MONTREAL, Que. – It must be an everlasting frustration to frenzied reporters that they can do little to make the decrepit condition of Montreal’s Champlain Bridge sound worse than it really is.
Engineers really did conclude that: the collapse of one of the spans cannot be ruled out; that we can expect a significant earthquake to partially or entirely bring down the bridge; that thanks to a clever lowest-bid design, the bridge is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible to fix properly; and that the bridge should be replaced as soon as possible.
Since the engineering firm Delcan delivered two reports (Assessment of the Champlain Bridge and The Future of the Champlain Bridge) to The Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridges Incorporated this March 22, the media have gone wild, local politicians are hollering even louder for a new bridge, the separatist parties have a new cause celebre and crackpots are blogging their fool brains out about another conspiracy smuggled in from France under an architect’s beret.
Meanwhile, the federal government proudly points to the $158 million it has pledged to repair the bridge, pardon me, “invest” in “asset preservation” while spouting about being “committed to the safety and efficient operation…”
It can be argued the bridge is only worth repairing because without repairs, possibly even with, the deterioration could speed totally out of control before a replacement could be built. In any case, the bridge is too small for the job, and getting smaller. Fixing it will not fix that.
Read the reports. Read about the extensive salt damage, broken cables, impossible-to-replace concrete girders, the risk of collapse, etc. at www.pjcci.ca/english/champlain/intro.htm. It is easy and clear reading.
Sure, it would cost a billion, give or take, to replace the Champlain Bridge, but that is chump change when you consider: Canada is in line to spend $9 billion on new fighter jets; Papa Chretien dropped $750 million for four rust-bucket brit-subs; Transports Quebec blew a billion on a shrimpy metro expansion; our biannual federal elections cost about $300 million a pop…why not invest in something useful such as replacing Canada’s busiest bridge, the one that is said to carry $20 billion in international trade every year?
It’s not clear if the feds are committed to refusing to fund a new bridge. They are waiting for a pre-feasibility study about replacing it, if they aren’t already incubating it with their behinds. But it taxes the mind to imagine how any new study could be more damning, or soften the contents of the Delcan reports.
What would happen if we lost the bridge, say, to an earthquake? Natural Resources Canada reports that this area has had at least three “significant” earthquakes on record, most recently a 5.6 quake on the Richter scale in 1944. There were also 16 between 1980 and 2000 that were 4.0 or greater on the Richter scale.
Pretend that we get a quake that shuts down the bridge. Pretend too that it did not damage the Mercier, Victoria or Jacques Cartier bridges or the Lafontaine Tunnel – the sole useful, local connections between the US and South Shore to Montreal. If it were to happen before the A-30 ring road is completed in late 2012, heaven help us.
The crossings over and under the St. Lawrence River are already so overloaded it is hard to imagine them absorbing the 160,000 vehicles a day that normally cross the Champlain Bridge. Expect 24/7 gridlock, 13-to-a-car pooling, fleets of met-rowboats, Berlin-style airlifts from the St-Hubert Airport to the Montreal-Trudeau Airport, economic disaster as just-in-time turns into just-not-possible.
Where would the thousands of trucks that use the bridge every day go? The Mercier is already closed to westbound trucks for an indefinite time for repairs – it has been since the beginning of the year. Big trucks don’t take the Victoria, you don’t see many on the Jacques Cartier; could it accept a few thousand big trucks a day? The Lafontaine Tunnel is closed to dangerous cargo.
Trucks passing through from Eastern Canada could divert to the A-40 in Quebec City or Trois-Rivieres, not that the Metropolitan (the name for the A-40 where it crosses the Island) is fit for yet more traffic. Eastbound trucks could similarly stay on the A-40 and cross over to the A-20 at Trois-Rivieres or Quebec City.
Word is that Quebec Transport Minister Sam Hamad is going to strike a back-up emergency committee to plan what to do if the bridge goes out of service. The rub is that Montreal’s highways are already in a perpetual state of near-gridlock. Construction, snow, an accident or a stalled car regularly turn roads, sometimes the whole Island and its approaches into a vast parking lot. The locals already know what happens when one lane of the Champlain Bridge closes for 30 minutes. Try closing all six. For 10 years. Shiver me timbers.