A closer look at Canada's infrastructure blockbusters

Shovels are in the ground across Canada — or will be shortly — as the country works on improving its infrastructure. Take a coast-to-coast look at projects on the go.

A coast-to-coast look at Big Fix projects on the go

British Columbia's $2.46-billion Port Mann Bridge/Highway 1 project is one of Canada's 10 big infrastructure projects. Here, former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell stands under the Port Mann Bridge in Surrey, B.C., in a 2009 photo. The project calls for a new, 10-lane bridge to be built in its place.(Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Shovels are in the ground across Canada — or will be shortly — as the country works on improving its infrastructure. Here's a national look at projects on the go.

Lower Churchill hydroelectric project, Newfoundland and Labrador

Projected cost: $6.2 billion

Background: Over 50 years ago, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador began exploring the idea of harnessing the enormous generating potential of the Churchill River in Labrador, which led to the completion of the 5,428-megawatt Churchill Falls generating station in 1971. In early 2008, N.L. and Nova Scotia, began research into the possibility of two new generating stations on the Lower Churchill, at Muskrat Falls and Gull Island. In November 2010, they formally agreed to move ahead with the first phase, a 825 MW hydro project at Muskrat Falls, which is to be partnership between their respective energy corporations. 

Terms of the 35-year contract state that in exchange for building an 1,100-kilometre underwater cable to Nova Scotia, N.S.'s Emera will receive 20 per cent of the project's output, which will account for about 10 per cent of the province's energy requirements. Nalcor, the N.L. operator, will take 40 per cent of the output with the rest being able to be sold into U.S. markets. The Muskrat Falls station could begin distributing power in late 2016 and is scheduled to be fully operational the following year.


Strained relations with Quebec. When the original Churchill Falls generating station was under construction, Hydro-Quebec absorbed Shawinigan Engineering and bought out its portion of the project. As the project was hinged on the ability to transfer power through Quebec, Newfoundland was forced to come to an agreement with its neighbour and signed what it felt was a one-sided 65-year contract that has seen Hydro-Quebec reap profits of over $19 billion, compared to only about $1 billion for N.L.

Plans to develop the Lower Churchill have been discussed for years – a similar project even passed an environmental assessment in 1980. But these proposals have foundered on the ability to transfer power through Quebec to energy-hungry U.S. markets. This new project, which may yet draw in New Brunswick and P.E.I., bypasses the Hydro-Quebec monopoly.

Gull Island. The Lower Churchill Project is a two-phase initiative, with the second phase being the construction of a much bigger generating station (2,250 MW) on Gull Island, off of Labrador. The current proposal, however, does not give a firm date for construction on Gull Island, and the federal loan guarantees, unveiled by Stephen Harper in the spring election campaign, only covers the Muskrat Falls phase.

Economic benefit: At the peak of construction at Muskrat Falls, about 2,700 people will be working on the project.

Environmental benefit: Upon completion of the project, 98 per cent of Newfoundland and Labrador's electricity will be coming from non-greenhouse gas emitting sources. Nova Scotia's portion of the energy harnessed at Muskrat Falls will go towards weaning that province from its coal-fired plants and if Prince Edward Island is brought on board, the province says it will be able to shut down all its coal plants.

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Point Lepreau nuclear generating station, New Brunswick

Projected cost: $2.4 billion

Background: When former New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord announced the refurbishment of the aging Point Lepreau nuclear facility in 2005, it was set to be the world's first Candu-6 reactor to be refurbished and returned to active service -- a poster child for Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. The project was to cost $1.4 billion and completed by September 2009.

But problems with the installation of 380 special calandria tubes during the initial phase – what some have called a critical error – set the project back three years and added another $1 billion to the tab. Dozens of the six-metre-long tubes failed early pressure tests. Now, Lepreau is not expected to be completely online again before the fall of 2012 and its owner, NB Power, is currently before the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission seeking a five-year operating licence. Once it is up and running, it is hoped the plant will operate for another 25 to 30 years.

Issues: The Point Lepreau delays highlight the difficulties in being the first test case in a highly technical field. NB Power and AECL have been finger-pointing for years now over who is to blame for the faulty installation process, something AECL apparently learned from when it went on to refurbish a South Korean Candu-6 in just over two and a half years.

