City of Thunder Bay rejects CN offer for bridge re-opening

Mayor Keith Hobbs says after a five-hour discussion in a closed session Monday night, city council unanimously voted to reject CN's offer regarding the re-opening of the James Street swing bridge.
The city of Thunder Bay says CN Rail should pay the full cost of re-opening the James Street swing bridge to vehicles and pedestrians. (CBC)

The City of Thunder Bay has rejected CN Rail's offer regarding the re-opening of the James Street swing bridge over the Kaministiquia River.

At a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Keith Hobbs said city council discussed the matter in a closed session for five hours on Monday night, and unanimously voted to reject CN's proposal.

Council has also requested a full legal review of CN's rights and obligations regarding the bridge, including agreements from 1905 and 1906. The review is expected to take several months, meaning the bridge linking the city of Thunder Bay and Fort William First Nation will remain closed to traffic indefinitely. 

Hobbs said he is "frustrated" on behalf of the residents of both Thunder Bay and Fort William First Nation who rely on the bridge for work, business and day-to-day activities. 

But he said that the city has "no alternative but to take the time for this in-depth legal review," emphasizing that it is CN's responsibility to pay the full cost of re-opening the bridge for pedestrians and vehicles.

Thunder Bay city manager Tim Commisso. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

"CN owns the bridge, CN operates the bridge," said Hobbs. "This whole thing boils down to, you know, what's right and what's wrong and CN's responsibility." 

"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," added city manager Tim Commisso. 

In a letter to Hobbs dated July 15, CN Rail vice-president of Corporate Services Olivier Chouc said the company would contribute 50 percent of the cost of a short-term solution to re-open the bridge, up to a maximum of $1.5 million. 

The bridge has been closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic since last October when it was damaged by fire.

Hobbs said now that it appears the bridge will remain closed for a long time, the city will continue to push the Ontario government to make the intersection of Highway 61 and Chippewa Road safer, as it is the sole access point to Fort William First Nation. 

"That's a provincial highway; it's not governed by the city," Hobbs said. "But ... our citizens drive it every day [and] I've seen some near-misses there."

"There's probably going to have to be an education piece as well there," he added. "People have to realize it's a dangerous intersection, especially when they're turning left ... to head to Fort William First Nation." 

CN "regrets" city's decision

A few hours after the city's announcement, CN issued a statement expressing regret that council had rejected its offer.

The railway said it had provided a solution, which is to share its rail deck with vehicular traffic.

But the statement acknowledged that at the heart of the dispute is a difference over interpretation of the 1906 agreement providing for the maintenance of the bridge.  It said its offer provided "a practical, immediate solution that would avoid years of costly litigation which will not resolve the access issue."

CN said the city's position means continued inconvenience to thousands of Thunder Bay residents, but it remains open to a dialogue with the city.