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Reality check: Liberal weather blunders, from ice bombs to roof goofs

The BC Liberals poked fun at Adrian Dix for switching his stance on the Kinder Morgan pipeline with a late-campaign attack ad portraying the NDP leader as a weathervane, twisting in the wind. Lacking a voice-over, the spot is a break from the 2013 plan to repurpose footage from the April 14 infomercial that aired on Global BC.

That 30-minute package, hosted by Pamela Martin, included people who appeared to be everyday British Columbians, but, as The Tyee found out, had close ties to the party.

The ruling party has had its share of weather-related failures in operating expensive public infrastructure.

Ice bombs

The Port Mann Bridge had more to do with her leadership foe Kevin Falcon and her predecessor Gordon Campbell, but on Dec. 1, 2012, Premier Christy Clark was the star of a photo opportunity to open the world's widest bridge. Last September, Clark slashed the $3 toll in half to $1.50 per crossing, sparking accusations of Liberal vote-buying. The government refuses to release the business case for the discount. The toll is part of the plan to pay for the $3.3 billion, 37-kilometre Port Mann Highway 1 Improvement Project.

The weather cooperated for Clark's Dec. 1 photo opportunity, but British Columbians did not know until Dec. 19 how ill-prepared the bridge and those who operate it were for the West Coast's stormy season. Five to 10 centimetres of snow had been forecast for the Tuesday. The white stuff was going to turn to rain by noon. As it happened, 16 cm fell and the rain didn't come until 3 p.m.

During the noon hour, things went wrong on the bridge.

"We've had reports from three (possibly more) customers who claim to have been hit by falling ice on PMB," wrote communications director Greg Johnson to Transportation Investment Corporation CEO Mike Proudfoot. "(One) customer went to hospital to have glass removed from their eyes after ice smashed their windshield."

To add insult to injury, the project's office went dim after 1:30 p.m.

"Power just went out here. Generator's humming, but no power outlets for computers or phones," Johnson wrote.

The newest toll bridge on the continent was closed before 2 p.m. and was now a political embarrassment. A news conference was hastily called for TI Corporation's downtown Vancouver office, where Proudfoot came armed with talking points that were created without consultation from a meteorologist.

"This was an extreme weather situation -- the situation is rare, especially in the Lower Mainland, but does occur on cable-stayed bridges when specific weather situations occur," said Proudfoot's script. "This occurrence can be likened to a severe hailstorm, which cannot be predicted and can cause damage."

It turns out, officials were flying half-blind. The Ministry of Transportation's nearest weather stations were 55 kilometres west in Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver and 34 km east at Bradner Road in Abbotsford. Vancouver International Airport, where Environment Canada's main weather station is located, is 38 km from the Coquitlam to Surrey spanner.

A weather station on the south tower of the new bridge wasn't installed until February. TI Corp. paid $100,000 for the gear.

By the end of that fateful day, 91 tonnes of salt, 18 tonnes of sand and 500 litres of brine were applied to roads on the entire Port Mann-Highway 1 project by contractor MainRoad. There were 350 accident claims filed with ICBC.

That it happened was really not a surprise. Only the timing was.

"Sheet ice that builds up on the cables or on the tower cross head can be blown in to traffic," said internal documents released via Freedom of Information during the election. "This has happened on several occasions on the Alex Fraser Bridge and there are other documented occurrences not he American Eastern seaboard. In accordance with schedule 4, clause (d) the bridge shall be designed to aid ice build-up from falling into traffic."

Bridge engineer David Goodyear on Nov. 13, 2012 wrote: "The most significant issues in North America for stay icing have been with steel stay pipes, or with stay pipes that include banding clamps for tape or other attachments. PMB utilizes HDPE pipe which is less prone to accumulation."

The same day as the Port Mann "ice bombs," the perimeter of BC Place Stadium was closed for fear that pedestrians would be struck by falling ice. Red tape with "danger" in black was hastily strung around the plaza. The cables that support the stadium's roof were the work of the same company as the bridge: Freyssinet.

Roof goof

The biggest weather mixup of the Liberal era was on Jan. 5, 2007 when the original, air-supported fabric roof of BC Place ripped and collapsed. The failure started a domino reaction of decisions by the Liberals that led to more than $500 million of new costs for taxpayers.

It had snowed early that morning and temperature was fluctuating above and below freezing, yet the steam-heating system installed for the purpose of preventing snow-buildup. Cost-cutting management gambled and lost.

The stadium's public relations company, Reputations Corporation, devised the "controlled deflation" spin to soften the embarrassment of the failure. The 2010 Winter Olympics were just over three years away and the images went worldwide.

BC Place was expecting only $3.8 million of renovations to host the 2010 Games' opening and closing ceremonies. In June 2006, though, B.C. Pavilion Corporation was already asking the Tourism Ministry for more capital money to modernize the 1983-opened dome. Only a month earlier, minister Olga Ilich told the legislature the roof was expected to last 15 to 20 more years if properly maintained.

There were already private concerns expressed before Vancouver won the hosting rights in 2003. An unsigned, undated memo-to-file in the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation fonds at the City of Vancouver archives said: "the rigging steel originally placed in the roof has been removed and the venue has sketchy records regarding the roof structure and weight bearing capacity."

Five sensor-generated snow alarms sounded from 4:29 a.m. to 11:01 a.m. on Jan. 5, 2007. At 12:43 p.m. a five ton avalanche caused the west triangular roof panel to bulge down and strike the ring beam. The material was stretched beyond limit and tore, forcing the pressurized internal air to escape.

A year later, PavCo chair David Podmore told construction bidders that a $75 million renovation, including replacement of the existing roof, was the plan. A letter to Vancouver city manager Judy Rogers pegged the estimated cost at $100 million. By April 2008, a $253 million alternative was pondered to instal a German-engineered retractable system. The most complex part of the project was delayed until after the 2010 Winter Olympics, because engineers worried a pre-Olympic build would come too close to the Feb. 12, 2010 opening ceremony.

The final cost was said to be $514 million but the stadium's new roof leaked even after the Sept. 30, 2011 reopening and suffered $20 million of grease stains from the cables.

Steel contractor Canam is suing cable supplier Freyssinet over $39 million for cost overruns. Freyssinet's $6.5 million claim names PavCo as a defendant. The 100-day, B.C. Supreme Court trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 21.

Whither the weather

Weather in populous southwestern B.C. is changing after unseasonably warm and sunny May conditions. What does this mean for voter turnout on May 14?

Research on the impact of weather on elections in the United States is mixed.

A Harvard University Department of Government study published in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science in 2010 said: "If the election in a particular state matters (i.e., the election is close), inclement weather has no substantive impact."

A 2007 study led by Brad Gomez of the University of Georgia said rain can reduce voter participation by a rate of less than one per cent per inch. Research showed Republicans benefit most and that bad weather may have contributed to the outcomes of the 1960 and 2000 elections.

"Our results suggest that Democrats may need to increase significantly their mobilization efforts when rain is on the horizon," wrote Gomez.

Updated weather forecasts in the main population centres of the province show that weather may be less of a factor in getting out the vote than previously believed. For Vancouver on Tuesday, Environment Canada predicts a cloudy start with a mix of sun and cloud near noon with a high of 16 Celsius. Similar conditions in Victoria. Kamloops can expect a high of 19C under a mix of sunny and cloudy skies with 20 km-h southwest winds in the afternoon. Prince George starts with a mix of sun and cloud, but a 30 per cent chance of showers in the afternoon and evening. High of 13C.

Bob Mackin is part of The Tyee's 2013 B.C. election reporting team.

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