The Continuing Saga Of Montreal's New Champlain Bridge Construction

Nov 8, 2017

A massive new bridge is rising over the St. Lawrence River this side of Montreal. Construction on the new Champlain Bridge began almost two years ago, and when finished, the bridge will accommodate six lanes of traffic, a commuter rail system and a bike path.

But whether the bridge will be finished by a December 2018 deadline is the subject of some concern by both the builders and government officials.

"I think it's about 60 percent completed at this point. And there's a year and a bit to go. ... They're gonna have quite a bit of a crunch between now and the deadline of Dec. 1, 2018," Montreal Gazette transportation reporter Jason Magder told Vermont Edition

Magder said the work crew size has been increased and they are already working 6 days a week, 20 hours per day, in order to make up time from obstacles that have cropped up since the groundbreaking in June 2015.

"They've run into a few problems in the last three years since they started building this massive project — it's actually I think it's the biggest infrastructure project in Canada going on right now," Magder explained. "And one of them was that they can't transport the huge heavy materials on the old Champlain Bridge that this bridge is replacing because there are now new weight restrictions on it. So that has slowed down the project a lot because they've had to bring a lot of the materials in by boat."

Those boats are traveling on a waterway with heavy currents, meaning certain barges have to be used, Magder said, and things got held up when one of barges sank. On top of that, two labor strikes also added to the delay, Magder added.

"They can't transport the huge heavy materials on the old Champlain Bridge that this bridge is replacing because there are now new weight restrictions on it. So that has slowed down the project a lot because they've had to bring a lot of the materials in by boat." — Jason Magder, 'Montreal Gazette'

The consortium of builders of the new Champlain Bridge is called Signature on the Saint Lawrence Group, and the group is expected to pay for any cost overruns that are essentially deemed their fault. There are also large financial penalties — in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per day — for missing the Dec. 1, 2018 project deadline. 

"Signature on the Saint Lawrence [Group] ... is in the process of suing the federal government to try to recoup some of this money and make sure that they're not held responsible for the delay that bringing all this material to the bridge has caused," Magder explained, adding that the group says they still plan to meet the existing deadline.

But why was a new bridge even needed?

"It's crumbling a little earlier than its time, probably because of bad design," Magder said of the old Champlain Bridge. "In the '60s it was built and at that time they weren't using road salts on many of the highways in the province. So the bridge was never built to withstand the corrosion that salt and water can actually do to road surfaces and steel structures.

"So they didn't actually build it with any drainage and because of that, all the water and salt just dripped over the side and over about 30 years, just corroded all of the beams underneath the existing bridge."

The total budget for the new bridge is more than $4 billion dollars. Magder has visited the work site and said the new bridge's tallest posts will be similar in height to Montreal's Olympic Stadium.

Listen to the interview above.

Broadcast on Wednesday, Nov. 8, at 12 p.m.; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.