Montrealers have been promised that by Dec. 1, 2018, they’ll be driving on a brand new bridge spanning the St. Lawrence River.
But between now and then, builders and government officials will be holding their collective breaths, hoping no unforeseen circumstances arise. They’re also praying winter will be cancelled and that it will be uncharacteristically placid in the wind corridor where the new bridge is being built.
“We’re hoping for no winter and no wind or rain for the next 14 months,” a smiling Daniel Genest, the director of coordination for the project, said when giving reporters a tour of the project in October.
It seems he was only half joking.
Even if Genest gets his wish of 12 months without any wind, rain or snow, the new bridge might still be late. In fact, it’s already at least six months behind schedule.
Among the factors are two labour strikes that halted work on the site for several weeks, and new weight restrictions on the old Champlain Bridge that meant trucks couldn’t haul the heavy materials needed to build the bridge. Instead, Signature on the Saint Lawrence (SSL) — the consortium building the new bridge — used barges pulled on a winch through the river’s strong current. Making matters worse, one of the tugboats moving the barges capsized and sank to the bottom of the river.
In an attempt to make up for the delays, builders added another work shift to each day, and added Saturday shifts. The work site now runs six days a week, for roughly 20 hours per day with 825 employees — a 25-per-cent increase since this summer.
Despite the problems, Genest said he expected the project – now roughly 60 per cent complete – to be delivered on time.
Amin Hammad, an engineering and computer-science professor at the Concordia Institute of Aerospace Design and Innovation, said he believes Genest’s assessment.
The Champlain Bridge is almost obscured by the superstructure of the new bridge, as seen from Nuns’ Island on Thursday November 30, 2017. (Pierre Obendrauf / MONTREAL GAZETTE)
“They already finished the underwater work, and now they are doing above-water construction, so that is generally easier,” Hammad said. “There is another factor, which is the learning curve, so they usually start slow and are able to accelerate because they become more familiar with the site and the conditions and so on.”
The consortium can also add Sunday work shifts if needed, he said.
However, Richard Shearmur, a geography professor with McGill University School of Urban Planning, has doubts about the project and fears taxpayers will be left with a hefty bill for extras.
“I don’t think anyone can tell if it will be finished on Dec. 1, but it seems that the deadline will probably be missed,” Shearmur said. He blamed the public-private partnership (PPP) model chosen for the bridge.
Under an agreement reached between the government of Canada and the consortium, the private partner assumes the cost of any delays and cost overruns. The private company is also responsible to maintain the bridge for 30 years, an incentive to build a good quality bridge.
Another incentive is the government’s ability to levy late fees on the private consortium. If the bridge is delayed, Infrastructure Canada can impose penalties of $100,000 per day for the first week and $400,000 per day after that, up to a maximum of $150 million.
Cost breakdown of the Champlain Bridge project, courtesy Infrastructure Canada.
Infrastructure Canada came up with a cost-benefit analysis that estimated a savings of $1.747 billion or 33.7 per cent of the cost of the project over 30 years by using a PPP for the Champlain Bridge.
That public-private partnership is one of the aspects of the project that Concordia’s Hammad especially likes. Making the private partner responsible for maintenance is an incentive to ensure quality materials are used, especially valuable for a government that has been laden with high maintenance bills for past public projects in which shoddy materials were used.
However, Shearmur said experience has shown cost savings touted for PPPs are hardly ever realized, and the penalties imposed for this project are not enough of an incentive to guarantee the deadline will be met.
“These fines look big, but on a ($4.239 billion) contract, these fines are really not that big,” he said. “And when we see the estimate of how much it will cost to keep the old bridge open, the fines don’t come anywhere close to covering it.”
Worse, the penalties won’t even cover the cost of keeping the old bridge standing, Shearmur said.
A report from the Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridge Inc., the public company in charge of the old Champlain Bridge, estimated that it would cost $200 million in additional support measures to keep the old bridge up for another year and $250 million if it must stay up for two years.
Shearmur said taxpayers might also be on the hook for millions in legal fees and lawsuits that will drag on for years, because private companies often use the legal system to find a way out of paying for extra costs, or for the delays of a project, and the consortium is already in court suing the federal government because of the increased transportation costs.
“The SSL is taking the federal government to court because, according to them, they were not aware of the weight limits on the roads, so they are already trying to blame the government for the delays,” Shearmur said. “Usually these consortiums have teams of high-powered lawyers who have written these contracts in such a way that when litigation comes, it’s actually hard for the public sector to actually get what it thought it was getting.”
He pointed to the McGill University Health Centre’s superhospital, built just a few kilometres away from the Champlain Bridge, as a prime example. In that case, the private consortium headed by SNC-Lavalin has taken the provincial government to court claiming $330 million in cost overruns. SNC-Lavalin is also one of the main partners leading the consortium building the new Champlain Bridge.
However, Hammad said he believes the PPP model chosen is a good one and will pay off in the long run.
“Because it gives more responsibility and more ownership to the contractor, because they have to also consider the maintenance plans. They’re building something they have to maintain in the future.”Related
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