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Ottawa announces 10-year plan to replace Montreal's Champlain Bridge

Motorists cross the Champlain Bridge in Montreal, Friday, March 18, 2011. Now Canada's busiest bridge with up to 60 million vehicles crossing per year since opening to traffic in 1961, the bridge is in need of major repair and has become a safety concern to users.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The federal government has announced a 10-year, $5-billion plan to build a replacement for Montreal's deteriorating Champlain Bridge.

Transport Minister Denis Lebel says the project will be among the most important of the coming decade and will create 30,000 jobs. Mr. Lebel says it should take 10 years to open a new bridge but he promises to do his best to make it happen sooner.

The 50-year-old span, owned and operated by a federal Crown corporation, is in the midst of a $370-million upgrade just to keep it going 10 more years. Engineering reports have painted a grim picture of the bridge, saying its rusting steel, snapped support cables and disintegrating concrete wouldn't last long in an earthquake.

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The Transport Minister has been under pressure for months to make a clear commitment to a new bridge.

The issue came to a head over the summer, when Mr. Lebel released a report that found a new bridge would cost federal taxpayers $1.3-billion.

It was an embarrassing story for the minister because he initially wanted to keep the report secret, warning that its release "can create worries that I do not want to create."

Economists appearing before the House of Commons finance committee last week cited replacing the Champlain Bridge as an example of an urgent project that would help stimulate the economy.

While they disagreed on how much it would boost economic growth, they agreed the work is needed.

"Can you imagine if the Champlain Bridge actually broke and you could not have commerce between the South Shore and downtown Montreal? That would be a huge loss to Montreal's GDP and to Canada's GDP," said Glen Hodgson, chief economist of the Conference Board of Canada.

NDP interim leader Nycole Turmel asked the Prime Minister in the House of Commons on Tuesday to confirm reports that the bridge will be replaced, but Stephen Harper replied only that it is an "important asset" for the region.

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"Our government has decided on several occasions to invest money toward the safety of the bridge," he said.

Opposition MPs said afterward that it's time for Ottawa to announce a plan.

"We need a new bridge," Ms. Turmel said. "There have been studies. It's time for action."

A Champlain Bridge construction project would fit with the government's efforts to show it is still supporting the economy with short-term "expansionary" spending, while keeping an eye on eliminating the deficit by 2014-15.

The New Democrats were surprised this week when all Conservative MPs supported an NDP motion on the economy that included a call for the government to "take immediate action to fix the crumbling infrastructure essential to our economy and the security of Canadians."

Replacing the bridge could be a way to reach out to Quebec, where Conservatives lost six of 11 seats in the May federal election, including three prominent cabinet ministers.

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With files from Les Perreaux and Bill Curry

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