There is a lot of talk in the current federal election campaign about replacing Champlain Bridge. Investing billions of dollars in a public infrastructure definitely makes for an appealing election promise. That's normal, you say. But in truth, it really isn't! There is absolutely nothing normal about making the necessity of replacing the bridge into an election issue.Before electing a party, we elect a government, a public administrator who we expect to be competent and responsible. Yet, any competent and responsible administrator can conclude on the basis of the reports that are given to him or her that the current bridge is at the end of its life. It is not like other projects, such as the construction of a sports complex or a new road, because the necessity of replacing it is indisputable and undeniable. Any responsible government must commit to rebuilding Champlain Bridge. Period.
A deteriorating structure
Champlain Bridge has the most traffic of any bridge in Canada. It is a key structure, not only for the greater Montreal region, but also for Canada. It provides both the main route to the Maritime provinces and a strategic route toward the eastern United States. Heavy traffic and use of especially large amounts of salt for de-icing purposes have caused premature damage to the point where it is impossible to rehabilitate the bridge in a sustainable way. Therefore, since closing it is out of the question, it must be rebuilt and serve our transportation needs while the work is being done.
This bridge's manager, The Jacques-Cartier and Champlain Bridges Incorporated, claims that it can keep the bridge in safe condition for another ten years by using an intervention and maintenance program and investing major sums of money for that purpose. The Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec is convinced that the bridge's manager takes its role very seriously and would not hesitate to close the bridge if it had real doubts about its safety.
The clock is ticking
So we have ten years to work on the solution. When that time is up, the new bridge will have to be fully operational. A ten-year period is just long enough to define the project, make public transportation choices between the South Shore and Greater Montreal, agree on financing, design the bridge, launch a competitive bidding process and build it while changing the connecting roads and public transportation routes so that the new bridge can be opened for service before the current bridge is demolished.
Ten years is a timeframe that we will have to take very seriously. The Turcot Interchange, where traffic should be limited for an indefinite amount of time, is an example of what can happen when you extend the service life of an aging structure for too long. Safety hazards are being effectively controlled. But the economic cost associated with closing part of a key structure may be too high.
Ten years sounds like not much time to make sure that a record number of stakeholders reach an agreement: three levels of government, including several municipalities in Montreal and the South Shore, not to mention the plethora of other organizations that will have to be involved. The unending CHUM saga shows us that a public decision-making process can seriously drag on for ages. This is a pitfall that must absolutely be avoided.
Right now, the highest two levels of government must show leadership, reach an agreement and rally participants around the irrefutable objective: a new operational structure in ten years. Furthermore, the first step in the right direction for the Québec government would be to create a project office.
Making sustainable choices
The sad fate of the current bridge, which is ready to be scrapped after just fifty years of service, gives us some serious food for thought. The structure cannot be repaired, which is a mistake that we must avoid repeating at all costs. We have to aim for a service life that lasts well over a century. Moreover, this type of structure must be designed so that it can be rehabilitated while it is in use.
But the concept of sustainability has a much broader meaning in this case. Making sustainable choices also means designing a structure based on a changing view of transporting people and goods, which must be immediately integrated with public transportation. This view must be developed and shared by all of the current actors.
Beyond the technical challenge, replacing the Champlain Bridge will be especially a social and logistical challenge. But these are challenges that we can meet, provided we meet them right away and keep our eyes on the clock.