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Peter Black

Local Journalism Initiative reporter

In the slick video to depict and dramatize the Legault government’s Quebec City-Lévis tunnel project, the caption off the top declares “le temps est venue d’aller en avant, de réparer une erreur historique.”

What exactly is this historic error a $10-billion (at least) tunnel will fix?

In the splashy announcement of the project, held in the near-empty, cavernous expanse of Quebec City’s convention centre last week, except for the fleeting reference in the video, there was only one mention of this big boo-boo that must be corrected.

Geneviève Guilbault, the minister responsible for the Capitale-Nationale region and public safety, had this to say: “With the Quebec-Lévis tunnel, we will no longer see an emergency vehicle stuck on one shore while waiting for the bridges to reopen, while there is an emergency on the other side of the river. We will finally correct this historic error.”

While we might suggest a fleet of emergency helicopters would cost considerably less than a mega-billion-dollar borehole, there is also a question of whether or not the minister has got her historic reference quite right.

A bit of digging into the background of Quebec bridges reveals the “error” was the choice of the government of the day – led by Liberal Jean Lesage, father of the Quiet Revolution – to build a second bridge at spitting distance – OK, 200 metres – from the existing Quebec Bridge.

The “error” was the government, drawing on the conclusions of a stack of studies, rejecting a bridge or tunnel further east, connecting the downtowns of Quebec City and Lévis. Estimates of the cost of such a link soared to $80 million.

Besides the cost, the government deemed it essential such a major river crossing have a convenient connection with Autoroute 20, part of the Trans-Canada Highway, then under construction on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River.

The government also nixed an expansion of the Quebec Bridge, mainly because such a project would require the complete closure of the bridge for weeks at a time.

Keep in mind that if the Quebec Bridge had been closed, the closest crossing of the St. Lawrence River would have been the Laviolette Bridge, at Trois-Rivières. Folks in Montreal got a taste of that kind of disruptive calamity recently with the closure of the busy Isle-aux-Tourtes bridge.

Once the “historic error” was made, construction on the second bridge began in 1966. It was a daunting engineering challenge, given the bridge’s design and the heights at which it had to be built. Each of the two towers was prefabricated in Montreal and shipped in sections down river. To install the 24-inch-thick suspension cables, workers had to string 28,000 kilometres of wire across the river.

The Pont Pierre-Laporte is still the longest main suspension span (665 metres) in Canada and the longest non-tolled suspension bridge in the world. Despite these superlatives, the bridge seems to live in the shadow of its smaller, older, almost gothically tragic sister, the Quebec Bridge, with its history of two deadly disasters during construction.

There is, though, a touch of dark drama to what was known during planning and construction as the New Quebec Bridge. Officials had decided to name the new span the Pont Frontenac, in honour of one of the first governors of New France. The official opening was scheduled for Nov. 2, 1970.

With the murder barely three weeks earlier of cabinet minister Pierre Laporte, kidnapped by Front de Libération du Québec terrorists, public sentiment was such that the government of Robert Bourassa decided to name the new bridge for their fallen colleague.

Calling the choice of location of the second bridge a “historic error” may be a bit of a stretch – pardon the pun – and certainly among the more obscure justifications for the tunnel project the CAQ government is proposing.

There’s little doubt, though, the booming region needs another span, considering, for example, there are five between Ottawa and Gatineau, and Montreal has four bridges, a tunnel and a Metro line across the river.

The question critics are raising about the CAQ’s pricey tunnel project is whether the government is about to make another “historic error.”

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