel spill that damaged a valuable salmon stream and sensitive marine environments.

Passenger service along the E&N also supports tourism on the Island.  With an improved system and rolling stock, that service could capture a bigger market for winter ski vacations as well as a growing market for summer active vacations, particularly cycling tourism, a newly emerging niche for the Island’s tourism industry.

The ICF has a well thought out plan for developing freight, passenger and commuter business using the corridor, and important partnerships with local governments and experienced rail operators necessary to ensuring success that now must be built on the important capital investments in corridor upgrading.  Their incremental and phased approach is financially viable and fiscally responsible.

Your government has already invested in the railway through federal gas tax returns to the province and the region that have supported a new rail with trail project alongside the E&N, designed and constructed in anticipation of continued rail operations.  More direct investments through partnerships with the Department of National Defense on improvements to road intersections at CFB Esquimalt were also made in anticipation of continued rail operations.  Starving the E&N of the additional funds they now need to extend the life of the rail and begin the longer project of building a more rational and effective service would be contrary to the investments your government has already made along the corridor.

As a former city councillor with an interest in transportation diversity, and as an advocate for alternative transportation, I am strongly in support of a revitalized E&N that can help shift transportation choices to make our roads safer for all users, as well as provide a more supportive service for the many active travelers we are attracting to the Island.

We understand that the federal government is completing a review of the business case and infrastructure needs associated with our railway and encourage you to support the ICF and match the funds committed by the province.  This project maintains a key commitment to British Columbia’s place in Canada and can provide an important service to the Island for many years to come.  The modest ask of the ICF is also an important commitment on their part, and on the part of our communities, to seek only what is needed immediately to maintain the corridor and the service, while waiting for more a more robust economy to help support the longer term investments needed to grow and sustain this important asset.

Thank you for your consideration.

John Luton,
Executive Director, Capital Bike and Walk Society
Coordinator, Vancouver Island Cycle Tourism Alliance

Monday, March 5, 2012

City budget needs work

Contents of the letter I sent to Mayor and Council regarding budget deliberations on Tuesday.  Not happy to see bicycle master plan and other green initaitives targeted for cuts.

I urge Mayor and Council to consider a more modest reduction in your tax lift to ensure important projects and initiatives that the city provides can be sustained.

Cuts to the Bicycle Master Plan, the Greenways Plan, Parks and Harbour Pathway initiatives are of particular concern to my constituents.  They respond to the directions endorsed by Victorians in citizen surveys, in the city’s Official Community Plan development and in our collective commitments to regional growth strategies and climate action.

These investments are essential to support our citizens who wish to choose cycling or walking for transportation, to continue to build on our assets as an active and appealing visitor destination and better reflect directions endorsed by an electorate interested in “keeping up the momentum” on sustainability, livability and action on climate change.  They are essential too, to addressing an infrastructure deficit by ensuring that we not just maintain our assets, but we reinvent them to respond to the needs of the future, not the habits of our past.

Without those investments we cannot support the variances we provide the development industry to reduce vehicle parking requirements and, as a consequence, will discourage investments that can provide for our economic vitality and increase the supply of more affordable “car-free” or “car-light” housing for a growing and diverse population.

I appreciate the challenges cities face in finding savings to keep tax increases affordable but believe a more realistic target can still be achieved to help protect important projects and services that our city provides.  I urge you to seek options for keeping whole those budget areas that maintain investments in our active living and active transportation infrastructure. 

I believe too, that cutting back investments in other areas of parks and greenspaces itemized in your budget report likewise needs re-examination.  These are the very assets that are attracting new tax paying businesses, like Microsoft, which enumerated active transportation and lifestyle advantages of Victoria in their list of reasons for choosing to set up shop here.  We are competing with places like Vancouver, Seattle and Portland for these kinds of nimble and mobile businesses and those cities are investing more, not less, in the community assets that can attract and retain the people who will live and work there.

In the face of threats posed by climate change, other investments in shorelines and underground utilities, as well as other key infrastructure assets also need to be understood as costly deferments, not savings.

