Johnson Street Bridge traffic deck is moved into place by the Dynamic Beast crane barge during the construction phase in January of this year. Don Descoteau/Victoria News

BRIDGING THE GAP: Mayor vows to learn from Johnson Street Bridge project

New policies will guide future major projects, Lisa Helps says

Mayor Lisa Helps voted no on the decision that set the Johnson Street Bridge Replacement Project in motion in 2012. Relatively new on council, she felt the project was being rushed and that proper due diligence was not performed to evaluate the project.

Council, she recently told the Victoria News, was being urged to make a quick decision. People at the political level and in the City’s administration were sounding alarm bells that, should Victoria not move expeditiously with the project, federal funding contributions might be lost.

“As a result, we went forward with a plan that was only 30 per cent designed and where the proposal’s risk matrix seriously looked as if it had been cut and pasted from other projects,” Helps recalled.

“As well, the project’s contingency allowance was set at four per cent. It was obvious, right from the start, that wasn’t an adequate amount, but it was what was left over in the budget,” she said. “That’s not how a contingency should ever be determined – it has to be based upon real risk assessments and a solid rationale. It was a serious mistake.”

By the time the project started going sideways and cost overruns and construction delays had become the order of the day, it was too late to turn back, Helps said.

“You get so far down a road that you simply can’t double back. The time to do that was before the contract was signed. What council needed then was someone to save us from their own mistake,” she said.

“Jonathan (Huggett) was that saviour.”

Huggett, who came in initially to evaluate what was going wrong with the project, stayed on as project manager and brought the project to a successful conclusion, albeit far behind schedule and seriously over budget.

Despite all of the missteps associated with the new Johnson Street Bridge, Helps still sees a positive side to the experience. The lessons council learned have been used to change the way the City approaches major capital projects.

“We have a new framework in place and a very strong project team so, as we head into major projects like the Crystal Pool replacement, we’re going to get it right,” she said.

Every major project will be reviewed by an independent third party that will “try to poke holes” in the plan, and projects will have reasonable and firm timelines and contingencies associated with the work.

As for those who may bemoan the loss of the iconic “Blue Bridge,” Helps feels some sympathy but notes the City is moving forward and that the new bridge is part of a march into the future.

“We’re planning a pretty spectacular sendoff for the old bridge, but when it’s done, we’ll move on,”she said. “In time, the new bridge will become a symbol of how Victoria is entering a new era, an exciting time for an exciting city.”

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