Friday, July 20, 2007

Neglect, design to blame for condition of Quebec roads and bridges

This issue is not just confined to Quebec. It is nationwide as the 2003 Conference Board report shows. The difference is that Quebec has already had a serious failure of a bridge. Here in Manitoba a bridge at Portage la Prairie on the Trans-Canada is being repaired as a result of inspections after the Quebec event. While we have a 60 dollar deficit in infrastructure upkeep in Canada we are busy buying more tanks to send to Afghanistan, opening new military schools, and sending aid funds to reconstruct Afghanistan.

Neglect, design to blamefor Quebec roads
Infrastructure Issues; Potholes, Water Main Damages Plague Province

Allison Hanes
National Post

Friday, July 20, 2007

A four-lane highway tore open like a zipper causing a fiery car wreck from which a woman was plucked burned and broken but alive. A six-storey geyser of water erupted in the middle of downtown Montreal flooding cars and streets. A suburban overpass suddenly collapsed on a Saturday afternoon killing five -- including a couple expecting their first baby.

What seem like special effects in an apocalyptic action film occurred within the past two years in Quebec -- and these are but the most spectacular disasters to have befallen the province's cracked, corroded and crumbling essential infrastructure.

Quebec is literally falling apart for reasons that range from long-term neglect to fatal design flaws to human error.

Yesterday, Quebec's Transport Department restricted traffic on 135 viaducts across the province suspected of being structurally unsound, limiting the weight of all big-rig trucks and banning the heaviest vehicles altogether.

Last week, a section of Sherbrooke Street -- a major thoroughfare in downtown Montreal as vital as Bloor Street is to Toronto, Jasper Avenue is to Edmonton, or Robson Street is to Vancouver -- was suddenly closed for emergency repairs to prevent it from potentially caving in.

As a public inquiry seeks answers in the rubble of the fatal Laval overpass collapse, the emerging evidence has suggested that the toll of neglect and decay can no longer be ignored.

Almost two dozen experts from the worlds of municipal politics, business, public administration and academia recently called the level of decrepitude "a red alert."

"For many years our infrastructure and building heritage has been showing increasingly worrying signs of age," they stated in an open letter published in La Presse under the blaring banner "SOS Infrastructure."

"Water main breaks are a common occurrence. Potholes in the roads have become fodder for caricature ... But most of them are merely patched up because the money available isn't even sufficient to repair the most urgent needs."

Saeed Mirza, a professor of civil engineering at McGill University, said there are myriad reasons for the sorry state of Quebec's roads, bridges, viaducts and aqueducts.

From a construction boom in the 1950s, '60s and '70s that led to lapses in quality control, to designs that were not meant to bear the load of 21st-century traffic, to harsh weather, to the corrosive properties of sand and salt, to budget constraints that led to the deferral of maintenance, Prof. Mirza said time has not been kind to Quebec infrastructure.

"The practice that we had so far is design, build and forget," he said.

Testimony before the commission probing the de la Concorde overpass collapse last September has only heightened public anxiety with tales of stopgap patchwork, contradictory diagnoses, deferred maintenance and a repair schedule determined by budget.

It was revealed that 135 viaducts from the same era may be missing the crucial steel support rods absent in the Laval structure.

A nearby overpass built using the same design was demolished last fall.

Gord Steeves, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said in some ways Quebec is a particular case in that its current problems stem from a prolonged period of confrontation over mergers and neglect for towns and cities during nine years of Parti Quebecois rule.

"I think Quebec is probably paying a price for a provincial government in the past that didn't really open up the door to municipalities," Mr. Steeves said.

"It's a graphic example how if you leave something for any period of time you may well pay a price at some point in the future," he continued.

A Conference Board of Canada report issued in 2003 officially pegged Canada's infrastructure deficit at $60-billion, but because of inflation, Mr. Steeves said the latest estimate is closer to $100-billion.

That report evaluated Quebec's needs at $18-billion four years ago.

But in today's dollars that amount would barely cover the costs of fixing Montreal.

Darren Becker, a spokesman for the city, said Montreal's age, coupled with successive municipal administrations that left problems to fester, resulted in the current state of disrepair, where an estimated 40% of Montreal's water supply is lost through leaks and potholes.

Mayor Gerald Tremblay has committed to tackling the urban decay he inherited, investing $500-million a year in roads and $10-billion over 20 years to overhaul the water system.

Montreal is proceeding street by street to replace water mains rather than just patching and repaving them. St. Laurent Boulevard has also been torn up this summer.

"It may not be sexy in terms of a political choice to invest in concrete or sewer pipes, but it's the foundation of the city and if it's neglected for too long you get what we've had," Mr. Becker said.

A sign of the gravity of the situation: the city announced last week that road work will continue throughout the two-week annual construction holiday -- normally unthinkable in unionized Quebec.

Zaki Ghavitian, the president of the Ordre des ingenieurs du Quebec, the professional body for engineers, said the current blitz may be unpopular with the public but it's crucial.

"It is a little like the decision faced by a homeowner to redo the roof instead of buying a high-definition television: necessary but not much fun," he stated recently.

© National Post 2007

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