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Motorists cross the Champlain Bridge in Montreal, Friday, March 18, 2011. Now Canada's busiest bridge with up to 60 million vehicles crossing per year since opening to traffic in 1961, the bridge is in need of major repair and has become a safety concern to users. (The CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Montrealers are finally getting a new bridge across the St. Lawrence River to replace the crumbling Champlain. Now, the federal and provincial governments should make sure that Montrealers and other bridge users – and not taxpayers – foot the estimated $5-billion bill.

A replacement span is urgently needed. The existing bridge's problems have resulted in a constant, costly stream of repairs and make a nightmare of the daily commute or travellers' visits to the Island of Montreal. Congestion cost Montreal $1.4-billion in economic losses in 2009.

But governments everywhere, and the governments of Quebec and Canada in particular, are about to enter a new period of austerity. Even though payments can be stretched over many years, any new substantial costs could add more burdens to the province's finances – at over 35 per cent of GDP, it's the most indebted province in Canada.

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New infrastructure, meanwhile, can be built with greater private-sector participation, and we have enough experience with it in Canada that we can do it well. A new bridge that spans the Fraser River in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, the Golden Ears, is a public-private partnership and uses tolls. And Quebeckers are familiar with tolled bridges. The Champlain itself used to be tolled, from the bridge's opening in 1962 until 1990. A new tolled bridge between eastern Montreal and its northern suburb, Laval, opened just this May.

The federal government is making the right noises – in a press release, it promised to "examine the creation of a public-private partnership to build the new bridge and the use of tolls." But already the provincial government and local MPs are urging the Conservatives to spread the costs around. National tax dollars should be used for national purposes. While the Champlain bridge is a national economic asset, it's the people who travel on it who benefit. They should pay some share of the cost for that benefit.

Editor's note: The Port Mann bridge in B.C. is not a public-private partnership. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story. This version has been ammended.

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