12/01/2013 03:11 EST | Updated 01/31/2014 05:59 EST

Federal government promises to speed up construction of new Montreal bridge

MONTREAL - The Harper government is promising to build a replacement for Montreal's Champlain Bridge by 2018, three years earlier than originally planned.

Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel said the procurement process for the new $5-billion toll bridge, built through a public-private partnership, will begin next spring.

"I can assure you we will not cut corners," Lebel said at a Montreal news conference on Sunday.

"The new bridge will be safe and be built to last 100 years."

Lebel made the announcement as emergency repairs wrapped up on the current bridge — a key artery linking Montreal to its south shore suburbs.

The Champlain is one of a handful of bridges across the country that come under federal jurisdiction.

The crumbling structure had to be temporarily closed on the weekend to install a steel support beam after a crack was discovered in one of its girders.

"I'm fully aware of the inconvenience and concern that this situation has caused to the thousands of people who use the bridge each day, people who depend on the bridge to go to work or school," Lebel said.

"This is why we have been working so hard to bring the situation back to normal as soon as possible."

To speed up the process, Lebel said the government decided to do away with an architectural competition it launched in conjunction with the city of Montreal last May.

Instead, it will leave the selection process up to the engineering firm ARUP Canada Inc. Poul Ove Jensen, a Danish architect, was chosen by the firm to help with the design.

Questions are already being raised by the NDP about the transparency of the new plan.

Hoang Mai, an MP for Montreal's south shore and the party's deputy transport critic, said he's in favour of the new timeline, but not if it means a lack of public oversight.

"For a long time, we've been arguing for an international competition so that we have the best minds around the world working on coming up with the best bridge," said Mai.

Built in 1962, the Champlain Bridge is one of the busiest bridges in Canada.

More than 50 million vehicles use the Champlain Bridge to travel across the St. Lawrence River every year.

- with files from Etienne Fortin-Gauthier