Fort, Falls to pursue bridge bid

The Border Communities Organization passed a motion Thursday to work with the province and state to put together a financial analysis regarding the purchase of the international bridge here.
Following clear indications from both International Falls Mayor Shawn Mason and Fort Frances Mayor Dan Onichuk that they wanted to present the communities—hopefully with help from the state and province—as “serious bidders” for the bridge, the motion came forth from International Falls CAO Rod Otterness.
Noting the two communities don’t have the “institutional capacity” to do so, Otterness said the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Ontario Ministry of Transportation should be asked to take a look at the financials behind purchasing the bridge—and make an analysis of whether it was feasible.
“I think we can immediately request the province and state look at it,” Otterness added, noting it was important to start the process but that there was no need for any commitment from either to buy the bridge at this stage.
“We want to be part of the process, we’ll play whatever role we’re able to,” said Mike Robinson, district engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
“But it will be a while before we can provide this information,” he added. “I’m sure it would be a matter of months before we can give you any advice.”
Mayor Mason said she liked the idea of involving MnDoT in this initial stage because they’d also be called on to be a partner if the bridge were to end up being purchased.
Mayor Onichuk noted he felt the MTO would get involved since the province is obligated, at least to some degree, to be responsible for the bridge because it is a “connecting link” as part of Highway 11.
Thursday afternoon’s meeting at city hall in the Falls also included more general discussion regarding the bridge sale among government representatives and other individuals.
Mayor Onichuk said the feeling in Fort Frances seemed to be that the two communities should engage senior levels of government and investigate buying the bridge, making it a public venture that eventually would see lower, or better yet no tolls, once it was paid off.
Mayor Mason agreed that seemed to be the most reasonable path to go.
She added a second option could be to build a new bridge, but such an undertaking is “daunting” at this stage.
Yet another option would be for Abitibi-Consolidated and Boise Cascade to not sell the bridge, given the integral services tied to it, but added she wasn’t sure how keen the companies were on doing so.
Bob Anderson, public affairs manager for the Boise mill in the Falls, said the two companies haven’t given thought to that option, adding much consideration was given to the decision to sell the bridge prior to last Thursday’s announcement.
He noted, however, that the two companies did want to make sure the two communities “knew of the opportunity,” and thus notified them prior to the press conference.
Paul Noonan, co-owner of La Place Rendez-Vous here, said whoever ends up owning the bridge should do away with the toll—or at least lower it.
“I don’t want to see anyone paying $6 to cross that bridge. And as long as it’s private, you have no control over that,” he remarked.
Mayor Onichuk noted no other bridge has that high a toll, and that residents and businesses on both sides of the border essentially have been paying for years for the maintenance of the bridge.
Fort Frances CAO Mark McCaig asked Anderson if he was aware of any regulations regarding limits to tolls, to which Anderson said there were none of which he was aware.
Minnesota Sen. Tom Saxhaug stressed there has to be some investigation into how many years longer the bridge, structurally-speaking, will be adequate before any commitments are made to buy the bridge.
Anderson noted a report of the long-term condition of the bridge is forthcoming in the near future, and would be privy to any serious bidders.
Mayor Mason added the question also must be asked as to whether any aspect of the current bridge can be improved.
Robinson pointed out it’s difficult to say if the state would be prepared to buy into the bridge since it has not planned for such a thing in its most recent budget.
Likewise, a representative for Sen. Mark Dayton noted his office would be willing “to help with whatever decision was made,” but stressed an authorization bill for transportation spending for the next five years was just passed—meaning any new major transportation projects probably won’t be considered until the a new bill is drawn up another five years down the road.
Noonan said he’d like to see the bridge go into public hands as then the cost of maintaining the respective Customs buildings would go to their respective federal governments and not be rolled into a toll, as it currently is.
But Anderson clarified the bridge sale would include the Canada Customs building and toll booth, but not the U.S. Customs, which already is owned by a branch of that federal government.