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Highway mishap is latest in series starring Montreal's hobbled infrastructure

Engineers inspect a concrete slab that fell on a major expressway Monday, August 1, 2011 in Montreal. No one was injured in the collapse on Sunday, the latest in a series of incidents that point to the city's crumbling infrastructure.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The precarious state of Montreal's road network is giving rise to a form of disaster tourism: On Monday, visitors snapped photos and gawked in disbelief at the city's latest scene of urban ruin, the Ville Marie expressway.

A massive slab of concrete lay in broken chunks across four lanes of highway in downtown Montreal, the latest example of the city's growing difficulty keeping its bridges, roads and various support structures intact and standing.

Amid public jitters, the government released reports late Monday indicating parts of the tunnel structure had been identified as problematic as recently as 2008. Nearby repair work may have made matters worse leading to Sunday's collapse. No one was hurt.

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"We were lucky there were no cars underneath, or they would be gone," said Saeed Mirza, a professor emeritus of civil engineering at McGill University.

The Ville Marie expressway, a sunken urban highway built in the mid-1970s, is a heavily used roadway that runs east-west through the heart of Montreal. On Sunday morning, as workers did adjoining repairs on the tunnel wall, a 25-tonne beam crashed down onto the road floor, along with grid-like screens of cement that allow light penetration into the expressway where it becomes a tunnel.

A report made public by the Quebec Transport Department on Monday indicates that inspectors considered the tunnel's state "critical" for users' safety in 2008. Experts say the construction work on Sunday using high-powered water pressure may have eroded support structures further.

For nervous motorists, Sunday's incident had a grim sense of déjà vu: Five years ago, the de la Concorde overpass in suburban Laval fell down, killing five people in automobiles crushed beneath it.

This time, the collapse hit a critical artery in the city proper. The section of the hobbled expressway - since closed to traffic - lies at the doorstep of Montreal City Hall and a stone's throw from the provincial courthouse and a new Quebec super-hospital taking shape nearby.

While politicians tried to reassure motorists, experts identified inadequate upkeep in infrastructure as a major culprit. Prof. Mirza pointed to vibrations caused by the Sunday repair work, drawing comparisons to the effect of the 1971 California earthquake that caused 12 overpass bridges to collapse onto freeway lanes.

This week's mishap is the latest instalment of a slow-motion disaster movie starring Montreal's hobbled infrastructure. Since the start of the year, Montrealers have learned that the Champlain Bridge, a busy commuter bridge, is in an advanced state of deterioration and needs to be replaced.

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The Mercier Bridge, another major span, has been partially shut for unexpected repairs. The central Turcot interchange is under repair, and emergency work and closures unfold with alarming regularity. Work to repair the aging road network has given rise to such a thicket of orange construction cones, Montreal has been nicknamed Coney Island.

A day after Quebec Transport Minister Sam Hamad tried to reassure the public that highways and bridges that were open were safe -- a statement that seemed dubious after Sunday's collapse - the opposition Parti Québécois took the government to task. The government released its previously secret inspection reports on the Ville Marie expressway after the PQ accused the Charest Liberals of a "culture of secrecy."

Montreal's infrastructure problem has given rise to dark humor on social media sites. One writer said he would save money on a European vacation to Italy and Greece this summer because he could see his own ruins at home. At a street-level overpass overlooking the damaged area, European tourists and locals alike mingled and took photos.

"Why does this only happen here? Not Ottawa or Toronto? There's a quality-control problem somewhere," said Montrealer Dominique Matte, an engineer who came to survey the damage. He says his wife always insists he shut the sunroof on the family car when travelling through the Ville Marie tunnel.

Like others, he questioned whether corners were cut during construction of the tunnel. His cynicism was fed by recent reports of collusion in the construction industry. "We're perfectly capable in Quebec of making things that last," Mr. Matte said. "There's something bizarre going on."

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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