NAULT–Born to Mark and Kathleen, nee Aho, of Rainy River, Ont., a girl, Phoenix Jane, weighing 7 lbs. 7 oz. on November 8, 2004 at La Verendrye General Hospital, Fort Frances, Ont.
Thank you for your letter regarding your concerns over the building of the new Canada Customs facility near the International bridge between Fort Frances and International Falls. I appreciate this opportunity to respond to your concerns.
As you know, I have long been a supporter of this project based on its importance for economic development within our region. In my view, this project is not just important for Fort Frances and International Falls, but for all of Northwestern Ontario. With tourism becoming such an important part of our region’s economy, it’s essential the customs facility be improved. Having tourists wait in line-ups to cross the border for five or six hours is totally unacceptable if we want these people to return to our region.
The current customs and immigration facility at the bridge location is inadequate for Canada Customs to provide necessary services. The current situation has not only added increased traffic flow problems, but it has prevented Canada Customs from implementing new services such as CANPASS which is designed to increase traffic flow and reduce waiting periods to cross the bridge.
The current proposal, which would see an off-the-bridge customs facility constructed, would meet these requirements and reduce traffic flow and increase the speed with which people would be able to cross the bridge. The Canada Customs Revenue Agency (CCRA0 and Abitibi-Consolidated Inc./Boise Cascade Corporation are both supporting this off-the-bridge-proposal. During this public process, CCRA has held several meetings with the Town Council and has commissioned two different traffic studies to ensure that routing and congestion are minimized as much as possible.
In your letter you mention certain environmental factors concerning this bridge and that fact that there has been no environmental assessment. You should know that there are a number of factors that can trigger a Canadian Environmental Assessment, including federal funding to enable the “project to be carried out in whole or in part.” As Transport Canada will be contributing $500,000 to the road infrastructure of the project, there will be a requirement for the federal government to participate in, contribute to, or initiate an environmental screening.
I would like to touch on the issue of the tolls on the bridge. First let my say, that I am opposed to the raising of the tolls on the bridge. I think this will result in a prohibitive increase in costs for citizens on both sides of the border. Furthermore, I do not believe that ACI/BCC is losing money on the bridge, nor do I believe that the increase in tolls is warranted due to maintenance on the bridge or the building of a new customs facility. As you rightly mention, the company has received a $140,000 tax break from the town. In addition, the company would be responsible for maintenance of the bridge in any event, and a new customs facility would generate revenue not decrease it as more cars would use the bridge.
As you know, the bridge is private property which limits the jurisdiction of the federal government unlike other publicly-owned bridges. At this time my office is still verifying whether or not the Federal Government has any jurisdiction over the setting of toll rates. I have also expressed my concerns about the toll increases and their potential negative effect on the local economy to senior Abitibi executives.
Finally, in your letter you suggest that there should be a moratorium placed on the current bridge project in favour of exploring options to build a new bridge. As I understand, the Town Council has also decided a strike a committee to explore this option. While I can certainly understand the support for a new bridge, the problem is that a moratorium, or any significant effort to pursue a new bridge on the part of the Town that would result in the cancellation of this current project, which would have a significant negative impact on the town and the region.
I think it is important to realize what is involved in constructing a new international bridge. This is not a project which can be put together in a matter of months. To make such a project a reality, it would involve getting large amounts of funding in place, likely in the tens of millions of dollars. In addition, it would also require the agreement of both the United States and Canada to build a completely new international port of entry. I’ve been informed that to gain such approval and finish the project would take at least 10 to 15 years for completion. I think it is important to separate the issues of the tolls and a new bridge from the current issue of building a new customs facility.
If this current project does not go ahead, ACI/BCC will likely build a new customs facility on the bridge which would not resolve the traffic congestion issue, or worse, they may choose to leave the situation as it is presently. This would leave the region in the same position it is in now with visitors waiting between three and six hours to cross the bridge. I believe this would have a negative effect on the local economy and the tourism industry in Northwestern Ontario.
I believe the construction of the off-the-bridge customs facility provides the best solution for everyone involved. I do however believe, that the raising of the tolls to such a high level is unacceptable. I would have hoped that Abitibi would have demonstrated more corporate citizenship to a region that has been very profitable for its parent company. With this in mind, I am going to continue my efforts to prevent the increases of the tolls on the bridge to try and minimize any impact on the people of Fort Frances.
I hope this letter has addressed your concerns. If you would like to further discuss this issue with me please do not hesitate to contact my office to arrange a meeting.
Robert D. Nault, MP