Thursday, November 25, 2010

Impending loss of historic bridge has Victoria preservationists feeling blue

Workers place a wooden deck on the Johnson Street Bridge in 1923. The deck was later replaced with a steel deck. The bridge, known as Big Blue and the Blue Bridge for its paint job, is scheduled to be replaced in four years.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 25, 2010


For 86 years, the Blue Bridge has safely carried cars, trucks, trains, buses, cyclists and pedestrians across a narrow channel of water separating downtown from Victoria West.

It has two lifting spans. Each day, some 30,000 vehicles use the traffic span, while a solitary self-propelled Via Rail car trundles across the same rail span upon which George VI and Queen Elizabeth traversed aboard a Royal Train in 1939.

This is the terminus of the old E&N Railway, the promise of which lured the colony into a four-year-old Confederation. You can stand at the end of the track and marvel that but for a ferry ride you are connected by parallel steel ribbons to the remainder of a vast land.

The bridge links the Roundhouse in the Vic West rail yards to the century-old brick warehouses preserved in Victoria’s Old Town.

So, when the city announced plans to replace it with a modern bridge you can imagine the outcry.

A citizens’ group formed. A website was launched. Public meetings were held. A monthly magazine began a crusade. Documents were demanded and received from the city. Mayor Dean Fortin was accused of perfidy, as were the seven of eight councillors who backed a new bridge.

A petition campaign garnered 9,872 signatures, a surprisingly strong showing forcing a referendum.

On YouTube can be seen a singer wearing a model of the Blue Bridge on her head while crooning a protest to the tune of Bridge Over Troubled Waters:

“I’m just rusty, feeling blue. No one’s maintaining me, but I can be removed.

“I can be fixed, oh, for millions less, but scary lies abound and I’m a bridge that’s in troubled water.

“Dean wants to take me down...”

The showdown came on Saturday. Voters were asked to cast judgment on the city borrowing $49.2 million to plan, study, design and construct a replacement for what is officially known as the Johnson Street Bridge.

The results: 10,020 in favour of borrowing, 6,522 against.

Goodbye, Blue Bridge. Hello, new bridge.

So, what happened?

“We had no campaign team in the traditional sense,” said Ross Crockford, a writer and historian who was a prominent supporter of refurbishing the old bridge.

“A referendum is like an election. It comes down to what happens during the course of the 12 hours when the polls are open.”

The city had a slick pro-replacement advertising campaign featuring business notables, including former hockey star Geoff Courtnall. Brochures were distributed. On voting day, canvassers and scrutineers were busy.

The all-volunteer preservationist group relied on the aftermath of their year-long information campaign.

“We had an art gallery,” Mr. Crockford said. “We had a Blue Bridge art show. There was no phone bank. Nothing.”

After the polls closed, the No side could be found at the gallery in Fan Tan Alley sipping bottles of Blue Bridge IPA from Spinnakers brewpub and glasses of Painter Bridge wine from California.

Mr. Crockford vows to keep pressing the city for information in the next four years, during which a replacement is to be built adjacent to the Blue Bridge. The group will also continue to operate their helpful website at

One reason for replacing the bridge is for fear of collapse in an earthquake. Victorians take seriously the question of bridge safety. There’s a history.

On Victoria Day in 1896, a streetcar with 143 passengers aboard caused the middle of the Point Ellice Bridge to collapse, spilling the car and its riders, as well as other passersby, into the waters of the Gorge. Fifty-five died.

The only prominent candidate to support the building of a new bridge won a city council by-election on Saturday. Marianne Alto, a labour-endorsed candidate, handily defeat Barry Hobbis, managing director of the company that operates passenger ferries in the harbour. The top two vote getters among 11 candidates both live in the neighbouring municipality of Saanich.

One of the unique contributions to the council debate came courtesy of Robert Randall, an unsuccessful candidate for council seat two years ago. An artist and graphic designer, he evaluated candidates on the aesthetics of their material.

He favoured the Alto campaign’s “palette of muted tones” combined with “an urgent, modest condensed typeface” in Yanone Kaffeesatz.

The runner-up was the conservative blue scheme favoured by the Hobbis campaign, which used the “reliable but dreaded Arial typeface.”

Oddly enough, his aesthetic poll was more accurate than his political acumen, as he predicted Hobbis winning the by-election. It must be noted his patented formula involved a careful examination of policies, demographics, past results, and a Ouija board.

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