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Repair work continues on the Champlain Bridge over the St-Lawrence River.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press


The Champlain Bridge is the newest of Montreal's four prominent South Shore spans, but it is the first to descend into decrepitude. The bridge, which opened to traffic in 1962, has two main sections: the short steel cantilever portion that is most recognizable and in decent shape and a long nondescript section built from prestressed concrete that was innovative for its time but is a maintenance nightmare.


The federal government owns the entirety of two major Montreal bridges and half of another through inertia and quirks of history, geography and politics. The first major federal span was the Jacques Cartier Bridge, which was built in the 1920s as a project of the federally owned Port of Montreal. The Champlain was built to pass over the federal St. Lawrence Seaway. Ottawa and the province occasionally discuss selling the bridges to Quebec. Predictably, they disagree on price tag.


The first major cracks in the design of the Champlain Bridge appeared in the 1990s, when the prestressed concrete deck was replaced and a drainage system was installed to slow down the corrosive damage caused by salty water. Even then, irreversible damage was noted. A 2011 report found repairing the bridge for a long-term future was "difficult, if not impossible."


In 2009, the federal bridge authority had a super beam manufactured anticipating the original prestressed concrete beams might fail. Four years later, a 2-millimetre crack appeared in one of the 53-foot concrete beams, forcing the emergency closing of a portion of the bridge and the installation of the beam at a cost of $2-million. This past weekend, a new truss was installed at a cost of $1.5-million to allow removal of the emergency beam so it can be used again later, if necessary.


Each time sections of the bridge are closed for repairs (a frequent occurrence in 2013), traffic chaos ensues in Montreal. The Champlain Bridge is among the busiest in Canada with 60 million vehicle movements each year. While 66 per cent of its users are commuters, it is also a conduit for about $20-billion in trade between Canada and the United States.