Fix The Blue Bridge
This morning, Victoria’s city councillors will sit down and try to figure out what to do next, now that it’s clear they won’t be getting millions in federal stimulus cash for a new Johnson Street Bridge. By all indications, they’re going to push ahead with the $63-million project anyway. The City’s website says “a good case” can be made for proceeding because interest rates are low, so we should borrow as much as possible – a similar rationale used by subprime-mortgaged homeowners when trading in their bungalows for luxury mansions.
Instead, I’m hoping the councillors wake up to the fact that Victoria can’t afford a new bridge. As I wrote in a report to them earlier this week, many other cities have crunched the numbers, and decided to refurbish their aging steel bridges instead of replacing them. We should learn from their experience, and repair the Blue Bridge.
In April, the Delcan engineering firm submitted a condition assessment of the bridge to the council, and it said that repair not only is feasible, but relatively inexpensive. The only work that needs doing immediately involves electrical and mechanical repairs, costing about $2 million. Fixing the bridge’s corroded steel and repainting would be another $3 million.
The biggest part of the $23 million Delcan quoted for repair is for seismic upgrading. But they list a menu of options for that, and some of them – such as seismically isolating the span that holds up the bridge’s huge counterweights - could greatly reduce the bridge’s earthquake vulnerability without much cost. In 1999, San Fransicso seismically upgraded its “Lefty O’Doul” drawbridge (right) – like ours, also designed by Joseph Strauss of Golden Gate Bridge fame – for $10 million.
Since the Blue Bridge has never been part of the city’s emergency plans, though, how much seismic upgrading do we really need? Recently I corresponded with Ed Wortman, an engineer who’s overseen the rehabilitation of several of Portland’s movable steel bridges, he said his city has put money into repairs and steelwork instead of quake-proofing because it’s not worth the cost. After reading Delcan’s assessment, he recommended that we thoroughly repair our bridge without a seismic retrofit. “It would still provide a reliable structure for at least the next 40 to 50 years barring a major quake,” he wrote. “If the ‘Big One’ occurs during that period, Victoria will have plenty to deal with other than the possible loss of the Johnson Street Bridge.”
Of course, repainting the old bridge could also inconvenience downtown businesses. But Mr. Wortman told me that Portland has learned how to minimize bridge closures by planning its repair work in sections, and clearly notifying the public about traffic changes. Vancouver recently managed to overhaul the Lions’ Gate Bridge, and still kept it open to commuters. Ottawa is currently doing the same with its 1899-built Alexandra Bridge (left).
Besides, a few months of restricted traffic may not be a bad tradeoff compared to the effects of borrowing $63 million. Victoria’s assistant city manager has said such a debt would “financially strap the city,” leading to tax increases or service cutbacks. (Victoria police have already said they’re withdrawing from the regional crime unit to save money.) Those cutbacks could hurt downtown as much as any inconveniences from repainting the Blue Bridge.
Cyclists may be disappointed, too. Lately they’ve been arguing for a new bridge by pointing out problems with the existing one, including confusing access to the Galloping Goose trail, poor signage, absent sidewalk ramps, and the slipperiness of the metal deck. As a fellow cyclist, I feel their pain. But a lot of these issues could be resolved with a cement mixer and a few cans of paint and non-slip coating, and far more cheaply than by erecting a new crossing that would consume all the city’s funds for cycling facilities for years. If Portlanders can figure out how to integrate bicycles into their heritage bridges, so can we.
Our heritage may also be greater than we realized. Last week I spoke with Eric DeLony, a historian who ran a national engineering archive for the U.S. Department of the Interior, and knows more about America’s 250,000 bridges than anyone else. He noted that we actually have two bridges, side-by-side – and as far as he is aware, ours is the only parallel-spanned Strauss bascule bridge in existence. “You have something there that’s not just unusual, but actually unique,” he said.
Instead of blowing $63 million on a fancy new tourist-attraction bridge, we should appreciate what we’ve got, and fix it.
PS This post originally appeared as an op-ed in today’s Times Colonist; to read the online comments, click here. Many thanks to Bob Horowitz for letting me use his photo of the Lefty O’Doul bridge.
UPDATE (October 10, 2009): Victoria’s council decided to receive the information in my report, and consider the engineering department’s proposal to remove rail from a new bridge, which would shave $15 million from the $63-million price tag. Story here. The Times Colonist followed up with an editorial, telling the City to start the bridge project from scratch.