Victoria City Council has voted to replace the city's distinctive baby-blue bridge with a brand-new $77-million lift span, setting the stage for a November referendum in which residents will be asked to approve a $50-million loan for the project.
Based on a series of staff reports earlier this year, councillors were asked to choose between the replacement option and a full-scale rehabilitation of the existing bridge, at an estimated cost of $80-million.
The decision on Thursday coincided with the release of an Ipsos Reid survey showing that 63 per cent of Victoria residents and 68 per cent of business owners favour the option to replace the bridge.
"The community has provided us with a clear preference for replacement, and now it is my hope we can move forward towards a successful referendum for borrowing in the fall," said Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin.
The upcoming referendum marks the latest chapter in the city's efforts to replace the 86-year-old bascule-style bridge, which suffers from pervasive rust and obsolete electrical and mechanical systems. It needs millions of dollars in seismic upgrades, according to several recent engineering reports.
Council's first attempt to replace the bridge derailed last fall when opponents of the plan collected nearly 10,000 signatures on a counter-petition, well over the 10-per-cent threshold required to force a referendum.
Under B.C. law, municipalities must seek voter approval when borrowing large amounts of money for capital projects, either through a referendum or counter-petition process.
In addition to the Ipsos Reid poll, city staff said about 2,600 people responded to a mail-out survey and estimated that supporters of replacing the bridge outnumber those in favour of fixing it by a three-to-one ratio.
Geoff Young, who cast the lone dissenting vote on the nine-member council, criticized the city for failing to consider a third, bare-bones option as well.
"I still can't understand why council would not have examined a basic low-cost option that would keep the bridge operating," Mr. Young said. "People haven't really been asked that so we don't know how they would feel."
Mat Wright, co-founder of JohnsonStreetBridge.org, said the city's public information campaign was "biased toward replacement" and he criticized council for failing to "explore all possible options for repairing the bridge."
Mr. Wright said his organization remains committed to saving the existing bridge and will likely lead the "no" campaign as this fall's referendum approaches.
"The battle didn't end today," he said. "Voters still have an opportunity to stand up and oppose this on Nov. 20. It's just not worth the money."
City staff and politicians maintain that electric and mechanical problems could force a prolonged closure of the bridge, due to safety and liability concerns, within two years, a claim Mr. Wright's group rejects.
The design of the new bridge includes on-road bicycle lanes, a multiuse path, an expanded pedestrian walkway on the south side and improved connections to the Galloping Goose cycling trail.
However, plans call for the elimination of the current E&N Rail link across the bridge and the relocation of the downtown Via Rail station to the west side of the harbour.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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