Fort William community members are concerned about potential accidents at the Chippewa Road turnoff from Highway 61, which they now have to use to travel out of the community due to the closure of the James Street bridge.   – Photo by Rick Garrick

Fort William community members are concerned about potential accidents at the Chippewa Road turnoff from Highway 61, which they now have to use to travel out of the community due to the closure of the James Street bridge. – Photo by Rick Garrick

By Maurice Switzer & Rick Garrick

FORT WILLIAM FIRST NATION – Chief Georjann Morriseau, continues to put the pressure on CN officials and the federal government about their plans to open the James Street Swing Bridge to vehicle traffic. 

Chief Morriseau, Councillor Wyatt Bannon and Director of Lands and Property Management Ian Bannon met in Edmonton last week with CN officials about their plans to re-open traffic on the James Street bridge.

“We are still awaiting the results of their engineering report which is scheduled to be released at the end of March,” says Chief Morriseau who spoke to railway’s top executives about the impacts of the bridge closure.  “Right now CN says the state of the bridge is deemed very unsafe.  They will not consider any short term opening of any kind due to the capacity issues and safety, which is very frustrating to say the least.  However safety is always key.”

“Our major concern is about the safety of our community members who are forced to use the only alternate route,” says Chief Morriseau said at a Feb. 10 open house. Traffic safety was one of the issues raised at the open house organized by the First Nation. A number of those in attendance were worried about large trucks turning from Highway 61 onto Chippewa Road at a poorly-lit intersection on what is now the only traffic link between Fort William and Thunder Bay.

CN trains have continued to use the swing bridge since the roadway portion was closed Oct. 29 following a fire which police say was of suspicious origin.

“We have been working diligently with the Mayor of Thunder Bay and other officials to put pressure on CN and the federal government to resolve this matter,” said the Chief, who says she has been “ beyond frustrated with the lack of response.”

The Chief says she scheduled the public meeting to gather information for her lobbying effort. ” We wanted to hear first-hand about the impacts on everyone affected. This way we can effectively advocate on their behalf.”

The First Nation’s economic development department estimates that community businesses are losing about $50,000 a day since the bridge closure, and that wages are down by some 40 per cent. Businesses on the Thunder Bay side of the bridge are reporting losses in the 10 per cent range.

“Certainly, the gas numbers are down,” says Wally Bannon, one of the owners of Bannon’s Gas Bar. “Looking at the financial report the other day, the numbers are definitely way down compared to the normal, when the bridge was open.”

Bannon says the restaurant side of the business is okay during the day but the numbers are down in the evening. The only route between Fort William and Thunder Bay is now an eight to nine kilometre loop on Highway 61 and Chippewa Road.

“People do not like to drive around at night time with that part of the highway not lit up,” Bannon says. “Especially in the winter when there’s some snow or cold weather, which makes for some slick rides down there.”

At the Feb. 10 community forum, Bannon delivered a briefing note indicating employment wages were down by up to 40 per cent at all the Robinson Superior community’s City Road businesses, due to layoffs and reduced hours.

“If you look at some of our local businesses and gas bars and the revenue they generate and the losses of 40 to 50 per cent, that is quite significant for especially a small privately owned business,” said Chief Georjann Morriseau. “That is their livelihood.”

Bannon says business is also down by 10 per cent across the bridge in Thunder Bay, which was supported by one grocery store owner during the community forum.

Fort William’s Lynda Banning, FASD regional program worker with the Union of Ontario Indians, says the James Street bridge closure has changed her shopping patterns.

“Sometimes when the bridge was open I would go shopping during my lunch — now I don’t,” Banning says. “Most of the time I avoid going into town, and I only go in when it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t do as much shopping as I used to.”

Bobby-Jo Chenier, regional director with the Union of Ontario Indians, says her drive to work from Thunder Bay is “a lot longer” since the James Street bridge closed.

“I have a few safety concerns with the turnoff from the highway at rush hour,” Chenier says. “I am pretty careful at the corner, so I don’t pull out too much, but it is nerve wracking watching other people do it, especially the big trucks coming or trying to turn.”

A CN official says a full study of the entire James Street bridge structure, which will take about three months, is currently underway in an e-mail statement.

“We must complete this comprehensive assessment of the entire structure before we can address the road issue,” says Lindsay Fedchyshyn, regional manager for CN Public and Government Affairs. “The first concern of all – CN, the First Nation and the city – is to ensure the safety of all who use the bridge.”