NEWS
07/14/2011 11:02 EDT | Updated 09/13/2011 05:12 EDT

Transport Minister Denis Lebel's About-Face On Champlain Bridge Report

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- MONTREAL - Canada's new transport minister was forced to perform an abrupt about-face Wednesday after declaring that he did not want to release a structural report on a major Montreal bridge because people might worry.

The remarks by Denis Lebel were, of course, noticed in Montreal where 60 million vehicles cross the Champlain Bridge annually and make it one of the country's busiest spans.

His remarks became a top news story in Quebec. The bridge has been a source of public concern since the release this spring of another report that warned it's at risk of collapse.

With 24 hours the Prime Minister's Office made it clear that the rookie transport minister would have more to say on the matter.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office announced Wednesday morning that the bridge report would be released, after all.

By early afternoon Lebel had issued a statement stressing his personal commitment to transparency in the matter: "We want to ensure that Canadians have access to information about the Champlain bridge, and that is why the pre-feasibility technical report has been publicly released."

As it turned out, the report was not actually that alarming.

Unlike a previous engineering study produced this spring, which warned of potential collapse, this one was forward-looking and examined potential replacement options for the bridge.

The study said it would cost as much as $25 million per year over the next decade simply to prolong the life of the bridge -- and that still wouldn't produce a long-term fix.

The report estimated the cost of a replacement bridge (including the $155-million demolition of the existing span) at $1.3 billion, while a new tunnel would cost around $1.9 billion.

It concluded that digging a tunnel would include numerous benefits, but would also cost more than a new bridge.

Produced by a consortium of engineering firms for the Crown agency that manages the bridge, the report also described potential environmental concerns.

It said replacing the bridge could disrupt fish stocks, bird habitats, and an archeological site.

Its lack of alarmism left some people scratching their heads.

A community coalition promoting the bridge replacement said it had a hard time understanding why a seemingly innocuous pre-feasibility study would be grounds for Lebel's expression of concern.

New Democrat MP Jamie Nicholls said Lebel's comments raised the city's collective blood pressure, making people believe the government was hiding something about the safety of the Champlain.

"By saying originally that they weren't going to release the report just raised the fear level of people," said Nicholls, the party's junior transport critic who represents a Montreal-area riding.

"I don't think that the bridge is in danger of falling down tomorrow, or the next week -- we'd just like the government to be transparent on the issue, so that people don't have to invent nightmare scenarios."

The document released Wednesday referred only peripherally to previous assessments that the bridge could be knocked down by a powerful earthquake.

"Annual expenditures rising from $18 million to $25 million over the next ten years, increasing at a constant rate, would be necessary to prolong its life, without in any way improving the level of seismic performance or rehabilitating the bridge deck," said the report.

"The maintenance work will become increasingly extensive and complex and require increasingly long lane closures and ever greater inconvenience for users."

Even the Roman Catholic Church has been making jokes about the condition of the bridge.

The archdiocese of Montreal used a cheeky highway billboard as part of its annual Easter fundraising campaign.

The roadside advertisement advised motorists to, "Say Your Prayers," as they approached the crumbling structure.

The government has not committed to replacing the bridge. On Wednesday, Lebel said, "All options are being considered and remain on the table."

A day earlier, Lebel had justified the non-release of the report by saying people without the proper expertise might misinterpret its findings and cause public anguish for nothing.

He also said he was concerned that some people might try turning the Champlain Bridge into a political issue.

This was after structural assessment of the bridge, released in March, had warned that the six-kilometre-long Champlain was at risk of falling into the St. Lawrence River.

"It has been recognized there is a risk of partial collapse of the bridge, or even the collapse of a span," said that report, which was prepared for the federal agency that maintains the bridge.