The Big Fix: The Battle to Keep Montreal’s Champlain Bridge from Collapsing

It was an engineering marvel-now it’s a mess. Until 2021, when the new crossing is due to be completed, Montrealers are stuck with the Champlain. The story of a famous bridge on its last legs.

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The Big Fix: The Battle to Keep Montreal's Champlain Bridge from Collapsing

(Photo: Michael Abril)

On a bracing November afternoon, Gilles Amiot manoeuvres his battered skip away from a muddy dock in the St. Lawrence River. The ruddy-faced 59-year-old harbour captain wears red coveralls, a hoodie pulled tightly around his ears and an orange hard hat. Amiot has been plying these waters for four decades, but every day for the past few years, starting at 6:30 a.m., he undertakes one of the most important duties of his career: ferrying dozens of men to the middle of the frigid, fast-moving water. Their mission? To make sure the Champlain Bridge doesn’t fall.

As Canada’s busiest crossing-about 60 million vehicles travel its length every year-the iconic 3.5- kilometre-long viaduct has endured decades of brutal conditions: relentless vibrations from passing semi-trucks and semi-trailers; insidious corrosion from road salt and slush; crushing pressure from ice floes heaped at its base. The Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridges Inc. (JCCBI), the Crown corporation that owns and operates the 51-year-old structure, is constantly resurfacing the deck, mostly in weekend blitzes. But the span’s predicament goes beyond cosmetic fixes: decay has spread to its bones. A web of cracks spiders through the elephantine piers; rusted reinforcement bars poke through disintegrating concrete; and the metre-high steel beams that buttress the deck twist like a deformed spine.

The Champlain is in desperate need of attention. And it’s not alone. Nearly a quarter of Canada’s municipal infrastructure is in appalling shape. After a long period of postwar investment in roads, bridges and water systems-which ran as high as five per cent of GDP in the prosperous 1950s and 1960s-governments slashed spending in the 1990s, just as these assets began to show their age. Big-city residents know this story intimately, thanks to daily encounters with broken sewer mains backing up into basements, pothole-pocked roads and, most infamously, crumbling overpasses. In 2010, the City of Vancouver rushed to install nets to catch pieces of concrete that the 81-year-old Burrard Bridge had begun shedding onto the sidewalk and bike path underneath. And Toronto commuters have reacted nervously to the concrete chunks, ranging in size from a loonie to a baseball, dropping from the elevated Gardiner Expressway to the road below. It’s happened over half a dozen times, and no one’s been hurt, so far. However, faced with a $500-million repair bill, Toronto city officials are pondering whether it would make more sense to knock the Gardiner down.

Next: Montrealers unnerved

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Montrealers seem especially unnerved by their city’s shabby state; a 2011 online poll by Léger Marketing found that more than half of respondents were “scared” of driving under an overpass, on a bridge or through a tunnel. That’s because, in Montreal, infrastructure woes can turn deadly-as happened in 2000, when eight beams broke loose from the du Souvenir Boulevard overpass, killing a man. It happened again in 2006, when the de la Concorde Boulevard overpass collapsed, crushing five people under tonnes of concrete. In 2011, the city narrowly missed yet another catastrophe when a 15-metre slab plummeted inside the Viger Tunnel on the Ville-Marie Expressway. No one was harmed, but a photo snapped by a tourist at the scene showed several cars seconds away from being struck by debris.

So it’s no surprise that there was city-wide alarm following the leak of a 2010 engineering report that found the Champlain-expected to be a “lifeline” bridge linking the city to off-island suburbs, and thus a vital route in the event of disaster-was already in terminal decline. Calling the span “functionally deficient,” the report warned that it could be wiped out by a catastrophic earthquake (typically, magnitude 7 or larger). The JCCBI insisted that the bridge was safe and that the report was merely indulging in worst-case scenarios. But while such an event may be unlikely, the threat can’t be discounted. Montreal sits in an active seismic zone; just last year, residents woke to a plate-rattling 4.5-magnitude tremor. 

In response, the federal government pledged $158 million for a major overhaul and promised a new bridge, estimated to be completed by 2021, at a cost of up to $5 billion. The replacement “will be a very big and complex undertaking,” says Paul Gauvreau, an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto. He expects it to be one of the country’s biggest public-works projects, at least equal in scale to the construction of the ambitious congestion-relieving second bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ont., that’s due for 2020. To be located about 10 metres downstream from the existing span, the Champlain replacement will require every known engineering trick, including the rerouting of nearby highways and ramps. But until the new bridge is ready-the winning design won’t be unveiled until 2015-contractors must race to stop the deterioration menacing the old one. You can’t blame Montrealers for being on edge.

