Discussions on International Bridge ongoing

By Allan Bradbury
Staff Writer

Another meeting about the increased price of tolls to use the International Falls Bridge was held a few weeks ago. The meeting resulted in the formation of two working groups.

Fort Frances Mayor Andrew Hallikas says after the first meeting went as well as it did those present were keen for further discussion.

“We hosted the first meeting here in Fort Frances at the civic centre, and it went quite well. It was well attended, and so the group wanted to continue meeting,” Hallikas said. “So chief Marcel Medicine-Horton, very generously and graciously offered to host the next meeting at the Manitou Mounds, so we did that.”

Hallikas says that the second meeting was also well-attended, and among the attendees were almost 50 people around 25 in person and 25 in attendance virtually from both sides of the border.

Among those in attendance, according to Hallikas, were Kenora–Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford, Thunder Bay–Rainy River MP Marcus Powlowski, Chief Marcel Medicine-Horton and members of the Rainy River First Nations Council as well. On the American side attendees included representatives of Senator Amy Klobuchar, State Representative Roger Scraba, a representative from the Canadian Consul General in Minneapolis as well as several representatives from the Canadian federal Ministry of Transportation, as well as from the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Other stakeholders with people in attendance were The BMI group, Ziibi Investments which have partnered together to form the Aazhogan Limited Partnership which owns the bridge and collects the tolls. Ziibi Investments is the investment arm of Rainy River First Nations.

Part of the meeting was taken to get to know each representative and then Aazhgan gave a presentation about the bridge as it stands, Hallikas says.

“We started off with a roundtable and went around to introduce everyone, and had an opportunity to speak,” Hallikas said. “Then we had a presentation by the Aazhogan corporation about the finances of the bridge, those are confidential so I won’t get into that.”

The main focus for the meeting was to set up a pair of subcommittees, one to examine short-term possibilities for the bridge while the other will look into longer term options for replacement, Hallikas said.

“The purpose of the short term subcommittee is basically to investigate possibilities of funding so that we can lower the fare, or the tariff for crossing the bridge,” he said. “Then the longer term committee is the committee we set up to actually look at getting a brand new bridge built with no fares, no crossing fares at all.”

The hope for the short-term committee is to find funding which can enable the tolls to be either lowered or at least maintained at its current rate.

“Rainy River First Nations are half owners of the bridge and they feel really badly about the fact that the fares had to go up so much, but that was a simple business decision. The bridge has been losing money, that’s why they gave us a financial presentation there.”

Hallikas mentioned a few of the reasons things have been difficult with the bridge including the COVID-19 pandemic.

“During COVID, because that bridge is strategic infrastructure, they were mandated to keep it open, but there was no traffic. So there was a huge financial loss there and they got no COVID funding,” he said. “One of the things that the short-term subcommittee is going to look into is whether it is possible to retroactively access some COVID funding for the bridge. That’s something that our member of federal parliament, Marcus Powlowski suggested and is backing.”

Another added burden the bridge owners face is paying for the border crossing building on the Canadian side.

“As part of the bridge purchase, the company that owns the bridge, Aazhogan has to pay all of the costs of the Canada Customs building there, which run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year,” Hallikas added. “So that’s another suggestion from Marcus suggesting that maybe we can look into discussions with the federal government on giving them a break on that aspect. Because if they didn’t have to fund the Canada Customs building, then the costs would go down and they could lower their fares. So that’s what that short term committee is about.”

Hallikas says that the meetings, so far, have been chaired by himself and MPP Rickford, so the hope with the subcommittees is to get some more diversity into the mix.

“I don’t want to be in the position of running these committees and neither does minister Rickford,” Hallikas said. “We want to help with the subcommittees and we’re looking into getting multiple chairs, because both Minister Rickford and myself are Canadian and at least half of the people attending that meeting are American so we want to make sure that there was equal representation. So for the subcommittees we’re going to set up multiple co-chairs. We’ll have a couple of Americans, a couple of Canadians and we want to get a First Nations rep as well, so that the people organizing the meetings, it’s not just Canadians and it’s not just myself and Minister Rickford.”

The two subcommittees will meet and then report back to the committee as a whole to continue working towards a better solution for local residents and stakeholders.

Hallikas was very thankful to Rainy River First Nations for hosting the meeting and said those in attendance in person enjoyed a fish fry feast after the conclusion of the meeting.