Monday, August 1, 2011

Ville Marie: Collapse illustrates depth of infrastructure crisis

With brand new cheap infrastructure in places like Phoenix, Florida and Nevada how long do you think it will take people to start moving there as taxes increase to pay for the old stuff being repaired?

Aivars Lode

Ville Marie: Collapse illustrates depth of infrastructure crisis

The Gazette August 1, 2011 7:56 AM

MONTREAL - It's such a fortunate thing that nobody was hurt in Sunday's frightening collapse of a concrete ceiling grid at the eastern end of the Ville Marie Tunnel, a part of the tunnel which is only partially covered, and where the sunken roadway is exposed to perforated daylight.

But that's a small consolation in the larger context of what this incident says, or confirms once again, about the sorry state of transport infrastructure in the greater Montreal region.

This spring and summer has seen a growing number of closures for emergency repairs, and provoked a crisis of public confidence in the reliability of our infrastructure and in the ability of our elected officials and public employees to deal with the problem.

It was instructive to observe the range of emotional reaction to Sunday's incident - from anger to exasperation to dismay to contempt.

To be sure, there is also fear. But fear is a given and the public is long past fear, in terms of its primary emotional reaction. People are mainly angry that it has come to this.

Whether it has been the Champlain Bridge or the Turcot Interchange or the Mercier Bridge or any of the other key bridges or roads that have been at the heart of the infrastructure story dating to September 2006, when five people were killed and six injured by the collapse of the de la Concorde overpass in Laval, people are just beside themselves with anger and exasperation.

It's still too early to start assigning blame for Sunday's event. When the steel-and-concrete ceiling waffle collapsed around 9 a.m., a quiet time for Sunday traffic, nearby construction workers were repairing a section of tunnel wall; it's possible vibrations from their power tools could have played a role. It's also possible that ongoing work on a new pedestrian tunnel linking the Champ de mars métro station to the emerging new Cité de la santé development north of the Ville Marie Tunnel and east of St. Laurent Blvd. had affected the structural integrity of the tunnel. We'll see. A thorough inspection and analysis will be required.

But as far as the daily life of Montreal is concerned, the most pressing challenge right now for public authorities will be to create and articulate a plan to prevent overwhelming new traffic congestion on downtown streets because of the tunnel incident. Even if the tunnel fully reopens sooner rather than later, there are going to be motorists who won't want to use it anymore, at least not for the foreseeable future.

But creating a plan to offset anticipated new congestion will be one thing; communicating it to the public will be another. The committee should not stand by and let Transport Quebec on its own simply put up a few hundred orange cones and detour signs and issue news releases, like it routinely does; a more aggressive communications plan will be needed.

Very likely, a combination of causes will be found to explain what happened Sunday. When the investigation is completed, it will be important to look for some commonalities with respect to causes of problems that have been identified with transport infrastructure elsewhere in the greater Montreal region.

The Johnson inquiry into the de la Concorde collapse found slack managerial and maintenance practices were to blame, among other reasons. Since then, we have seen growing evidence to suggest that the heavy use of salt over the years to thaw roads and bridges in Montreal in winter has been terribly damaging to steel-and-concrete structures. It's clear we need a more focused engineering effort in Quebec to figure out how to build better in the context of this freeze-and-thaw cycle. But in the end, people on the ground need to do a better job, too.

It's clear from all of the full closures and partial closures and temporary closures of roads and bridges in and around Montreal this year that Transport Quebec is becoming more aggressive in its interventions. If things are a mess out there on the roads this summer, it's because action is being taken, not because action is not being taken. People need to remember that. But Sunday's incident reminds us just how monumental the infrastructure challenge facing us truly is.
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