MMA asks that municipalities pass motion to open bridge for boats at two-hour intervals

Shutterstock

Northeast Town Mayor Al MacNevin objects, explains navigable waterways

MANITOULIN – While there is no confirmed traffic data, Islanders are agreeing that vehicular traffic has been much heavier than usual during the current and previous summers, which may be attributable in part to more COVID-19 related travel in Ontario. It’s unknown whether the trend will continue into the future. What is more certain is the longer wait times when the bridge at Little Current swings to accommodate boat traffic, leading to frustrating delays for vehicles. A motion at a recent Manitoulin Municipal Association (MMA) meeting has members asking their councils to consider two-hour swing intervals rather than the current one hour.

The issue was raised by Kevin Woestenenk, a councillor with Gore Bay who occasionally works off-Island and has been affected by long wait times at the bridge. “I work off-Island at times, like others and folks with appointments,” he said. “I also boat under the bridge a couple times a year.” He asked if there was a legal obligation for the bridge to swing on the hour if a boat is waiting.

Mr. Woestenenk said the wait is “horrendous” when he’s working off-Island. “It was past the NEMI hospital the other Sunday morning at 11 o’clock. Why is [the bridge] swinging when people are on holidays going through there on a boat? Boaters should have the time.” 

Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands (Northeast Town) Mayor Al MacNevin explained, “Originally the swing bridge was open for boat traffic mostly and swung for vehicle traffic. Over time they reverse that and the bridge opened for boat traffic on the hour, as you now see, for 15 minutes.” He wasn’t sure if there is a joint agreement between Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation (MTO) and Transport Canada because it is a navigable waterway. 

“Historically from our perspective, there’s just a couple of months where we see a real backup in terms of highway traffic. It’s a lot worse than it used to be,” said Mayor MacNevin. “As a community where the tourism industry depends a great deal on the boats that come in the summer months, we’ve always felt that it was important for that traffic to flow as well. If the boats can’t get through in a reasonably efficient manner they’ll find another place to go.”

Northeast Town has so far taken the position that it shouldn’t be more difficult for tourism boat traffic and the mayor doesn’t think the community would wish to make it more difficult for boats to travel. “Hopefully once we get the new bridge, the two lanes will make a significant difference when the bridge does swing.”

Lee Hayden, who operates the Gore Bay Marina in addition to his role as reeve for Gordon/Barrie Island, noted that when the bridge was undergoing repairs a few years ago, he didn’t notice any difference in traffic with the longer swinging intervals at the bridge. He added that, in his personal opinion, “there’s far more land traffic now than there used to be compared to how much boat traffic there is.”

Reeve Hayden doesn’t see anything wrong with a two-hour swing interval. “Boaters would just have to accommodate that. We definitely don’t want to impede boat traffic. It’s very important to every marina on the North Channel. It wouldn’t hurt to revisit it at some point.”

Township of Billings Mayor Ian Anderson said he sympathized with Mayor MacNevin’s view, but “there is no question that the land-based traffic is twice what it was in 2019.” He said it was very frustrating when it took 25 minutes to get to the bridge on a recent Sunday afternoon. “We timed it so we wouldn’t get held up at the bridge but that was to no avail. We could see the bridge.” Because traffic was backed up so much on the Island side, the bridge operator was letting many more cars off the Island compared to those coming on to the Island. “The land-based traffic is overwhelming compared to the boat traffic, and spends money on Manitoulin as well.” 

Robinson Township representative Tim Mackinlay feels this is a “fairly unique” year for vehicle traffic and it’s “horrendous,” but that boaters “bring a lot of money to the Island economy.” He suggested it would be more advantageous to “petition the MTO to speed up that bridge replacement project so we can have two lanes, which will solve a lot of the problem.”

Gore Bay Mayor Dan Osborne was also in favour of “extending it to every two hours if we could.” He proposed a motion to take to municipal councils to gauge community support for the suggestion. Assiginack’s Hugh Moggy also thought it would be fine to have the bridge swing every two hours. Central Manitoulin Mayor Richard Stephens seconded the motion. “Let’s see what the consensus is and bring it back to see what decisions we want to take as an association.”

The motion was carried and will be part of the MMA minutes issued to the townships. Should the MMA consider the possibility of changing the schedule for when the bridge is opened, they should contact the Ministry of Transportation’s Northeast Operations office to discuss the matter further, said Jaclyn Lytle, Communications Coordinator for Northeast Operations. “The swinging of the Little Current Swing Bridge is a requirement of the Navigable Waters Bridges Regulations.”