Rotherhithe-Canary Wharf bridge cost estimate was ‘bizarre’, says TfL delivery chief

Rotherhithe-Canary Wharf bridge cost estimate was ‘bizarre’, says TfL delivery chief

Transport for London investment delivery chief David Hughes has conceded that the initial £100 million estimate for the now abandoned Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf walking and cycling bridge was “bizarre”.

“I can’t understand how we ended up with an estimate of £100 million. It was so far wide of the mark” he told the London Assembly budget and performance committee yesterday. The controversial project was scrapped last month by Sadiq Khan’s deputy mayor for transport Heidi Alexander with costs heading towards £600 million.

But Hughes defended TfL and Mayor Khan against charges from committee chair Gareth Bacon that the project had been taken forward because it was a political priority for the Mayor, who had defended the scheme as recently as March this year.

“There were obvious problems, but TfL pushed it way beyond the point that it was a dead duck,” Bacon said. His fellow Conservative AM Susan Hall cited former TfL chief Peter Hendy telling Dame Margaret Hodge’s Garden Bridge inquiry in January 2017 that the business case for the Rotherhithe crossing “wasn’t much cop”, and Liberal Democrat AM Caroline Pidgeon recalled previous plans costed at more than £150 million in 2016.

The scheme had been under continuous review and it was TfL’s own project control processes that had “flushed” out cost pressures, said Hughes. “There’s nothing wrong with exploring an ambitious scheme. We knew it was going to be challenging – we don’t build many lifting bridges – and the extent of the challenge and risk became apparent,” he argued, explaining that the scheme had been kept in TfL business plans in December last year “because we were satisfied that it was still value for money.”

But a tipping point had been reached, particularly following discussions with the Port of London Authority, responsible for safe navigation on the Thames, which revealed the need to move the bridge towers closer to the river bank for “ship impact protection”, in turn making the bridge the largest span lifting bridge in the world.

The Mayor had been aware of cost challenges, but it was “entirely appropriate for the Mayor to challenge TfL as his delivery arm to do everything it could to deliver the bridge,” he added. “And the Mayor was very clear. He was very committed to the project, but not at any cost.”

He contrasted the current Mayor’s decision with Boris Johnson’s to issue direct mayoral directions to TfL for the ill-fated Garden Bridge and the abandoned Metropolitan Line extension to Watford, where costs escalated towards £350 million with TfL directed by Johnson to fund overruns. This was a “sorry saga”, according to Hughes. “Our processes were flashing red, but it was the decision of the then Mayor to direct us to take it on.” 

Why was £650 million too much? asked Green Party AM Caroline Russell. “The value of the connection for walking and cycling is absolutely massive for London,” she said. Hughes replied that the bridge would have required a further £300 million which “could only come from cutting something else”.

TfL had spent £13 million to on taking forward the abortive bridge proposals and was now looking again at other options, including a ferry service previously costed at £30 million, Hughes added. And while most TfL projects were well-planned and managed – “we get most of the stuff right” – work was continuing to improve initial estimating.

The Assembly’s transport committee will be quizzing TfL further on the scheme at its next meeting to be held on Friday 19 July, with Alexander and TfL ‘s head of major projects sponsorship David Rowe in the spotlight.

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