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Workers are beneath the 'superbeam' on the Champlain Bridge span in Montreal, on Dec. 1, 2013.GRAHAM HUGHES/The Canadian Press

Canada's busiest urban river crossing is a well-documented mess. The decrepit Champlain Bridge links Montreal to the suburb of Brossard; $20-billion in goods trundle across it every year.

Transport Minister Denis Lebel has an ambitious plan to replace it, and he has pledged to slash through a thicket of regulatory and jurisdictional obstacles to fix it in record time. But the Conservative government is inviting problems in order to fast-track a multi-billion-dollar capital expenditure.

The crumbling bridge, which is owned by the federal government, is not just a local story. Cities across Canada are grappling with major infrastructure problems. This 55-year-old span is an object lesson in the perils of neglect and political dawdling. The urgency cited in skirting Ottawa's usual contracting practices is a problem of the government's own making.

This week, Mr. Lebel vowed that the government will shave three years off the anticipated completion date. The new deadline is 2018. It seems optimistic. For one thing, the environmental impact studies, routing and design specifications for a light-rail transit line that is to share the bridge won't be completed until 2016, by which time the new structure will already be under construction.

There is also an unresolved squabble over whether it will be a toll bridge. Mr. Lebel's stock phrase is "no toll, no bridge," but the province and assorted municipal governments are vehemently opposed. Ottawa has the power to push ahead, but Mr. Lebel is energizing his critics.

The criteria-setting process is opaque, which could limit the options for open bidding on the construction of the new bridge. For instance, the government has retained the renowned Danish architect Poul Ove Jensen and the Montreal architectural firm Provencher Roy – without a formal tender. Mr. Jensen's credentials are impressive, but the bridge might not be designed either by him or Provencher Roy. They are to provide "architectural directives," which may or may not ultimately be heeded.

Last month, Ottawa announced a $15-million sole-source deal with ARUP, an engineering firm that already does business with Transport Canada. Mr. Lebel says the urgency of the situation precludes niceties such as an international design competition and a lengthy contracting process; Ottawa is intent on saving time and money.

That kind of thinking prevailed a half-century ago, when the now hazardous span was first built.