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LYSIANE GAGNON

In Montreal, it’s bridge over. Troubled waters Add to ...

The rapid deterioration of the Champlain Bridge, the main link between Montreal and the South Shore, is casting a dark cloud over the entire metropolitan area.

The bridge that will replace the aging structure isn’t scheduled for delivery until 2018, although after years of neglect and political inertia, the federal government has finally decided to accelerate the process by three years. The existing structure will have to be partly closed for repairs in the meantime, each one causing a traffic nightmare. Or worse, the bridge might be closed permanently for reasons of security before the replacement is built. This would mean a breakdown of a major provincial economic lifeline and chaos for many thousands of commuters.

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The Champlain Bridge is the most heavily used bridge in Canada, and the main link between Quebec and the United States. Each year, it handles 60 million vehicles, 11 million public transit users and $20-billion in merchandise. Despite deterioration from overuse and corrosion from deicing salt, it accommodates 140,000 vehicles every day, 20 times more than when it opened in 1963.

People are genuinely worried, especially those who cross it twice a day. They share visions of an avalanche of cars, buses and trucks plunging into the St. Lawrence River. Experts believe there would be ample time to close the bridge before something like that, but their reassurance is small consolation amid the misery already being experienced. Over the weekend, the bridge’s six lanes were reduced to one in each direction while workers installed a giant 75-tonne steel beam to reinforce a cracked girder, at a cost of $5-million.

More work will be needed in the months to come, with periodic closures, while Champlain 2 is being built about 10 metres west of Champlain 1. All these repairs, added to those that already have been done, will finally equal the cost of a new bridge, says Normand Tétrault, the engineer who is head of Soconex, a company that specializes in concrete structures.

Following last weekend’s emergency intervention, federal Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel finally announced a bit of good news. The bridge will be delivered three years ahead of schedule and the consulting architect will be Poul Ove Jensen, a celebrated Danish architect who designed two beautiful bridges: Hong Kong’s Stonecutters Bridge and the Oeresund Fixed Link between Denmark and Sweden.

Incidentally, this raises an interesting question about government bureaucracy: Why is it always so slow to act, when, as this episode shows, it can act much quicker if it really wants to?

The hiring of Mr. Jensen should bring some comfort to the many groups who were calling for an international architectural competition on the grounds that Champlain 2 will be the only large structure built in Montreal in the years to come, and a rare opportunity to provide the city with a beautiful landmark.

Still, it is unclear to what extent the new bridge will reflect the ideas of Mr. Jensen, whose design thoughts might be partially constrained for reasons of cost. And experts are divided. Some, such as Mr. Tétrault, believe construction can be completed within three years, but others point to the many steps that cannot be skipped, including environmental studies, decontamination processes and the fact that no deep underwater work can be done in the icy river during winter months.

Correction: The original print column and earlier online versions of this column incorrectly described Denis Lebel as the federal minister of transport. In fact, he ceased to hold that portfolio in July, and is now the Minister of Infrastructure, Communities and Intergovernmental Affairs and Minister of the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the regions of Quebec. Lisa Raitt is the Minister of Transport.

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