By Jim Duff

NOTE: This column appeared in the Nov. 9, 2011 Gazette Vaudreuil-Soulanges:

Readers may recall our front-page stories in June, 2007 about the worrisome condition of the Ile aux Tourtes bridge. It all began with call from Norm St. Aubin. He’d been passing under the bridge when he spotted a dangling steel cable, rusted through.
Our reporter Matthew Brett learned it was one of the post-tensioning cables installed after the bridge opened back in ‘66, supposedly to enable it to carry more weight. These cables are steel, four inches thick, running along both sides the entire length of the span in plastic sleeves supported by steel guiderails. They were installed in 1990-91, replaced and more added in ‘97.
We never got a straight story from the Ministère du Transport why, if those cables were thought to be necessary to enable the bridge to carry more weight, their condition wasn’t a matter of concern. Looking back, we can speculate it was part of the collective state of denial just now emerging in the leadup to the Charbonneau Commission inquiry into criminal collusion in the construction and engineering consulting industries.
We ran the original Frankenbridge story on our June 17, 2007 front page. The Montreal Gazette and the electronic media fell all over each other in their rush to debunk and ridicule our story. Their only source — the MTQ.
The week after our first story, St. Aubin took Matt and a boatload of structural engineers out to have a closer look. Their verdict: the bridge was in terrible shape and the modifications made it worse. One of those along for the ride was Kaare Olson, who designed the bridge. He took a long look at the way it had been widened and supposedly reinforced before saying “that’s not the bridge I built.”
We fought to get the 2006 inspection report. We were turned down. MTQ spokesman Mario St-Pierre told us we wouldn’t understand what it said. Don’t worry, he added — the next major inspection is in 2009 and with the work being planned, the Ile aux Tourtes bridge is good for another 70 to 75 years.
Four years later, almost nobody believes anything Transports Quebec says. The Charest government, fed up with having been caught in so many lies, ordered the MTQ to post all bridge inspection reports on the web. You’ll find them all, including the June, 2009 inspection of the Ile aux Tourtes Bridge, at
The report is a 114-page diagnosis of all that ails the 45-year-old prestressed-concrete span with a poor maintenance history. It also suggests the bridge’s problems began with the addition of cantilevered decks on both sides, apparently without much concern as to whether the original 1966 structure could carry the weight. The accompanying 117-page PDF illustrates the delaminating concrete and rusting re-bar we described two years before that.
What I find mind-boggling is that Genivar’s inspection team agreed with Kaare Olson: “Une verification de la capacité en cisaillement des poutres fissurées en tenant compte de l’ajout d’étriers externes est requise afin de préciser le CEC. Un suivi de la fissuration des chaises est requis.” Translation: Keep a close eye on the cracks in the main beams, because the concrete’s shear strength may have been compromised by the addition of superstructure the bridge was never designed for.
Imagine adding a concrete balcony all around a highrise that was never designed to carry the additional weight and and you get an idea of the forces on the original girders and seats.
For motorists who use the bridge daily, there’s a clearer, more present danger summed up in the report’s observations about the road surface: “A significant accumulation of debris on the right-hand shoulder appreciably affecting the security of users (blowouts, projection of debris, etc.) could cause poor water runoff in the event of heavy rains.)
Draw your own conclusions, but these two findings say “stay out of the two outside lanes.”
You’ll find another observation throughout the report: Slack, corroded post-tensioning cables, always with an oblique reference to the work either underway or planned for next year. The impression I get is that the inspection team was so worried at what they found, they felt they had to cover their butts.
Do I believe the Ile aux Tourtes bridge is safe? Last week, I interviewed Mario St-Pierre, the same MTQ spokesman Matt talked to in 2007. He told me they’re planning to replace it by 2020. Four years ago, he told us it was good for another 70 to 75 years.
We’re learning that here in Quebec, steel corrodes and concrete crumbles faster than elsewhere on the planet — but eight times as fast? Welcome to the State of Denial.

Île aux Tourtes bridge backgrounder

NOTE: The following story first appeared in the Hudson/St. Lazare Gazette in July 2007. It was dismissed as scaremongering by the Ministére des Transports and the anglo media, including the Montreal Gazette. Since then, engineering reports by several major consulting engineering firms for the MTQ have confirmed what the Hudson weekly was first to report — the bridge is in failing health. Scheduled for replacement by 2020, the cost of keeping the Ile aux Tourtes span open is accelerating. According to the MTQ’s own figures, it will cost $65 million to keep the bridge open until then — $45M prior to 2015-16 and another $20 million by the time a replacement opens. Estimated cost of replacement: $750M. 

