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The Globe and Mail

Montreal’s Champlain Bridge in ‘palliative care’ as replacement rises up

Ottawa has to keep existing Champlain Bridge from collapsing until construction on its replacement, which is being built right beside the old one, is complete.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Montreal's Champlain Bridge is a monument on life support. The span that has been the butt of jokes and source of jitters to millions of motorists has transformed into something else as it approaches its demise: A massive feat of end-of-life engineering.

Canada's busiest bridge has passed its best-before date. In two years, it will be replaced by a new Champlain Bridge, which is rising day by day out of the waters of the Saint Lawrence River right next to its older, decrepit namesake. Until inauguration day, however, Ottawa has to keep the old Champlain Bridge from collapsing.

"It's in palliative care," said engineer François Demers, the senior director overseeing the job.

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The federal Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridge Corp. invited The Globe and Mail to see its work to prolong the years of the Champlain Bridge. The visit reveals that maintaining Canada's aging infrastructure is a costly, labor-intensive affair. Ottawa is spending roughly $100-million annually to ensure the bridge remains safe, plus another $4.2-billion on the new bridge.

Like a patient in critical care, the existing bridge is under round-the-clock surveillance, with 300 sensors detecting abnormal behaviour in the structure and able to send out alerts to engineers, day or night.

"It's probably the most closely scrutinized bridge in North America," said Dominic Lavigne, an engineer responsible for its monitoring.

The visit to the bridge took place from a barge in the roiling waters of the Saint Lawrence, and it exposed just how much this 54-year-old link has aged, prematurely. When you drive over the bridge toward Montreal, the glowing vista of the downtown skyline backed by the contour of Mount Royal opens up in a panorama.

The view from below, on the other hand, offers up an unpretty collage of patches, cracks and holes. The underside of the span exposes the wounds of years of wear and neglect. Entire chunks of concrete are missing from the bridge's supporting piers.

The feds had no choice but to keep the bridge open until its replacement was complete. The Champlain Bridge is a critical but weak link in the commercial route between Eastern Canada and the United States, with $20-billion in international trade flowing over it each year. It's also an emergency lifeline in and out of Canada's second largest city – which is, after all, an island.

Yet, the Champlain Bridge is pounded daily by the wheels of 1,900 buses, 12,000 transport trucks and 156,000 vehicles, a punishing tally amounting to about 60 million crossings a year.

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The central piece of the Crown corporation's effort consists of installing a series of 100 steel trusses that shore up the exterior girders of the bridge, which had been badly weakened by road salt and corrosion. The trusses – 65 have been installed so far – are invisible to motorists. From the water, they look like a geometrically patterned metal skirt circling the bridge's edges.

Mr. Demers confesses that after taking up his new job in 2014, he had some sleepless nights. The previous year, a crack had appeared in one of the bridge's spans, taking officials by surprise and requiring the emergency installation of a "superbeam."

"It was a brutal wakeup call," he said. "We were in a situation where we had to take action to maintain the integrity of the bridge, or it wouldn't make it."

Visual inspections through binoculars were stepped up to twice a year from annually; detailed, hands-on examinations went from every four years to every year. Underscoring how weakened the bridge is, the federal corporation last month ordered excess-weight transport trucks banned from the structure.

Federal officials' willingness to show off its work may be aimed at reassuring nerve-rattled Montrealers, for whom the Champlain Bridge and its chronic closings and problems have become emblematic of the disastrous state of their city's infrastructure. The entire city of Montreal feels like it's being smothered under a blanket of orange construction cones, so it is only fitting that the city's most visible piece of infrastructure is getting the mother of all rescue jobs.

The Champlain Bridge may be on its last legs. At least motorists know it's getting mighty support to see it through to the end.

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