THUNDER BAY – Fort William First Nation leadership is renewing calls for the James Street Swing Bridge to be reopened to vehicular traffic as the fifth anniversary of the span’s closure approaches.
The CN Rail-owned bridge, which connects Fort William First Nation to Thunder Bay across the Kaministiquia River, has been closed to vehicles since a fire broke out on the northern approach spans on the evening of Oct. 29, 2013, though trains resumed crossing later that week.
Fort William First Nation community leaders on Tuesday gathered at the north side of the bridge, outlining their proposal to install a permanent Bailey bridge structure over top of the existing cantilevers that would restore road access with an expected life span of 75 years at an estimated cost of $8 million.
Fort William First Nation Chief Peter Collins said that bridge would maintain both lanes of traffic and be able to accommodate emergency vehicles. It could be installed within eight to 12 weeks, though their plan requires the consent of CN and approval of the city.
“We want public pressure. We want political pressure. We want everyone to pressure these guys to get their job done and get the access built into both of our communities,” Collins said.
“We need the support of everybody to push the umbrella. This dragging it out in the courts doesn’t make sense to me.”
The Ontario Court of Appeal earlier this year ordered CN to reopen the bridge, overturning a previous Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruling that absolved the railway of having to maintain the bridge for vehicular traffic.
CN has filed a notice to appeal with the Supreme Court of Canada, which would continue the legal process.
Collins, who said the courtroom saga has cost his community $500,000 in legal expenses even though they only hold observer status, wants to see a solution that doesn’t require lawyers and judges.
“If the Supreme Court rules in favour of CN, who knows what’s next,” Collins said. “But I think if we can settle this issue and come to a common understanding between the city, Fort William and CN, I think that’s the most reasonable way of doing business.”
City officials issued a media release, saying they understand Fort William’s frustration with the ongoing closure and vowed to “vigorously defend” any legal tactics put forward by CN. The city also said it has not received any information about their bridge concept.
In a statement, Thunder Bay mayor Keith Hobbs said the city remains confident in the appeal court ruling.
“The Court of Appeal was clear in its ruling, CN is fully responsible for their bridge and it is up to CN to determine what repairs or upgrades are required to reopen it,” Hobbs said.
“Thunder Bay and Fort William First Nation have been impacted for far too long. This bridge is an important connection between our communities. We call upon CN to do the right thing and fix their bridge.”
Acrow, a Bolton, Ont. based company, approached Collins after hearing about the closure and proposed the Bailey bridge concept.
Acrow president Ken Scott said the prefabricated structure be designed and supplied by the company.
“A bridge of this size would be a good-sized bridge, certainly in the large category, but well within our capabilities,” Scott said. “Once the foundations are prepared, the installation wouldn’t be terribly complicated.”
Collins said the railway has indicated they are analyzing the proposal and were willing to develop a plan that could lead to the bridge being reopened in mid to late 2019.
“That doesn’t make sense to us when we have a solution that we can rectify in the next couple of months,” Collins said.
CN spokesman Patrick Waldron said an independent engineering firm has been engaged to develop a solution and examine options for the bridge, which includes the Bailey bridge proposal.