The federal government will speed up by three years the construction of a bridge between Montreal and its south shore after emergency repairs to the decaying Champlain Bridge created nightmarish traffic delays in the past week.
The new bridge will be ready by 2018 instead of 2021, Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel promised shortly before meeting with construction workers who installed a 78-tonne "super beam" over the weekend to secure the fissured span.
"While we cannot cut corners, we can certainly accelerate the process," Mr. Lebel said.
To speed up the work, Ottawa will reorganize its work schedule and make do without an international architectural contest. Such a contest was a long-standing request from Montreal leaders who are hoping a design hallmark will confirm the city's status as a capital of creativity.
"For us, what is important is to have a nice work at the best possible cost, while observing our deadline," Mr. Lebel said.
Arup Canada Inc., the engineering firm that Ottawa retained to co-ordinate the construction public tender that will be launched next spring, has picked Danish architect Poul Ove Jensen to design Montreal's new bridge. As head of the bridge department at Dissing+Weitling, the Copenhagen architect has drawn a number of acclaimed bridges, including the Stonecutters Bridge in Hong Kong and the Great Belt Fixed Link bridge in Denmark. Mr. Jensen will prepare the architectural directives with the aid of Montreal architects Provencher Roy + Associés.
News that the bridge will arrive sooner than later was welcomed with relief, although many aspects of the federal bridge remain contentious between Ottawa, Quebec and Montreal-area elected officials.
"This is a step in the right direction," Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said. However, the mayor added he still has a long list of concerns. "There are often bad surprises in the specifics and details, so we won't let our guard down," he said.
For Michel Leblanc, president of the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, the impact of the frequent Champlain Bridge closings is so detrimental to Quebec's economy that a new bridge "couldn't wait another eight years." Champlain is one of the busiest spans in the country with about 160,000 crossings per day. And yet Mr. Leblanc is hoping for reassurances the new bridge "will make Montreal proud."
"It's not so much the process as the results that count," Mr. Leblanc said.
For his part, Quebec Transport Minister Sylvain Gaudreault said in a release he was "satisfied" that Mr. Lebel had responded to Quebeckers' pleas to accelerate the construction work.
The federal government, which is footing the bill for the span, estimated to cost between $3-billion and $5-billion, wants to build the new bridge through a public-private partnership. It also wants users to assume some of its costs through a toll.
However, the Parti Québécois government and Montreal-area leaders oppose the toll, fearing a spillover effect on other crossings. Mr. Coderre hinted he is hopeful he can change Ottawa's mind, the same way Mr. Lebel finally agreed to speed up the construction work. "Negotiations are still ongoing," he said.
Mr. Lebel has not indicated how big a role the private sector will play in the bridge's construction and maintenance. That will become clearer when Ottawa releases its long-awaited business plan in the coming weeks.