Auditor general doubts new Champlain Bridge will open on schedule in December

Auditor General Michael Ferguson calls the bridge consortium's vow to meet its Dec. 21 deadline 'ambitious,' and he says the government could have saved taxpayers half a billion dollars had it acted more quickly to replace the crumbling bridge.

Michael Ferguson says government could have saved $500M by acting faster to replace crumbling bridge

Despite structural problems threatening the Champlain Bridge for years, Ottawa only decided to move forward with its replacement in 2011. (Radio-Canada)

Auditor General Michael Ferguson calls the Champlain Bridge consortium's vow to meet its Dec. 21 deadline to open the new bridge 'ambitious,' and he says the government could have saved taxpayers half a billion dollars had it acted more quickly to decide what to do with the crumbling bridge it's replacing.

In his report released Tuesday, Ferguson said a new bridge could have been commissioned as early as 2015, had the Crown corporation responsible for infrastructure maintenance not hesitated to sound the alarm about the condition of the old one.

Despite well-documented and much publicized structural problems threatening the old Champlain Bridge, Ottawa only decided to move forward with its replacement in 2011. 

By then, Ottawa had no choice but to spend $306 million to maintain the old bridge while the new one was being designed and built, Ferguson said in his report.

Another $235 million had to be allocated to cover the extra expense of rerouting heavy trucks after Signature on the Saint Lawrence (SSL) — a consortium led by SNC-Lavalin — discovered the existing bridge couldn't bear the weight of some of the equipment that had to be transported to the work site.

The auditor general suggests the real cost of delaying the construction of a new bridge could be even higher.

"These numbers do not take into account the financial impact of closing part of the current bridge on users and businesses," Ferguson said.

Will it be on time?

As recently as last month, SSL and the federal government said the bridge would open on time — a commitment SSL and Canadian Minister of Infrastructure and Communities reconfirmed Tuesday.

Amarjeet Sohi said Tuesday that his department is "already taking steps to implement the report's recommendations for further strengthening lifecycle management of federal bridges."

However, Ferguson said in his report he doesn't believe that the project will be on budget or on time.

"Even if additional resources were allocated to the construction works or new construction methods were used, meeting the revised deadline of Dec. 21, 2018 seems very ambitious," Ferguson writes.

Was PPP a cost-effective option?

The government's financial watchdog raises other concerns about the planning that went into the new bridge, as well.

Ferguson said the former Harper government simply assumed that the public-private partnership (PPP) formula would be the least expensive option for taxpayers.

As a result, Infrastructure Canada completed its analysis of the procurement model two years after the announcement by the government that the new bridge would be built as a PPP.

"If the department had thoroughly analyzed the potential supply models for the project, it would have found that the public-private partnership could be more expensive than the traditional model," Ferguson concluded in his report.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees also criticized the use of the PPP model.

"It's no surprise that we realize that the PPP model, which was supposed to go faster, does not deliver the goods. Such a waste!" said Denis Bolduc, president of CUPE-Quebec, in a statement.

Cost of new tolls?

The Liberals' Justin Trudeau campaigned on a promise not to charge tolls to drivers on the new bridge, a promise Trudeau made good on.

The auditor general notes that decision to eliminate the toll system in the design plan "had a significant impact on the project."

Ferguson also expresses concern about the durability of the bridge.

The report points out that the federal government had no assurance that the bridge will be functional for its expected lifetime of 125 years at the time it signed with the consortium.

Sohi said the government's priority is to deliver a quality, toll-free new Champlain Bridge as soon as possible and "ensuring sound management of taxpayers' money."

He said the ministry is working with SSL to regularly update the public on the project, which he said is 75 per cent complete.

With files from Radio-Canada