Finding the right balance between taxes and expenditures is a tough job.  We should be enjoying the benefits of reduced pressure on police budgets related to our work in creating more housing that should also be reducing the workloads associated with street homelessness.  We must too, take a hard look at the smorgasbord of grant and tax exemption opportunities we provide and see if we can’t find savings there.

Good luck in your deliberations, but please take care to protect those projects and programs that are essential to our future prospects against the marginal savings achieved by sacrificing what we most value.

Budget presentation at:

Friday, March 2, 2012

Victoria and Saanich talk transit

Councils in Victoria and Saanich are now willing to bite the bullet and start giving priority passage to buses.  It has been a long time coming.  The spectre of LRT and a focus on a distant election horizon is spurring some much needed action.  Getting to LRT is still the best long term solution and needs to stay on track.  Interim measures will have costs too, a story Transit has been sharing for years, but some fixes can’t wait.

Interim measures will work only in the short term.

Still, the improvements  will provide some welcome short term relief and secure a beach-head on routes we need to reclaim for light rail or more transit priority features along other major demand corridors.  Ironically, providing better service will exacerbate a problem already plaguing the system – there are not enough buses to go around and pass-ups are growing.  More money will have to be spent to expand the fleet, develop real estate for maintenance facilities, and resource the other needs of an expanding “business as usual” system.  Transit too, will be facing accelerating fuel costs that at the same time will be drawing new riders.

Expectations that short term fixes are a functional “Plan B” for the next 20 years are pure fantasy.  Passenger volumes and available road capacity are already overtaxing.   “Midtown” won’t work without LRT and the premise that it is too costly now will keep the developers away, rendering the idea stillborn.  Tax me now and give me service later is not a good selling feature for building new partnerships.    Those businesses also operate in the same constrained economy.  You could expect some of those planning on the arrival of LRT to scale down their expectations and undermine the long term return on value and new density that the concept needs to work.  Affordable housing doesn’t work where transit can’t outcompete the car, and buses alone won’t do that.

Here are a few other tidbits the joint meeting presentation drew out of transit and the councils talking.

Nobody, thankfully, seems to be questioning alignments anymore.  33% of the region’s economy is attached to Transit’s chosen alignment and 40% of everyone traveling the corridor are on buses now.  They certainly don’t occupy a capacity that correlates with the level of service they provide.   

CFB Esquimalt, and by extension the E&N, are still on the radar screen.  Transit wants to provide better service and others are working on a potential commuter rail piece.  Rail owners are pressing the federal government for a contribution to funding needed to get the Dayliner back on track.  Testing commuter options needs the improvements too.  Their ask is revealing enough though, spelling out that the $15 million fix will only extend the asset for 10 years.  It puts paid to the oft heard notion that the E&N is a cheap fix for the Colwood Crawl.  It’s actually just a down payment.

The E&N is still value added to our system but it’s going to need more, serves different travel markets, and, truth be told, can work without crossing the bridge into downtown.  Anchoring the Roundhouse in Vic West and connecting by a pedestrian circulator might be a more creative means of invigorating Victoria’s downtown economy, at least as important as the very different community building model expressed as the “Midtown” concept.

Players and partners should still be working for LRT sooner, rather than later.  There are a lot of pieces of that puzzle that need to be put into place and interim measures are not a reason to down tools.  The costs of a bus only system are too great.  Transit is now facing demands for bus service from Bear Mountain residents who are choked at the price of filling the tanks of their SUVs.  Like any good bus system, services can follow developers wherever they decide to go.  It’s a good reminder of a recurrent theme around the table – land use and transportation system planning need to work hand in glove.

Redesigning roads and corridors to accommodate LRT has some complexity that will take some time and extensive work to implement.

Ultimately the most sustainable and cost effective solution will be LRT.  It will ensure that the community leads development rather than always chasing someone purely private choices.  Nice to see some of those talking ready now to take the baby steps forward that starts us down the path to a long term solution.