Pier: Steel delays, wind turbine cancellation reveal poor process

The pier will look roughly the same with or without the wind turbine. The turbine shaft was concealed by a beacon, seen in this rendering, on a raised platform, both of which remain part of the design.

Recent developments with the pier – including faulty steel and welding, and cancellation of the wind turbine – have exposed problems with the information provided to council and our decision-making process. This turn of events has highlighted the importance of learning from past problems on this project. I believe we can – and an important first step is to be transparent and accountable to residents about the cause of the current challenges, and steps being taken to make it right.

First, a look at the steel delays:

Steel delay

Staff recently revealed that the pier project has incurred a delay because of problems with the steel and welding ordered for the project. That will create about a three-month delay – until July – before the steel will be delivered.

Staff knew about this delay months ago and withheld that information from council and residents, many of whom had contacted me to inquire why no work was commencing on the pier despite the mild spring.

Our city manager acknowledged that this is unacceptable, and apologized for not informing council and the public. He added that the steel problems should not impact the expected spring 2013 date.

When council (myself excluded) voted to retender the project and increase the budget by $5 million, the hope was that these problems could be avoided by changing contractors and bringing in a new contract administrator. I had advocated working with the original contractor, who was keen to solve the problems with the pier and make it right.

The recent challenges under contractor Graham/Jardeg’s watch indicate that even good contractors can run into challenges. The key is to work together to sort them out quickly, and I trust that will be our approach this time around.

Staff will now be providing updates on the pier every three weeks, instead of every six weeks. That will help council and residents stay on top of the project, providing we get complete and accurate information.

Finally, the staff lead on the project has been changed.

Wind turbine pulled; residents paying more for less

As the pier has progressed, costs and delays have escalated as the project itself has gotten smaller. The bottom line is residents are paying more to get less.

The original pier approved in 2006 included a marina and a wind turbine, on an elevated deck with a lit beacon surrounding it. The budget was $6 million. The current budget for the project is almost $15million, without the marina (cancelled last year) or the turbine, cancelled last month under a faulty process marked by inaccurate information.

Incorrect information

Several weeks ago, staff advised that the wind turbine could not feed into the downtown transformer grid without a costly upgrade, and $70,000 in batteries would be needed to store and release power. Based on that information council unanimously voted to eliminate the turbine, a decision most of you supported after I wrote about it in last month’s newsletter (read resident comments here).

But I also heard from residents that the grid/battery information council was getting was incorrect. Staff later confirmed that the grid could take the power and batteries weren’t needed. In a subsequent report to council (read it here), staff outlined alternatives should we want to add the turbine back, namely participating in the province’s MicroFIT program for sending energy to the grid. But the report cautioned that we probably wouldn’t be eligible because the program is on hold and there are several hundred applications ahead of us.

But it turns out the MicroFIT program is irrelevant: from the beginning the wind turbine was planned to run on net metering, effectively a switch that pulls or sends power to and from the grid as needed.

That information wasn’t in the report from staff; it emerged from a wind energy delegation that appeared before committee.

It’s clear that staff have been steering council away from retaining the wind turbine; what isn’t clear is why, given that the stated concerns have proven unfounded.

When I pressed staff at committee for an explanation (see webcast here) they advised that they had already cancelled the turbine – before council had voted on the matter, and without notifying us until questioned. The city manager has apologized for this poor process, which is appreciated.

Ultimately staff suggested the turbine is an unnecessary complication that will add costs and delays to the project. However, council and the public have received no details quantifying either the costs or potential delays. Upon reflection, that rationale doesn’t make sense: the original tender, and the one issued to the new contractor Graham/Jardeg, includes the wind turbine. It is budgeted for and included in the timelines, so there should be no additional costs or delays.

Little gained by cancelling turbine

Cancelling the wind turbine now would generate a refund of about $60-70,000 which would be eaten up over time with the $3200 annual cost to run the beacon lights that were supposed to be powered by the turbine.

Some residents who supported the cancellation of the wind turbine want it reinstated in light of the new information. Others have contacted me expressing concerns about wind turbines in general, including noise, setbacks and visual impacts. Those concerns are worth discussing, but typically apply more to the larger industrial turbines, which isn’t what’s being used for the pier. The pier turbine is very small (literally only enough to power lightbulbs), and would not have the normal noise and setback issues of larger industrial turbines.

Residents also raised concerns about the visual impact of the turbine. The look of the pier is the same with or without the turbine. The turbine shaft would be concealed by the beacon, with just the blades protruding above the beacon. The beacon remains part of the design. The elevated deck, on which the turbine would sit, also remains in the design.

Your take: Knowing all the facts we now have, should council retain the wind turbine, as originally planned and budgetted for the pier project? A reconsideration motion would require a 5-2 vote.

My take on the wind turbine: The pier budget and design include the wind turbine. There may be good reasons for keeping it out, but I haven’t heard them yet. That’s why I have suggested we continue our dialogue on this item until we are satisfied the right decision has been made.

My take on the steel: Residents will recall I advocated working with the original contractor to sort out the challenges that arose with construction of the pier. I believed then, and still do, that this would save residents both time and money. The situation with Graham/Jardeg illustrates that good contractors can run into problems on a job; the key is to work with our partner to find solutions in a timely fashion instead of playing the blame game and descending into litigation, as occurred with the previous pier contractor. Perhaps in light of this recent situation we will be more fair and balanced in our remarks about the former contractor, who has received only criticism and blame untill now, despite having successfully completed a number of projects in our city before the pier, and elsewhere since, including a pier project in Hamilton.

My take on process: Good process and accurate information were clearly lacking on the wind turbine and steel discussions. The intent in discussing it here is not to embarrass anyone or prolong the situation, which is difficult for all of us. Rather, the intent is to foster transparency and accountability, learn from the situation and prevent it in future. We learn by understanding what’s occured; we understand what’s occured by talking about. We need to do better, and we will.

There is perhaps a silver lining: council did, eventually, get accurate information, due to the efforts of many residents. Thank you for your engagement and commitment. In addition, our city manager has admitted the process was inappropriate; that is commendable, and is the first step toward making changes. There is also a commitment to work with our current contractor to sort out challenges as they arise. That’s the right approach. We are not out of the woods yet, on the pier, and we all – staff, council and residents – will need to work together as a team to ensure successful completion.

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