So apparently we’re getting a very expensive bridge…

The Champlain Bridge, Montréal - not the work of the author.

…and as always, efficiency takes a back seat when it comes to stimulus spending and infrastructure development in the Montréal region.

The CBC announced a plan by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper (in case you were unaware) to build a $5 billion replacement for the Champlain Bridge over the course of a decade. The new bridge will feature ten traffic lanes and is designed to fully replace the existing Champlain Bridge, which is estimated by some to no longer be worth retrofitting or renovating after 2022 when it will turn sixty years old. Maintenance costs to keep the bridge operational until then will come up to about $25 million over the next ten years. Previous cost estimates for bridge replacement came to $1.3 billion for a replacement by a similar span, and $1.9 billion for a double-decker tunnel capable of handling a similar amount of traffic (roughly 156,000 cars and trucks use the bridge each day) on one level with buses and trains on a lower level. The projected construction time was five years for each project, which is in line with the amount of time it took to build just about every other bridge and tunnel connecting the Island to the Mainland. Moreover, adjusted for inflation alone, the cost of building the Champlain Bridge would only cost about a quarter billion of today’s dollars. Now while many argue the cost of construction has gone up, I’d still like to know just what it is about this replacement bridge that justifies a $5 billion expenditure? For additional details, see the Wikipedia entry.

Perhaps the cost was estimated based not on actual costs for materials, labour, design and construction, but instead based instead on trying to ensure everyone gets a slice of the stimuli pie. Given that Québec lost out on the Great Canadian Shipbuilding Sweepstakes, perhaps this expensive bridge project is some kind of a consolation prize. Do we not recognize that it is sounder to seek smaller amounts of tax revenue for stimulus spending than larger amounts? Is it not our responsibility to seek efficient infrastructure solutions?

Here’s the deal – in my opinion, replacing the Champlain Bridge with an enlarged replacement toll-bridge isn’t exactly helping reduce traffic congestion in Montréal, and its not entirely fair to use tax dollars to build it and then a toll to pay for it. Moreover, it may not even be necessary, and that is to say that there are many considerably wiser, more efficient ways to spend such a large sum (such as on public transit) which in turn may allow the Champlain Bridge a longer life-expectancy and a considerably smaller associated long-term maintenance costs, thus making bridge replacement a moot point.

But none of that seems to matter – once again, infrastructure redevelopment is narrowly focused, places an emphasis on the needs of the few as opposed to the many, and is more about securing large investments for an already corrupt construction industry instead of seeking to trim costs and ensure fiscal responsibility. Is it any wonder the rest of Canada thinks we get an unfair advantage?

Consider the 2009 Métro extension plan, which aimed to increase the network by a dozen stations on twenty kilometres of new track and tunnel, extending into Eastern Montreal and the South Shore in addition to closing the Orange Line loop, benefitting the residents of St-Laurent, Pierrefonds, Cartierville and Laval. That project is estimated to cost $4 billion and could potentially add several hundred thousand more individual uses per day in addition to further extending the operational reach of both the STM and AMT. Aside from the issue that the provincial plan benefits people throughout the metropolitan region, it further would lessen the strain on our bridges, meaning the Champlain’s life-expectancy (with additional preventative maintenance) could be extended beyond sixty years. All of the other bridges are considerably older than the Champlain and are still working fine, and it should be noted that other bridges and tunnels were often designed as part of larger transit schemes. This replacement bridge will carry no tram lines, no provision for commuter trains, and only a limited number of reserved bus lanes. It’s too little, too late, and designed for a bygone era. How typically Québecois.

Unfortunately, it now seems as though the STM is unable to secure funding to execute the entire plan, and so the Mayors of Montréal, Laval and Longueuil now have to petition the people and the provincial government for their own individual extensions. This is an awful situation to be in, yet here we are, bitching and banging heads against each other for a thin slice of the better idea. If the fed can justify spending $5 billion on a bridge replacement, why not spend $4 billion to help more people get around and then spend the billion left-over dollars to fully renovate and upgrade the existing bridge? How is that a sounder investment?

Consider other plans, such as the use of ferries, light-rail lines across the ice-bridges, new Métro and commuter train lines or running surface trams on reserved lanes on the existing bridges and tunnels. There are many ways to cut down on the number of people bringing their cars into the city and increase the number of people utilizing public transit as their primary means to get around. But if the City can’t reign in government and guarantee an efficient use of stimulus funding, then we’re bound to develop along someone else’s politics, someone else’s vision. And as long as we congratulate ourselves for taking unfairly large portions of the communal tax revenue (as some kind of sick justification for our opportunistic federalism, no doubt), then we get what we pay for, and have no reason to pout when things fall apart. We’ve been responsible for our own infrastructure problems for years because we develop said infrastructure as though it were a consumer item, and thus the bridges, tunnels and buildings we procure are designed to artificially stimulate the construction industry by requiring near constant maintenance. And so we are literally stuck in a rut. Why is it that every Summer major construction work is required throughout the City? Are we foolish designers or are we trying to keep a bloated industry well-financed with futile self-perpetuating renovation work? We must begin designing more durably and begin employing innovative technological solutions to finally solve our frequent problems with rapid infrastructure degeneration.

It’s becoming clear to me that we are not designing with problem-solving in mind, and this will be our undoing. Technological solutions for most of the infrastructure problems we encounter on a day to day basis could be saving us incredible amounts of money, but they mean some people in the construction industry won’t make as much money as they used to. The new Champlain Bridge project smells so bad of graft and nepotism you’d think the price tag was of the scratch-and-sniff variety.

What of our privilege? What of our prosperity?

It bothers me to hear our enlightened and benevolent dictator, one Stephen Harper, prattle on and on about the comparative strength of the Canadian economy vis-a-vis other G20 and G8 nations. He goes up in front of American TV cameras to remind Americans that the good neighbour up North hasn’t been affected by the worldwide recession, and further that we’re always a sound investment. It’s simultaneously economic-nationalist gloating and a somewhat undignified plea for additional capital investment. It’s unclear to me whether Mr. Harper actually believes we’re in a privileged economic position or whether he’s simply trying to feign confidence knowing full-well we’re about to bear the brunt of our own localized melt-down. If we entertain the notion that Stephen Harper is in fact an economic mastermind expertly steering Canada through a momentary fiscal storm, then we are still left with a far bigger problem, that of growing inequities in Canada. In sum, Canada’s good economic track record has only really been good for the richest 1% of our own population, and that our middle-class is in as perilous a position now as we were during the post-Cold War economic recession and re-adjustment. I really would like to know who is benefitting the most from our apparently robust national economy. I don’t see many opportunities, I know the dollar is as valueless today as it was ten years ago (despite actually being worth quite a bit more) and I know that the educated youth are almost all royally fucked, with too few opportunities and too many (subsequently) wasted minds. With no ‘economic stimulus’, young people are left to drift, wondering why they ‘invested in their futures’ with student loans so many years ago.

But perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic. Perhaps I lack faith.

What would rekindle my faith in my Prime Minister, my nation’s economic foundation, and the elites of my nation? A single massive act of charity.

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