Ottawa says its ready to take ownership of the aging Quebec Bridge or pass legislation forcing the Canadian National Railway to restore the historic structure.
Quebec City leaders have been trying for years to have the steel cantilever bridge repainted. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised in 2015 to get the job done, and on Friday — less than two months before an expected federal election — three of his ministers committed once again to restoring the National Historic Site.
Friday's announcement was the first time the federal government publicly stated an intention to take ownership of the bridge and compensate CN, the span's current owner.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Infrastructure Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne and Families Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told a news conference in Quebec City they have appointed a special negotiator to seek a deal with CN. They named former iA Financial Group CEO Yves Charest to negotiate.
Charest will have a mandate to recommend options by 2020 to restore the Quebec Bridge, which was completed in 1917.
The ministers say Charest could recommend a transfer of the bridge from CN to the federal government with adequate compensation. They say another option is legislation forcing CN to restore the bridge in the near term.
Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume told reporters that CN hasn't been easy to deal with.
"It's hard to negotiate when the main stakeholder — CN — doesn't really want to sit at the table," Labeaume said.
CN spokesman Alexandre Boule told The Canadian Press the bridge's current condition does not mean it is unsafe.
"CN always made the necessary investments to ensure the long-term structural integrity of the bridge," he said in an email. "We have always been open to discuss this file with the federal government and we will continue to do so. We will contact Mr. Charest in the upcoming days."
The Quebec Bridge — which links Quebec City and Levis — is a symbol of engineering achievement and failure. It's the longest clear-span cantilever bridge in the world and the first bridge on the continent to use nickel and steel in its construction.
The first two construction attempts — one in 1907 and another in 1916 — failed, resulting in the loss of 89 lives.
In 1987, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering declared the bridge an international historical monument.