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Letter from Quebec

Crumbling Montreal bridge puts Harper and Charest in troubled waters Add to ...

The safety of the Champlain Bridge, one of the busiest in the country, has become a hot topic for Montreal motorists – and a source of major concern for all Quebeckers.

Secrecy this week over a federal report detailing the potential cost of replacing the collapsing structure added to the public’s concerns. Given that 60 million men, women and children cross the span each year, the government’s attempt to keep critical information under wraps was for many beyond comprehension and completely unacceptable.

The report was finally released Wednesday, but only after a public outcry over it being kept secret in the first place. Quebeckers demanded explanations and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government finally caved in.

Transport Minister Denis Lebel had refused to release the study just a day earlier, saying it could create “turmoil.” He argued that average people without proper expertise could wrongly interpret the report’s complexities.

Premier Jean Charest’s government, which has gone out of its way to avoid confrontation with the newly elected Conservative majority in Ottawa, went along with Mr. Lebel’s explanation and the need for secrecy. As did Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay.

It is well known that the Champlain Bridge, which is administered by a federal agency, is becoming increasingly unsafe. A structural assessment report released in March showed that “some of the deterioration that has been observed is very severe.”

The report concluded that the span, in its current state, “could be expected to collapse partially or altogether in a significant seismic event.”

The bridge, the report said, “is not in a condition which is compatible with it continuing to serve as a major crossing of the St-Lawrence River.”

Wednesday’s study, which according to the federal government could “unnecessarily” fuel the public’s concerns, didn’t even address the safety issue. It focused instead on the costs involved in replacing the bridge.

So why the need for secrecy? Was there another study on the safety of the bridge that Ottawa and the province were hiding? The veil of silence regarding the latest report only made commuters even more uneasy and added to the mistrust a growing number of citizens feel toward all levels of government.

Mr. Lebel wanted to avoid turning the issue of replacing the bridge into a political debate. But his handling of it did just that.

Motorists will now demand – and rightly so – that governments act quickly. Pressure will come to bear both on Ottawa and the province to take the necessary steps to replace the span. A new bridge will cost well over $1-billion, according to the report, and a hard-fought political debate is expected to determine how much each level of government will pay.

But Quebeckers won’t take kindly to having their federal and provincial government wrestle over who should pay what. Safety has become the central issue and there is little patience for political quarrelling.

When taxpayers dished out $35-million for the Champlain Bridge, which opened in 1962, they believed the structure would last for several generations. And it does seem rather surprising to learn it is crumpling less than 50 years later. Something has gone terribly wrong with the way the bridge was engineered and built. And given the allegations of corruption involving the province’s construction industry, citizens have every reason to be concerned.

With more than $1-billion at stake in the construction of a new bridge, taxpayers will want to hold their governments accountable. And as ever, they hope public safety won’t be sacrificed at the altar of political favouritism.

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