Johnson Street Bridge editorial inaccurate in cost increase

Doubling of costs claim for new bridge inaccurate, says former Victoria councillor

Re: News editorial, May 21

Contrary to the theme of your May 21 editorial, the Johnson Street Bridge project has not more than doubled in cost since citizens approved a borrowing referendum several months after our council approved the replacement option over trying to fix the exiting bridge, already well beyond its best before date.

At time of the referendum, the projected cost of the bridge was about $77 million.  The more recent budget at $92 million represents an increase of about 20 per cent, no small number, but nothing like the story line promoted in your paper.

Citizens of Victoria, by the way, have faced no cost increases, as the borrowing referendum limited local tax exposure to about $49 million, and that hasn’t changed.

The reality of this complex project needs to be understood not so much as inflationary, but as changes in both scope and accounting that have added costs or included new works that represent a more prudent approach to managing the city’s assets and infrastructure than the editorial would have us believe.

The earliest ballpark estimates may have been much lower, but anyone who has read those initial reports will understand that the condition assessment valued a replacement project that would have substituted “like with like” – a three-lane, cookie cutter draw bridge, albeit with rail, that lacked any of the signature elements purported to have been part of that first budget. It had no bike lanes, no trail connection for the Galloping Goose or the new E&N trail, and none of the road works critics conveniently ignore when pointing the finger at cost escalation.

One of the first cautions expressed in the report advised the city not to use any numbers for budgeting purposes, conveniently forgotten by those with a different story to tell.

In making a decision, council wrestled with a number of issues, including those important decisions about road alignment, seismic resilience, and the architectural expression that would frame our harbour. The borrowing referendum included costs of road works on both sides of the bridge to eliminate a dangerous S-curve on the west side by building the new bridge alongside the old structure. That decision allowed the project to proceed without the extended closures of the crossing that would have been required had the new bridge been built where the old one now sits.

A new pedestrian and cycling bridge connecting the E&N path to the Goose was incorporated into the project and a sizable addition to the bridge to accommodate a continuation of the trail into downtown were also added to the design. On the road deck, more space was added to allow for bike lanes.  All of these elements added costs that gave voters a clear picture of what they were being asked to approve in the bridge financing referendum.

Much work was done to secure partner funding and the bridge brings significant dollars into the city, mostly from federal sources and gas taxes that would otherwise still be paid, but used to finance infrastructure projects somewhere else.

After approval, several changes to the project emerged that have added costs, but any prudent council would have made the same decisions supported by a majority sitting at the current table.  A secure data line was moved at a cost of some millions after Telus relented on their opposition to any such proposal prior to the referendum.  It reduced risk for taxpayers and protects an important communications conduit that sits under the harbour.

A new federal shipbuilding program (announced after the referendum) demanded more robust bumpers to protect the bridge from larger ships that may now head into and out of Point Hope Shipyard.  These choices have added costs, but the decisions to make those scope changes reflect good planning, not out of control spending.

Other costs have been allocated to the bridge project in accounting changes, some of which are perplexing enough. Water and sewer pipes under Wharf and Store Streets had to be replaced and costs absorbed by the city, but they should not, in my view, be included in the bridge project. While the opportunities created by the construction around the bridge made those fixes more sensible, they have little to do with replacing the bridge itself and don’t belong in that budget. Even the referendum costs have been added to the budget, though the noisiest supporters of that process are painting those too as project inflation.  Likewise, the significant additional costs of design work on a potential refurbishment project have inflated the budget, something they need to take some responsibility for.

Editorial writers, of course, are entitled to their own opinions on the business of the city, but they are not entitled to their own facts.

John Luton,

Former Councillor, City of Victoria (2008-2011)

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