Text by Andy Riga; Photos by Allen McInnis. Click for more information about the troubled bridge over the St. Lawrence.
Potholes over the St. Lawrence River. A bumpy roadway pockmarked by concrete patches. Rusty steel supports. Concrete barriers protecting unsafe guardrails. Emergency closures. Crumbling overpasses still standing three years after being slated for reconstruction. Police cars stationed at entrances 24 hours a day to prevent trucks from driving on to the bridge and putting too much stress on it.
Welcome to the Mercier Bridge, still used 30 million times annually despite all of the above. Last Friday, part of the bridge was closed during the afternoon rush hour after a one-square-foot pothole was discovered. The entire South Shore-bound section was closed at 4 p.m., causing major traffic jams. It reopened at 2 a.m. on Saturday after the pothole was filled and the concrete had cured.
It's not the first time a dangerous pothole has opened on the bridge. In January 2010, a motorist hit a pothole - reportedly 1.5 metres by 1.5 metres -on an on-ramp on the South Shore side. The driver lost control of his car and struck the guardrail, dislodging a portion of it.
The Mercier Bridge, part of which opened to traffic in 1934, is safe but in need of major repairs, according to Ottawa and Quebec, which co-own the structure linking LaSalle to the Mohawk territory of Kahnawake.
Repairs are under way but they take time, authorities say.
While Ottawa studies what to do about another aging, crumbling South Shore span -the Champlain Bridge, which could reportedly cost up to $6 billion to replace -the federal and provincial governments are spending $174 million to rejuvenate the Mercier Bridge. Ottawa is footing 60 per cent of the bill, Quebec the rest. The Mercier reconstruction work began in 2009 and is to be completed in 2013.
Authorities say reconstruction will extend the life of the bridge by 75 years, meaning Montrealers could be using it in 2088.
Here's what else you should know about the Mercier:
(The numbers in bold below correspond to the numbers on the map).
It's actually a hodgepodge of bridges, built in several phases. Ottawa and Quebec each own part of it.
1. The first bridge, which opened in 1934, was a two-way span (one in each direction), owned by the provincial government. That part of the bridge still stands, used for the two lanes that take cars from LaSalle to the South Shore.
2. In 1958 and 1959, the part of the bridge that straddles the St. Lawrence Seaway was raised to allow clear passage of ships underneath. The federal government took over this section.
3. Ottawa also owns ramps from the bridge to Chateauguay and La Prairie on the South Shore.
4. In 1963, with car traffic growing, a new section was added, increasing the number of lanes from two to four. That part is used by cars heading from the South Shore to LaSalle.
GUARDRAILS SPUR TRUCK BAN
1. Since Dec. 29, there have been restrictions on the South Shorebound Mercier. They were imposed after an inspection found the guardrails unsafe. Authorities feared they would not withstand a collision, said Transport Quebec spokesperson Julie Morin.
Concrete barriers were installed along the guardrails. Because that made lanes narrower, the speed limit had to be reduced from 70 km/h to 50 km/h. The barriers are heavy and put extra stress on the bridge, so trucks weighing more than 4,500 kilograms are now barred from the southbound section. The 2,800 trucks that used that part of the bridge daily must now take the Champlain Bridge or the Monseigneur Langlois Bridge in Valleyfield.
The truck ban and speed restriction are in place indefinitely, but Transport Quebec is studying whether the guardrails could be protected in a way that would not impede truck traffic, Morin said.
On the bridge's federal side, guardrails were reinforced about 10 years ago and have been deemed safe, said Jean-Vincent Lacroix, spokesperson for the federal agency that owns part of the bridge.
The rehabilitation of the Mercier Bridge is focusing on: the part of the bridge used to reach the South Shore from LaSalle; ramps on the South Shore side; and the access way to the bridge from LaSalle.
What work has been completed so far, what's to come and how it will affect traffic?
3. Work on ramps to and from Chateauguay is finished.
3. Half the ramp to and from La Prairie has been rebuilt. The rest will be completed this year, beginning in the spring. During this work, only one lane of the ramp will be open in either direction.
5. On the LaSalle side, an overpass on the approach to the bridge -over Monette St., heading toward the South Shore -will be rebuilt, beginning this summer and ending in 2012. Before that can happen, a detour bridge is to be built; work on the detour is to begin in February. Detour work will not affect traffic.
There are two overpasses over Monette (the other one is for cars from the South Shore). After the 2006 de la Concorde overpass collapse, these overpasses underwent emergency evaluations.
In 2008, the two structures were among 25 that Transport Quebec said would be replaced. Car traffic is still not allowed under them. Both have exposed reinforcement bars. The one carrying traffic to Montreal appears to be in worse shape; it has been reinforced with scaffolding, wood and steel beams. But the South Shore-bound overpass is being rebuilt first because that's the side of the bridge being rehabilitated. The Montreal-bound overpass is to be rebuilt later.
1. This spring, work continues reinforcing steel under the South Shore-bound side. New steel plates will be installed and steel will be replaced or repaired. The work, which could run into 2012, is necessary because the new deck (the horizontal concrete base on which the asphalt roadway will go) will be heavier than the current deck. The work will require the temporary partial closing of the bridge on some nights and on weekends.
1. Beginning late 2011 or early 2012, work is to begin replacing the deck and guardrails on the South Shorebound side, work that is to be completed in 2013. Expect partial closures at night and during weekends. At least one lane in each direction is to remain open at all times.
1. In 2013, the bridge will feature a bike/pedestrian path.
THE RIVER'S OTHER SPANS
Opened in 1859 as a train bridge. Widened for cars and tramways. Owned by CN. In 2000, the section used by cars (9 million trips annually) was replaced. Piers made of very-durable limestone.
JACQUES -CARTIER BRIDGE
Opened in 1930, it's sees 36 million car crossings annually. In 2001-03, $120 million was spent repairing it. Piers made of concrete and stone.
Opened in 1967. Canada's busiest bridge (60 million trips annually). Between 2009 and 2019, undergoing $212 million in repairs. May have to be replaced. Not as durable as the others because it carries more traffic and its piers are reinforced with steel.
Why is this bridge ,so much worse than the others?Although I do remember Montreal being the Pothole Capital of the World,with some really bad roads & that was 40 years ago....... Cheers !! HF&RV
Can you imagine the traffic problems around Montreal this past summer as they were alternating lane closures all over the place..it was busy at the best of times. Oh well life in the big city I guess.