Allison Hanes: Report flags alarming oversights in Île-aux-Tourtes Bridge maintenance

Flawed inspections and deficient planning by the Transport Ministry have led to cost increases and questionable work, an audit has found.

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After traffic on the Île-aux-Tourtes Bridge was unexpectedly reduced by one lane just before Christmas last year for urgent maintenance work, the 87,000 drivers a day who subsequently endured nearly 10 months of commuting hell were left wondering whether Quebec’s Transport Ministry was asleep at the switch.

The announcement about the removal of the third, reversible lane during rush hour came at the last minute. It took weeks before any mitigation measures were put in place to ease the monster jams that doubled the time it took motorists to get onto Montreal Island and back again from the Vaudreuil-Soulanges region each day. Some thought the carpool lanes installed later actually made matters worse. And despite promises that the third lane would be back once the snow melted, it didn’t happen until it suddenly reappeared in late September, to widespread celebration.

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After a complete shutdown of the aging span for two weeks in May 2021 due to “human error,” those who use the Île-aux-Tourtes watch and worry about its fate constantly, knowing the consequences of a total closure — or even just the removal of one lane — can make their lives miserable.

An audit released last week by the Autorité des marchés publics (AMP), a watchdog agency for public contracts created in the wake of the Charbonneau Commission, sheds new light on the Transport Ministry’s management of the work that will continue on the bridge for the rest of its useful life, until a new link is constructed beside it. The report flagged significant oversights in monitoring the contractors working on the Île-aux-Tourtes, adding to cost overruns and causing certain repairs to have to be redone — perhaps adding to the agony of motorists.

Much of the coverage of the report focused on the management of the Louis-Hippolyte-La Fontaine Tunnel project, a major link between Montreal and the South Shore that is used by 120,000 vehicles a day — and not undeservedly. Half of the tunnel, one of the two tubes with three lanes each, was similarly shut down on short notice in October 2022 — for a period of three years — because it was in far worse shape than the Transport Ministry realized.

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Ironically landing the day journalists were offered a tour of the construction site, the AMP audit found that adequate inspections could have prevented the tunnel from degrading so badly. It also found that exploding costs could have been contained if the ministry had done more rigorous tests during the planning process to determine what materials should be used.

But the report’s findings on the Île-aux-Tourtes are no less interesting.

In 2020, a $282-million contract was awarded for maintaining the bridge. It was estimated 400 litres of cement mortar should be used, spread in thin coats in precise locations to smooth out rough surfaces, so that polymer panels reinforced with carbon could be installed.

Instead, 4,000 litres was needed, and due to flaws with the way it was mixed, the patches had to be removed and redone. In the end, 8,000 litres were required, increasing the cost by almost $5 million. This could have been avoided with a more careful inspection before the work was done, the AMP found, and more precise adherence to the recipe for the mortar being mixed.

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More alarming, a quality-control specialist hired by the Transport Ministry documented 35 occasions starting in December 2020 when the mortar was not prepared to the manufacturer’s specifications. Even though this information was passed along to project managers in the ministry, no one took notice until March 2021, when the mortar started to come off in several spots.

When asked why this wasn’t picked up on sooner, the ministry responded that its employees were only reading the email summaries, rather than the detailed reports. And though they weren’t paying close attention, the ministry was trusting the quality-control firm to conduct thorough inspections, with employees only heading to the site themselves “as needed.”

“The AMP concludes that several parties on the construction site failed in their duties in a situation where co-ordination was needed,” the report notes.

Although some documents were transmitted and not examined, others were simply missing from the centralized information system, two years after the contract in question was signed. When asked why, Transport Ministry officials said they would be filed upon completion of the project. Certain emails were also lost because they had been improperly stored on someone’s personal computer instead of in the information-sharing system.

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“The delays related to the filing of documents deprive the staff of the (ministry) of the possibility of consulting them. This way of doing things undermines the surveillance over the execution of contracts, internal verifications the ministry might want to undertake, as well as outside audits by watchdog organizations.”

Interestingly, the faulty mortar incident occurred in the months preceding the emergency shutdown of the entire Île-aux-Tourtes Bridge, when the bridge’s steel reinforcing rods were accidentally damaged, making it unsafe.

The AMP report doesn’t address this foul-up. But it sure raises questions about whether better oversight could have avoided the whole fiasco.

Do we need a reminder in Quebec that lack of scrutiny over major infrastructure projects can not only be costly, but dangerous?

“Inappropriate” engineering plans were found to be the cause of paralumes crashing down in the tunnel of the Ville-Marie Expressway in 2011.

A series of failures — from conception to construction to lax maintenance — was behind the collapse of the de la Concorde overpass in Laval in 2006, a tragedy that killed five people and injured six.

Shoddy work also caused the Souvenir Blvd. overpass to buckle in 2000 while it was under construction, leaving one motorist dead and two others injured.

Fortunately, the Transport Ministry’s more recent mistakes have mostly caused mass inconvenience and increased costs. Still, will Quebec ever learn from past infrastructure disasters?

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