Tag Archives: infrastructure

Rolling the dice on Quebec’s infrastructure

Have you seen so many Transport Quebec trucks in one place in your life?

Infrastructure is one of those things – nobody pays it any attention to it until it fails. People have better things to worry about, so they don’t think about their water pipes, their electricity lines, their building foundations or their roads or bridges, so long as they’re working properly. But when something goes wrong, any of these can suddenly become a top priority.

For this same reason, those who are in charge of infrastructure tend not to prioritize it. If the people don’t care, why should the government? Making a working thing still work is not going to win you as many votes as making a brand new thing. And that’s a logic that’s not reserved for inept governments. Given the choice between paying a professional engineer to do an inspection on that seemingly innocuous crack in a home’s foundation and spending that money on a new big-screen TV, which do you think is going to be the more common choice?

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Overpass collapses will probably happen again

The Johnson Commission into the De la Concorde overpass collapse submitted its final report to the government last week. The report, which is 222 pages long, is available (in English!) as a PDF on its website. (The last page of the report laughingly self-congratulates how much it’s saving the environment by printing on recycled paper, even though the previous page is entirely blank.)

De la Concorde, seconds before disaster

(Above: the last photo taken of the De la Concorde overpass before its collapse, by a Transport Department road supervisor sent to pick up some fallen concrete. The commission absolved him of responsibility since he wasn’t an engineer.)

In short, the causes of the collapse were as follows (disclaimer: I’m not an engineer, so some of my explanations might be a bit off):

  • Improper, low-quality concrete used in its construction, in turn blamed on confusing design instructions and insufficient supervision.
  • Improper placement of reinforcing steel rebar.
  • Insufficient drainage, leading to water, ice and salt weakening the concrete.
  • Insufficient supervision and inspection of construction.
  • Common practices in use during the time of construction that science would later show needed reinforcing to counter the effects of concrete shear.
  • Missing documentation at the MTQ concerning the structure’s construction and repair history.
  • Improper repair of the structure in 1992, which ended up weakening the structure.
  • Insufficient and inadequate inspections, with imprecise inspection reports.

All that comes down to the big cause: cutting corners to save money. Cutting corners on inspections, on materials, on competence, on time. Each, by itself, isn’t dangerous. But put enough together and they spell disaster. The blame was, in the end, so spread out that no individual can be considered liable.

So now the government is going to create an independent agency for road inspections (to counter the “culture of negligence” at the MTQ) and spend billions of dollars to catch up on infrastructure maintenance.

What gets me about all this is that the transport department (and the commission itself) has been working overtime trying to convince everyone that our structures are safe.

The implication in that is that the de la Concorde overpass collapse was a one-time thing. A fluke that can’t be repeated. But while there were a lot of coincidental mistakes that contributed to the collapse, not a single one of them is guaranteed not to have occurred with other structures. There’s no guarantee that there isn’t a structure out there with bad concrete, or improperly-placed steel supports. Nothing stops a similar collapse from happening to another structure.

That said, the transport department has already changed the way it maintains overpasses, and has inspected many of them thoroughly. The culture of negligence and cost-cutting corner-cutting has, for now, been replaced with a healthy fear of a similar event happening again.

It’s debatable how long that fear will last. After the Challenger space shuttle exploded in 1986, NASA started to become overly cautious about safety in its missions. But eventually cost-cutting reared its ugly head in 2003 when the Columbia burned up on re-entry. Though the direct causes were different, reports cited an attitude at the organization that encouraged disregarding small risks to keep missions going.

Hopefully we won’t forget the lessons of de la Concorde in 20 years just to save a few bucks.

More overpass inspection news

Another month, another series of bridge inspections. Transport Quebec released their latest list this week, which showed two bridges needing more repair and three getting the all-clear in the Laurentians.

I’ve updated my map of the 135 structures (plus municipal ones and others of interest) to reflect the inspections.

You can see the full list of inspected bridges and overpasses in this MTQ PDF file.

Get your overpasses straight

Well, the Quebec government has started inspections on those 135 structures it says are “at-risk”. And of the 20 they’ve inspected so far, nine require major repairs or complete replacements.

Now here I was all eager to update my map of crumbling Quebec overpasses and bridges using this CBC Montreal story. It lists two bridges that will be replaced and eight more that will need major repairs. (Yeah, I know that adds up to 10 and not 9, but journalists don’t do math.)

It didn’t take long before I started having doubts about the list.

First of all, I can’t find out where they got it. The transport ministry’s website doesn’t have it in any of the documents related to their inspections of the first 20 structures, and no other news organization has any specific list of structures.

Secondly, their descriptions are vague. One of the overpasses needing “major repair” is “Highway 10 overpass in Marieville.” That’s great and all, but there are four overpasses on Highway 10 in Marieville on the list of 135 structures under review.

Finally, some of it is just plain wrong. One of the two listed for demolition is “Route 104 overpass in Franklin, Montérégie.” But Route 104 doesn’t go anywhere near Franklin. The western tip of Route 104 (in St. Jean sur Richelieu) is 59km away from the town. It was probably just a typo (there’s a Route 202 overpass in Franklin on the list), but it’s kind of important to get these things right, and without any other sources to back this already-faulty information up, I can’t use it. (UPDATE: LCN uses the same faulty description, so I guess it must be the transport department that got it wrong)

And that makes me cranky.

On the plus side, I found this proprietary (read: sucky) Google-Maps-style atlas of the 135 structures under inspection. Sadly, it doesn’t give any information about the status of the evaluations of the individual structures. But I’ll use it to pinpoint the location of some of the bridges I couldn’t map exactly.

And I’ve updated the list of City of Montreal-run overpasses which needed inspection to show most of them have reopened to heavy trucks.

McGill metro evacuated after structural fears

It’s not just overpasses. The McGill metro was evacuated this afternoon after work on the de Maisonneuve bike path apparently caused a leak into The Bay next door and that led to the discovery of a large crack in the ceiling.

(The media is describing this as everything from a “crack” to a “depression” to a “cave-in”, but have settled on “crack” and “threat of collapse”)

Service on the green line is shut down between Berri and Atwater Lionel-Groulx. Alternative bus service is being setup (Eastbound on Ste. Catherine, Westbound on René-Lévesque), but during rush-hour with a major artery closed it’s probably faster to walk across downtown. Trains have been added to the Orange Line to help compensate.

The metro is expected to reopen on Monday if there’s no risk of collapse of the tunnel.

Blork was there. LCN has a video report.