Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Liberals defend their own fast ferries

The out-of-control Vancouver convention centre project is looking a lot like the Liberals' own version of the fast ferries.
The convention centre expansion was supposed to cost $495 million, a number that probably should have aroused suspicion from the start.
It sounds like those price points the late-night TV infomercials use to make things sound cheaper - now only three easy payments of $49.95.
The rock-solid budget was apparently written in pencil, to make it easier to rewrite the numbers as costs kept rising.
The $495-million cost was the number back in 2003, when the government was enthusiastic about the importance of the expanded convention centre for the Vancouver Olympics.
That commitment didn't even last until the official start of construction, when Premier Gordon Campbell hyped up the usual sod-turning ceremony by substituting a backhoe for the traditional gold-plated shovel.
By then the budget had already been revised. The project was now to cost $550 million.
But that was it, said Campbell. No more taxpayers' money was going to be needed.
"This will be on time and on budget," he said. "Count on it." (Evoking former premier Glen Clark's promise that the total cost of the fast ferries would be $210 million, "right down to the toilet paper." The actual cost was more than $450 million.)
By 2005, the centre costs had jumped again, to $615 million. But that, the government promised, was absolutely, positively it. The minister then responsible, Olga Ilich, noted she had a development background and had nailed down the numbers.
Wrong again. After more than a year of silence, the government revealed in the February budget that the centre costs were now through the $800-million barrier.
Worse, no one could say how high the project overruns would go. Tourism Minister Stan Hagen said then that he was still trying to get a handle on the latest version of the final cost.
And this week in the legislature he said he's still trying to figure out how much the bill will be.
The NDP jumped on the issue in the first two question periods this week, focusing on the apparent lack of accountability for the soaring overruns.
Last Friday the government announced a shuffling of the board overseeing the project, which has been chaired by top Campbell advisor Ken Dobell. But no one was dumped or called on to explain the financial crisis.
The New Democrats were quick to trot out Campbell's comments from the fast ferry days.
"There is no one in the private sector who could possibly maintain their job when one of their projects has doubled in price and is overdue," he said then. "They should be fired."
The whole deal is damaging for the Liberals on several levels. Provincial taxpayers are on the hook for all the extra costs. The centre was supposed to be paid for with $223 million each from the federal and provincial governments plus $90 million from a Lower Mainland hotel room tax.
Ottawa's contribution was fixed and the feds have rebuffed requests for more money. The tourism industry won't pony up more.
Which leaves you as the big spender. The provincial share will now be at least $460 million, more than twice as much as promised by Campbell.
Every time the government says no to some request from a community, the NDP can muse that the money isn't available because it was dumped into Vancouver's mismanaged convention centre project.
And the convention centre mismanagement, like the fast ferries, raises the question of competence.
There, the Liberals have an advantage. The fast ferries came after the NDP had established a reputation for bungling. The Liberals, although they have mismanaged major files like long-term care and children and families, don't yet carry the same baggage.
But the convention centre - a year late and twice as expensive for taxpayers as promised - is looking like mighty clunky suitcase for the Liberals to drag along for the next few years.
Footnote: Tourism Minister Stan Hagen got stuck with defending the overruns. His basic point was that it's a great project even with the runaway spending and the NDP should be more cheerful. That too echoes the NDP's early attempts to defend the fast ferry project.


Anonymous said...

Stan keeps spinning the story about 50 conventions lined up for the place and how 1500 pilings, 7000 jobs and those nasty NDP do nothing folks simply don't want to see BC jobs. If it wasnt our money Stan is talking about ihis antics would a a great comic performance. Hell pick a number around 899 million as the favour of the week. The guy should have been put out to pasture when he fell apart trying to justify the mess in the last ministry he suppoedly ran. dl

Anonymous said...

I wonder whether the rise in costs of building materials and labour costs have been taken into account--just out of curiosity?

Anonymous said...

good example as to why P3's are needed for public projects.

And who could have guessed there would be concrete dozens of feet below in the mud. That's what they found when they started drilling. Totally unpredictable that has nothing to do with managment

Anonymous said...

But folks, what do you expect from good old boy Stan just part of the group from the VanderZalm era including Martyn Brown, VanderZalm's old research man under B.C. Reform,pulling the strings in the Premier's Office. What a stench! Same bagmen, same circle.

The really blatant factor is that Poole's Concert Properties buddy, Podmore has been, LOL - hand selected to head up the merged Board & ta da - Ken Dobell remains on the Board, also serving as Finance Chair for Vanoc. Please.

Round & round the circle goes until the game is up.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why Paul is even writing about the convention centre expansion... The convention centre expansion will only be over budget by about 80% - Less than 2x the original cost estimate!

A truly worthy candidate for PW's prowess would be the new P3 Okanagan Lake Bridge (appropriately named after convicted swindler William R. Bennett).

As CHBC's Blaine Gaffney has reported: The bill for Swindler's crossing has gone from $170M to $520M... or more than THREE times the original cost!

All is not as bad as it looks though... Since this is a P3 project the taxpayer will be picking up the $350 MILLION shortfall.

Anonymous said...

I can understand the NDP's desire to exact revenge for the pummelling they took for the fast ferries project, but I think this is disingenuous. Construction costs are skyrocketing because of shortages of labour and materials. The project has hit a number of unanticipated problems. Finally, like most government projects, the initial cost was low-balled to make it more politically palatable. There are no surprises in the cost overruns, and in fact I can't recall the last time that I heard of ANY convention centre project coming in on budget. At the very least, though, at least this convention centre will be usuable upon the conclusion of the project. Can't really say the same for the fast ferries...