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Victoria's iconic blue bridge gets reprieve

Opponents of a plan to replace Victoria's iconic blue bridge are claiming victory in their drive to stop the city from taking out a $42-million loan to finance the project.

B.C. law prohibits municipalities from incurring long-term debt without prior approval from voters, either by referendum or counter-petition, a cheaper and less complicated alternative.

Victoria City Council launched the bridge counter-petition process Nov. 19. If more than 10 per cent of voters submit counter-petition forms by today's 4:30 p.m. deadline, the municipality will have to either scrap the bylaw or hold a formal referendum.

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Johnson was founded by a group of residents who want the distinctive, sky blue bridge protected as a harbour landmark, but has also attracted support from voters concerned about the cost of the project.

Matt Wright, a director with Johnson, said yesterday that his group had collected at least 6,400 "verified" counter-petition forms, more than the 6,343 needed.

"We're confident that what we have determined to be valid petitions has gone over the required number," Mr. Wright said. "But we want a really decent buffer because past counter-petition experience shows that quite a few can be rejected."

Council voted last April to replace the 85-year-old lift span with a sleek, new, $63-million bridge across the scenic Gorge Waterway, spurred by an engineer's report identifying serious structural, electrical and mechanical issues.

Elected officials were counting on federal and provincial economic stimulus grants to cover up to two-thirds of the total cost, but those funds have been slow to materialize.

After months of uncertainty, Ottawa came through with a $21-million contribution in mid-November, the largest allocation of its kind in the city's history.

However, the province snubbed the city's funding request, citing a need to evenly distribute its $53-million allocation for the Vancouver Island region, "rather than commit one very large award to the City of Victoria," Transportation Ministry spokesman Jeff Knight said.

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Mr. Wright said his group's total doesn't include forms that voters have dropped off directly at City Hall, a number that city officials have refused to release before this afternoon's deadline.

With more than 5,600 forms submitted by New Year's Eve, blue-uniformed Johnson volunteers spent the weekend canvassing for support and collecting completed forms at several high traffic locations downtown.

City of Victoria spokesman Howard Markson said council will likely make a decision based on the counter-petition results at Thursday's council meeting, adding that staff need a few days to verify the signatures and arrive at an official tally.

"If the alternate approval process is successful in getting more than 10 per cent, (council) can not proceed with the $42-million borrowing bylaw without going to a full referendum," Mr. Markson said.

The city also has the option of revisiting the bridge project and coming back to the public with a revised plan, he added.

Victoria-Hillside MLA Rob Fleming, whose riding includes the Johnson Street Bridge, blamed the groundswell of public opposition to the project on the province's refusal to come to the table.

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"It's inexplicable to me why the province wouldn't have matched the federal government's commitment here," Mr. Fleming said. "It isn't fair for the residential taxpayers of the City of Victoria to be shouldering a disproportionate burden of this project."

The steep price tag stems from the bridge's multiple roles as a vehicle crossing, a pedestrian and cycling connection to the Galloping Goose regional trail network and a link to the E&N Railway's downtown terminus.

Since Transport Canada considers the Gorge a navigable waterway, the city is also required to include a lift span.

In an open letter posted on the Johnson website last week, Victoria Councillor Geoff Young criticized the city for failing to look closely at refurbishing the existing bridge, an option that would cost $35-million, staff estimates said.

"I actually think it could be much cheaper than that," said Mr. Young. "If the counter-petition is successful, I would really like to see us look at the refurbishment option in the same degree of detail as we looked at the replacement option."

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