Ministry commits to again managing bridge swings manually to avoid traffic chaos

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LITTLE CURRENT—Mayor and staff for the Northeast Town had what they deemed a successful meeting with high-ranking representatives of the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) regarding their concerns with a communications breakdown following the June 17 swing bridge malfunction.

As was reported previously, due to high winds on June 17, the aging bridge was stuck in the open position for over an hour after sensors were damaged. This led to massive backlogs of traffic on both sides of the bridge and the blocking of crucial intersections, such as the hospital entrance.

With no word from MTO on what was causing the delay, or how long the bridge might be open, Northeast Town staff enacted its safety plan, opening the recreation centre doors for stranded drivers and dispatching staff to walk the roads to inform  drivers that they could be in for a wait with helpful suggestions on how they could pass the time.

Frustrated with a lack of response from area MTO representatives, Mayor Al MacNevin told The Expositor the town requested a meeting with Herb Villneff, MTO’s North East regional director, noting that some of the media coverage given to the bridge breakdown may have “touched a nerve somewhere.” Mr. Villneff agreed to a meeting, and the two parties met electronically on July 11.

Mr. Villneff, Eric Doidge, associate to the MTO’s deputy minister, and North east region senior engineer Melissa Delfino met with Mayor MacNevin and CAO Dave Williamson.

“There were really two issues,” Mayor MacNevin told The Expositor. “A lack of communication to the municipalities and First Nations, as well as to the media … and the automatic cycling of bridge controls.”

It was days before the municipality that houses the bridge had an answer from the MTO as to the cause of the June 17 problem. This newspaper also reached out to MTO media spokespeople the day of the breakdown in an attempt to inform the public of the bridge’s malfunction but did not hear back from representatives for some time after the event.

The mayor recalled a time when the Espanola detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police, having been contacted by the MTO, would inform the travelling public, in Espanola, if the bridge was experiencing a problem and that drivers could expect delays.

The mayor said the municipality did get a commitment from the July 11 meeting from MTO that it would be revisiting its policy on how it communicates these kinds of events and will be reaching out to the Island municipalities and First Nations in the coming weeks. “They’re going to revisit their media policy too—they’ve committed to change that.”

The mayor was also told by MTO that the ministry will be reviewing its emergency plan and will be consulting with the Northeast Town on ways to integrate their respective plans.

Mayor MacNevin also took the meeting as an opportunity to remind MTO of the problems drivers are experiencing with automatic bridge lights.

“The traffic to Manitoulin has changed,” Mayor MacNevin added. “It’s all part of the change the Island is seeing.”

From his dock on the North Channel, Mayor MacNevin keeps an eye on the bridge traffic. He watches as the automated green light lets as few as three or four cars through, following drivers on the other side of the bridge running amber lights, and vice versa.

The municipality had a previous commitment from MTO that it would have the bridge workers on manual bridge duty Fridays and Sundays—the busiest days for traffic—but that wasn’t happening, the mayor noted.

“The MTO has agreed the policy is not appropriate and has agreed to clear the traffic in whatever direction in which it’s backed up, every day of the week and not just weekends,” he said. “Our CAO was calling them (MTO) every time the traffic was backed up. It’s been good so far this past week,” the mayor added, noting he’s been keeping a watchful eye on the bridge.

“It was a good meeting in the sense of getting a commitment instead of ‘we’ll get back to you’,” he said.

The Expositor reached out to Mr. Villneff for comment but did not hear back by press time Monday.