Corrosion shortened lifespan of soon-to-be obsolete old Champlain Bridge
The new Champlain Bridge opened to inbound traffic Monday morning, making the old bridge one step closer to becoming obsolete – and it can’t happen soon enough.
After seven years to design and build, Montreal’s original Champlain Bridge opened on June 28, 1962. Forty-five years later, in 2007, the need for a new span became clear.
Using road salt to help melt snow and ice wasn't a consideration when the original bridge was erected, but just one year later, salt usage became widespread in Quebec.
“It was not designed for a salt environment,” said Glen Carlin, who served as the general manager of the federal bridge authority at the time.
More than five decades of snow, ice and salt and more daily kilometres than expected took its toll on the bridge.
“It's actually the steel that's rotting and the steel corrodes and it creates pressures on the concrete – and the concrete falls off,” explained Guy Mailhot, who was the principal director of engineering.
In 2009, the Jacques-Cartier and Champlain Bridges Incorporated announced a ten-year repair plan to extend the bridge's life. The federal government spent hundreds of millions of dollars installing an external skeleton, a super support beam and trusses under the bridge to keep it above water, among other reinforcement measures.
“Even though these investments seem to be important, when we think of how important that link is in terms of the economy, we've got to spend these funds,” said Carlin.
The federal government listened. In May 2011, then-federal transport minister Denis Lebel announced Montreal would be getting a new Champlain Bridge.
An early estimate revealed the bridge would be ready by 2018, but the delivery date was pushed back several times.
“It was an absolute urgency to replace this bridge,” said structural engineer Hellen Christodoulou.
Designed by Poul Ove Jensen of Denmark, the engineer was hand-picked by Ottawa; the urgent need for a new bridge left no time for competition.
In 2015, the federal government selected the Signature on the Saint Lawrence consortium to start building it. SSL used mainly locally sourced material but did have to outsource.
Had they used more local material, the chances of an on-time delivery would have been greater, said Christodoulou.
“We had delays,” she said. “Had it been local, the question still arises would that span be reduced? In my opinion, yes,” she said.
SSL was chosen because it was the lowest bidder. Christodoulou said that could have presented a problem.
“We should not submit to the lowest-bidding contract. That is an error in itself, because we minimize the possibility of quality and innovation,” she said.
Compromising quality could lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs, she contended.
That’s an all-too-familiar story. When the bridge opened in the early 1960s, the government relied on tolls to fund repairs. They were abolished in 1990.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the new bridge will continue to be toll-free.
Christodoulou believes the new $4.2 billion, six-lane, cable-stayed bridge will last the expected 125 years.
Once the second phase of the bridge opens on July 1, Montreal will say goodbye to the old Champlain Bridge – but not right away.
Demolition is expected to take four years and cost $400 million. The bridge authority plans to award a contract at the beginning of next year.
2017 timelapse footage: What it will look like to dismantle the old Champlain Bridge
In the meantime, as drivers continue to cross the old Champlain Bridge, it will be monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week – and even as it is dismantled.