Municipalities’, First Nations’ input sought on fate of old swing bridge after replacement

Photo by Warren Schlote

MANITOULIN – While council for the municipality of Gordon/Barrie Island is in favour of the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) seeking support from the Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries (MHSTCI) to remove and/or demolish the existing swing bridge in Little Current, at least one First Nation chief and a resident of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands (NEMI) oppose this recommendation.

Lee Hayden, reeve of Gordon/Barrie Island confirmed his council’s endorsement of the request that the MTO will be making, following a council meeting last week. “We discussed the Highway 6 Little Current swing bridge study, a heritage impact assessment (HIA) report that has been prepared. I think it is worth supporting the MTO on the recommendation,” stated Reeve Hayden.

“The study also calls for measures to mitigate the loss of cultural heritage value or interest (CHVI) associated with removal of the Little Current swing bridge, including documentation of the bridge prior to removal, commemoration of the bridge, and sympathetic design of the replacement bridge, including use of salvaged materials in the new design where practicable,” said Reeve Hayden. “The study went through all the stages of this whole project, before it has to be removed and as it has been indicated, the bridge has served its life and has become a safety concern and will cost a lot more in the future.”

It’s part of the Manitoulin Island history,” stated Patsy Corbiere, chief of Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation and chair of the United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising. “I don’t know how the local people are going to react to this recommendation. I won’t be agreeing to this recommendation.”

“There needs to be another solution to this,” said Chief Corbiere. “This bridge has been here for over 100 years and is the first thing people see when they are coming on to the Island. What they (MTO) would be doing is tearing down history.”

Chief Corbiere said that with the amount of funds that have been spent over the years on the bridge, “They practically rebuilt it. They spent money to fix it then they want to remove or tear it down? It’s part of the history of Manitoulin Island. We shouldn’t destroy it. There are other options. Wouldn’t they want it for sightseeing? They could put it somewhere where everyone could use it.” 

“New is not always good,” she said. “It’s the gateway to Manitoulin Island. It could be used as a walkway. Life changes when things are torn down, and the bridge is significant for Manitoulin Island.”

“Oh, God,” was the response of Bill Caesar, a huge fan of the bridge who has written a book about its first 100 years. “This is a lot of people’s heritage and they are going to be very upset with this decision.” When consultations had taken place as to what the bridge could be replaced with, Mr. Caesar suggested an immersion tunnel. “Build a tunnel on land and let the old one sit there.”

“When this hits Facebook, it’s going to be brutal,” Mr. Caesar said. 

Al MacNevin, mayor of the Town of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands (NEMI) stated, “At this point, the MTO is just asking for comments before going to the minister. Our council hasn’t seen the report yet.”

Mayor MacNevin said the issue and report would be on the NEMI council meeting agenda this week. “In my personal opinion, the option they have chosen seems to make sense, but it is the ministry that has the last say.”

Dianna Addley is a senior environmental planner with Stantec Consulting Ltd., which was retained to undertake a planning preliminary design and class environmental assessment (Class EA0) study for the Highway 6 Little Current Swing Bridge located in the Town of NEMI.  

“The bridge provides the only year-round highway access between the community of Little Current and Manitoulin Island and the mainland areas of Northern Ontario. As the existing bridge is nearing the end of its service life, the purpose of this study was to identify a recommended option that addresses current and future transportation needs at the bridge crossing,” Ms. Addley wrote in a January 7 letter to Island municipalities and First Nations.  

The recommended plan includes the removal of the existing Highway 6 Little Current swing bridge following construction of the new bridge, Ms. Addley wrote. “The existing bridge is the oldest and longest known example of a swing bridge within the province and has been identified by MTO as a Provincial Heritage Property of Provincial Significance (PHPPS) under section 25.2 of the Ontario Heritage Act (OHA) and MTO must comply with the 2010 Standards and Guidelines (standards and guidelines) for Conservation of Provincial Heritage Properties pursuant to Part 111.1, section 25.2, of the OHA.”

“Under the standards and guidelines, removal or demolition of all or part of a provincial heritage property should be considered as a last resort, having considered all other alternatives, subject to HIA and community engagement. The standards and guidelines also requires the consent of the Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries be obtained prior to the demolition or removal of any building or structure located on a PHPPS.”

In addition, MTO must also adhere to the MTO’s Ontario Heritage Bridge Guidelines (Interim 2008) (OHBG), which sets out eight conservation options that must be considered for its bridges.

After considering all other options, MTO has concluded that removal and/or demolition of the existing bridge is the best alternative and a last resort. The HIA report noted that, “At 108 years of age, the structure is beyond the end of its expected life. In total, expenditures for bridge rehabilitation are approximately $17.6 million (approximately $500,000 annual average) over the past 35 years. As bridge deterioration generally increases exponentially with age, a continual increase in rehabilitation costs is expected.”

The HIA documents how the conservation options were considered, identifies the impacts associated with the removal of the bridge and recommends options and mitigation measures to reduce negative impacts and conserve cultural heritage value or interest. 

The eight conservation options considered under the OHBG included: retention of the existing bridge with sympathetic modification; retention of the existing bridge with sympathetically designed new structure in proximity; retention of the existing bridge no longer in use for vehicular purposes but adapted for a new use (e.g. as a pedestrian bridge, cycling bridge or scenic viewing platform); retention of the existing bridge as a heritage monument for viewing purposes only; relocation of smaller, lighter single-span bridges to an appropriate new site for continued use or adaptive re-use; bridge removal and replacement with sympathetically designed structure, where possible salvaging elements/members of the bridge for incorporation into the new structure for future conservation work or displays and undertaking a full recording and documentation of the existing structure. 

It was determined that the first six options were not viable because the transportation needs could not be met, leaving removal of the existing bridge (after the new structure is constructed) as the only viable option. According to the HIA, “This is the only viable option which satisfies the transportation objectives to improve traffic capacity, safety and reliability at the crossing, reduce maintenance costs, and improve access for boats and emergency services.”

Part of the measures to mitigate the loss of heritage associated with removal of the bridge includes a commemoration plan, to be completed following the preliminary design phase, Ms. Addley explained in her letter. Relocating the historic bridge, in whole or in part, will be investigated (including technical and economic feasibility studies) to determine if it is physically possible to do so. MTO will consult with the municipalities, First Nations and others to develop the commemoration plan. “The proposed plan will commemorate the bridge at an appropriate location that is associated with the bridge, preferably close by the crossing, and is publicly accessible. It will record the history of the bridge and its impact on the area, and include interpretive materials such as display panels and, if feasible, the entire bridge or significant components of it such as the gears and the control booth.”

“This report is going to be coming before the MMA (Manitoulin Municipal Association),” said Reeve Hayden. “Hopefully, it gets endorsed there.” 

In a January 13 email, Jaclyn Lytle, communications coordinator northeast operations of the MTO told The Expositor that, “Following the completion of the Little Current Swing Bridge Heritage Impact Assessment process (after the comment period), the next step will be to complete the Transportation Environmental Study Report.”

Circulation of the HIA to key local and heritage stakeholders and interest parties is required under the standards and guidelines. Any public or stakeholder input or comments will be considered as part of the request for minister’s consent. The 30-day review period ends February 7. Questions or input can be forwarded to projectteam@swingbridgestudy.ca