New Brunswick

Bill Thorpe Walking Bridge in Fredericton gets $4M for structural upgrades

The historic walking bridge will get repairs to two or three of the piers, replace the wood ties underneath and replacement of the wooden decking.

'There are a lot of people who use that bridge, it's a big deal,' says Fredericton resident

The Bill Thorpe Walking bridge was originally built in 1889 and is in need of repairs to its piers and wooden decking. (Nathalie Sturgeon/CBC)

The Bill Thorpe Walking Bridge, a historic bridge in New Brunswick's capital, is in need of major repairs. 

Built in 1889 as a train bridge, the 580-metre structure spans the St. John River and connects the north and south sides of Fredericton.

Nearly $4 million is going to be spent renovating the bridge — rebuilding two or three of the piers, replacing the wood ties underneath and installing new decking. Funding for the project will come from all three levels of government.

The piers, or viewing platforms, were closed after engineers inspected them this summer. Two or three of these piers will be replaced. (Nathalie Sturgeon/CBC )

Engineers inspecting the bridge during the summer found problems with the decking and viewing platforms.

The viewing platforms were closed permanently after the inspection.

Fredericton Mayor Mike O'Brien says the bridge is one of the city's most scenic structures and should be preserved.

"There are two or three options that need to be looked at," he said.

However, the wooden decking will not be replaced with concrete, he said.

The bridge will get about $3.9 million from all three levels of government. (Nathalie Sturgeon/CBC )

The bridge will have to be closed at some point but the mayor said he hopes to make the closure as short as possible .

"We'll have more details in a couple of months," he said.

The bridge's surface is safe but underneath, its railway ties are rotting, said Art McFadden, president of the Fredericton Trails Coalition.

"In order to keep that bridge safe, they've got to take the bridge surface down to the very base, take all those ties out and start from scratch again," he said.

This will be a difficult process, especially over water, McFadden said.

Right now there are ongoing discussions about whether to work on the bridge before or after the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival.

He said the bridge's restructuring should be done all at once, which could take up to several months.

"It would be best to close it for one period of time," he said. "To try and close it down for two weeks … and then they open it again, that's going to drag that process forever."

McFadden said construction wouldn't start for at least another year but the finished product will keep the same overall appearance.

The decision on when to begin repairs will be made between the city, who leases the bridge, and the province, who owns it.

"They're just being proactive that's all," he said. "There's no danger of anybody going through."

Bridge is a beloved icon

But many people are thrilled to hear about the repairs — no matter how long it takes.

Kim Heustis said if the work needs to be done, then the city should do it.

Donna Gallant, who travels about 20 kilometres from Waasis and uses the bridge almost every day, agrees.

"I'm 100 per cent on board," she said, adding, "I think it brings tourism to the city."

Donna Gallant, left, and Kim Heustis travel to Fredericton to use the walking bridge. About 600,000 people crossed the bridge last year. (Nathalie Sturgeon/CBC )

Carol Grant doesn't use the bridge as much as she would like, but feels it's important for the crossing to be maintained.

"It's just a nice, comfortable walk from one side to another," she said. "We should keep it, it is a heritage, it's been here a long time," she said.

Resident Pam Hickie said there needs to be a lot of planning done before any repairs begin, to minimize disruption.

"How disruptive is this going to be?" she said. "There are a lot of people who use that bridge, it's a big deal. When you don't have it — it's a big deal."

Wayne Knorr, spokesperson for the city of Fredericton, said the details about project won't be available for some time.

"We will certainly be developing a plan to keep the public informed when the time has come," he said.

With files from Elizabeth Fraser, Information Morning Fredericton