Skip to main content

A billboard went up at the approach to Montreal's crumbling Champlain Bridge earlier this year that captured the public mood. "Say your prayers," it read.

It was a cheeky message from the Catholic Archdiocese, drawing attention to an annual collection drive, but even for secular Quebeckers it struck a chord. Crossing the bridge these days can take a leap of faith.

It has been a summer of cracks, rattles and holes for Montreal drivers, and it has shaken their confidence in the ground beneath their feet and the concrete overhead.

The federal Champlain Bridge, linking the city to its offshore suburbs, is so shabby it looks like explorer Samuel de Champlain himself used it. The nearby Turcot Interchange, a key piece of the road network, is disintegrating and due to be scrapped. The Mercier Bridge, another span between Montreal and its suburbs, is in partial shutdown for emergency repairs. This week, a giant pothole swallowed the front wheel of a city bus Wednesday and the fire department had to evacuate 25 passengers.

The pièce de résistance to this season of disintegration came last Sunday, when a 30-ton concrete beam fell across four lanes of traffic inside a tunnel on the Ville Marie Expressway, a critical downtown artery. A photo snapped by an Ottawa tourist showed cars braking only feet from the collapsing concrete, its occupants seconds from injury or death.

The incident spawned dark jokes about Chicken Little and driving-as-extreme-sport in Montreal. Behind the humor is a low-level case of nerves.

"There's a climate of insecurity out there. People are making jokes about it, but they feel fatalistic," said Yves Desautels, who surveys the daily damage as long-time traffic reporter for Radio-Canada in Montreal. "Some people are changing their route to avoid the Ville Marie tunnel. They're wondering if something's going to fall on them."

The timing of the Ville-Marie collapse was providential. Quebec was in the middle of its annual construction holiday, a two-week decreed break when 146,000 construction workers lay down drills and hammers and abandon work sites for campgrounds and Maine motels. An estimated one in four Quebeckers joins the mass exodus by taking holidays at the same time.

The forced construction-work break – a distinctive Quebec tradition that dates back to 1971 – doesn't cover the ubiquitous road crews, however. And it was the presence of a construction team inside the tunnel last Sunday that has come under scrutiny in connection with the collapse.

Transport Minister Sam Hamad pointed a finger at the maintenance work, which involved sheering down a supporting wall beneath the beam that collapsed, as a likely culprit for the cave-in. An investigation is under way.

Finger-pointing is doing little to calm motorists, however, who feel they're paying the price for at least three decades of infrastructure neglect. Montreal went through a building boom during its growth-spurt years in the 1960s and '70s, and the concrete poured into the era's new roads and bridges is reaching the end of its 40-year shelf life. Unfortunately, successive governments failed to follow up with unglamorous upkeep.

"Things are aging prematurely because proper maintenance wasn't done, and now we're in a situation where we have to catch up," says Maud Cohen, president of the Quebec Order of Engineers. "When you have a house and you don't maintain it, it's going to crumble."

Inadequate infrastructure spending is a problem in cities across Canada, but seems to have affected Quebec more acutely. After the 2006 collapse of the de la Concorde overpass in Laval, which killed five people, a commission headed by former Quebec premier Pierre-Marc Johnson found that nearly half of all bridges in the province were structurally deficient and needed replacement within five years. By comparison, the problem afflicted about a third of Ontario bridges and one in 10 in the United States.

Quebec, as well as the city of Montreal, has responded to the crisis with extensive repair work; the solution is turning out to be as unpopular as the problem, as motorists struggle to find their way through a maze of detours and lane restrictions.

And it may be tough winning back the faith of the public. A news agency Internet poll found that one in three drivers avoided certain roads for fear over their quality, and 61 per cent didn't believe the Quebec Transport Department's reassurances that roads are safe. The reluctance of Premier Jean Charest's government to make its inspection reports public or hold an inquiry into corruption in the construction industry is hardly helping tamp down public cynicism.

"People are no longer sure they can trust the government," Ms. Cohen said. "They're having trouble believing what they're being told."

Following the tunnel breakdown, the government began installing steel supports to shore up the structure. The tunnel is scheduled to reopen this weekend – for those daring enough to drive through it.