Bridge discussion dominates St. Marys election...
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Oct 08, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Bridge discussion dominates St. Marys election debate

St. Marys Journal Argus

Stew Slater

St. Marys Journal Argus

In the hours leading up to last Thursday’s Town of St. Marys all-candidates’ meeting at the Pyramid Centre, moderator Jim Verwer, a Uniondale-area resident and five-time Township of Zorra councillor who’s not seeking re-election, responded to an email from the Journal Argus outlining a series of questions that had been submitted by the public — questions he was being asked to pose to the 10 candidates for Town Council (one candidate, Frank Doyle, could not attend due to a family funeral) and two for Mayor.

“For the green bridge, from people I talk to in St. Marys, it’s the one thing on their mind that surfaces quickly,” Verwer advised. “This is a very polarized issue and could get entwined . . . So keep the questions very specific and the answers have to be very specific.”

They proved to be prescient words from the moderator, as the reaction after the event from both spectators and debate participants was generally the same — that the fate of the historic Water Street Bridge ended up being the most compelling and comprehensive among the topics discussed.

Final question of night

That point was emphasized by audience member Stephen Wunder, who — as the clocked ticked towards 10 p.m. in an event that kicked off just over three hours earlier — was afforded the final opportunity to ask a question from the floor. At the microphone, he noted his question “may have already been answered . . . but not to my satisfaction.” And he proceeded to request from every candidate whether they would commit to saving what he believes is a critical element of the Stonetown’s architectural heritage.

Only Council candidate Stan Fraser stepped completely away from what Wunder was clearly asking for — a declaration that the 116 year-old, pin-connected, steel truss bridge should stay in place. Fraser was quick to qualify that, due to its value as a tourist attraction, his highest preference is to see the bridge remain where it is for either vehicular or pedestrian use. But he also offered an alternative vision should safety concerns dictate that it be removed: Dismantle the existing Emily Street underpass, widen it to two lanes, and use the green bridge as a replacement Grand Trunk Trail walkway over the road.

All other candidates offered varying levels of support for Wunder’s demand. But, based on earlier comments in responses to different questions — two relating directly to the Water Street Bridge; others relating to topics such as infrastructure spending or truck traffic, but utilized by the candidates as a way to pull back towards discussion of the bridge — the audience had already been given the impression that there are a range of opinions to be considered.

Perhaps the strongest statements in favour of preserving the bridge were made by Council hopeful Robby Smink, who reminded the audience that he has already indicated his love for the town’s architectural attractions through his work while he was the owner of the Opera House.

“Everything can be repaired if you’re willing to pay for it,” he said. “There are bridges in Italy that are 2,000 years old that are still functioning.”

Council candidate David Cunningham added, “We should do everything possible to maintain (the town’s architectural heritage), and that includes the iron bridge.”

Safety guarantee

An earlier question from the floor challenged candidates to say who would guarantee the safety of motorists if the bridge was re-opened for use as is. “There is no way I would ever, ever guarantee anybody’s safety on that bridge right now,” was Mayor Steve Grose’s response. Incumbent Councillor Carey Pope added, “I will not risk your life or my life on that bridge.”

Other candidates expressed varying degrees of a desire to undertake what Cunningham described as “due diligence” before re-opening. Mayoral challenger Al Strathdee lamented that “we live in a world of liability and insurance companies,” but stressed he would have liked to have seen a public meeting before last year’s decision to close. Councillor Lynn Hainer responded that waiting for a public meeting would have been unwise, if the public was at risk.

Only Don Van Galen said he would re-open the bridge — not surprisingly, given that earlier in the election campaign, the incumbent councillor released to the Youtube video-sharing website a video using the Water Street bridge as a backdrop, in which Van Galen relates how he and two other members of Council introduced a motion “to re-open this bridge, and adopt some new traffic control measures” to enforce the five-tonne weight limit.

“It really wasn’t an engineering decision that led to the closure,” Van Galen comments in the video. “The engineer had heard reports that the five-tonne weight limit had been exceeded a number of times . . . So, of course, that’s not an engineering decision; that’s a traffic control problem.”

This viewpoint was hammered home by Van Galen at the Oct. 2 debate: “No repair was needed to accommodate five tonnes,” he said. But he was careful to add that he can offer no assurances for the future.

New engineer’s report

And that future, in some ways, arrived just days after last week’s debate — in the form of an updated report from the Town’s engineering consultant. That report, provided to councillors (and uploaded publicly on the Town’s website) in advance of this week’s Committee of the Whole meeting, highlights further deterioration.

“Corrosion continues to be a concern, as even without vehicular traffic, significant deterioration has occurred since the previous inspection in 2013,” explains an analysis by Town staff of the engineer’s report. “Pack rust has also developed at the connection of the four cross-members which provide stability to the bridge, and in some cases there are no connectors left, and the cross-members are held in place by the rust.”

Continued use by pedestrians is not a concern for the engineering company, “but the connections should be repaired before the bridge is ever used for vehicles,” the staff analysis notes.

