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$1.3-billion to replace crumbling Montreal bridge, once-secret report says

A once-secret but now-public report that embarrassed Transport Minister Denis Lebel reveals that it would cost Canadian taxpayers at least $1.3-billion to replace Montreal's crumbling Champlain Bridge.

The federal government released the report Wednesday, one day after Mr. Lebel told The Canadian Press that if its contents were "handled by people who are not exactly connoisseurs of the subject matter, that can create worries that I do not want to create."

That, not surprisingly, created worries, along with considerable consternation in the Quebec media, prompting the Conservative government to quickly reverse itself.

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"We want to ensure that Canadians have access to information about the Champlain Bridge, and that is why the pre-feasibility technical report has been publicly released," Mr. Lebel said in a statement.

The bridge is a chronic political problem for the Harper government, as well as a transportation headache for Montrealers. The federally owned structure has been deteriorating for decades, and lane closings caused by short- and medium-term repair efforts, along with other roadwork projects aimed at shoring up the city's deteriorating infrastructure, have produced even-worse-than-usual gridlock.

During the election campaign, both NDP Leader Jack Layton and then-Liberal-leader Michael Ignatieff promised to replace the bridge, if elected. A defensive Stephen Harper accused the opposition parties of making expensive promises they wouldn't be able to keep.

And indeed, keeping the promise of demolishing and replacing the bridge would not be cheap. The much anticipated report, which does not assess the actual state of repair of the existing bridge, estimates that a replacement would cost $1.28-billion to construct, while a tunnel option could come in at $1.9-billion.

But 10 years from now, the report predicts, annual maintenance costs on the old bridge will have reached $25-million, without taking into account the costs of "virtually unavoidable" major reconstruction.

"The maintenance work will become increasingly extensive and complex and require increasingly long lane closures and ever greater inconvenience for users," the report warns.

And the bridge would be vulnerable to a major earthquake, it adds.

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In other words, the Champlain Bridge will be an increasing drag on the federal budget whether it is replaced or not. Given the unanimous calls from provincial politicians, the Quebec media and frustrated commuters for a new bridge, the Conservatives may find it makes economic as well as political sense to build one.

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