By Rick Garrick
Fort William Chief Peter Collins questions why the Nipigon River Bridge could be repaired so quickly while the bridge to his community has been closed for more than two years.
“It’s amazing how fast they can repair a bridge,” Collins says. “Fort William First Nation has been dealing with a bridge issue for two-and-a-half years almost now and there’s still no results to the bridge issue we have. I think we need to look into this a little further. Yes, I feel sorry for the communities on both sides that have to travel into Thunder Bay for medical reasons. Albeit, they have a lane open to travel through on the (Nipigon River Bridge), but in the long run they need to be repaired.”
The James Street swing bridge between Thunder Bay and Fort William was closed in late Oct. 2013 after a fire damaged the structure. Although the CN-owned bridge was opened to rail traffic three days after the fire, it is still closed to vehicle traffic.
The Nipigon River Bridge was closed to vehicle traffic on Jan. 10 after the bridge deck lifted up about 60 centimetres on the northwest corner of the future westbound two-lane side of the $106 million cable-stayed four-lane bridge. The westbound side of the bridge was completed this past November while the eastbound side is scheduled to be completed in 2017. The bridge was reopened to one lane of vehicle traffic on Jan. 11 after about 100 concrete barriers were placed on the bridge deck to bring it back down to level of the adjacent roadway.
“The bridge was closed a little after 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon,” says Red Rock Indian Band Councillor Sean Ruth. “At that point our reserve was cut off to any amenities … in the Township of Nipigon, like the hospital, the grocery store, the pharmacy. On Monday just a little after 9 in the morning the bridge was opened to one lane. We met with MTO (Ministry of Transportation Ontario) officials and they deemed the bridge to be safe in its current state.”
Ruth says some community members were stranded on the Nipigon side of the bridge after it closed, but they were allowed to walk over the bridge. Nipigon is located on the western side of the bridge while Red Rock Indian Band is located on the eastern side.
“They had to come home to attend their wood stove fires,” Ruth says. “They didn’t want that to go out because it got below -25 (Celsius) last night. We also had Nipigon community members stranded on the east side of the bridge.”
Ruth says the bridge was opened for an ambulance to cross over to aid a person in distress on the eastern side of the bridge.
“They were able to get a couple of steel plates up on the lower section of the bridge that didn’t lift as much,” Ruth says. “So the ambulance was able to come across. The MTO and (the bridge construction company) did as much as they could to extend emergency services that were needed or could have been needed.”
Pays Plat Chief Xavier Thompson drove over the bridge on Monday a few hours after it reopened to travel to Thunder Bay.
“You see people staring at the vehicles and checking the bridge out as people are driving by,” Thompson says. “It seemed like they were constantly doing that.”
Thompson says the community has a medical van that travels to Nipigon, about 44 minutes to the west, and Terrace Bay, about 34 minutes to the east.
“But there are some people that have regular visits up in Thunder Bay for more serious conditions,” Thompson says. “So that would have made some interesting challenges.”
Thompson says community members began stocking up on gas in Pays Plat after the bridge was closed.
“It’s an eye-opener,” Thompson says. “It’s reality — that bridge is extremely important and they should have something (for a) backup in case something happens to it. My biggest concern is that when they finished the first (side of the) bridge, they tore the old bridge down right away.”
Long Lake #58 Chief Allen Towegishig says community members were concerned about obtaining fuel and food supplies when the bridge was closed. His community is located about two-hours northeast of Nipigon on Highway 11, which connects to Highway 17 just east of the bridge.
“A lot of people were concerned about gas for driving our vehicles,” Towegishig says. “And some people were worried about their food. Those are the necessities of life.”
Towegishig says if the bridge had been down for a longer period, the community would have obtained supplies in Hearst, which is located about two hours to the east on Highway 11.
MTO Minister Steven Del Duca says ministry staff worked through the night to rectify the situation at the bridge, using the concrete barriers as counterweights to level the bridge surface.
“An engineering inspection was also completed to ensure the safety of the bridge and the travelling public,” Del Duca says. “Keeping Ontario moving is a shared priority of all involved, and I commend the hardworking crews who laboured throughout the night to return this important piece of highway infrastructure to the safe, driving condition all Canadians expect.”
Although the bridge currently has one lane open for cars and regular weight transports, Del Duca says staff are continuing to work to determine when oversized trucks can use the bridge.
“Crews remain on site to identify the cause of the issue and updates from MTO will be communicated as they become available,” Del Duca says.