Earlier this year, the Harper government proposed a 10-year, $53-billion infrastructure spending plan. This money can’t undo the accumulated neglect; the real tab for national upkeep is estimated by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to be at least $123 billion, or almost $3,500 for every Canadian. But it will create thousands of construction jobs, many of them involving the Herculean-and often hazardous-task of maintaining the decrepit infrastructure around us. Some of this work is already under way. Every day, crews are forced to make repairs while transit lines run and traffic flows. Shouldering heavy equipment, teams fan out in subway tunnels in the dead of night or climb wobbly platforms lashed to the undersides of bridges, greeted by driving wind or snow.

Amiot knows something about that. When gales hit, he charges out into the river, navigating from pier to pier to collect stranded workers and bring them to safety. Such episodes don’t always end well. In 2001, two men were building a scaffolding under the Champlain’s deck when sharp gusts tossed both into the river. One worker was never found.

Amiot steers toward a pier sheathed in billowing plastic sheets. The column is necklaced by a walkway jerry-rigged with two-by-fours and plywood. At the base is a jumble of platforms and cramped work sheds. Amiot drives downstream and deftly swings back, pushing hard against the strong current until his skip noses up against a prefab dock.

One of his passengers, wearing workboots, jeans and a life jacket, is Juan Echague, the 37-year-old civil engineer responsible for keeping the Champlain upright. Raised in mountainous Chile, Echague fell in love with bridges; as a child, he was gripped by tales of how the Inca suspended handwoven structures across deep gorges. He joined the JCCBI in 2011, after seven years spent building bridges and rail viaducts in cities such as Bucharest, Romania; Lahore, Pakistan; and Dubai, UAE. Broad-faced with high cheekbones, he speaks rapturously about the Champlain. “You’re in charge of an entity with a story, a life,” he says.

Erected in 1962 as part of Canada’s mid-century infrastructure boom-along with other key projects,  such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, Ontario’s Burlington Skyway and Vancouver’s Second Narrows Crossing-the Champlain was arguably one of the more ambitious ventures. Not only was its span unusually long for the era (with a total length of six kilometres, it’s still one of the country’s longest bridges), it had to be built high enough to allow ocean-going vessels to pass underneath. By connecting Montreal to the South Shore, the bridge accelerated suburban growth and became a conduit for over $20 billion in trade between Eastern Canada and the northeast United States, thus establishing the city as a major manufacturing hub. The Champlain has also loomed large in local debates. After 9/11, experts declared the bridge vulnerable to a bomb attack. In 2007, a suicidal man scaled to the top and stayed put for six hours, closing the bridge and prompting calls for better security. Such incidents, when added to the grinding traffic jams, have fuelled public interest in alternatives, including schemes to dig a tunnel under the river or turn a nearby ice bridge-a series of piers that break up sheets of melting ice-into a viaduct for a light-rail train. (The light-rail option is now being discussed for the new Champlain bridge.)

Amiot keeps the boat engine running so the current won’t pull the skip away from the dock, and we scramble up a narrow plank, picking our way through the clutter of gas canisters, tool boxes and porta-potties. When driving over a long bridge, one mainly sees road and vista. But the underside of a span is an entirely different world, defined by contrasts. Anchored impossibly into the surging water, the oblong grey piers of the Champlain feel like stranded monoliths. The deck, far above, extends a cathedral-like hush over the work site-quiet except for the muffled rumble of cars overhead.

Around us, workers bustle. Some of the 75 to 150 workers assigned to the bridge each day are trained as steelworkers, while others specialize in inspections. Most carry out one of the most unremitting parts of bridge upkeep: refurbishing concrete. The 50 piers are being tackled one at a time, with each taking months to complete. Crews start with the foundation beneath the surface of the water, then move up the sides as they head for the top. The Champlain’s design may have been state of the art back in the 1950s, but it included inadequate drainage that proved exceptionally damaging for a structure expected to withstand countless winter salt baths. Like many bridges of its era, it used a more granular type of cement that allowed water to infiltrate, which in turn rusted the internal steel bars and caused them to expand, until clumps of concrete busted loose. To stem the damage, crew members use a variety of methods, depending on the severity of the decay. One day, they might inject silicon into fractures; or they might spread concrete on cracks, wrap the surface in plastic and pump in warm air to help it cure.

Next: Serious damage

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Echague, together with dozens of other engineers and technicians, is in constant triage mode. The damage is as bad as he’s ever seen on a North American bridge, but his experience in overcoming geographic hurdles, such as deep ravines in high-seismic-risk areas, helps him to think creatively. His team scopes out a problem, puts out a request for proposals from engineering companies, peer reviews submissions, then issues the contract. It never ends. “There’s so much to correct,” he says, explaining that, as they close in, crews are constantly finding new cracks and fissures in the piers. “You can’t do it all. There are judgment calls all the time-that’s the hardest part of the job.” Complicating matters, the most visible signs of decay, such as delaminated concrete (where the exterior has fallen away, leaving rusted rebar to jut out), are not always the most pressing problems. Lately, Echague has focused on shoring up the girders that run parallel to traffic.