By Matthew Brett
Standing under the eastern side of the Ile aux Tourtes Bridge, one feels and hears the constant thudding overhead from the big rigs roaring to their destinations. The thudding has taken its toll on the bridge as the first pier to reach the water, pier 24, is almost entirely marked off with spray paint for repairs. Exposed steel bleeds rust down the pier, and a sliver of light beams through a crack where cement has spalled away.
The Hudson/St. Lazare Gazette camera snapped a series of photographs of the bridge from the shore and by boat, which provide graphic detail of what is happening to the underbelly of the 1.8-kilometre span between Montreal Island and the mainland.
The six-lane Highway 40 bridge carries an estimated 75,000 vehicles a day.
Upon examination of the photographs, bridge engineer Hellen Christodoulou said “repairs are clearly warrented.”
Christodoulou, who was involved in a post-examination of the de la Concorde overpass collapse which claimed five lives on September 30, 2005, said “the bridge design capacity remains inadequate to sustain current loading. There should be stringent requirements and monitoring of traffic loads and speeds.”
Kaare Olsen, who was Atlas Construction’s VP and Chief Engineer when construction began in 1963, was in complete agreement with Christodoulou when he saw the photographs. (Olsen, left with fellow Hudson engineer Brian White during the Gazette’s 2007 inspection tour,  passed away on March 23, 2014 at the age of 91.)

“When we built that bridge it wasn’t meant to take the load its taking today,” he said. “They didn’t visualize the capacity that’s going now.”
The Ile aux Tourtes was one of the first pre-stressed concrete bridges built in Quebec, Olsen explained. Like an elastic, it was designed to flex under load.
Lack of maintenance, Quebec’s harsh climate and an ill-advised bridge-widening project to add a breakdown lane on both sides have contributed to the deterioration of the bridge Olsen built. Spalling, leaching and cracking are now widespread after 42 years of service. Already, the bridge has exceeded its 35-year lifespan.
“Geez, look at that,” Olsen said as he looked at a section of exposed and rusting steel. “That’s all from weathering, it’s not from any stresses.”
The weathering is exacerbated by what Olsen regards to be a poorly designed drainage system. Gaps in the concrete barriers designed to drain the surface water were placed directly above the piers, allowing water and salt runoff to erode the beams and piers.
Olsen noted the original prestressed bridge design was not taken into account when the MTQ replaced the original lightweight retaining rails with a solid concrete parapet, prompted by the number of vehicles tumbling into the Outaouais after losing control. The bridge flexes but the barriers do not.
Olsen’s comment upon seeing the deterioration of the heavily modified structure: “I didn’t build that bridge.”

(Since Matt’s original story ran, a 2011 inspection by the consulting engineering firm Genivar discovered the added breakdown lanes cantilevered onto the original outside beams have had the effect of prying them apart, exposing the original structure to even greater weathering.)
Christodoulou’s summary notes work was done on the bridge in order to increase its capacity by transforming  sections of the bridge’s initial girders into box girders —a reasonable repair, but the workmanship was substandard. She also said the box girders were only a temporary solution.
Several of the cables used to construct the box girders are rusted, “indicative of the fact that they were either not galvanized, or insufficiently galvanized,” she said.
Several sections of the bridge also reveal cracked and delaminated surfaces. “there is no doubt that the work done was a patch-up job,” Christodoulou said. She said the delaminated concrete may be the result of poor quality or fast-hardening concrete.

(Since Matt’s story was published, there has been growing concern worldwide about the catastrophic failure of structures built with calcium aluminate concrete. Originally preferred because they set, or achieved most of their final strength more quickly, these aluminate cements (ciment fondu) were widely used during the building boom in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, nowhere more so than here in Quebec. The Europeans were the first to note the correlation between aluminate concrete and accelerated aging in dams, bridges and buildings. According to the late Brian White, most of the cost of Quebec’s deteriorating infrastructure could well be due to the widespread use of ciment fondu. White believed the failure of Hydro Quebec’s transmission network during the 1998 ice storm should be blamed on the use of ciment fondu in insulators.)

NOTE: This June 15, 2007 summary by consulting engineer Hellen Christodoulou followed a visual inspection of the Ile aux Tourtes bridge by a team which included the late Kaare Olsen, under whose supervision the bridge was built.

1) The bridge was initially a girder bridge. From the photos it is evident that work was done to deepen the girders, in order to increase the bridge capacity.
2) In order to achieve this, the individual girders were transformed into box girders, except at the end girders.
3) The photos illustrate that this transformation was done by the installation of bottom plates and vertical bars, as a means to strap the existing while lowering the bottom to increase capacity. The lowering was achieved by pouring a concrete layer to connect the girders.
4) Once the above was completed the plates and cables were left in place. It is evident from the photos that several of these cables are rusted, indicative of the fact that they were either not galvanized, or insufficiently galvanized.
5) As for the cracked and delaminated surfaces seen in the photos, there is no doubt that the work done was a patch-up job, the reinforcing used has rusted (not galvanized), the concrete has delaminated, possibly resulting from the use of poor quality or fast-hardening concrete. Repairs are clearly warranted.
6) As for the horizontal post tension cables, there lies an even more serious problem. These cables have been placed at the end girders. The photos clearly show that one of these cables has snapped off. Why is this serious? These types of cables are installed to increase the capacity at the ends and reduce flexure. The fact that they have snapped out of place implies that the bridge capacity has weakened and that section is overstressed. This situation can be quite volatile and more serious problems may occur.
7) As for the substructure (piers), it seems they have been marked-off for repairs, yet no work has been done. The spalled and delaminated surfaces as well as the rusted reinforcing bars, require immediate review and repairs.

