Sudbury·THE FOLO

Bridging the gap: the $24M plan for Highway 400 to cross the French River

Ministry of Transportation area manager Jason Ranger walks along a strip of bare rock leading to the edge of the canyon of the French River.

Two new bridges over French River expected to open to traffic in 2019

Ministry of Transportation contract services administrator Mike Tymeczko and area manager Jason Ranger on the site on the future twin bridges that will carry Highway 400 over the French River. (Erik White/CBC )

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Ministry of Transportation area manager Jason Ranger walks along a strip of bare rock leading to the edge of the canyon of the French River.

The preliminary work has just begun on building two new $12 million bridges that will carry the new four lane highway, soon to be called 400 instead of 69, across the historic river.

"When you start on a planning phase, it's just a blank sheet, so you have to figure out 'Where are we going to put the highway,'" says Ranger, who's based out of the ministry's North Bay office.

"For me personally, to actually see it start construction, it's been a long-time coming."

He walks in the path of the future highway with the ministry's Sudbury-based contract administrator Mike Tymeczko, who was thrilled when the French River bridge fell onto his to-do list.

"I thought it was just a super challenging project, with a scale of bridge that I haven't seen before," says Tymeczko.

"For me, it was kind of an exciting thought to see these bridges go up and be part of that."

This crossing has been in the works for over a decade, with several different routes and designs being run through and ruled out, in what Ranger says were detailed discussions.

"And we arrived at this one as the best balance being environmental factors, cost and constructability," says Ranger.

The two bridges will cross the French River to the east of the existing bridge, which will soon carry a new service road to be called Settlers Road.

But unlike other highway bridges, it will not have long legs running down into the canyon and into the water of one of the most historically important rivers in the country.

The steep rock walls of the French River canyon forced those planning the bridges for the new four-lane highway to come up with a unique design. (Erik White/CBC )

Instead, the feet of the bridges will be anchored into the rocks on either side.

"It's going to very intricate blasting, they have to go down and notch out an area for the footings of the bridge to sit on," says Ranger.

"All the while keeping rock out of the river," adds Tymeczko.

The contractor will also be required to protect indigenous pictographs painted on the rock walls nearby.

Ranger says another unusual thing about this bridge project is the emphasis on making sure the landscape isn't cluttered up with a utilitarian bridge.

"It's kind of a picturesque area, so we have to make sure we pick the right spot and make it look nice," says Ranger.

Construction is expected to start sometime in the new year and by 2019, there will be three bridges carrying cars over what was once the highway for the first peoples, fur traders and voyageurs. 

For our regular feature the Folo, CBC reporter Erik White takes a closer look at how highway builders plan to cross the 200-metre wide canyon at the French River, while protecting the environment and history of the area. 4:30