As Montreal bridges, however, the Jacques Cartier far outshines the Champlain. Most obviously, the Jacques Cartier was opened to traffic in 1930 and is still in good shape 80 years later. The Champlain was opened to traffic in 1962 and is falling apart only 50 years down the road. Their histories—and today’s proposals for rebuilding the Champlain—are a sad indictment of how some things have changed for the worse in Canada over the last hundred years.
The Roaring 20s
As we shall see, building a bridge of the beauty
and stature of the Jacques Cartier in four and a half years for about a quarter
of a billion in today’s dollars was quite an accomplishment. At 3.4 km in length
with over 300 m of steel girders cantilevered and suspended between piers 24 and
25, with maximum clearance of just under 50 m and the main pillars rising up
another 50 m above the deck, the Jacques Cartier towers majestically above Saint
Helen’s Island and the Saint Lawrence River.
Another aspect of the Jacques Cartier’s construction deserves special mention. As originally planned, the traffic coming off the bridge onto the island of Montreal was to have exited onto Bordeaux Street. But Hector Barsalou, the owner of a soap factory on De Lorimier near De Maisonneuve “obstinately refused to let his building be expropriated to make way for the entrance to the bridge,” according to the JCCBI’s own website. The website’s only other comment: “As the expropriation laws were different from those today, the engineers had to come up with a way to circumvent this obstacle,” which is why the bridge curves to meet De Lorimier Avenue. As another website states, “This is probably where the term ‘Stubborn as a Barsalou’ originated.” (In French: “Tête de roche de Barsalou.”)
The Swinging 60s
As mentioned at the outset, though, the Champlain has not aged very well. A study by Delcan, an engineering firm, made public in March 2011 and available on the JCCBI website, raised the alarm about the increasing risks posed by the deteriorating bridge. In August, Saeed Mirza, a McGill University structures specialist, told reporters that it had “the engineering equivalent of terminal cancer.”
What about the factory owners and other proprietors whose land was needed for the construction of the Champlain Bridge? The JCCBI website says only, “Expropriation procedures also got under way,” and makes no mention of any quixotic attempts to stop them this time around.
The 21st Century
What about Montreal bridges? It’s hard to compare the price tags of the Jacques Cartier and the Champlain, given their different designs and lengths, but it sure seems as if construction quality went down from the late 1920s to the early 1960s. And since then, prices seem to have gone through the roof. La Presse reported in May on a document it obtained stating that a new Champlain Bridge would cost $5 billion and take at least 8 years to complete! A BCDE report released in July puts the amount at a somewhat more modest $1.3 billion over 8 to 10 years, but even this is five times the original cost and twice the original time frame.
I’m not someone who thinks everything was better back in the good old days. Not only have computers, cameras, and cars improved, but the rights of women and minorities are far better respected than they were a hundred years ago. But neither can I embrace a Panglossian view that nothing of any import has been lost along the way. The equanimity with which we expect and accept violations of private property and huge cost increases and overruns and delays in government infrastructure projects is an indicator of what has been lost: the character to stand up and fight against government corruption and incompetence.
The point of revisiting our history is not to dwell on what used to be, but to learn and grow. As my colleague Gennady Stolyarov II writes in an article reprinted elsewhere in Issue No. 292 of Le Québécois Libre, we who value individual liberty “want a better future, building on everything that we can find to be of value in all prior eras.” Let us remember that there was a time not so long ago when private property was respected and bridges were built to last and finished ahead of schedule for a reasonable price.