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James Street swing bridge situation remains unsolved

Friday August 8, 2014
Wawatay file photo

Fort William Chief Georjann Morriseau and Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs at a meeting concerning the bridge earlier this year.

After a five-hour closed session meeting, Thunder Bay city council rejected the proposal from CN Rail on July 22 regarding the James Street swing bridge that connects the city of Thunder Bay to Fort William First Nation.

The offer from CN to reopen the bridge, which has been closed since a fire rendered the bridge unsafe for vehicular traffic in October of 2013, was made public on July 15. CN offered to reopen the bridge within weeks to vehicular and pedestrian traffic and contribute 50 per cent of the cost (up to $1.5 million). The offer came with options and conditions, including a full and final release from a 1906 agreement.

The 1906 agreement was made between the former Town of Fort William and the Grand Trunk Railway (CN predecessor company) that stipulated the railway would be maintained in perpetuity.

City council unanimously voted to reject the offer from CN, and also requested a full legal review of the rights and obligations extended to CN over the years including but not limited to the 1906 agreement and a 1905 agreement. The review is expected to take several months.

Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs said that there is no alternative but to take the time for the in-depth legal review.

“We are frustrated on behalf of the residents of the City of Thunder Bay and Fort William First Nation who rely on the bridge to travel between our two communities for work, business, and day-to-day activities,” Hobbs said. “However, CN owns, operates and controls the bridge.
They are solely responsible for the decision to keep the bridge closed or to reopen it to vehicles and pedestrians.”

Thunder Bay City Manager Tim Commisso said that it presents a challenge to negotiate further with CN “when it has taken the unilateral position that it is no longer responsible for the operation of the pedestrian and vehicular portions of the bridge under the 1906 agreement.”

“Let’s be clear – CN owns, operates, controls, and maintains the bridge. CN is telling us that it is unsafe – they are holding all the information regarding the structural condition of the bridge,” Commisso said. “Even before the fire, the city asked to work together to assess the structural condition of the bridge. We have not heard back from that offer.”

The city of Thunder Bay offered to assess the condition of the bridge on Oct. 24. The fire damaged the bridge on Oct.29.

At a press conference held to announce the decision to reject CN’s offer, Hobbs said that CN is “not a good corporate citizen” when asked about the emergency medical service wait time to get to the reserve from the city due to the bridge closure. The only way into the reserve from the city is to take Highway 61 then turn left onto Chippewa Road.

“I’ve been quite blunt about that, they’re not a good corporate citizen, they haven’t been throughout this. They have an agreement. Our lawyers are quite clear, we have Toronto lawyers, local lawyers that are saying that it’s their (CN’s) duty to maintain and open that bridge.
We’ve thrown that at them. We’ve told them about those dangers and its fallen on deaf ears,” Hobbs said.

The agreement in 1906 did not include FWFN, but Hobbs said that the city has kept FWFN Chief Georjann Morriseau informed of the decision and any decisions concerning the bridge.

“It has always been a Thunder Bay file because the agreement was between Thunder Bay and CN.
It wasn’t with Fort William First Nation and CN and the city of Thunder Bay. They recognize that they’re a party to this because they’re affected by it. They’re adversely affected by it.
But when it comes down to any decisions by council, the chief was quite aware and we kept her apprised. She appreciates that this is our file.”

Morriseau stated that it would be very difficult for both communities of FWFN and Thunder Bay to wait for two-three years of litigation for a decision to be made on the 1906 agreement.

Morriseau agreed with the city that CN has a legal obligation to open the bridge, but that FWFN will be the most impacted by the process.

CN said in a statement that they regretted the city’s rejection.

“Our offer provides a practical immediate solution that would avoid years of costly litigation which will not result the access issue,” it stated.

Both CN and city council have said they are still open to negotiation.

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