Jonathan Huggett, project manager of the Johnson Street Bridge replacement, says 90 per cent of the job is common sense and letting people do their job. Tim Collins/Victoria News

BRIDGING THE GAP: Getting a troubled project back on the rails

Jonathan Huggett considered the ‘project’s saviour’

Jonathan Huggett recalled a moment in 2014, when he was retained to look into the troubled Johnson Street Bridge replacement project. “You know there’s a problem when you sit everyone down in a room and ask, ‘So, who’s in charge of the project?’ and no one puts up their hand.”

Huggett was brought on that April when council acknowledged that the project had gone seriously off the rails. Cost overruns were already occurring and the project was behind schedule. The principals of the project were in constant conflict and litigations were already being initiated by those involved.

By September, Huggett was interim project manager, a role later made permanent to allow him to bring the project to a successful conclusion.

When he first arrived on the scene, he found a deeply flawed plan and process and his first order of business was to get people pulling in the same direction.

“The first thing to do was to get all the grievances on the table and resolve those so we could move on. Otherwise, we could never have a discussion about the real problems, because the past was always going to get in the way,” he said.

Issues had developed between builders PCL Constructors Westcoast and MMM Group (now WSP Canada Group), the main consultant on the job.

Huggett noted that the project had been based on a partial design, had no real leadership in place, and that some decisions were made that plagued the project for the next four years.

“I’ve been at this for 42 years and I’ve learned that a good part of the job, 90 per cent, is just common sense and finding a way to allow people to do their jobs,” he said. “There’s always going to be small “p” politics involved but, really, the key is to be open and transparent and ready to talk to people.

“We did things like posting all of our financial transactions on-line. If you post them, it makes a lot of the nonsense conspiracy theories go away and allows people to do their work without having to deal with that stuff.”

Huggett insisted he was simply the vehicle to allow hundreds of very talented people to do the actual work. He credited the professionalism of the crews working on the bridge as well as some of the staff at city hall for their work on the project.

“After I got here, there was a changeover of a lot of the actors who had been involved at the initial stages, both in the City and the firms involved. It allowed a bit of a clean slate to let us move forward, and that was helpful.”

As for what the future holds for him once the bridge is completed, Huggett said he never knows what his next project might be; as long as he enjoys what he’s doing, he’ll keep going.

“But this is definitely a project I’ll remember and I’ll look back on the finished project with a lot of pride.”

For a collection of Johnson Street Bridge stories, click here.

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