New Brunswick wants to be compensated now for being the guinea pig, but both AECL and the federal government are balking at paying any extra for the overruns, and the additional costs have been added to the utility's debt load, putting pressure on consumer rates and delaying investments in other, aging hydroelectric projects.

Economic benefit: At full capacity, Point Lepreau generates 25 to 30 per cent of N.B.'s power needs and allows the province to displace costly, greenhouse gas-emitting imported oil. The facility also employs about 700 technicians and other employees and was generating about 1,500 construction jobs during most of the refurbishment.

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Turcot Interchange, Montreal

Projected cost: $3 billion

Background: The Turcot Interchange, which connects Highways 15, 20 and 720 along with the Decarie and Ville-Marie Expressways and the Champlain Bridge, was opened in 1967, in the rush to coincide with Montreal's Expo 67. The original interchange was built to handle between 60,000 and 70,000 vehicles per day but the actual figure quickly ballooned to well over 200,000 vehicle, necessitating frequent and costly repairs. Indeed, the Turcot Interchange has come to symbolize the state of much of Montreal's crumbling infrastructure.

In 2007, a plan was put forward to replace the structure at a cost of $1.5 billion. That plan was scrapped when detractors argued that the project merely increased traffic capacity to 320,000 vehicles per day without planning for any public transit initiatives. The current plan, unveiled in 2010, will see the interchange at ground level, with the capacity brought to 300,000. It also includes a bus lane, an emergency lane, public green spaces along the Saint-Jacque Escarpment, and the potential for further public transit lines in the future, including a proposed tramway. Construction is supposed to take place around the current structure so as to avoid traffic disruption as much as possible.


Expropriation and gentrification. Residents in the largely working-class St. Henri neighbourhood of Montreal, in the shadow of the Turcot, are concerned that construction could force them out of their homes, either through expropriation or gentrification.

Gridlock. In addition to the replacement of the Turcot Interchange, Transport Quebec has plans to replace or repair the Champlain and Mercier bridges, the Louis-Hippolyte-Lafontaine tunnel and the Ville-Marie Expressway – all at the same time. The current public transit system will not be able to handle the expected overflow. By 2015, when construction will reach its peak on all the projects, experts say gridlock in and out of the downtown core will be crippling. By 2026, vehicular traffic into Montreal during rush hour is expected to rise by 17 per cent, further increasing the city's congestion problems.

Environmental concerns. With the interchange's capacity slated to jump by 10 per cent, many residents are concerned about subjecting themselves to even more pollution. Also, with the original structure only scheduled to be demolished six years into construction, many will continue to worry for their safety, as the potential exists for the old interchange to keep crumbling.

Economic benefit: The project will create about 43,000 jobs.

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Ottawa Light Rail

Projected cost: $2.1 billion

Background: In 2007, a municipal task force called for the establishment of a new light rail system in Ottawa, to complement the O-Train, in use since 2001, and to reduce bus traffic through the downtown core. The Ottawa Light Rail system will include 13 stations, with the four downtown stations being located underground. In July, Ottawa city council unveiled the three finalists in the bidding process to build the LRT. Proposals will be reviewed by late 2012 with construction expected to begin in 2013.


Canada's sesquicentennial. Initial hopes were high that the Ottawa LRT would be ready to go in time for Canada's 150th birthday in 2017. However, the service will most likely not be ready for passengers until 2018.

Ballooning costs. At $2.1 billion, the construction of the Ottawa LRT will not be a cheap project. Mayor Jim Watson has said that this will not be the final number and there is concern that the city will be unable to afford the project if the price were to increase. If costs go up, the city could pull the plug on the project and perhaps approve a cheaper alternative – a rapid bus system at about $233 million. However, a primary goal of the LRT project is to reduce congestion and adding another rapid transit bus line could end up making gridlock worse.

Economic benefit: The LRT project is expected to save the city up to $100 million per year in transit operating costs. Actual job creation numbers have not been released pending the winning bid.