We get back in Amiot’s boat so Echague can show me what he means. He points to a trapezoidal truss, known as a queen post, that drops down from the I-beam supporting the outer edge of one part of the deck. The Champlain was never expected to deteriorate so severely after just 50 years, but JCCBI contractors had to take the unusual step of fitting these expensive steel braces to stop heavily corroded beams from sagging.

As a further fail-safe, they reinforced the new concrete, coating those beams with bands of tightly cinched steel cables. Finally, the bridge authority installed motion detectors at regular intervals along the underside of the deck. The sensors, which look like crossed PVC pipes with wires threaded through them, can pick up vibrations of even a few microns-a micron is one-thousandth of a millimetre-and relay the data back to the JCCBI’s computers, which analyze the pattern in real time and can warn agency officials of beyond-normal traffic load. In response, they can mechanically adjust the queen post to counteract the shearing effect of the vibrations on the main beams.

Amiot guides us toward another pier. When we pull up, four burly workers at the end of their shifts are standing on the dock with their lunch boxes, waiting for a ride back to shore. Echague directs me to a five-storey staircase that leads to a plywood platform suspended below the deck of the bridge. As we climb, the structure rattles and sways. About three metres beneath the platform, the steel-grate staircase ends abruptly, and we clamber the rest of the way on the bars of the scaffolding.

This exposed climb, with the St. Lawrence River churning below, is part of the morning commute for the crews who labour on some of the most damaged portions of the Champlain. The platform has railings and is shielded from the sky by the deck above. Still, dozens of men stride around without harnesses in bone-chilling winds. “Every worker on the bridge is proud,” Echague says. “The conditions are very hard.

Next: Fixing the cracks

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The dilemma with the Champlain arose because it was stricken well before its time-major bridges are today expected to last from 75 to 100 years. Much of the wear and tear stems from years of deferred maintenance, the scourge of Canada’s major civic structures. Consequently, JCCBI officials must brainstorm unusual solutions to ensure the bridge stays in service until the new span is completed.

Last year, one of the Champlain’s most urgent problems involved the thick rubber pads, or bearings, squeezed between the tops of the piers and the deck’s underside. Bridges need to be able to flex so they can withstand the freeze-and-thaw cycle; sawtooth grates between segments of the deck allow the Champlain to expand and contract. But bridges also need shock absorbers to survive the barrage of passing vehicles, hence the rubber pads.

When Echague’s inspectors discovered that many of these bearings were heavily damaged from corrosion and compression, they had to figure out how to replace them. They decided to use high-power jacks to lift the deck in 22 separate locations along the length of the bridge. The jacks, resembling oversized coffee cans topped by anvil-like heads, raised the deck by about 10 centimetres-just enough clearance to peel away each rotted, doormat-like bearing and fasten a new one.

The hydraulic jacks, moreover, were connected to a single unit of valves, allowing a single operator sitting at a control panel to carry out the operation. Each replacement required about half an hour to complete, and the work took place over a few days late last fall. It’s almost certain the thousands of drivers zipping across the span had no idea it was being hoisted up mechanically beneath their wheels. 

Echague opens a plywood trap door over the construction platform, and we gingerly make our way down the scaffolding staircase to the bottom. Before we board Amiot’s skip, we lift our gaze. “It’s a beautiful structure,” Echague says.

For those lucky enough to see the Champlain up close, there’s indeed a sense of awe about this immense, man-made object and how it has defied water and the elements. Yet the Champlain’s shocking fragility calls to mind bridge collapses in other cities. In 2007, the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis-Minnesota’s fifth busiest at the time-toppled during rush hour. It not only killed 13 travellers, but severely disrupted the local economy, causing an estimated $43-million decline in productivity in 2008. Echague argues that any fears the Champlain will collapse just as completely-and take with it a portion of the 160,000 vehicles that pass over it daily-are unfounded. The Champlain, he explains, is more at risk for a partial road depression (with one or two lanes affected) than a sudden collapse of a section. Even so, that kind of mishap would render the span off limits. South Shore commuters would have to resort either to the Jacques Cartier Bridge, the Honoré Mercier Bridge or the Louis-Hippolyte Tunnel. It would also hobble Montreal’s economy, as trucks travelling between Montreal-area factories and destinations in the United States would be forced to find alternatives. A 2011 study by the Federal Bridge Corporation on the closure of the Champlain-should it ever occur-predicted losses of $740 million a year.

Echague and his team are determined not to let that happen. It will be a fight to the finish-one that will end with the total destruction of their work. Once the new bridge is open for traffic, the JCCBI will likely dismantle Montreal’s dilapidated marvel of postwar engineering, at an estimated cost of $155 million. The three-year demolition will produce about 180,000 tonnes of concrete and steel-the weight of a mid-size oil tanker.

Until then, Echague has a job to do. “It’s all about getting people home,” he shouts over the sound of Amiot’s boat. As we plow through the waves, the massive bridge recedes, and the piers-broad and high-dwindle, looking like so many poles sticking out of the water.

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