Who Said “Talk Is Cheap?”

March 7, 2011. From a report to Victoria City Council on financing the replacement of the close to 100-year-old Johnson Street Bridge, known locally as “the Blue Bridge.” The bridge spans a narrow sea channel to link Victoria West with the “downtown” city centre and the bulk of the population. It cost $720,000 to build.

In the 2011 report, council is informed the replacement will cost around $77 million to be raised by borrowing ($49.2 million), city sources ($6.8 million), federal government $21 million.

January 18, 2018, (note the year) from the Johnson Street Bridge Replacement Project Quarterly Update: “The new bridge is scheduled to open to traffic on March 31, 2018.” It did open as scheduled with bands playing; citizens dancing and cheering; council members congratulating each other and basking in praise from happy celebrants on the sleek 21st Century new bridge design, the spacious walkway and cycling path. A mild murmur of criticism fluttered briefly among celebrants regretting the bridge had only three lanes for vehicular traffic but there were more ooohs! and aaahs than grumbles.

And, nobody was wandering around with a placard proclaiming two brief paragraphs from the Jan. 18 update that would have chilled the joy of any Victoria taxpayers already worrying about paying their property taxes by June.

The paragraphs read: “As of December 31, 2017, actual costs of $96.08 million have been incurred. The approved budget is 105 million…. There will be one more planned project budget increase request for tendering. Should additional unforeseen events occur before the completion of the project, Council will be advised.” The italics are mine. I’m a bit of a pessimist when contemplating projects that have already had enough “unforeseen circumstances” to boost an estimated $77 million budget to $105 million and still be months – even years – behind originally scheduled completion dates.

My pessimism plunges even deeper when I remember San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge was built in four years for $35 million (around $500 million US today) and was completed in 1937  $1.3 million under budget.

It would be bad enough if bridge building was our only problem on Vancouver Island but, alas, bridges are just minor stuff. A couple of miles from the new bridge, on the same harbour but closer to the open ocean, construction has begun on a new waste water and sewage treatment plant and the extensive pipeline required to carry waste to the plant for treatment before being discharged into the ocean. Estimated cost $765 million – for a project scientists and public health officials say is unnecessary. The majority of the funding will come from federal and provincial governments with municipal governments collecting an added $344 a year from home owners in Oak Bay, $296 in Victoria, $258 in Esquimalt, $208 in Saanich, and $146 in Colwood and other peripheral communities.

Mega spending all round with millions added to the final bills for the two projects mentioned here – a new bridge and a new sewage treatment plant to do what deep tidal oceans have been doing successfully and efficiently for years. Both projects were plagued with lengthy and mostly unnecessary debates and challengeable decisions that delayed the inevitable for decades.

Meanwhile, these projects consistently pushed to the back burner of social progress the far more important issue of affordable housing. It remains high on the priority list of just about every village and city in Canada. It is acknowledged as essential for the well-being of every community – but there is rarely any meaningful move to find the funding for a massive home-building project.

A few municipal governments may have problems finding space for housing developments, but provincial and federal governments surely have enough Crown land that could be put to good use for model housing estates. It needs some bold thinking – maybe even a rent-to-buy scheme. And it needs to be started soon, before our young people give up hope of ever establishing home and family in the country they love and head for more welcoming places – as so many of we old folks did so long ago.

One suggestion for any politician or party with the courage to propose and develop an affordable housing proposal. Every day that passes between a proposed solution and a proposal actually at work and functioning, can be costly. Delays extending for months then years as they did on the two major projects mentioned above, can be disastrous.

It is a sad commentary that the increased cost caused by delay roughly doubled between first estimate and final cost – the millions saved by less talk and more action would have been more than enough to have jump started the financing of affordable housing – or other much needed projects.

 

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