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In Montreal, a bridge built on the cheap Add to ...

One of my most precious possessions is a toaster. It was given to my in-laws as a wedding gift – in 1935. This toaster, a beautiful, heavy art deco piece in chrome-covered steel, still works wonderfully. The cord is showing its age; my husband can’t remember whether he ever had it replaced.

When I was young, I used to believe that as time progressed, things would always get better made, better built, more solid. Wasn’t that what progress was supposed to be about?

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But I soon learned that no, progress didn’t mean more quality. It just meant more quantity (and in some cases, like electronics, lower prices). And with quantity came the notion that goods – watches, socks, digital music players – were made to be thrown away as soon as they showed signs of fatigue. As a result, gone too are the many artisans whose mission was to prolong these objects’ lives. It’s next to impossible to have a boot or a clock repaired these days.

Along with planes (now faster and safer), car tires seem to be one of the few exceptions to the rule. I remember the many times when my father had to stop to change a tire during one of our Sunday family drives. That never happens nowadays.

Last week, we had a long conversation with an experienced craftsman who’s going to replace our cracked kitchen tiles with a wooden floor. He’s worked in many of Montreal’s recently built luxury condo towers, where the sale prices and monthly fees are astronomical. He described how cheap the foundations are behind the glitzy exterior: thin Gyproc walls, uneven flooring, moisture and leaks. (Vancouver readers may be feeling pangs here, remembering the saga of those “leaky condos” that had to be gutted out and rebuilt, almost from scratch, because contractors hadn’t taken into account the basic fact that Vancouver is a rainy city.)

Our conversation with the floor expert took place in the kitchen of an apartment building built in 1925. It has its flaws, for sure – small bathrooms, tiny closets and an antique heating system that’s far from user-friendly – but it is a monument of solidity and good workmanship that defies time.

The same applies to bridges. Consider the ones that link the Island of Montreal to the South Shore. The oldest is Victoria Bridge, which has two lanes for cars and a Canadian National railroad track. Made of iron and stone, it opened in 1859 and is still perfectly functional. The Jacques Cartier Bridge, opened in 1930, has required occasional repairs but remains in fairly good shape.

The newest link is the Champlain Bridge. It’s just 50 years old but has become so degraded that it must be entirely replaced. It was badly conceived and built on the cheap. The structure is mostly made of pre-stressed concrete that cannot withstand the deicing salt that is as much part of Montreal winters as rain in Vancouver.

The federal government, which owns the bridge because it crosses over the interprovincial St. Lawrence Seaway, has promised to expedite its replacement to be delivered in 2018 rather than in 2021, as previously planned. But will it?

Ottawa wants a toll bridge in order to save taxpayers money – and indeed, the user-pay principle is used throughout the world for such infrastructures. But the Quebec government and Montreal-area mayors are stubbornly refusing to even consider the idea. Politics is getting in the way of an urgent project – but what’s new?

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