In 24-hour about-face, Ottawa releases report on Champlain Bridge
MONTREAL - The federal government released a pre-feasibility study on replacing the Champlain Bridge on Wednesday, just one day after federal Transport Minister Denis Lebel said the report would not be released because it may spur unwarranted panic.
The report explores various scenarios for building both a new bridge or replacing the existing structure with a tunnel, along with basic, preliminary cost analyses for either option.
While no definitive recommendation is made for the federal government to choose either a new bridge or building a tunnel, one thing comes out quite clearly – trying to fix the 49-year-old Champlain Bridge would be an expensive and fruitless exercise.
And a structural engineer in Montreal says that is nothing new.
"It does not outline anything that we don't already know-- we know that the condition of the bridge is failing, we know that it's feeble, we know that any maintenance efforts to be done will be costly both in time and money and they will certainly not result to anything that is permanent," said Helen Christodoulou. "From an economic perspective it is expensive to maintain this bridge."
The report states that simple maintenance of the bridge would require investments of $18 million to $25 million per year for the next 10 years in an ever increasing curve, and that this investment would not result in an improvement of the actual structure.
"The maintenance work will become increasingly extensive and complex and require increasingly long lane closures and greater inconvenience for users," the report states.
The report also addresses the status of the ice structure immediately to the west of the Champlain Bridge, one that has long been targeted as a possible route for a light rail link between the South Shore and Montreal. The report states converting the structure from its current use as a bike and pedestrian bridge into one that could carry train traffic would cost $170 million, but also notes that the structure is in good shape even though it was built in 1965.
The federal government has not yet committed to replacing the Champlain Bridge and says that all options are open.
However, the MP for Brossard-La Prairie feels the government is dragging its heels on a situation that is quickly becoming critical.
"We need to replace the bridge as soon as possible," said the NDP's Hoang Mai. "So right now, bringing out the reports that's one thing, but I don't understand why it's been taking so long. The government has been a bit secretive on that subject."
In terms of the cost, the report states that a more detailed assessment would come later, but for the meantime a minimum price tag of $1.3 billion for a new bridge and $1.9 billion for a tunnel is being advanced, however those numbers could climb as high as $2 billion for the bridge and $3 billion for the tunnel.
Numerous variables could send the price skyward, including the type of bridge or tunnel project chosen and the type of financing model used, such as a public-private partnership, which would be the most expensive avenue in terms of total cost, according to the report.
A firmer price would be fleshed out in an eventual business plan, the report states.
Produced by a consortium of engineering firms for the Crown agency that manages the bridge, the report also described potential environmental concerns.
It said replacing the bridge could disrupt fish stocks, bird habitats, and an archeological site.
Its lack of alarmism left some people scratching their heads.
A community coalition promoting the bridge replacement said it had a hard time understanding why a seemingly innocuous pre-feasibility study would be grounds for Lebel's expression of concern.
New Democrat MP Jamie Nicholls said Lebel's comments raised the city's collective blood pressure, making people believe the government was hiding something about the safety of the Champlain.
"By saying originally that they weren't going to release the report just raised the fear level of people," said Nicholls, the party's junior transport critic who represents a Montreal-area riding.
"I don't think that the bridge is in danger of falling down tomorrow, or the next week — we'd just like the government to be transparent on the issue, so that people don't have to invent nightmare scenarios."
The study's release comes just one day after the Conservative government said it would not make it public, with Lebel saying Tuesday he didn't want people to worry unnecessarily.
But the minister's comments had the exact opposite effect; the Champlain Bridge immediately became a top news story in Quebec and his remarks fed local concern about how safe the heavily used span is.
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Lebel stressed his personal commitment to transparency in the matter: "We want to ensure that Canadians have access to information about the Champlain bridge, and that is why the pre-feasibility technical report has been publicly released."
On Tuesday, Lebel said the actual work that will be done on the 49-year-old bridge, which is crossed by some 60 million vehicles annually, is more important than the contents of the reports.
He said people without the proper expertise might misinterpret the report's findings and cause people to worry for nothing.
"When you release information into the public that is handled by people who are not exactly connoisseurs of the subject matter, that can create worries that I do not want to create," Lebel said Tuesday.
Lebel also said he was concerned that some people might try turning the Champlain Bridge into a political issue.
A structural assessment of the bridge, released in March, warned that the six-kilometre-long Champlain was at risk of falling into the St. Lawrence River.
"Some of the deterioration that has been observed is very severe," said the report, which was prepared for the federal agency that maintains the bridge.
"It has been recognized there is a risk of partial collapse of the bridge, or even the collapse of a span."
Even the Roman Catholic Church in Montreal recently made use of public fears over the condition of the bridge.
The archdiocese of Montreal used a cheeky highway billboard as part of its annual Easter fundraising campaign.
The roadside advertisement advised motorists to, "Say Your Prayers," as they approached the crumbling structure.
With files from The Canadian Press