Tag: Infrastructure (page 2 of 2)

Reporting on “infrastructure”

My career was in civil engineering. I worked at the municipal level. I’m sure my profession tinged how I see the world, but I believe it’s a considered view that is poorly served by popular media.

From the number of people who contribute to municipal public works, I know there many many others who have a similar outlook on how things fit together.

Recent reporting on a number of newsworthy failures leaves a lot to be desired.

1. The recent collapse of a bridge over the Skagit River in Washington state was one.

Onsite pictures mainly showed cars on the downed span deck and orange dressed “first responders” working to get the three people off and milling about

Pictures of the downed structure were limited to long shots of the truss and the first pier.

It wasn’t until days later that someone decided to show the cross member that was apparently struck.

2. The coverage recent Alberta flooding (a personal tragedy to be sure) was lacking in technical substance.

Most of the pictures were of inundated land with little context as to how far from the river and where within the floodplane.

As the water started to come down we were finally favoured with a picture that put some of the flooding in perspective. A small hamlet resident was standing on high ground viewing his former settlement surrounded by water and wetland. His comment was basically “I’m not going to live down there any more, I think I’ll build up here on the high ground. How much of the flooded areas are identified in floodplane?

An asside Many of the homes shown looked relatively new (size, appearance, chimneys of framed in stainless steel chimney sections). Why were those new residences even built in the floodplane?

3. The failure of the CPR Bridge in Calgary

The pictures again show close ups of the pier, the failed span end and rail cars plus the usual first responders reacting to things.

A simple pan across the structure to show the height of adjacent piers compared to the one that settled would illustrate the suspected problem much better.

4. Water, sewage plants and electric generating stations. We rarely see the municipal crews working to keep their particular infrastructure plant dry and functioning.

Its good background to show boats, trucks and first responders carrying people from flooded areas (usually areas that are mostly still backwater), citizens working sandbagging but not the work around critical infrastructure. This work is vital but seems to be an afterthought for popular news reporting.

5. This one’s a bit older – the La Baie landslide that killed people.

Most of the coverage showed a building (an old mill??) surrounded by rushing water. However, there were landslides and people were caught in the slides. The slide took place in July 1996.

It wasn’t until a year later did a magazine doing in depth investigating was the following reported.
– There was a landslide mapping done by the Province in 1978
– The local Official Plan (which guides development) dated 1992 did not include the susceptible areas
– The location of the house in which two people were killed was in one of the locations identified by the Province 25 years before

Sensationalism is not wrong, but it must be accompanied by sufficient considered news coverage and background to satisfy those of us who want to know not just the what, when and where but also the why.

The Plaidneck

The Great Boondoggle

If I made a decision to waste $230 million, I’d go to jail (especially if the actual cost of the decision ended up being somewhere between ½ and 3/4 a billion)!

In order to win an election, a decision was to move two gas fired electric generating plants designed to provide power to the west side of the Greater Toronto Area elsewhere. Only 10% of the GTA power comes from the GTA (compared to New York City where they are working toward generating 80% of their electrical power within their boundaries).

What is bothersome is why we only question when and who knew what about details? Shouldn’t the actual decision be questioned? Shouldn’t the deal reached with the building parties be questioned?

Some background

A Mississauga (Charles Sousa’s, Liberal, riding) gas fired plant is being moved to Sarnia (Robert Bailey’s, PC, riding). The Government’s mid 2012 estimate to cancel was $190 million (I couldn’t easily find an original guesstimate of the cost to make this change but there may have been some misinformation that hinted that the cost could be as low as $10 million – an initial payment to the developer/builder to stop).

The Auditor General’s April 2013 estimate of cost to cancel is $275 million (351 costs – 76 possible savings).

“Cancellation costs included:
$149.6 million paid by the OPA to the lender that was financing construction of the plant, with $90 million of that related to fees and interest that resulted from the cancellation of the plant;
$72.4 million in compensation to Eastern Power, the builder’s parent company, for costs mostly associated with the plant cancellation;
$64.6 million paid by the OPA to the builder’s suppliers;
an estimated $60 million in additional future costs to deliver electricity from the Sarnia area rather than from Mississauga; and
$4.4 million in legal and other professional fees.

Offsetting total costs of $351 million are estimated savings of $76 million. The lion’s share of these savings relate to the province not having to pay for the cancelled plant’s electricity, which the OPA indicated won’t be needed for at least the next few years. As well, some savings resulted from the price for electricity from the Sarnia-area plant being slightly lower than the electricity price contracted for the Mississauga plant.”
From Canada Newswire summary of Auditor General’s report

An Oakville plant, (Kevin Daniel Flynn’s, Liberal, riding) is being relocated to the Lennox Generating site near Bath (Randy Hillier’s, PC, riding). The original (2011) estimate to cancel and relocate was $40 million. However, recent estimates of cost to cancel are much higher:
$260 million (provincial source – March 2012)
$700 million (Bruce Sharp – Toronto Star 10th October 2012)

From very limited information, an estimate for each generating plant is probably in the one billion dollar range. Using the Mississauga data:

• the financiers will be paid approximately 15% of the total cost to build just to stop.
• the builders will be paid 7.5% of the total cost for work done, and
• suppliers will be paid 6% of the total cost for supplies in the pipe line.

I believe that the amounts proposed for the builders and suppliers are probably reasonable. But for the bankers to receive more than the value of the work done material ordered surely is excessive.

If you negotiated such an agreement, would you still be working? Again, our representatives are questioning who knew what and when. As before, why is the original decision not under much more scrutiny. We’ll have spent at least half the value of another power plant just to save a couple of seats in a government that in any case ended up being a minority.

Also, why is the cost paid to the developers also not questioned. Paying the financiers more than the builders seems to be exorbitant. Somehow bankers have become worth more than builders and our political and bureaucratic leaders are supportive.

We, our government, those who question them are in need of a change of perspective. We’ve become a society of data and paper pushers. We now value those who negotiate, argue over and support more than those who do more than those who design and build.

The Plaidneck


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