International bridge sale under debate

By Merna Emara
Staff Writer

Council in talks with government and political leaders to ensure best outcome for local residents

The Fort Frances international bridge is still an important item on council agendas, after Resolute Forest Products declared their intention to sell the bridge.

On Oct. 26, 2021, Tamara Rudge, director general of Surface Transportation Policy, said in a letter to the clerk that Resolute, the “International Bridge and Terminal Company Inc. (IB&T) and Aazhogan Limited Partnership (Aazhogan) have submitted a joint application to the Minister of Transport seeking Governor in Council (GiC) approval for Aazhogan to own and operate the Canadian side of the Fort Frances – International Falls International Bridge.”

Rudge said Transport Canada is engaging with stakeholders and authorities who may have an interest in this proposed change of ownership.

Fort Frances CAO Faisal Anwar submitted a request to Rudge, asking for clarity on the possibility for federal/provincial/state or municipal ownership, maintenance standards for the bridge, asset management plan and economic significance of the bridge to this region.

Rudge said in a letter to council that under the Canadian Government’s International Bridges and Tunnels Act (IBTA), a change of owner or operator of the Canadian side of an international bridge or tunnel, requires the approval of the Governor in Council.

She also said should safety deficiencies be identified, the minister may order the owner or operator of an international bridge or tunnel to “take any action that the minister considers appropriate to ensure that the bridge or tunnel is kept in good condition.”

Coun. Douglas Judson expressed his concern by the language of the correspondence council has received from the ministry that suggests this is a self-monitoring exercise in the hands of the owner.

“We have all gotten a taste over the past two years of what happens to our region’s economy when the bridge is not open for use,” Judson said.

Judson also said he has been meeting with federal and provincial elected officials, such as MP Marcus Powlowski, Kenora MP Eric Melillo and federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra to discuss the town’s concerns with the change of the bridge ownership.

Judson also spoke of a specific request he made of Transport Canada to prevent corporate mischief, citing that in 2006, it was reported that millions of dollars would be needed to upgrade the bridge in about 15 years’ time.

“We were always told that that is why our tolls to cross are so high – to save for that rainy day. But, lo and behold, we are now at the other end of that 15-year timeline, and Resolute is once again walking out the door on Fort Frances,” Judson said.

“They are doing the same thing they did with our mill, with our local wood rights, and with the taxpayer-funded biomass facility just across the street – they are trotting off with the money our community and taxpayers have paid them, while dumping a challenging asset with the first bidder before it requires any reinvestment.”

From his discussions and correspondence with officials, Judson said, it seems self-evident at this point that there is limited prospect that the bridge will transition to public ownership, particularly with the American half of the bridge already having changed hands.

That’s why Judson said the focus of his comments during the meeting with Powlowski was to urge the federal government to ensure that their approval comes with strings attached that protect the community.