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Quebec to Gates: #PaintYourBridgeBill

Thursday, December 4, 2014

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Two Quebec-area mayors want the richest man in the world to open his wallet and paint a bridge.

It's been nearly a decade since depleted funds left the privately owned Quebec Bridge partially painted, and Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeume and Levis Mayor Gilles Lehouillier are petitioning Bill Gates to pony up the funds to get the job done.

Gates, worth $82 billion, is not only the richest person in the world. He also happens to be the largest shareholder of Canadian National Railway Co., which has owned the bridge since its privatization from the federal government in the mid-1990s.

Upon taking control of the bridge, the company agreed to contribute $36 million of the $60 million then needed for paint and repairs. However, that money quickly ran out, leaving about 60 percent of the bridge sans new paint.

Now, the job is estimated at $200 million.

The mayors have made their case in a letter to Gates, complete with photos of the rusty bridge, and are rallying citizen support with the social media campaign #PaintYourBridgeBill.

Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeume invites citizens to a brunch this Sunday (Dec. 7) to raise support for the bridge. The video is in French until the end, when the mayor proclaims in English, "Paint your bridge, Bill."

The Quebec Bridge is a 3,239-foot-long road, rail and pedestrian bridge over the lower St. Lawrence River.

It opened in 1919 after decades of construction, a period during which the bridge collapsed twice, killing 89 workers. The world's longest cantilever road bridge, the structure was recognized in 1995 as a National Historic Site of Canada.

Dear Bill...

"CN has refused to finish the paint work it abandoned in 2005, and is categorically opposed to making improvements it deems merely esthetic," the mayors wrote Gates in their letter, which was provided to PaintSquare News.

"We are appealing to your sense of civic responsibility in hopes that you will urge CN to assume its responsibility and finish its work to paint the structure. ...

"Such a gesture will ensure that our historic world heritage city will once again have a historic bridge worthy of its name."

The federal government tried to sue the company to pay for painting the bridge. But a Quebec Superior Court judge ruled Oct. 22 that CN was not obligated to do so because it had already met a 10-year, $36 million investment commitment made in 1997 with the Quebec and federal governments.

The company's decision to stop painting the bridge before it was even halfway finished may be legal, the mayors say, but CN has a social responsibility to complete the work.

"What message is CN sending to the people of Quebec, and particularly to the some 750,000 residents of Quebec's metropolitan area?" the mayors wrote.

"It is totally unacceptable for this CN-owned infrastructure to mar the majestic beauty of the Quebec City area and the St. Lawrence River."

Not Our Problem

The company has offered to donate the bridge to any government entity that will maintain it. CN also contends that the bridge is safe and that its rust is due to the deicing salt used by the Quebec Transportation Department.

"Let's be clear. CN has always fulfilled its responsibilities towards Quebec Bridge and has spent tens of millions of dollars on that matter," the company stated.

The company "has made significant investments to ensure the Quebec Bridge is safe and will remain safe for the long term," spokesman Mark Hallman said in an email to Bloomberg News.

"Painting the bridge is not about safety; it's about aesthetics," Hallman added. "CN believes governments should take responsibility to protect or enhance the heritage value of the Quebec Bridge, not CN."

In 2013, CN and the Quebec Transportation Department entered into a long-term agreement that included a $70 million, 10-year program "to fix the damage caused by the decades-long use of de-icing salt," plus $35 million for 10 years of maintenance work.

Quebec Bridge
Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5 via Wikipedia / Sebastien Savard

The Quebec Bridge, which opened to traffic in 1919, has been privately owned by Canadian National Railway since the 1990s. The bridge is safe, but government officials want the owners to paint it.

The mayors said it was "unacceptable" for the company to neglect the bridge when it is "posting tremendous profits."

"The Quebec Bridge is an excellent opportunity for CN to show the people of Quebec that it is a responsible corporate citizen and not an arrogant corporate parasite for whom the 'triple bottom line' is much more than a meaningless public relations strategy," the letter said. 

Offer to Split the Bill

Gates has yet to respond to the letter, which was dated Nov. 13, but that hasn't silenced the mayors. At a press conference Nov. 27, the mayors and several other politicians wore t-shirts bearing the "Paint Your Bridge, Bill" slogan, according to the National Post.

On Friday (Nov. 28), the federal, provincial and municipal governments announced they were willing to contribute a combined $100 million to paint the span—a job now estimated at $200 million, leaving CN responsible for the other half of the tab.

But by making the offer, the governments admit that maintaining the bridge is their responsibility, not CN's, Jim Feeny, CN director of public affairs, told

CN vice president Olivier Chouc said the company "remains ready to do everything to facilitate such painting work, insofar as the three levels of government are ready to pay for it," the National Post reported.

On Sunday (Dec. 7), the mayors are hosting a pro-bridge brunch at the nearby Quebec Aquarium, where a group photo will be taken and sent to both Gates and CN, David O'Brian, a spokesman for Labeume, told PaintSquare News.


Tagged categories: Bridges; Coating Application; Funding; Government; Maintenance coating work; North America; Rail; Social Media

Comment from Kevin Hahn-Keith, (12/4/2014, 9:55 AM)

They should try the residency trick. There are probably a lot of Chinese investors in CN also.

Comment from Karen Fischer, (12/4/2014, 10:29 AM)

"arrogant corporate parasite" - sounds like liberal talk to me... I think the ones who want it painted should pay for it. If the structure is safe, that is all CN is concerned with.

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