Even More Champlain Bridge Blues

Superpoutre in place - credit to Robert Skinner, La Presse
Superpoutre in place – credit to Robert Skinner, La Presse

Superpoutre… guess we can all add that one to the lexicon. I have a feeling it may become quite common.

For the uninitiated, the ‘Superpoutre‘ or superbeam (a 75-tonne steel reinforcement beam), was successfully installed on the Champlain Bridge over the weekend, meaning motorists are safe to continue risking their lives to get to Brossard.

Mark my words, the Fed’s going to slowly reinforce the entire bridge with a steel exoskeleton until there’s basically a new bridge and the Champlain Bridge replacement project falls through completely (doubtless with many billions of dollars spent anyway).

Suffice it to say I’m suspicious, nay, deeply cynical, of anything promised by the Tories, especially if, as they said yesterday, they’re planning on completing a new bridge three years earlier than initially anticipated. This, from the same party that hasn’t delivered a single warship, icebreaker, fighter or maritime helicopter, despite their many, nay constant, assertions that they’re being as expeditious and fiscally responsible as possible concerning those particular major acquisitions. The truth, the reality, is the exact opposite. They’ve squandered time and money without producing a single thing throughout most if not all their years in office.

And now they want us to believe we’re getting a ten-lane bridge with an integrated light-rail system (and a toll) in four years?

Buddy have I got something to sell you…

Political Considerations

Perhaps the Tories are looking to pick up South Shore ridings in 2015…

Or perhaps it’s more subtle than that… just a simple reminder of who’s boss, who gets things done. I can’t help but see this as anything but more political theatre. Maybe they’re not interested in winning in the suburbs (à la Toronto and Vancouver, and here too, albeit twenty-five years ago) as much as they might want to undermine local confidence in the main opposition parties and their leaders, both of whom represent urban Montreal ridings. Heck, if there’s nothing going a year from now, maybe we won’t have any faith left in government at all. That kind of disengagement can make any election a cinch for the incumbent.

During Question Period today, when asked why there was no money set aside in the budget to actually pay the cost of construction, Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel said that money was available, that he was aware, as he put it, that motorists were praying to god every time they crossed over and that the Federal government cared deeply about the safety of motorists etc. His announcement Sunday, equally calculated, included a provision for light rail that he had previously denied. The request for such a provision was a sticking point in negotiations between the Fed and the Marois government, which as recently as last Thursday was demanding that the entire bridge replacement project by transferred to the provincial government.

Lebel returned that the Fed would be amenable to transferring control of Montreal’s bridges to the province after the new Champlain is completed. Mayor Denis Coderre was unenthusiastic, and I can only imagine Marois et al is upset they’ve been beaten to the punch and that a toll is part of the package regardless of their thoughts on the issue (someone’s gonna pay fer dat bridge).

In any event, Lebel is also promising that the new bridge will have ‘architectural appeal’ despite axing the planned architectural design competition (which was apparently allocated about half the overall time for the project before the new schedule). Danish architect Poul Ove Jensen has been hired to oversee bridge construction, ARUP Canada will provide engineering services with Provencher Roy will provide architectural consultation.

No bid, mind you. ARUP Canada Inc. was awarded a $15 million contract to provide these services back on October 28th. Lebel’s justification of the choice (or lack thereof) was that this particular group effectively provided the simplest, most cost-efficient solution.

As to the choice of architect, well once again the federal government looks everywhere but our own backyard. Call me a patriot, I’d prefer our new bridge be designed by someone who actually lives here.

As you’re no doubt aware, our city has bad luck when importing foreign design and construction methods.

Plus que ça change…

The Olympic Stadium, much like the Olympic Village, was designed for the climate of Southern France, not cold, snowy, windy, rainy ‘providing all seasons with gusto’ Montreal. The concrete used on both structures have both been negatively impacted by our winters, and this is saying nothing of the stadium’s ill-conceived roof. Similarly, the long concrete causeway that connects the steel portion of the bridge with Nun’s Island was built by a French company that also didn’t take into account local winter conditions – namely by not including a method to drain away accumulations of highly corrosive salted slush on the roadway. These modifications weren’t made until many decades after the bridge was built, by which point the damage had already been done.

And why did this French company get the job? Because it had the lowest bid.

Instead of using steel girders (like the recently-installed Superpoutre) they proposed an innovative (perhaps experimental) steel-cable reinforced concrete solution for the construction of the Champlain Bridge’s support structures. The concrete is so enmeshed with the high-tension cables it’s nearly impossible to fully replace existing beams, and so it looks like the only long-term solution to keep the bridge running until its replacement is complete is to do exactly what’s been done for many years already – 24/7 inspection and monitoring, patch-up jobs here and there, regular lane closures and occasional major repairs such as the one we just experienced.

A bridge that’s impossible to adequately repair built with a material nearly guaranteed to fail. You’d almost think it was a con…

I’m anxious to find out some technical information about this new bridge, like what shape it will take, how it will span the Seaway and what materials will be used, but given the architect’s other designs you can expect something neutral, inoffensive though perhaps ill-suited for the aesthetic of the city. Consider that all our steel bridges seem to be holding up just fine (and have done so for many more years than the Champlain), and that the world’s best steelworkers live just across the Mercier Bridge in Kanawake.

Isn’t it a bit odd we use so much drab, cheap, ineffective concrete in local construction when we have access to a superior material and internationally recognized workmanship?

Incidentally, the Danish architect is well known for using reinforced concrete, not steel.

Plus que ça change.

In any event, to wrap this all up, I’m not convinced we’re going to get what we need in the end, and I’m unimpressed with the project so far.

It seems like the Fed is making the same old mistakes – everything from not using a Canadian to design the bridge to not having an architectural contest of any duration to not having an open bid and apparently sticking with the absolute cheapest option. Oh yeah, and then there’s the expected re-use of a potentially flawed construction material.

This isn’t a good way to start a rush job.

And it seems to have only become a rush job for largely political purposes, which is worse still.

And we haven’t even yet discussed the sum – expected clock in anywhere from $3 to $5 billion – nor whether that money might be better spent elsewhere in the grand scheme of things (and where does the Champlain Bridge’s maintenance budget come from, and how long will that bridge definitively last?)

Final note; we never even stopped to consider if we really needed a bridge at all. Tunnels, in most cases, can last far longer than bridges, and in our local case, could likely be built cheaper than a bridge using a proven technique utilizing prestressed concrete segments to create an immersed tube.

So when you get right down to it, my question is still, fundamentally, this: why aren’t we building another Lafontaine Tunnel instead of a new Champlain Bridge?

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