The ongoing effect of the march of time on the bridge was one reason offered by Councillor Bill Osborne for supporting last year’s closure. At the all-candidates’ debate, he suggested it would have been a waste of $100,000 in minor repairs to keep it open, if a subsequent engineer’s report revealed the structure needs major work. He would rather wait, and complete the major renovation all at once.

Meeting at the bridge

Uncertainty about the degree of decay were also addressed by Grose, who invited the public to visit the bridge and examine its understructure. It was in invitation that struck Water Street resident Brian Busby — who subsequently agreed to appear in a photo for the Journal Argus, along with Trailside Court resident Jim Burlingham, doing exactly that: examining the bridge.

Burlingham had submitted the following pre-debate questions to the Journal Argus: “If the contracted structural engineer report was to indicate the ‘Green Bridge’ closure is related to traffic control management versus a structural weight limit issue, would you vote to re-open this significant historical structure?” Interestingly, that wasn’t the question that Verwer actually posed on Oct. 2. Instead, the decision was made to ask a different submitted question: “Other than our Council and the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority, what other groups do you believe should be involved in the decision?” But there was virtually no attempt made by candidates to answer that particular question. Instead, discussion was diverted almost completely towards the issue raised in Burlingham’s question.

“It worries me that we’ve become this disposable society, where everything has to be replaced,” Burlingham told the Journal Argus, regarding his submission.

He related last year’s closure of the bridge to decisions regarding fixing a leaky roof at the Pyramid Centre, or a particularly potholed street. In those cases, access isn’t typically barred immediately. Burlingham argued it’s a question of due diligence.

“Council has a responsibility to the citizens in regards to performing routine preventative maintenance on all assets, as opposed to waiting until a point of deterioration that results in a closure,” he argued.

Busby, by contrast, pinned the blame for the deterioration of the bridge on past Councils, and suggested the current Council was the one stuck with the blame.

“I care a great deal about this bridge,” he said. “I was sad to see it closed down.” But he also said he observed school buses, as well as trucks hauling trailers, crossing the structure. And “I was very pleased to see how quickly Council reacted to that engineer’s report.”

Heritage consultant’s perspective

Another observer at last week’s debate was Dan Schneider, a professional heritage consultant who owns property in St. Marys, but also maintains a residence within view of another hot-button heritage bridge: the Trafalgar Bridge over the Thames, on the boundary of Perth South and West Perth.

“There are experts dealing with engineering, and there are experts dealing with architecture. But those experts are sometimes going to come up with different conclusions that the experts dealing with heritage issues,” commented Schneider, who has lobbied both municipal governments to save the threatened Trafalgar crossing.

He agrees with Smink that the bridge can certainly be kept, but “it’s a question of money.” As for opening the bridge to traffic under a more strongly-enforced weight limit, Schneider noted that’s exactly what’s happening right now near his Perth South home. Signs at each end of the Trafalgar Bridge denote a three-tonne weight limit, but it remains open to traffic.

At the Water Street Bridge, meanwhile, Schneider didn’t want to second-guess the closure decision. It sees significantly more traffic, he conceded, and “they seem to have determined that there was a risk that oversized vehicles might use it.”

Weight limit enforcement

The most recent engineer’s report, provided to Town Council this week, does leave open the possibility of removing the barriers — pending some immediate work. Although it’s not mentioned in the analysis of the report by Town staff, the body of the report advises, “if the Town finds a way to effectively enforce the (five-tonne limit) and wishes to re-open the bridge to vehicles, the repairs to the top chord connections would be required first to maintain stability.”

Burlingham believes enforcement can be achieved.

“There must be thousands municipalities in North America that have similar problems. Why not approach other municipalities and find out how they manage their bylaw enforcement?”

In all the discussion during last Thursday’s debate, it was Fraser who stood out most decidedly from his peers. Not only was he the only person to propose an alternative location for the structure, he was also the only person to suggest that two in-town vehicular crossings over Trout Creek are sufficient to the town’s needs. That came in response to a question from the floor about increased truck traffic on Wellington Street.

Perhaps the biggest audience response to a candidate’s comments, however, came after Strathdee said — for the second time on the night — that “I’d like to respectfully say that I believe the decision has been made on the bridge, and you (the audience) weren’t consulted.” There was applause as a result.

Grose didn’t respond to the accusation directly. He did, however, say on more than one occasion that there will be a process of public consultation once an ongoing Environmental Assessment (EA) into both the Water and Wellington Street crossings in complete. He expects that EA will set out a number of options about which the public will be asked to comment.

“It’s a complex issue, and I’m not sure (last Thursday’s) debate really helped us all understand what all the considerations are,” Schneider said of what unfolded at the debate. But Grose stressed he’s committed to see all those considerations eventually taken into account.

“I figure we’ll have 200 or 300 or 400 people at those meetings,” the Mayor said. “And I’m very much looking forward to it.”

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