Bridging the gap on an aging span: Engineering assessment begins on Manitoulin Island swing bridge.

Author:Kelly, Lindsay

Gordan Rennie concedes most infrastructure projects undertaken by the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) don't usually garner as much public attention as the swing bridge that connects Manitoulin Island to the mainland of Ontario. But, then again, the swing bridge is no ordinary structure.

At 104 years old, the venerable steel span is an iconic landmark for both residents and visitors travelling Highway 6 to and from the island situated at the upper end of Lake Huron's Georgian Bay. It's the only permanent link between the two land masses, and so its longevity is not only a question of nostalgia, but one of access and safety.

Last spring, the ministry declared the bridge to be nearing the end of its service life and shortly after issued a request for proposals seeking a firm to undertake a planning, preliminary design and environmental assessment (EA) process.

In March, engineering consulting firm Stantec was announced as the successful bidder on the $2.5-million contract and by early spring had just begun to get its team together in advance of starting the work.

"We know there's a lot of interest in the project," said Rennie, the ministry's regional issues and media advisor for the Northeast region. "We expect there'll be a lot of comments and a lot of public information meetings and also consultations with municipalities and First Nations on the island."

Algoma Eastern Railway began construction of the 368-foot, single-lane bridge--originally designed solely for rail traffic--over the North Channel in 1912. Trains starting making their first trips across in October, 1913.

By 1946, the bridge was modified to allow both rail and vehicular traffic, but by the 1980s, rail traffic ceased altogether.

Today, the bridge defaults to the closed position, but opens for 15 minutes on the hour, from April 1 to Nov. 1, to allow marine traffic through. The bridge remains closed during the winter months.

Since taking over ownership of the bridge in 1983, the MTO has performed fairly regular maintenance on the span to extend its life.

Starting in about 1999, the ministry has spent millions to upgrade the bridge's mechanical and electrical systems, refurbish its concrete pier, and replace the deck and riding surface. In 2011, the bridge even got a new paint job.

But, as with any aging piece of machinery, mechanical problems still crop up. Just last summer, travellers faced delays when the MTO took two weeks to fix a broken wedge assembly--part of the...

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