MONTREAL - The Harper government has announced a 10-year, $5-billion plan to build a replacement for the Champlain Bridge that could include pay tolls.

The bridge, which is the busiest in Canada and falls under federal jurisdiction, has been in a poor state for years and Ottawa has long been under pressure to do something about it.

Speaking at at a news conference Wednesday, federal Transport Minister Denis Lebel said the project would create 30,000 jobs.

A 2010 report said that a replacement bridge would cost at least $1.3 billion.

"This project will be one of the most important of the decade,'' Lebel said at a news conference Wednesday.

"Today is a great day... The decision has been made and I can tell you there will be a new bridge over the St. Lawrence River.''

Lebel said the government favours a toll system and a public-private partnership to reduce costs. The project will cost federal taxpayers little or nothing, he said.

"As you know we are working hard to balance the budget," Lebel said, adding that he favours "a user-pay principal."

The government has ruled out building a tunnel under the St. Lawrence River.

He refused to say when construction will begin or be completed, saying he will meet with provincial and municipal stakeholders and proceed with further studies in the coming months.

Quebec government against toll-system

Mayor Gerald Tremblay attended Wednesday's news conference and expressed pleasure with the announcement.

But nobody from the Quebec government was there. Even before the announcement was made, provincial Transportation Minister Pierre Moreau declared he wasn't in favour of a toll bridge.

"I think that there are a lot of problems there, because you have local commuting from Brossard to Montreal, and these people have no other option, it's not possible for them to go from the Champlain Bridge to the Jacques-Cartier Bridge," Moreau said. "It's a not a privilege to work in Montreal."

When the Champlain Bridge was built in 1962, drivers had to pay a 25-cent toll to cross. The toll was stopped in 1990.

Montreal's chamber of commerce, meanwhile, said it was pleased with the announcement.

"We congratulate the federal government," said president Michel Leblanc in a news release, however he hopes construction will be completed within the decade.

"Even if maintenance work will maintain the security of the aging [Champlain] bridge, we hope that the 10-year deadline mentioned by several experts is the maximum," said Leblanc.

He also pointed out that Montreal-area businesses would be happy to be part of a public-private partnership.

Federal Opposition says work should have already started

Hoang Mai, the NDP MP for the riding of Brossard-La Prairie, said he's pleased the federal government has finally announced the bridge will be replaced, but doesn't like the idea of charging commuters a toll.

"The thing is we're making families pay, and we're asking families again to contribute to the economy whereas there's other ways to do it," said Mai, suggesting that so-called corporate welfare, such as subsidies to oil companies, could be reduced to pay for the bridge.

Mai, who takes the bridge himself nearly every day, said it should have dedicated, reserved lanes for public transit. He said the Harper government doesn't have a clear plan.

"It's improvising," said Mai. "They don't have a clear plan. We've asked to work with them to create a clear plan, to have a timeline."

The MP said it will take up to a decade for a bridge to be built, with the first step being a 2-year study of its environmental impact.

"We should have started that long before," said Mai.

Busiest bridge in Canada in poor shape

The Champlain Bridge was built in 1962 and at the time handled 5,000 vehicles a day.

Now the most travelled bridge in Canada, 150,000 vehicles take the bridge daily, and traffic jams to and from the South Shore are routine.

Two separate reports commissioned by the federal bridge authority stated that parts of the structure are doomed to collapse.

A 2010 report by the engineering firm Delcan indicated the 49-year-old span was in such poor shape that maintenance costs alone would be $18-$25 million annually for the next decade, requiring ever-longer closures.

The same report said that a replacement bridge would cost at least $1.3 billion, while a tunnel would cost $1.9 billion, 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.

One possibility reportedly being tossed around is an eight-lane structure built to the east of the Champlain Bridge, that would reserve two lanes for public transit.

With files from The Canadian Press

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