Social benefit: A main tenet of the Ottawa Light Rail plan is to make the city's downtown core more appealing, especially for pedestrians and cyclists. Once the project is complete, bus traffic will be cut by 50 per cent.

Project organizers cite Stockholm's LRT as inspiration for their public art initiative for the Ottawa system. City regulations mandate the allocation of funds for the creation of public art in LRT stations, especially downtown. Organizers are looking to use the LRT system to showcase the best of the city's artists.

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GTA transit expansion, Toronto

Projected cost: $11.77 billion

  • Eglinton-Scarborough crosstown LRT ($4.6 billion)
  • Components: Spadina subway extension ($2.63 billion)
  • Union Station revitalization ($640 million)
  • Air Rail Link ($300 million)

Background: When Mayor Rob Ford took office in 2010, he declared the end to Toronto's Transit City project, an undertaking that would have seen seven light-rapid transit lines built across some of the city's busiest corridors, including Eglinton Ave., Finch Ave., and Sheppard Ave. These initiatives were to include funding from all three levels of government and the lines would have been in service between 2020 and 2030. Instead, the new mayor scrapped six of the lines and announced an altered plan for the Eglinton route, now known as the Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown LRT. The line, which will run mostly underground, will include the replacement of the aging Scarborough RT line and is still scheduled to open in 2020.

In addition, a six-station extension of the city's Yonge-University-Spadina subway line is under construction and will extend the subway's reach up to York University and then further north into Vaughan, a city in York Region. Subway trains are expected to begin running north by the end of 2015. That same year, the Pan Am Games are set to take place in Toronto and, in anticipation, Metrolinx, the provincial government's GTA transportation agency, is building the Air Rail Link to connect the downtown Union Station to Pearson Airport. The ARL will have 140 two-car trains running every 15 minutes with a journey time of about 25-30 minutes. Finally, Union Station, which opened in 1927, will undergo a facelift, including a new shopping concourse to accommodate the expected increase of passengers over the next few decades.


Transit City scrapped. Although Transit City fell victim to a number of funding problems, most notably the provincial government putting its funding on hold in 2010, Ford's decision to scrap the entire project, even when construction on the Sheppard LRT had already begun, upset many city councillors. In addition, his decisions to keep a truncated version of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT and to build a Sheppard subway line have been controversial.

Environmental concerns. In 2009, a local organization known as the Clean Train Coalition was formed to challenge the Metrolinx plan to use diesel-fueled trains on the Air Rail Link. Metrolinx is promising to electrify the line within 15 years but the CTC indicates there is no reason not to go forward with electrification as the line is being built.

Economic benefit: All four projects are expected to create over 75,000 jobs in the GTA.

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Windsor-Essex Parkway

Projected cost: $1.6 billion 

Background: Plans for the 11-kilometre parkway were announced in April 2010 to link Highway 401 with the planned new bridge connecting Windsor and Detroit. The Windsor-Detroit border crossings account for 28 per cent of Canada's trade with the U.S. Called the most significant highway investment in Ontario, and the most expensive per kilometre, the project will include 240 acres of parkland in surrounding areas, over 20 kilometres of cycling and pedestrian trails and 11 tunnel sections to bury the roadway as it passes through different communities.

The parkway is scheduled to open in the fall of 2014.


Environmental concerns. The environment around the parkway construction site is home to six endangered plant species as well as the Butler's garter snake and Eastern fox snakes – two endangered snake species. Before construction began, both snake species were relocated to adjacent appropriate habitats. Plants located near the parkway but outside the construction area will be preserved while the remaining endangered plants will either be relocated or planted anew.

The Windsor-Essex County Environment Committee is concerned about the nine hectares of wetlands and 1,500 trees that will be destroyed for parkway construction. It wants more wetlands set aside in compensation but neither the province nor the Windsor Essex Mobility Group, the consortium in charge of construction, has yet responded.

Road to nowhere: The route of the parkway, which begins at the current terminus of Highway 401, will conclude at the proposed Detroit River International Crossing Bridge. However, a recent Michigan Senate decision rejected the latest plan to build the bridge, a $1.8 billion project with $550 million promised by the government of Canada. Although Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has pledged to have the bridge built in months rather than years, bridge-related bills will not be heard again in the Michigan State Legislature until next year at the earliest.

