Making it Last

By Heather Romito

For more than 50 years, the Louis-Hippolyte-La Fontaine bridge-tunnel has been an important part of Montreal’s busy infrastructure. In that time, it has served the geography well but has seen some inevitable wear and tear. The Québec Ministry of Transportation is taking on the daunting task of ensuring that the bridge-tunnel continues to connect Montréal with the South Shore of the Saint Lawrence River for many years to come.

Inaugurated on March 11, 1967, the tunnel is named after Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, who served as the first Premier of the United Province of Canada. Lafontaine was born in Boucherville, in close proximity to the bridge-tunnel. Interestingly, this was the same year that Montréal hosted the International and Universal Exposition, also known as Expo 67.

Longest underwater freeway in Canada

Today, the tunnel represents the longest underwater freeway in Canada and includes a bridge that connects Boucherville and île Charron. Approximately 120,000 vehicles cross the bridge between Montréal and the South Shore every day. According to Stéphane Audet, director of the Tunnel Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine project, “Of those 120,000 vehicles, 13 percent are trucks, making it the inter-shore link most used by trucks. This is due to its proximity to major freight transportation hub, the Port of Montréal.”

While the tunnel is still safe and undergoes regular inspections and maintenance, it has seen some damage, mainly from the use of de-icing salt. The Ministry of Transportation believes now is the time to take significant strides to preserve and improve the tunnel’s durability so that there won’t be any major work required for the next 40 years.

Work on the tunnel will be no small feat as it involves major structural rehabilitation, upgrades to operating equipment (e.g. electric, lighting, ventilation, surveillance and communication systems) and the reconfiguration of service corridors to improve access for servicing as well as evacuation purposes. The project also includes the addition of fire protection, joint repairs, and the rebuild of concrete slabs on both sides of Autoroute 25 – a main artery for Montréal – that will span 35 kilometres of pavement.

Building in the innovation

While some of the improvements are quite utilitarian, such as adding more rocks to the tunnel’s protection layer, there is certainly some innovation built into the project. Per Mr. Audet, “Intelligent transportation systems will be added or updated as part of the project, including the automatic incident detection (AID) system. This system is designed to improve the safety of users and is equipped with cameras that can detect a vehicle that is immobilized or driving in the wrong direction, the presence of smoke in the tunnel, and the presence of pedestrians, animals or debris.”

There are also extensive plans for new public transportation infrastructure. In addition to 850 new park-and-ride spaces, the project will bring new lanes reserved for carpooling and buses, a new bus bypass shoulder and five new bus lines connecting the South Shore and Montréal. These and several other infrastructure upgrades will be crucial at a time when road use is limited due to construction. The upgrades will be put in place to help mitigate issues while work is underway and will remain operational after the work is completed.

The inevitable challenges of roadwork

Of course, limitations on users of the route, and the ability to keep the tunnel functional while work is in progress, present substantial challenges in terms of project logistics. The limited amount of space inside the tunnel adds considerable complexity, and the contractor will have to account for this complexity while ensuring that the work is carried out according to plan.

“The large volume of vehicles and trucks, the tunnel’s strategic proximity to the port of Montréal and the absence of nearby alternative routes will require active management of measures to ensure the flow of traffic. For the safety of both road users and the workers that will be on site, lighting, ventilation, drainage and communication systems must be maintained, even as they are being replaced”, explains Audet.

It goes without saying that this major rehabilitation of important infrastructure represents a major spend for the various levels of government that are footing the bill. The cost of the Design-Build-Finance (DBF) contract is $1.142 billion, with most of the funding coming from the Province of Québec. The Québec Ministry of Transportation has mandated Renouveau La Fontaine (RLF), a consortium, to design and carry out the project.

To help with the cost, the Government of Canada will contribute $427.7 million from the New Building Canada Fund: Provincial-Territorial Infrastructure Component, National and Regional Projects. The cities of Montréal and Boucherville will also make financial contributions to the project of $3 million and $1.1 million, respectively.

Economic benefits and planning ahead

The good news is that the project will also generate income for the Province and people of Québec. Based on preliminary economic analyses of the planned work on Autoroutes 25 and 30, the bridge-tunnel rehabilitation could result in hundreds of millions of dollars in economic benefits with respect to employment in Québec.

Perhaps this economic injection, combined with improved safety, explains why those who use the tunnel most are taking the anticipated upheaval in stride, for now. “Generally speaking, public support to maintain this infrastructure is practically a given. It should be understood, however, that the importance of this road link in the day-to-day lives of thousands of people is so significant, even just partially reduced access is raising concerns.”

In fact, the work will require many people to change their transport habits (departure times, carpooling, use of public transit, different travel routes, longer transit times, etc.), and changing long-engrained habits is not always easy.

But for those thousands of commuters who will be impacted by the upcoming roadwork, there is still time to start thinking proactively about how to make changes to their daily travel routine. With many people working from home these days and no certainty as to when that will change, the route may not be as congested as expected.

Planning for the major repair project began in 2020 and construction of mitigation measures (i.e. the means to keep traffic moving) are slated for 2021. The bulk of the repairs will gear up in 2022, with a goal of project completion in 2024.