Friday, December 10, 2010

Saskatoon city council votes to demolish 103-year-old Traffic Bridge; Fix was in since 2005 to replace iconic structure with insulting replica

Heritage destroyers: Mayor Atchison, Councillors Donauer,
Dubois, Heidt, Neault, Paulsen, Penner, and Pringle

The city’s Saskatoon Speaks, Shape Our Future community visioning initiative currently underway is overlooking the importance of openness, honesty and transparency. As long as city council and administration insist on using secrecy, deception and backroom dealing to get things done, exercises like this will lack the necessary public buy-in to succeed.

The most recent example of this is the fate of the historic Traffic Bridge where city administration went into the public consultation process with its mind already made up.

In a report to council on Mar. 22 the infrastructure services department said the bridge “is reaching the end of its service life, and any action to significantly extend the life of the bridge would not be in the city’s best interest. The best course of action, at this time, is to continue to monitor the condition of the superstructure and make repairs as necessary while exploring options for the eventual replacement of the bridge.”

Administration’s opinion carries a lot of weight. Administrators and councillors do talk to one another. It’s rare for city officials to bring forward a recommendation that is completely opposite of what it believes councillors are leaning towards.

On Mar. 24 a request for proposals was sent to 10 engineering firms. The title of the document says it all: Needs Assessment, Functional Planning Study and Structural Assessment – Traffic Bridge Replacement.

The opening paragraph states, “Unfortunately, the superstructure of the existing bridge will need to be replaced in the future. The primary purpose of this study is a needs assessment for that future bridge.”

This was five months before the bridge was closed on Aug. 24 for safety reasons following an inspection done by the firm that was awarded the contract, Stantec Consulting – the same company that conducted a detailed inspection of the bridge when it was closed in Nov. 2005.

The city is refusing to release an administrative report dated Sept. 1 that was tabled at a private meeting of the executive committee on Sept. 7. The document apparently contains administrative advice, analyses and policy options developed for city council. Obviously something happened at the meeting because on Sept. 10 the StarPhoenix reported that Mayor Don Atchison and several councillors said they expected the list of ten options would be narrowed at the next council meeting. Three days later, on the eve of the Sept. 15 open house, council sabotaged its own public consultation process by removing several options from consideration that included pedestrian/cyclist use only, the public’s preferred choice.

Atchison insists that the Traffic Bridge must continue to carry motor vehicles, saying it’s “an integral release valve for motorists.” However, the minutes of the Aug. 11 project steering committee meeting – which Stantec and Fast Consulting attended – states, “with or without the Traffic Bridge the delays are not much different – removal not significant.” And, “long-term, the bridge is not critical as a vehicle access for downtown.” These are experienced engineers talking, not people off the street.

In an op-ed to the StarPhoenix on Oct. 15, Ryan Walker, a University of Saskatchewan professor of regional and urban planning, noted that, “a rehabilitated Traffic Bridge functioning as a dedicated place for pedestrians and cyclists is a realistic and perhaps even an ambitious place-making option.

“This idea attracted a lot of support during public consultations on the future of the bridge. Vehicle traffic at peak times modelled by Stantec Engineering for scenarios in 2012 and 2029 with the South Bridge operating and the Traffic Bridge hypothetically removed showed negligible substantive change in level of congestion for vehicles crossing the river.”

According to the city’s contract with Stantec, a pedestrian/cyclist only structure was one of the options to be evaluated and presented to the public at an open house. Stantec intended to do just that but it appears council stepped in and scuttled the plan.

If council had no intention of considering a pedestrian/cyclist only bridge, then why did it vote in favour of accepting Stantec’s proposal on May 25?

(In a report to council that evening, administration stated that the study would discuss “how the bridge might be configured as a transit-only or pedestrian/cyclist-only facility” and that each transportation option “will have a corresponding structural evaluation to determine detailed cost estimates and a feasibility analysis.”)

The steering committee also noted that the public consultation surveys are not “statistically valid.” And yet, the city is basing part of its decision on the fact that during the third round of public consultation, approximately 59 per cent of the feedback supported the construction of a new bridge.

It’s important to understand that when the Traffic Bridge was closed in Nov. 2005, the StarPhoenix reported that Atchison, city managers and other councillors supported replacing the bridge with a modern replica. [City mulls over bridge options (StarPhoenix, November 4, 2005)]

In Dec. 2005, the city submitted a proposal to Western Economic Diversification Canada with a financial request of $7.5 million for the replacement of the bridge. The city provided the federal government with three options: a basic concrete structure with wider traffic lanes; a steel truss replica; and a signature bridge – the same options that made the final four in this year’s process.

Council’s decision on Dec. 6 to demolish and replace the bridge with an insulting replica is simply the continuation of that earlier, unsuccessful effort. Six of the eight votes in favour came from councillors who were there in 2005. Rehabilitation was never seriously considered. It’s always been about a new structure to compliment and service River Landing.

Councillors’ concerns about fire and ambulance access and fiscal prudence are red herrings.

The Traffic Bridge has been around for 103 years. There are fire halls and ambulance facilities on both sides of the river. If homes were burning to the ground and people were dying in traffic accidents because emergency vehicles couldn’t use the bridge it would have been major news by now.

For years the Traffic Bridge has undergone routine maintenance and annual cleaning that require its closure. When that happens there are no public outcries from the fire chief or MD Ambulance.

When the bridge was closed from Nov. 2005 to Sept. 2006 for repairs there were no news stories of fire and ambulance crews not being able to answer a call because of it.

As for finances, since Atchison first became mayor in 2003, the city’s operating and capital spending has increased 62.74 per cent and 375.53 per cent respectively. On projects like the new south bridge, new Shaw Centre, new police headquarters, new art gallery, new 25th Street extension, and the River Landing money pit council spares no expense. But when it comes to the Traffic Bridge – the city’s most important piece of built heritage – the answer is no. It suddenly becomes an issue of pinching pennies.

Keep in mind this is the same council that is hiding details from the public on the city’s due diligence of the Lake Placid Developments/Victory Majors Investments Corporation River Landing Parcel “Y” project and who, in March 2009, decided in secret to move the nationally recognized Mendel Art Gallery to River Landing. This bunch bankrupted itself of any trust and integrity a long time ago.

City’s letter denying access to Sept. 1, 2010, report

Excerpt from report to city council on Mar. 22, 2010

Excerpt from RFP, Mar. 2010

Excerpt from Stantec RFP, Apr. 2010

Excerpt from report to city council on May 25, 2010

Excerpt from Aug. 11, 2010, steering committee minutes

Letter from city manager Phil Richards, Nov. 30, 2005

Excerpt from city’s proposal to federal government, Dec. 2005


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