The major hurdle for the bridge has proven to be Manuel Moroun, the billionaire owner of the 81-year-old Ambassador Bridge, the only privately-owned border crossing between the U.S. and Canada. Moroun mounted a massive lobbying campaign, including a series of TV ads, to convince Michigan lawmakers that the new bridge was an unnecessary waste of money. He has even launched lawsuits against both federal governments.

Economic benefit: The construction of the parkway will create about 12,000 project-related jobs.

Social benefit: Currently, trucks travelling to and from the U.S. need to pass through a number of different neighbourhoods at grade. The parkway will be below grade and tunnelled in certain locations so as to expedite trucking and keep large vehicles off local streets.

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Edmonton Airport expansion

Projected cost: $1.2 billion

Background: The Edmonton International Airport, the fastest growing airport in Canada from 2006 until 2008, is in the midst of a major expansion in order to accommodate an increased flow of passengers. In 2008, 6.4 million passengers passed through the airport, exceeding its intended capacity by 900,000. By 2020, that number is expected to grow to about nine million.

Expansion 2012 was unveiled in 2009 and construction began on an expanded terminal building, with plans to build 13 new aircraft gates to handle the influx of passengers. The new Central Tower, a key tenet of the expansion project, will house the airport's navigation control and corporate offices as well as new retail and dining space. The new facilities are to be completed by the end 2012, culminating with the opening of a new on-site Marriott hotel.

The expansion is part of the airport's new master plan unveiled in April 2011 and now awaiting approval from Transport Canada. This plan includes the building of a third runway to handle an expected increase in aircraft traffic, two additional phases of terminal expansion intended to handle 12 million passengers per year by 2030 and 16 million passengers by 2035, improved cargo and corporate aviation facilities, and the allocation of land for a proposed LRT link to the city centre.

Economic benefit: Daily, anywhere between 300 and 800 people are working at the construction site and the project has generated $390 million in local economic spinoffs. It is also looking that it might be completed even earlier than first scheduled.

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Seismic upgrades to B.C. schools

Projected cost: $1.5 billion

Background: In 2004, a comprehensive series of seismic assessments were conducted on all public elementary and secondary schools in the province, over 850 in total. The schools were assigned a priority – low, moderate or high – based on their seismic risk and the assessment found that 750 were in the moderate- or high-risk category. Based on these assessments, the B.C. Ministry of Education developed a plan to spend $1.5 billion rebuilding or upgrading these at-risk schools over 15 years, with work scheduled to be completed in 2020.

As of Oct. 7, 2011, seismic improvements were made to 109 schools – 64 of them in the greater Vancouver areas. Construction is currently underway in 18 schools and is expected to begin in another seven.


Running out of money. In 2008, B.C. Auditor General John Doyle released a report on the ministry's efforts to that point. While commending the plan, he found that rising construction costs "undermined the real purchasing power of the original budget," and that the $1.5 billion would not be enough to complete the work on all 750 schools in need of seismic upgrades. The ministry, despite a pledge to revisit funding, has not amended its budget. As of January 2011, $900 million had been spent on repairs to 121 schools.

Time overruns. The Vancouver School Board accused the ministry in early 2011 of dragging its feet on the upgrades. At the time, the upgrades were being completed at the rate of about 21 schools a year since 2005. At that pace, construction would take over 35 years to complete – 15 years longer than set out in the original assessment.

Social benefit: Once the repairs have been completed, B.C. schools will undoubtedly be better prepared to sustain an earthquake. The idea, though, is not to make these building impervious to tremors but to minimize the possibility of a collapse. In addition to these structural upgrades, schools across the province have been staging earthquake drills, especially in the months since the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. On Oct. 20, more than half a million people in B.C. participated in the Great British Columbia Shake Out – nearly 280,000 of them in public or private schools.

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Port Mann Bridge/Highway 1, Surrey, B.C.

