THUNDER BAY — City councillors representing Thunder Bay’s north core wards have expressed disappointment over a higher-than-estimated price tag for a major reconstruction of downtown streets, with some suggesting it could prompt council to reconsider ambitious designs for the area.
Council will consider a recommendation to award a $13.2 million contract for the reconstruction of core sections of Red River Road and Court Street to local company Nadin Contracting on Monday.
City staff had shared a cost estimate of $11 million for the project in January, already up substantially from a previous estimate of $6 to $8 million.
Of the project's total cost, around $2 million involves replacing underground infrastructure, with the rest covering street reconstruction and design improvements that will reshape the area to emphasize walkability and space for markets and events.
The city has budgeted over $8 million for the work in 2023, and is hoping to cover much of the remaining cost through grant applications to FedNor and the NOHFC for a total of $3 million.
The city expects answers on those applications by around June, staff said.
Coun. Brian Hamilton, whose McKellar ward includes the southern side of Red River Road, said he remains supportive of the project, but is concerned the rising costs could prompt second thoughts for other councillors.
“To some degree I’m not surprised. We know everything is over budget nowadays, which is one of the reasons I was so vocal against other projects in the last budget,” he said. “This is a priority project for me, has been for a long time.”
He added the design was based on broad consultations with the community and area businesses, framing the up-front costs as an investment in a robust downtown that will fuel tourism and economic development.
“It’s important to get this done. I think this is going to support not only the business community here, but Thunder Bay at large,” he said.
“The cost increase has basically come from some of the enhanced streetscaping, which is going to help activate some of the programming that’s going to happen down here and the festival potential, and really support the business activity down here.”
Still, he acknowledged rising costs could cause some other councillors to reconsider the design on Monday.
“Council might look at what could we do for different options,” he said. “I expect the debate to be robust. It’s a big project. I support the project in its entirety right now. The price is obviously big, I think bigger than the community expects it to be, but I’m okay with how we’re financing it, and in my mind it’s important to get this done.”
Coun. Michael Zussino said while the design will deliver clear benefits, costs have inflated to a point where council may need to consider paring down some elements on Red River Road.
He’s concerned the price could rise further once digging begins, given the age of infrastructure in the area.
“Conceptually I love it — it’s beautiful,” he said. “My big concern is with that price tag, if you find other stuff under the ground … the costs might go up even more.”
He said he also has questions about how the new street designs, like bumpouts and lockstone-style paving materials, will impact operating costs and snow removal.
Coun. Andrew Foulds said the cost increases were not unexpected, given ongoing inflation and supply chain challenges in the construction industry.
“Am I slightly disappointed? Of course I am,” he said. “Am I particularly surprised? No.”
He called the reconstruction a “game changer” that will bring the downtown “into the 21st century,” saying it will help the city build on the success of waterfront renewal and cruise ship visits.
“We want it to be seamless, from a beautiful waterfront to a beautiful downtown,” he said.
Kayla Dixon, the city’s director of engineering and operations, said some of the increased costs relate to an expanded project scope, with some added elements like mud slabs underneath pavement to mitigate heaving.
The city plans to expand pedestrian and public space, trimming Red River to two lanes and reducing parking.
The project, spurred by the need to replace nearly century-old underground infrastructure, would transform Red River Road between Court and Cumberland streets, as well as Court Street between Red River and Park Avenue, over the next two years.
The city will fully reconstruct the roadway and boulevards, with plans to introduce a curbless, “flexible” street on Red River that can be partially or fully closed for events, and redraw lanes in a “meandering alignment" between Court and Cumberland as a traffic calming measure.
The plans also included changing Park Avenue and Van Norman into one-way streets in core areas, adding angled parking to compensate for spots that will be lost on Red River.
The changes were strongly supported by area businesses and several hundred residents who took part in city consultations.
If council votes to award the tender to Nadin on Monday, Dixon expects construction would begin sometime in May, when load restrictions on local roads will be lifted.
Work will focus on Court Street in 2023, shutting it down entirely, and could proceed down Red River Road depending on the company’s progress.
That’s a change from the city’s previous plans — staff had stated in January that work would start with Red River and move to Court Street in 2024.
The intersection at Red River Road will not be completed until 2024 to avoid construction traffic on a new intersection, Dixon said.