Montreal's La Fontaine Tunnel renovations delayed by at least 1 year

Work on the Louis-Hippolyte-La Fontaine Tunnel between Montreal and the South Shore began in 2019. The southbound tube was closed to traffic in 2022. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Renovations to the Louis-Hippolyte-La Fontaine Tunnel, which connects Montreal to the South Shore, will take at least one year longer than planned.

Started in 2019, with three lanes closed in 2022, the work to restore the tunnel was originally scheduled to be completed by November 2025.

"Due to additional work required on the ventilation towers and a delay in the execution of work in the first traffic tube, the project's completion is postponed by one year," the Ministry of Transport says in a news release Friday.

According to this new schedule, work will begin in the northbound direction in spring 2025, when the southbound tube will be reopened. The opening of both tunnel tubes is expected around fall 2026.

Finishing work requiring partial closures will then be carried out until 2027.

"The tunnel is a unique and strategic infrastructure, undergoing its first major refurbishment in nearly 60 years. The challenges surrounding this work are numerous," the news release says.

Initially, Quebec and Ottawa had invested $500 million in the tunnel's refurbishment. By August 2022, the cost had already risen by $900 million, bringing the total to over $1.4 billion.

For nearly two years now, three of the tunnel's six lanes have been closed permanently, and they will remain closed for another two years.

The lane closures have created daily traffic jams on both sides of the St. Lawrence River. About 120,000 vehicles, 13 per cent of which are trucks, pass through the tunnel every day.

Equipment breakdowns, safety issues

Since the work began in 2019, the project was initially estimated at a few hundred million dollars, intended to save the government a significant amount compared to building new infrastructure. Renovations were expected to last 40 to 50 years, compared to new infrastructure which would have a lifespan of 150 years.

"We are approaching a cost, for a 40-year lifespan of the tunnel, that is increasingly close to that of building a new bridge," said Pierre Barrieau, a transportation planning expert with the Université de Montréal.

In its Friday news release, the Ministry of Transport says inspections revealed that the ventilation towers were more damaged than expected, requiring completely new coatings and structural repairs.

In the southbound tube, delays were caused by a breakdown of concrete equipment, the need to adjust formwork tools, a shortage of specialized labour and work stoppages due to mould and carbon monoxide incidents, the ministry says.

Barrieau said that, along with the unforeseen issues, there have also been concerns raised by Quebec's workplace safety board (CNESST) on several occasions.

"All of these factors are piling up, making the project increasingly complex since it was first announced," he said.

The ministry says it is aware that the prolonged disruptions will have significant impacts on citizens, road users and businesses in the Montreal region.

"However, the work is essential to preserve this crucial transportation link," it says.