Projected cost: $2.46 billion

Background: The Port Mann Bridge/Highway 1 Project was unveiled in 2007 as part of the B.C. government's Gateway Program to combat congestion and expedite the movement of goods throughout the Lower Mainland. A 37-kilometre stretch of Highway 1 between Coquitlam and Surrey will be widened, with the addition of high-occupancy and bike lanes, as well as extra lanes for car traffic. The major component of the project is the construction of a new, 10-lane Port Mann Bridge, which entails demolishing the older version.

The project also calls for the re-introduction of bus service on the bridge for the first time in 20 years and the bridge will feature electronic tolls to help pay for it. The bridge will be wholly owned by the province.


Misplaced efforts. Critics argue that building a new bridge is an old-fashioned way of tackling Greater Vancouver's congestion problems. In 2009, Anthony Perl, an urban studies professor at Simon Fraser University, said building the bridge anticipates that trucks will be used to ship goods in the future, despite skyrocketing oil prices. He suggested the money would be better spent on an electric rail network.

Toll problems. The proposed tolls have upset many Lower Mainland commuters and may not be the revenue earner the government is counting on. In 2009, the Golden Ears toll bridge, linking Langley and Pitt Meadows, was completed, but the numbers so far have shown that fewer commuters and truck drivers are using the bridge than was initially expected. Even though total revenue for 2011 is expected to surpass the 2010 total by nearly $8 million, the cumulative shortfall since 2009 will still be $63.8 million.

Economic benefit: In addition to creating an estimated 8,000 construction jobs, the new bridge and highway expansion is intended to improve the movement of goods to the area's ports and then on to the Asia-Pacific region.

Social benefit: Although the province plans to demolish the old Port Mann Bridge upon completion of the new one, some say this would be a waste of a valuable resource. In early October, Metro Vancouver manager Gaeten Royer unveiled a plan to turn the bridge, which opened to traffic in 1964, into a park. Other ideas that have been floated include turning the bridge into a pedestrian or railway crossing.

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Deh Cho Bridge, Northwest Territories

Projected cost: $182 million

Background: Historically, the Yellowknife Highway has been spilt by the one kilometre-wide Mackenzie River, as there has never been a permanent structure to span the waterway. A ferry service runs from about mid-May until December or January and an ice road is maintained during the remaining months. But the weeks-long gap between the two means supplies can only get to and from Yellowknife by air, adding to transportation costs.

In 2002, local First Nations, Metis and other community leaders began devising a plan to build a permanent bridge and the Deh Cho Bridge Corporation was incorporated. A feasibility study commissioned in 2003 by the DCBC for the government of the Northwest Territories estimated construction costs at $55 million. The DCBC secured $3 million in federal funding in 2004 and had hoped to begin construction later that year. Following a series of delays, construction began in 2008, with an expected completion in late 2010. Although the bridge is now more than 50 per cent complete, further delays have pushed the completion date to late 2012.


Ballooning costs. The current $182 million price tag exemplifies a development and construction timeline fraught with problems and delays. In 2010, the Deh Cho Bridge Corporation was found in default of a $165 million loan and the N.W.T. government was forced to take over the project. An audit in March 2011 by then-auditor general Sheila Fraser found that the territorial government did not properly manage the risks associated with the bridge's construction. Fraser said the project, initially touted as a public-private partnership between the government and the Deh Cho Bridge Corp., was actually nothing of the sort because the bridge company had not assumed any financial risk – the government was on the hook for the entire project. Fraser pointed out the cost will likely continue to rise, as the government has not budgeted, for example, any costs associated with cleaning up the construction site. Costs are expected to be recovered by eliminating the ferry service and ice bridge, an annual government infusion of $2 million, and by bridge tolls on commercial vehicles.

Design flaws. Fraser's audit also found that construction of the bridge went forward in 2008 before the design was ever approved. Following a review of the design, it was found that changes were required, thus further driving up costs. The current project description, developed by the Vancouver-based Infinity Engineering Group, calls for the bridge to be "a two-lane nine-span composite steel truss bridge with a cable assisted main span of 190 m."

Economic benefit: Despite its rocky history, the completion of the bridge will allow increasingly unfettered access across the Mackenzie River into Fort Providence and on towards Yellowknife. The bridge will allow supplies coming from Alberta and British Columbia to move into the territory capital more easily, presumably driving down the already high consumer costs for residents.

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