LITTLE CURRENT—Last Wednesday was the first of the public information sessions regarding the fate of the iconic 105-year-old Manitoulin swing bridge with interested parties coming from across the Island to learn more about the options at hand and ask questions of the visiting engineers.
Engineers from the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) and Stantec hosted two information sessions on Wednesday, August 22 giving the public a chance to peruse the five options—status quo, a car ferry, tunnel, movable bridge or fixed bridge—ask questions of the engineers and take part in a survey. Eighty-seven people attended the Little Current events.
Little Current historian Sandy McGillivray already knew where he stood on the bridge’s replacement. “I think it should be a bascule bridge (or lift bridge), which was also an option in 1913 (the year the swing bridge was erected),” he told The Expositor following a visit to the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre last Wednesday evening. “It’s probably the simplest in terms of mechanics, and the cheapest.”
Bonnie Cook, also of Little Current, said she attended the information session to learn more about the proposed plans and swing bridge alternatives.
“It’s an interesting problem, isn’t it?” she asked thoughtfully. “And so important too.”
Bill Hance hails from Ohio but spends his summer on Manitoulin.
“I would really hate to see the existing bridge go, but I understand the problems,” he said. “From what I can see, there is no inexpensive solution to the problem.”
His first choice would be for the aging swing bridge to be fixed, he said. “The bridge is so symbolic of Little Current, and the Island. There’s probably nothing more symbolic than the bridge for Manitoulin,” Mr. Hance added, noting the constant photo taking of the bridge while it’s doing its on the hour every hour dance.
“As much as we all love the old bridge, it’s only a matter of time before there’s a big emergency and it fails,” Gary Morphet of Little Current commented. “We need to have a plan B.”
Brad Wright of Gore Bay said he attended the information session to learn more about the process.
Mr. Wright said his first inclination is to keep the swing bridge.
“I see the historical aspect; a reminder of that ‘Island time’,” he said. He spoke of Stantec engineer Gregg Cooke’s quote in the pages of this newspaper that the bridge was costing the Ministry of Transportation upwards of $600,000 a year in maintenance costs. He believes that is money well spent. “Six hundred thousand dollars a year equals $50 a head for 12,000 Island residents,” he said. To spend millions on an alternative would mean a 200-year return on investment, Mr. Wright added.
“We’d be better off maintaining the current bridge,” Mr. Wright continued. “Why not do preventative maintenance? The work could all be done in the off-season.”
Mr. Wright said the issue is of importance to people across Manitoulin, not just Little Current. “It’s the Island in its entirety that’s affected by this,” he said. “A lot of these options will have a dramatic impact on the business in the area. Look at the ice cream shop (3 Cows and a Cone), for instance.”
Mr. Wright said Islanders have done a terrible job in promoting the bridge to its full extent. “We can effectively manage this better and to the taxpayers’ advantage rather than building a new structure,” he concluded.
Sean O’Hare of Little Current said he believes the tunnel option is best as it could also mean links for fibre optic cable and natural gas with the mainland.
“It’s interesting that they don’t note the cost on maintaining the status quo,” he added. “I have a feeling they’ve already decided and that they’re just appeasing us.”
Chief Patsy Corbiere couldn’t help but feel that way too, as though a decision had already been made, but she invited the engineers to her community of Aundeck Omni Kaning for a private presentation the day following the Little Current sessions. The engineers also made presentations at Wiikwemkoong and Sheshegwaning.
Chief Corbiere said the bridge is “a current problem, but a long way off.” The chief said she realized that the bridge needs to be replaced, but that all involved need to take a long, hard look at all the options before they even think about relocating it.
“A lot of money has been spent in that area, trying to develop it,” she said. “They’re not thinking of the impact—they really need to look at it through an economic lens.”
Chief Corbiere noted that the topic of traffic disruption keeps getting lumped in with the bridge study but that it’s a distraction from the real task at hand.
“Give me a break,” she said of those who complain about having to wait for 15 minutes during an ill-timed summer swing.
“That thing is a monument to Manitoulin, but people on Manitoulin also have to start thinking of the future,” she commented, noting that her first choice would be to see the current bridge fixed, but pending that, a new bridge in the same location is her preferred option.
Phil Blake, proprietor of 3 Cows and a Cone, hosted a meeting at the community room of Orr’s Valu-Mart prior to the information session for all Little Current business owners interested, or concerned, in the bridge study.
Fifteen businesspeople attended the last-minute meeting, with many more having contacted Mr. Blake with their support. The feelings among the business owners was unanimous—the bridge, in whatever form it might take, cannot be moved from its current location. Mr. Blake was given the task of also representing those same businesses at the community services ‘committee of the whole’ meeting of Northeast Town council last Thursday night.
“The MTO has a history of straight-lining highways,” Mr. Blake said in his address council, referring to building bypasses around communities. “Look at towns that were once vibrant.”
Mr. Blake shared that he provides jobs for 12 full-time and 17 part-time staff and that with a re-routing of the bridge, many of those jobs could be at stake.
He then launched into a study on the traffic flow of the bridge and his thoughts on how to make the three unused traffic lanes work. “It may look good from a desk, but it’s a joke,” he said of the traffic lights.
Mr. Blake asked council to consider making a motion of support to keep the status quo in terms of entry and exit points of the bridge, new or otherwise, and to share this with the MTO.
“We all have a very large investment,” he added, speaking on behalf of the businesses he was representing. “It was brought up, council, that if a highway bypassed town, would the township reduce the current assessments?”
Council thanked Mr. Blake for his presentation with Mayor Al MacNevin noting that many on council support his position on the bridge.