Higgs creates stir on Miramichi when he's no-show at bridge event
Premier says he never agreed to attend event at Pineville Bridge
Premier Blaine Higgs's first official foray into byelection season on the Miramichi got off on the wrong foot this week.
Higgs did not appear Wednesday afternoon on the Pineville Bridge, where more than 100 people gathered hoping he'd have something to say about repairing or replacing the structure.
Local resident Darlene Gillespie says the visit had been promoted by a local Progressive Conservative supporter hoping to become the party's candidate in the June 20 byelection in Southwest Miramichi-Bay du Vin.
"Here we have 150 people standing on the bridge waiting for Higgs to come up and talk to us," she said. "In my heart I thought he was going to announce he was going to fix the bridge, but obviously that didn't happen.
"People were disappointed. Like, there was no rage or anything. Very disappointed that he disrespected us."
Higgs says that in fact he "never planned" for or committed to a scheduled event in Pineville.
He told CBC News he talked to potential candidate Mike Dawson and said he'd stop in if he had time to take a look.
The premier said his government will study the state of the bridge but he pointed out he's known to be averse to making spending announcements to win votes.
"Given my history, I wouldn't expect anyone would have thought I was going to make a campaign promise along the way," he said.
Adding to the buzz in Pineville about Higgs, area resident Danny Hallihan posted on Facebook that people were told Higgs couldn't make it because "he was stuck in Fredericton and was tied up."
Except "shortly after" leaving Pineville, Hallihan wrote, he and his family came upon Higgs and three other people dining at the Pizza Delight in Miramichi.
"I know the man's gotta eat, but he had a commitment with a potential candidate," Gillespie said. "He should have kept his commitment."
Higgs said there was no commitment to stop while he was en route to a PC nominating convention in Neguac for the other June byelection in Miramichi Bay-Neguac. Former MLA Réjean Savoie was chosen as the party's candidate in that riding.
"He could have talked for 10 or 15 minutes, and all he had to say is 'I have another commitment, but very glad to meet you,' and leave," Gillespie said. "That's all he had to do."
Higgs said he said he was late leaving Fredericton and had arranged to meet Savoie at the Pizza Delight for a quick meal and to travel with him to Neguac.
Gillespie said there has been a "temporary" bailey bridge in place across the Renous River at Pineville since 1975. The closure by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure in December has made the need for a repair acute.
The span has a score of 64 on the department's bridge condition index, where a score of 100 means a bridge is in excellent shape.
With the bridge closed to traffic, people who live in the area have to detour by about 30 kilometres depending on where they're going.
About 50 households and 25 to 30 camps are nearby, Gillespie said. "Everybody uses that bridge."
Ambulances coming from Blackville used to use a road through the woods and the bridge to get to residents on the north side of the Renous River quickly. Now they need to take the long way around.
The bridge is open to foot traffic and all-terrain vehicles.
Gillespie estimates it would cost $200,000 at most to fix the structure and pointed out Higgs recently got federal approval to use $390 million in infrastructure funding, earmarked for transit and other initiatives, for roads and bridges instead.
The premier said he spoke to Gillespie, and while there are "different views" on what's needed to fix the bridge, the government will look at it.
"We'll do a study on this bridge and understand the condition of it," he said.
"That's a commitment I would make to anyone at any time. I don't make decisions on the fly, and I don't make them in the absence of facts."
He also pointed out that "a lot of governments" have been in power since the "temporary" bridge was put up in 1975.
Premier was 'roasted' on Facebook
Gillespie said the Renous area was buzzing about the no-show Thursday, and the premier was being "roasted" on Facebook but she couldn't predict if the PC-leaning area would vote against the government as a result of the incident.
"The Liberals probably will love it," she said.
Liberal byelection candidate Hannah Fulton Johnston showed up for the expected appearance by the premier.
She said party leader Roger Melanson plans to ask the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure about the bridge during budget estimates next week.
"The thing that I still can't understand is they can't get any answers," she said. "It shouldn't be difficult to find out from DTI or from government what the plan is for the bridge."
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