Fort, Falls want bridge kept out of private hands

Local officials are taking action after the International Bridge and Terminal Company and the Minnesota Dakota and Western Railway (joint owners), and their parent companies, Abitibi-Consolidated and Boise Cascade, announced last Thursday they wanted to sell the international bridge here.
“We have a meeting [of the Border Sister Cities Task Force] scheduled for Thursday in International Falls,” Fort Frances Mayor Dan Onichuk said Monday, adding it will be held at Falls City Hall at 3 p.m.
“I have also sent letters out to the premier and several ministers,” he added. “I got a call back from the premier’s office, and I’m trying to arrange a meeting with the minister of transportation.
“There’s also tourism, natural resources, economic development and trade, municipal affairs, and northern development,” the mayor remarked.
“I’ve spoke with [International Falls] Mayor Shawn Mason and she says the state minister of the Minnesota Department of Transport is also interested in the bridge,” continued Mayor Onichuk.
“We’re just going to co-ordinate, and try to get the province, the state, and the two municipalities in the same room and see if we can’t come up with something so we have some stability in the future.”
The mayor said he felt it may not be favourable for either community if the bridge were to go to other private owners.
“If it goes to the private-sector again, it’s not going to be somebody that’s sitting here, living in Fort Frances, and working side-by-side like the two paper mills are,’” he warned.
“If somebody owns it in Dallas or New York, or Toronto or Calgary, they’re not going to have that sympathetic ear to issues like the amount of toll, which is excessive now compared to other bridges,” he added.
“Then, there’s the whole issue of whether there’s any restrictions put on the bridge.
“The bottom line is having it controlled by someone else is not a good thing, and it’s high time the province and the state pulled out their cheque books and took over the darn bridge so we can have a border crossing like in Baudette, where it’s free.”
“As elected leaders of both sides of the border, we would be remiss if we didn’t vigorously explore the possibility of being a serious bidder,” echoed Mayor Mason on Tuesday.
“It’s not unusual for government to own a structure, specifically bridges,” she added. “And this is a very significant bridge in Canada and the United States.
“In the end, I would hope our exploration goes well and we can be a serious bidder,” she said. “I think it would in the communities’ best interests, and both the paper mills’ best interests, to have government own the bridge.
“Our two communities, Fort Frances and International Falls, and even the towns that surround us and the counties that surround us, certainly don’t have the financial resources to purchase the bridge on our own,” Mayor Mason admitted.
“This is something that is going to take a partnership between all levels of government,” she stressed.
Mayor Mason noted there is a fear of the unknown in having a private company possibly come in and buy the bridge.
“The International Bridge Company has been open to government input in the past, and sensitive to our needs and concerns, and we’re certainly not guaranteed that with a new company,” she remarked.
Speaking from a tourism point-of-view, Jerry Fisher, owner of Grassy Narrows Lodge and vice-president of the North Western Ontario Tourism Association (NWOTA), said Monday that, ideally, he would like to the province and/or state get involved, buy the bridge, and only charge a toll until the bridge was paid off—just like the Rainy River-Baudette bridge.
“The toll is not a big issue, but it’s one little tick our guests have to take care of,” noted Fisher, who admitted it’s unlikely any new private owner wouldn’t charge a fee to cross the bridge.
As first reported in Thursday’s Daily Bulletin, the two companies are prepared to sell the bridge unit that crosses the Rainy River here, pending any necessary government approvals.
“Abitibi-Consolidated and Boise Cascade, we’re in the business of pulp and paper manufacture. We don’t see the bridge as being a core asset, and think it may have more value to somebody else,” John Harrison, general manager of the Abitibi-Consolidated mill here, said Tuesday.
“Our intention is to engage the services of a business broker to handle the offer for sale. We do not have the business broker selected yet,” he added, noting no deadline for the sale has been established, either.
“Anyone considered to be a serious bidder in the process would have access to the financials around the bridge,” he said. “As far as how much money we are looking for, it’s a bid process.
“People who are serious bidders can look at the what the revenues are, what the expenses are with bridge, and they’ll derive a value from that and make an offer on that basis.”
Harrison said he’s fully aware both mayors have expressed interest in the bridge.
“We’ve tried to make sure they understand it is an open bid process, and that any serious bidder will get an opportunity to look at the financials and put forward a bid,” he remarked.
As a side note, the Canada Customs facility here was built by the owners of the bridge, noted Harrison.
“We’re obligated, because we charge tolls on the bridge, to provide a Customs house on the Canadian side. So, in fact, it’s a part of the bridge sale,” he said.
“Certainly the cost of operating the Canadian Customs is a part of the cost of owning the bridge.”
The paper mills owned by Abitibi-Consolidated in Fort Frances and Boise Cascade in International Falls are located adjacent to the bridge, and both mills look to maintain the current arrangement as far as their cross-bridge operations go.
“Our intention is part of the sale is going to be to ensure free passage of the train on the bridge. It’s an important part of getting our product to the market,” said Harrison.
“And there are five or six pipelines that run across the bridge that are an integral part of the process that goes on between the two mills, and we going to retain the right of passage for those pipes,” he added.
Gary Neumann, general manager of rail operations for Minnesota Dakota and Western Railway, said Thursday the only other privately-held international bridge is the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit with Windsor.
Other bridges, such as the Blue Water bridge connecting Sarnia with Port Huron, Mich., are operated jointly by the state government and Canada.
The Pigeon River bridge on the highway between Thunder Bay and Duluth, Mn. was built and is operated jointly by the province of Ontario and the state of Minnesota.
And the bridge at Sault Ste. Marie is owned by the Government of Canada and the state of Michigan, and is operated by the International Bridge Authority.
The international bridge here actually consists of two bridges side by side—a steel bridge constructed in 1908 and a concrete one built in 1979. The span of the steel bridge is 860 feet while the concrete bridge spans 949 feet.
The international bridge here always has been privately-owned, and tolls have been collected throughout its history.
The bridge is operated 24 hours a day, and includes U.S. and Canadian Customs and Immigration offices since it is an international border crossing.
It averages more than 800,000 vehicle crossings annually. It also serves utilities by supporting telephone, cable television, and natural gas lines.
The bridge has undergone structural inspections annually, and every five years underwater inspections are conducted.
Reports are provided after every inspection to the state of Minnesota and the province of Ontario.