Christodoulou’s conclusion: The concept of transforming the existing girders into box girders and deepening the sections, is reasonable, however a) the workmanship seems substandard and b) this solution is not a permanent one, since this modification may only partially increase the bridge capacity. The fact that post-tension cables were required, is proof enough that the capacity is insufficient for current loading requirements. The bridge design capacity remains inadequate to sustain current loading. There should be stringent requirements and monitoring of traffic loads and speeds.




Île ‘o’ Torture Bridge woes

Looks like the lane changes on the Ile ‘o’ Torture bridge will be with us well into 2016 and quite possibly longer. Last week, Quebec’s transport minister and the region’s two MNAs called a presser to announce the creation of a median crossover at the Vaudreuil-Dorion end and moveable Jersey barriers so morning and evening rush traffic gets the use of three lanes.
I wasn’t invited, so didn’t get the opportunity to ask why wasn’t the bypass completed and opened BEFORE the eastbound slow lane was closed in mid-December? Three years ago, the temporary Île Thomas bridge was built and opened BEFORE demolition began on the double span just to the west of the Île aux Tourtes Frankenbridge.
The Ministère de Transports news release concluded:
Les travaux de réparation du pont de l’Île-aux-Tourtes ont commencé durant la fin de semaine du 18 décembre et se poursuivront au cours des prochaines semaines. Le Ministère précisera ultérieurement la date de fin des travaux, dont la durée est tributaire des conditions d’exécution en période hivernale.
Translation: A completion date for repairs depends on whether work can continue over the winter.
You know something is serious when crews worked weekends and statutory holidays to install a temporary shelter and construction trailer on the south side of the bridge and fired up a heating system.
This says ‘emergency closure’ to me.
Equally concerning was the reaction to my questions about the latest in the list of Île aux Tourtes contracts posted on the SEAO website. (SEAO is the Quebec government’s electronic tendering system, born out of the collusion shitstorm.) “Oh, that contract has undergone major revisions,” said the MTQ agent named in the tender documents before handing me off to a Montreal colleague. “I have no record of any such contract,” he told me.
However SEAO documents tell us this:
The work now underway is based on a survey by consulting engineers CIMA Plus released Nov. 10. (A request for comment was unreturned.) It counselled an evaluation of the load-carrying capacity of the 50-year-old bridge, specifically the damaged box beams and the bridge deck. Of particular concern is a 40-millimetre hole and cracks which seem to have appeared since a scheduled inspection in September.
Why the scramble to close the eastbound slow lane and reduce the speed limit? It’s contained in the 2012 Genivar report, a 114-page litany of woes based on four main concerns: age, poorly designed and engineered modifications, slapdash maintenance and a load it wasn’t designed to carry.
Last point first: the bridge, one of the first ever built in Quebec with prestressed flexible trusses, was designed to handle 25,000 vehicles a day; it carries an estimated 85,000. To handle the load, the original deck was widened to 30 metres by adding what can best be described as porches on both sides. They did this by cantilevering supports on the two outside main beams, then replacing the original lightweight guardrails with much heavier, less flexible concrete barriers. As we reported in 2007, the result was a heavier, less flexible structure.
It was originally designed with a 35-year lifespan (In 2012, the MTQ announced it would be replaced in 2020). Road salt, inadequate drainage (and possibly the wrong kind of concrete), coupled with a demonstrated lack of maintenance, have contributed to its accelerating deterioration and skyrocketing cost of keeping it open. Up until last year it cost taxpayers more than $45 million in maintenance. For 2015-16, the tab will be $7.9M, $12.6M between 2016 and 2020.
All this to say there’s a good reason for maintaining and upgrading public transit between Vaudreuil-Soulanges and Montreal Island. Imagine what off-island life would be like without the Île aux Tourtes bridge. Meanwhile, I’m driving in the inside lanes or taking Highway 20.

Badawi: My question for Justin Trudeau

In an earlier post, I suggested Canada’s new Liberal PM was walking the diplomatic tightrope, with pressures from Badawi’s supporters on one side and the need to appease Canada’s Saudi allies on the other. My question to Justin Trudeau: where do you stand on the right to peaceful dissent and at what point does the fate of Raif Badawi become a matter of principle for you and your government?

