03/15/2012 12:13 EDT | Updated 05/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Ottawa to discuss handing over Montreal bridges to Quebec: fed transport minister

MONTREAL - Canada's transport minister says Ottawa is ready to open talks about transferring Montreal's federally owned bridges — among the country's busiest — to Quebec.

Denis Lebel made the remarks, referring to the Champlain, Jacques Cartier and Mercier bridges, following a news conference Thursday at the Port of Montreal.

"It's clear that this is something that must be discussed," Lebel said, when asked where the Conservative government stands on a possible handover.

"It's too early to tell you where it's going to lead, but it's clear that we should discuss it."

Canada's Federal Bridge Corporation Ltd. oversees the management of a half-dozen major bridges, along with other structures across the country, including three bridges in Montreal — the Champlain, the Jacques Cartier, and a portion of the Mercier.

Ottawa is responsible for these bridges because at one time they were all under the jurisdiction of the federally run St. Lawrence Seaway, and the Federal Bridge Corporation was eventually created to manage them.

The federal government pays significant portions of the bridges' upkeep and, when the time comes, for their replacement.

Last fall, the Harper government made a long-awaited announcement that it would replace the rapidly disintegrating, 50-year-old Champlain Bridge, which connects Montreal to its south-shore suburbs.

The project is expected to take as long as 10 years and cost up to $5 billion, a tab Ottawa says will be funded with the help of a private-public partnership and a toll system.

The Montreal bridges are the only intraprovincial spans under the corporation's jurisdiction. It also manages three international bridges in Ontario: Cornwall, Thousand Islands and Sault Ste. Marie.

Lebel said local municipal leaders and the province have shared ideas about the future of the bridge and should have more control over decisions that impact the infrastructures.

The replacement of the crumbling Champlain Bridge became a major campaign issue in the Montreal region ahead of last year's federal election.

All the major political parties promised to build a new bridge except the Tories, who, despite heavy political pressure, instead pledged to spend millions to repair the existing one. In October, the Conservative government finally announced it would replace the Champlain.

At the provincial level, the leader of the opposition Parti Quebecois has called on Ottawa to transfer the rebuilt Champlain — and kick in the money to pay for its upkeep.

Pauline Marois has said that when the PQ was in power it made three unsuccessful attempts to negotiate the bridges' transfer to Quebec.

Lebel was at the Port of Montreal on Thursday to announce Ottawa will spend up to $15.6 million in upgrades, which are expected to increase its container-handling capacity by more than 12 per cent.

He said the port's capacity will rise from 1.6 million containers to 1.8 million and that the project will create jobs in the area.

Lebel said the government will fund another project to improve navigation, by helping ships increase their capacity, in the St. Lawrence channel between Montreal and Quebec City.

He expects the work to create 110 direct jobs during construction and 150 jobs to maintain operations after it is completed in March 2014.