News

$16-million price jump forces Victoria council to rethink bridge project

Ten days after Victorians learned they'd received an extra $16.5-million federal grant for the Johnson Street Bridge replacement, the cost of the project rose by approximately the same amount.

The estimated price has jumped from $77 million to $92.8 million.

Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin called the revised budget "surprising, and frustrating and disappointing."

"It's lost opportunity on the funding we received from the federal government," he said.

Proceeding as planned, however, isn't city council's only choice.

"Council is faced with a big decision and not one that I anticipated having to put before them," said city manager Gail Stephens.

On the table are three options.

The first: to hire a contractor to build the bridge at the higher cost estimate.

The second: to hire a design-construction team with instructions to keep the same bridge functions, but alter the architectural design as needed to save cost.

The third: to stick to the original $77-million price tag by altering both the function and design of the bridge to meet this budget. This could mean narrowing the bridge by removing bike lanes or a sidewalk.

On Tuesday, all the project executives met with the News to outline their pitch for option one.

"With the additional federal funding … we can complete the bridge with no tax increase to citizens and no tax increase to business," said city manager Gail Stephens.

The waterfront is one of Victoria's most important assets, she said. "Often a bridge is used to revitalize an area … They tend to spur new development and new tourism."

Added bridge architect, Sebastien Ricard, "It's about trying to create a destination, something that is an attractor."

Some on council, however, were not convinced by the need to stick to the original plan.

"Our email in-boxes are beginning to fill," said Coun. Lisa Helps in an email to the News, hours after the news broke.

"One person just wrote and said to all of us, 'I beg you, please do not stray from the original design intent.' I simply replied with 'At what cost?'"

Unlike the mayor, Helps said she was not surprised to get the news.

"This is precisely the kind of situation councillors (Ben) Isitt, (Shellie) Gudgeon and I were trying to avoid when we voted in favour on (Feb. 16) of going back to the drawing table and designing a simpler, more cost-effective bridge. That motion failed and now here we are a month later with a similar option outlined in a staff report."

Council is scheduled to debate the options tomorrow (March 15).

The biggest question facing them is: How much money could be saved by sacrificing design and function?

According to the city, the answer is not much.

"We priced out a plain-jane bridge and the difference in the hard construction number between that and the iconic structure that we've designed is about $6 million," said Joost Meyboom, of MMM Group. Those savings evaporate due to other expenses related to changing course, he said.

Options 2 and 3 also present costly risks, argued Stephens.

Changing the project's scope could prolong the process, putting a risk the target deadline of 2016, upon which a $21-million federal grant depends.

It could also invalidate the results of November 2010 referendum, when a majority of voters approved a borrowing bylaw to build a bridge with a certain look and set of amenities. Building even a somewhat different bridge could require the city to go back to voters for permission to proceed.

Bridge project critic Ross Crockford questioned the timing of the announcement.

"When did these things start becoming apparent to staff?" he asked. "Did they wait until the point of no return (after the rail bridge was demolished) to unleash upon council and the public that it's going to be all this extra money?"

Meyboom, however, said the refined number crunching "has settled down in the last week of two."

rholmen@vicnews.com

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