Letter: Feasibility study, the hatchet job

Wednesday, February 10 2016

As those in the Department of Defence know, engineers can make sure that specifications will decide who gets the job, even if there is an open bidding process, and these engineers are competent. I’m about to show you how it works if you want to do a “hatchet job” on a public request.

The first thing to do is appear to be fair by including a lot of alternatives in the study, including the ridiculously expensive ones. You then use the “average cost” in the executive summary that goes to the press, which boosts the price, the amount depending on your imagination, in adding expensive alternatives.

The travel demand forecast would not appear to make any difference to the bridge cost, even by assuming no tolls, and using the Nanaimo area population increase forecast. Gabriola “build out” zoning is ignored, but the population increase with the ferry of 0.9% per year may be correct, in spite of no population increase since 2006. But hold on, the actual bridge cost is also based on the span width, which is a function of travel demand. Do we need two bicycle lanes and a pedestrian lane? How about a single 1.2 metre bicycle/pedestrian path as proposed by MOTI for the Village. This would remove 2.4 metres from the span width. Fortunately a two lane bridge is sufficient.

The next specification is a 23 m vertical (75 ft.) and 152 m clear width to accommodate “all sizes of barge traffic” for False Narrows. Now False Narrows was named “False Narrows” for a reason. It is about 200 m wide, but has an island in the middle which shows up at low tide. Tugs and fish boats do get through at high tide. We watched a small fish boat go through backwards at a low tide by heading upstream, but being forced downstream by the current. That way the skipper could move the boat from side to side to stay in the narrow channel. Row boats have no trouble. How about the same vertical clearance as the Second Narrows railway bridge, 10.8 metres with the span down. A 10.8 metre clearance would give the East Crossing a grade of 4.7%, and a 60% cheaper bridge cost.

Last but not least is the great unknown, which required a 50% contingency. How about a 10% contingency which many engineering budget estimates require. Altogether this brings the project cost to 150 million, not far above the old high estimate of 110 million.

Now let’s go back and look at the cost of the Gabriola ferry. The last cost in 2012 was $10,260 million for government and passengers. The 6% escalation presented at the ratepayers meeting is correct for a 10 year span, but the last three years have been closer to 4%, giving an estimate of 2015 costs at $11,535 million. Evidently our fare increase of 4.1% on April 1 is being reduced by 1% due to reduced fuel costs. As the study time period is 2020 to 2044 we could use 3% to estimate the ferry cost in 2020 as $13,369. The total ferry cost going back to 4% would be $522,503 million. Just call it half a billion for the 24 year period. 

Cost savings would be in the order of $522 million on a $150 million investment, for a return of about 5.5% - $170 million ferry replacement costs 30 years from now which are not mentioned. Perhaps we should also mention the $157 million assessment loss on Gabriola from 2011 to 2015, or the anticipated recovery and increase in property values which could easily add $300 million to the value of the bridge project.

~ Randy Young