In his Dec. 28 La Presse column Raif Badawi and us, Patrick Lagacé writes about his visit to the Sherbrooke apartment Badawi’s wife Ensaf Haidar and their three kids Najwa, 12, Doudi, 11 and eight-year-old Miryam call home. Lagacé’s visit followed Haidar’s acceptance of the Sakharov Prize, the annual award created in honour of the dissident Soviet physician and Nobel Peace Prizewinner whose writings heralded the collapse of the USSR. Sakharov was freed in 1986, the year the USSR collapsed and Lagacé draws a parallel with Badawi, whose blogs during the Arab Spring were seen as a direct challenge to the authority of the most authoritarian of the Gulf petro-dictatorships.

Sentenced to 10 years and 1,000 lashes in 50-blow instalments, Badawi is on a hunger strike in a Saudi prison. Although the lashings have been suspended after the first 50 nearly killed him, he is said to be in failing health. The Swiss claim they have been told he’ll be pardoned and released, but none of this has been confirmed. (The Canadian mission in the Saudi capital isn’t known for its agressivity in advocating for Canadians who have run afoul of Saudi law.)

Saudi Arabia is a black hole, I can’t understand why we treat these people with respect, ‘we’ being the Western world. Here is a violent dictatorship which tolerates almost no political dissent, which condemns to death the softest critics of Islam. – La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé

Look in vain for harsh criticism of Saudi Arabia from Canadian, French, American and British leaders, Lagacé continues, because Sunni Saudi Arabia is a trusted ally against Shiite Iran — even if they are a violent dictatorship.
Lagacé quotes Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, who published a damning Nov. 20 think piece in the New York Times. In it, Daoud describes Saudi Arabia as an Islamic State which has succeeded, a nation which exports the wahhabist brand of radical Islam which fuels God’s fools from Syria to the streets of Paris. The West supports Saudi Arabia at its peril, Daoud continues, because it’s a trap. The Saudis export fundamentalist Islam and its tenets — subjugation of women, hatred of infidels and savage justice — via a vast state-supported propaganda industry throughout the Muslim world. Daoud wonders which is more schizophrenic — the Saudis for their condolences at the Charlie Hebdo massacres or the Western world for believing them.

Lagacé concludes: Raif Badawi is important because his fate helps us understand the true face of this false Saudi friend, the great exporter of of the radical islamic sickness. No matter that the Saudi dissident isn’t a Quebecker or a Canadian; he’s the icon in the struggle for human solidarity in the face of evil.


Suck it up, Tehran

It was a quiet New Year’s with little to upset the tranquility of the transition into 2016. Texas, with the coming into effect of its ridiculous open-carry firearms law, was disturbing, even in a nation grown blasé with gun-related bloodshed. The Dubai hotel fire has us thinking ‘another 9/11′ until it emerged that everyone had escaped and the blaze was accidental. Or so they say.
It didn’t take long to shatter that tranquility. On New Year’s Day the Saudis confirmed they had executed 48 by beheading or firing squad, including an outspoken Shiite cleric who had criticized the kingdom’s treatment of its Shiite minority. News of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr’s execution triggered riots throughout the Shiite Arab world, including the trashing and burning of part of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Iran’s capital.
Those who monitor these events say the fact the Saudis lumped Nimr in with hardened jihadists was a warning to domestic dissidents.
Arrested during the Arab Spring roundups in 2012, Nimr was charged with sedition and other crimes even though supporters insist he never called for armed insurrection. He was sentenced to death in October 2014.
The timing does nothing for Saudi Arabia’s efforts to quash comparisons between its literal application of Sharia law and ISIS, the Sunni extremists who have adopted the Wahhabist fundamentalism at the heart of the Saudi power structure. On Saturday, the following image was posted on the website of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, depicting what appears to be an Islamic State fighter about to kill a hostage and a Saudi executioner with a sword, with the question “Any differences?”Any differences?

The Saudis say they’re working through a backlog of beheadees piled up during the final years of the reign of the late King Abdullah. At least 157 people were executed last year, which began with the inauguration of his successor King Salman. (Ninety people were put to death in 2014.) The last comparable mass execution was in 1980, when 63 jihadists were put to death after they seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
What is the Saudi game? My one-word theory: oil. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest producer of crude, can’t afford to pump $30-a-barrel oil indefinitely; the Kingdom has just announced major hikes in domestic prices for gas, oil and petrochemicals to a citizenry unaccustomed to austerity. A step up in executions sends a powerful message to dissidents, while the threat of an all-out Middle Eastern war will do wonders for the price of crude. Nothing works better to distract the West from niggling human-rights issues, like the barbaric killing of so-called enemies of the state without due process.