The real fix for our crumbling bridges

As the issues with the Champlain are showing, Montreal’s bridge problem may be more serious than we think.

Champlain Bridge
The Champlain Bridge. Photo via Flickr

The Champlain Bridge is falling down,
falling down, falling down.
The Champlain Bridge is falling down,
Let’s take the Mercier.


You can be forgiven for thinking that the loud boom heard across the western part of the Island last night was the sound of one of our bridges collapsing into the St. Lawrence.

When Jacques Cartier “discovered” the Iroquoian island village of Hochelaga in 1535, the only way to get there was by boat — or across the shifting ice in winter. Although he landed not far from the point where the future Jacques-Cartier Bridge would be built, he likely didn’t spend much time thinking about how future generations would commute to their jobs on the Island from the right bank of the St. Lawrence River.

Fast forward 478 years. Bridges and tunnels are now virtually the only way people can travel to Montreal and, as we are now discovering in dramatic fashion, are as essential to our economic lives as arteries are to our physical ones.

There are now 24 bridges and three tunnels on the Island of Montreal, but just five serve vehicle traffic from the South Shore. Of those, the “modern” Champlain (1964) and Mercier (1934) are in pretty rough shape, and the old but sturdy Victoria (1860) is too small to handle even a fraction of the daily commuter traffic. That leaves the Jacques-Cartier (1930) and the Lafontaine Tunnel.

So when the government is forced to close or reduce traffic on those structures for critical repairs, the pressure on the remaining infrastructure builds up until commuters themselves are ready to blow.

Adding to the chaos is the crumbling infrastructure of the Turcot Interchange, not to mention various ramps and overpasses identified by the Quebec Transport Ministry as needing major repair.

And, oh, yeah, the Île aux Tourtes bridge (1966) — which has undergone major work four times in 20 years — is currently getting another major nip-and-tuck to keep it structurally sound until it is replaced starting in 2020. (The span connects Montreal with Vaudreuil-Soulanges and carries almost as many vehicles a day as the Jacques-Cartier Bridge.)


Why it is that bridges we built in the 1960s are falling apart faster than ones we built more than a century ago is a mystery to me. Maybe it was the switch from stone and iron to steel and concrete. Maybe it’s because pride of craft has given way to pride of profit. Maybe in our rush to build with the latest, cheapest, sometimes untested technology, we have lost the ability to think ahead. You hear it often in the excuses for why repairs on the Champlain and Mercier are both unexpected and unexpectedly urgent. “It wasn’t built to handle that much traffic; we didn’t realize that road salt would penetrate the metal reinforcing the pillars; we didn’t this and we didn’t that.”

And here we are again, rushing to come up with a replacement for a Champlain Bridge that is falling apart far faster than its designers or builders had ever imagined — or that government engineers would even admit just a few short years ago.

“When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember that your initial mission was to drain the swamp.” Our public officials need to keep that old saying in mind and reject the tunnel vision inherent in the idea that we need to “replace” the bridge.

No, we don’t. What we need to do is engage in some serious reflection on what we would like our urban environment to look like 100 years down the road and build accordingly. (Government specs require the new structure to be built to last 125 years.)

While private vehicle traffic across the St. Lawrence has steadily increased year after year, it can’t grow much further for the simple reason that there’s no more room left on the island to accommodate an increase in the 160,000 vehicles that traverse the bridge each day. That’s not anti-car propaganda — it’s a fact that car owners themselves acknowledge when they complain about traffic density downtown. Bigger bridges would only worsen the problem by bringing even more vehicles downtown in peak periods.

The last thing we want is to make it easier to drive into the city.

That’s why any future structures — bridges, tunnels or worm-holes — need to have as their first priority a highly efficient public transit system that encourages people to leave their jalopies at home or in mass-transit parking lots. If that means keeping a lid on car lanes in favour of light rail, then that’s what we should do. Then when we hear a boom, we’ll know it’s just the sound of the train whipping past traffic stuck on the bridge.


The Mercier’s down to just one lane,
just one lane, just one lane.
The Mercier’s down to just one lane,
too bad we can’t take a train.

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear every Wednesday. Follow him on Twitter, or find out about his upcoming stand-up performances here.

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