Coalition seeks aid from Fort Frances to lobby CN

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

A growing coalition is looking to add Fort Frances to its ranks as it works to have the region’s voice heard by a multi-billion dollar corporation.

Rainy Lake Property Owner’s Association (RLPOA) board director Craig McKenzie and City of Ranier mayor Dennis Wagner made a deputation to the Fort Frances Town Council on Monday night in a bid to add the town’s voice to a growing coalition of RLPOA, Ranier and International Falls as they attempt to engage CN Rail, in its process of repairing and replacing the Ranier lift bridge. The coalition says it has some concerns about the work being done.

“The RLPOA has been looking into this matter for a couple of years now and our interests have been aligned with the City of Ranier, Koochiching County and more recently the city of International Falls,” McKenzie told council.

“The objective here is to form a coalition. We’re all stakeholders around Rainy Lake here and we all have some impact by the CN passing through the area with evermore increasing trains going across the bridge, crossing the upper Rainy River area between Fort and Ranier. We have sought to engage CN at the time of their bridge repair project, which has actually expanded into a bridge replacement project. We have some concerns, both with the legacy bridge as well as the planned bridge.”

McKenzie noted that they have seen the internally approved designs for the new bridge to be installed on the location of the former lift bridge that connects the two countries by rail, and while they have raised their concerns with the railway company, the coalition said it feels like communication has been largely one-sided.

“The engagement to date by the CN has been minimal at best,” McKenzie claimed.

“We have felt, actually, largely ignored. The concerns we have are with respect to safety, navigation and also the flooding.”

McKenzie alleged that they have tried to raise concerns with CN regarding the remaining rubble from the blasting to install the bridge, which is still on site and creates a weir that causes risks to boaters, as well as the piers that have been added to reinforce the existing bridge, as well as additional piers for the new bridge, which McKenzie alleged will add more restrictions and higher water through the area. He also raised concerns with boaters sometimes forced to wait for the bridge to be lifted for them.

“Of course they have to raise the bridge and they have been very non-responsive to calls to raise the bridge, sometimes having to wait for hours,” he said.

“With respect to the Fort Frances side there has been calls to close the piers with dirt backfilling, which again restricts the piers.”

McKenzie said the coalition takes exception to CN doing this work, which includes increasing train traffic and replacing the bridge, under an original 1906 congressional approval, which they say should not be allowed as too much has changed in the more than 100 years since that approval. McKenzie also said the 1906 approval also doesn’t engage local stakeholders, which they hope will include Fort Frances, St. Louis county, area First Nation communities and Voyageurs Conservancy as members of the coalition. Once formalized, McKenzie said the coalition would have greater impact when submitting official oppositions to CN’s plans, or a greater presence when it came to meeting and delegating with the railway.

“The present course without this is just a number of opinions and sidebar and back hall conversations and it doesn’t seem to be getting any traction,” McKenzie said.

“We would like to formalize and elevate our voice.”

Upon questions from council, McKenize pushed back on the notion that all the improvements to the bridge are scheduled to be done on the U.S. side of the project, which he clarified was one of the prevailing misconceptions about the project, saying that the plans include improvements to both sides of the bridge.

While the council agreed that there was room to discuss the town’s participation in the coalition, particularly as the future of the bridge could have significant economic ties for both Fort Frances and Ranier in the form of an additional pedestrian walkway or bike access, ultimately the members felt that they don’t have enough information to make an informed decision one way or another at the moment.

“I think that we’re operating from a bit of a vacuum and I think we need more information,” councillor John McTaggart said. 

“I know that we certainly have a liability issue in terms of upstream and downstream flooding potential, and it’s something that I think we need to be very aware of and take into account and I’m certainly willing to have more discussions regarding a coalition.”

“We can’t make any decision this evening,” Fort Frances mayor Andrew Hallikas agreed. 

“We need to get some more information, do a little research ourselves. We need some information on the technical aspects. We also need some information from the municipal act whether we can actually form a coalition.”