A Blues Bridge of Sighs

Let’s call this a tale of three bridges.

First on my list, in time of construction, is Tower Bridge crossing the River Thames in London, England. Often mistaken by tourists and many native Brits as London Bridge, its twin towers were designed to harmonize with the ramparts of nearby historic London Tower hence its official name.

It took close to eight years to build starting in 1887 and officially opened June 30, 1894. Total cost of construction 1,184,000 English pounds, around $200 million in today’s Canadian currency. Some 432 construction workers were employed on the project. Wikipedia tells me “70,000 tons of concrete were sunk into the riverbed to support the construction. Over 11,000 tons of steel provided the framework for the towers and walkways. This was then clad in Cornish granite and Portland stone to protect the underlying steelwork and give the bridge a pleasing appearance.”

Tower Bridge remains fully operational, modernized with high tech machinery and computers replacing original machinery and parts. Good they say for another hundred years or more.

Bridge two in my tale is the Johnson Street Bridge, once an engineering wonder crouching across a minor gut providing shipping access from British Columbia’s City of Victoria main harbour to its Inner Harbour industrial zone. American bridge builder Joseph Straus is the man whose design and construction manual sent the bridge lurching across Victoria Inner Harbour at its narrowest point to also link the city’s downtown with its western suburb Victoria West and neighbouring municipality Esquimalt.

Johnson Street Bridge was never pretty, not even on gloomy January 11, 1924, the day the engineering marvel was officially opened for public use. It “loomed” across the harbour, a clutter of steel girders. It was an ugly duckling of a bridge but it was loved by city dwellers and never more so than in 1979 when city council decided a facelift was needed and painted it blue as a 55th birthday present.

The heavy paint job improved the image, gave the bridge its new Blue Bridge name and covered up some nuts and bolts and girder joints that might have been better attended after half a century of wear and tear in British Columbia’s west coast weather.

By the turn of the century city council, concerned about the rate of deterioration, decided a new bridge was needed. Alarmed by the immediate protest from Blue Bridge lovers, councillors decided they needed a touch of democracy to underpin their decision. In 2010, a referendum supported the new bridge decision with $50 million the estimated cost.

Protests continued as the old bridge steadily gave way to demolition crews. The original Blue Bridge steel was fabricated in Walkerville, Ontario. Steel for the new bridge was coming from China. Little more than 90 years ago the old bridge took around four years to build from first blueprints to finish. Its replacement, using 2010 year as the starting point, has already used up six.

Bridge three is California’s majestic Golden Gate with a central span of 1,280 meters (4,200 feet) soaring across Golden Bay to link San Francisco with its neighbours. Its designer was none other than Joseph Straus, the Chicago engineer of Johnson Street-Blue Bridge fame.

It took a decade of legal battles before construction started on Golden Gate in 1933. It was declared fully operational on May 1937, ahead of schedule and $1.3 million under its $35 million budget.

It is true that the cost of everything from building material to labour was vastly cheaper in the 1920s and through the depression years of the 1930s than it is today. But some constants, that should never change, have changed in disturbing fashion. Budget control and decisive action are two ingredients essential to any and all major public projects. In the Greater Victoria area both appear sadly lacking.

The replacement budget for Joe Strauss’ Johnson Street-Blue Bridge started between $50 and $60 million, quickly lurched to $90 million and at last count was sitting at $105 million according to a report dated September 13, 2016 and presented to Victoria City Council in committee of the whole nine days later.

Two paragraphs in the report require no embellishment to chill a city taxpayer. They read: “On May 5, 2016, Council approved $8.206 million in additional project funding from the Building and Infrastructure Reserve resulting in a current budget of $105.06 million …

 “As of August 31, 2016, actual costs of $76.628 million have been incurred, as detailed further in the report. There will be two more planned project budget increase requests…..Should additional unforeseen events occur before the completion of the project, Council will be advised.”

The new bridge, scheduled for completion in late 2017 with an official opening planned for 2018, does not yet have a name. In Venice they have a small bridge across which people sentenced to death used to pass on their way to execution. It’s called the Bridge of Sighs and I’m sure Victoria taxpayers would approve council paying a naming fee to use it.

Or would The Taxpayers’ Memorial Blues Bridge be more in keeping with the times?

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