The head of the Ontario Trucking Association says the possibility of long-term delays and restrictions at the damaged Nipigon River Bridge is worrisome.
David Bradley said the crossing at Nipigon is unusual because of the lack of alternative routes — and it's very difficult for domestic trucks to detour through the U.S. because of red tape.
If the bridge doesn't fully reopen soon, he told CBC News, it may be time to start talking about creating an alternative route.
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"So much goods and all of the trade — virtually between Western Canada and Eastern Canada — has to take that route, so that does leave us quite vulnerable."
At one time, Canadian domestic freight could more easily take a route through the U.S. , but after 9/11 that became "much more difficult," he said.
Bradley, who is the president and CEO of the Ontario Trucking Association and the Canadian Trucking Alliance, said that on a typical day about 1,300 trucks carrying $100 million worth of goods cross the bridge each day. The main product moving across the bridge is food.
The Ontario Provincial Police temporarily closed the Nipigon River Bridge on Sunday afternoon after a winter storm damaged the structure's steel decking.
As of Tuesday, vehicles were still being escorted across the bridge, and some oversized trucks were not able to cross.
"If this is going to go on more than a couple of days — which seems to be the real sense of things — then I think we're going to need our governments, both at the federal and provincial level, to approach the United States to see whether there's some flexibility, some good will that could be brought to bear in moving goods through the United States," he said.
Bradley also said the potential use of a logging road north of Nipigon needs to be explored as a short-term solution.
Oversized trucks in limbo
Nipigon resident Larry Zelinsky told CBC News governments should consider building an alternate highway from Longlac, or Geraldton, around the west side of Lake Nipigon.
"They talk about spending infrastructure money, and what not, and fixing roads and doing this and doing that. You would think that — if they wanted to get people back to work and what not — they would build that road, just in case something like this with the bridge ever happened," he said.
"At least you'd have some way of getting across Canada."
Cars and most trucks are currently crossing the bridge about 10 to 15 minutes slower than usual.
Oversized trucks, however, remain in limbo. Provincial ministry of transportation staff decide on a "case-by-case basis" whether to allow trucks weighing more than 63,500 kilograms over the bridge, Bob Nichols, a ministry spokesman, said in an email.
Prolonged weight and size restrictions would mean these types of vehicles — which often carry specialized, heavy equipment like wind turbines — are left with few options.
"The U.S. authorities basically choked off" the U.S. route for Canadian truckers, said Bradley. While the Canada Border Services Agency and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have been working to overcome these hurdles for Canadian truckers, no industry-wide plan is in place yet, he said.
In the interim, CBSA, the Canadian Trucking Alliance, and the U.S. CBP are trying "to develop temporary measures" to allow Canadian truckers easier passage through the states while the bridge remains partially closed, Esme Bailey, CBSA spokeswoman, said in an email. They plan to finalize the measures later this week.
It's unclear when the bridge will fully reopen or if it will have to be closed again for repairs. Crews are on-site, working to determine the cause, Patrick Searle, another transportation ministry spokesman, said in an email.
The $106-million bridge project replaced Nipigon's old two-lane structure with a four-lane one. It opened about two months ago, but won't be fully completed until 2017.