For visitors who land in Montreal, and even for those who live here, it is easy to forget the city is an island. Quebec's metropolis was built with its back against the water, and its river banks are often inaccessible.
But with the collective trauma caused by the Champlain Bridge's cracked structure in the past week, Montrealers have had an awakening of sorts. They are all islanders. And they are all held hostage to infrastructure in decay.
On the best of days, crossing the Champlain Bridge, which links Montreal to the South Shore, is a test of patience. Repair work outside of so-called peak hours is so common it is hard to tell whether it's rush hour or not.
But for commuters who have seen it all, the most recent lane closures for emergency repairs are the final straw. Transport authorities are asking companies to let their employees work from home, as the extra buses, metro cars and park-and-ride spaces have barely relieved the nightmarish drive.
Worse, the Champlain Bridge will close entirely over the weekend, as workers install a massive 75-tonne beam to temporarily strengthen the bridge after a two-millimetre crack sparked fears of the worst. For many, this is a foretaste of the closures to come before a new bridge is built, in 2021 according to Ottawa's timetable.
The matter is not trivial for Montreal, for Quebec and even for Canada. With over 160,000 crossings per day, the Champlain Bridge is believed to be the busiest bridge in the country, although a spokesperson for Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridges Inc., a subsidiary of the crown corporation Federal Bridge Corp. Ltd, remains cautious about the designation.
The Champlain Bridge is the preferred trucking route between the city, the South Shore and the United States, with more than 12,000 heavy vehicles that drive through its span each day. They carry more than $20-billion in merchandise every year, according to the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, which has been urging Ottawa to replace the worn bridge long before 2021. In a 2012 survey the board conducted, Montreal-based CEOs blamed the city's deteriorating infrastructure for its falling competitiveness.
Yet despite all the reports that sounded the alarm on the structure's rapid deterioration, the Champlain Bridge is a monument of foot dragging and political bickering between Ottawa, Quebec and Montreal. Only in late 2011 did federal Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel order a new bridge to be built across the St. Lawrence.
The tardiness is proving expensive. In 2009, Ottawa set aside $240-million for repairs to be conducted over 10 years, but more than half of that ($125-million) has already been spent. A recent assessment by bridge expert Buckland & Taylor Ltd. pegs at close to $500-million the cost of the additional repairs needed to ensure the bridge remains safe.
The price for a new bridge, in comparison, is estimated between $3-billion and $5-billion, but this is a guesstimate, as there is yet no decision on its structure.
The City of Montreal and the Quebec government would like to see a light-rail system, but Ottawa has shown little interest in financing such a transit system. And the Quebec government, which will officially break its promise to balance the province's books when Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau delivers his fiscal update on Thursday (this year's deficit will reach $2.5-billion, according to La Presse), is too broke to pay for it. Then there is the divisive issue of a toll, which Ottawa wants and which Quebec strongly opposes for fear of a spillover effect on other South Shore crossings.
The clashes between the two governments have played well with the PQ's and the Conservatives' supporters. But while they were engaging in small-time politics about the Champlain Bridge, corroding forces were undermining it from below. It is now clear that Montreal cannot wait and pray the bridge will hold for another eight years. Even Mr. Lebel has dropped the nomenclature debate and is now considering speeding up the work.
This belated sense of urgency brings risks of its own. Many leaders in the Montreal business community, such as Paul Desmarais Jr., Stephen Jarislowsky and Charles Sirois, have rallied behind real estate promoter Stephen Leopold, who is asking Ottawa to hold an international architectural contest. Montreal doesn't get to build a bridge very often, and for a city that is attempting to rebrand itself as a creative metropolis, building an architectural landmark as inspiring as France's Millau Viaduct is not an occasion to be missed.
Mr. Lebel only promises to build something "that is not ugly." Between the crumbling bridge, the commuter nightmare and the uninspiring promise of a nondescript structure, the letdown of the federal government has come full circle.