LITTLE CURRENT — Word that the Province of Ontario has committed to replacing the swing bridge at Little Current is welcome news for the mayor of the municipality that hosts it.
After years of studies and debate about the fate of the 110-year-old truss bridge, Al MacNevin said he’d be quite pleased to see construction on its successor start as soon as “tomorrow morning.” And leadership from communities across the island seem to agree.
“Let’s get it done, and safely and properly, but let’s get going,” said MacNevin, the long-time mayor of the Town of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands (NEMI), the municipality that includes the port of Little Current.
“Because nowadays, it’s not practical to have breakdowns and issues like that. We need this to foster economic development, commercial, residential, tourism. It needs to get done to make it not an issue anymore, but something pleasant to think about.”
Breakdowns have become more frequent in recent years as the aging span nears the end of its service life, causing inconvenient traffic delays for travellers using the bridge, which provides the only vehicular access to and from the island.
But relief is on the horizon after the province announced on Sept. 8 that it’s moving ahead with a plan to replace it with a new structure.
With the planning, preliminary design and environmental assessment stages complete, the province said it will now shift into the property acquisition, right-of-way designation, and detail design phases of the project.
“Replacement of the Little Current swing bridge will make travel smoother for residents, businesses, emergency services and tourists, while supporting economic growth and job creation in local communities,” Northern Development Minister Greg Rickford said in a news release.
Completed in 1913, the single-lane span was originally designed as a railway bridge and was later converted to accommodate vehicular traffic.
During the winter months, the swing bridge remains in a closed default position. But throughout summer, the bridge opens every hour for about 15 minutes to let marine traffic cross the North Channel below.
This backs up cars along Highway 6 in either direction, which then takes some time to clear. Add to that more frequent bridge breakdowns, MacNevin said, and it’s created a lot of frustration among users.
“There’s a lot of pressure from people on Manitoulin,” the mayor said. “Most of the business communities are pretty well fed up with the single-lane bridge concept and… people are really antsy about getting it done.”
That wasn’t always the case.
Since its construction, the swing bridge has been an iconic symbol tied to Manitoulin’s identity, evoking an emotional connection for those who frequent the area. In early debates, historical preservationists protested its replacement, arguing that its removal would alter the island’s aesthetic.
But during the COVID-19 pandemic, things changed, MacNevin said, and the summers are now even busier than before.
Prevented from crossing the border due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, many long-time American property owners sold their cottages, he noted. Many were snapped up by people from Sudbury — just a 90-minute drive away — several of whom converted their newly acquired cottages into permanent residences.
The island got busier and traffic ballooned. Lineups waiting for the bridge to swing are longer now and take more time to clear, MacNevin added.
“What we used to just see for a peak few weeks in the summer months, in terms of traffic, has stretched out to almost every weekend, even on the shoulder seasons,” MacNevin said.
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Breakdowns also mean additional headaches for the town’s public works staff, who are frequently pulled away from their regular duties to help direct traffic, he added.
The design of the new bridge should help alleviate these concerns.
Announced in 2021, the new bridge will also be a truss swing bridge, featuring two lanes, along with a sidewalk on its western side to allow for pedestrian and cycling traffic.
It will be constructed along a new corridor, west of the current bridge’s location, and new connections from Highway 6 and new traffic-queuing areas will be built.
Stantec, the engineering firm hired for the project’s consultation work, recommended this design after narrowing down dozens of other options that, in the early days, included a tunnel and a fixed span.
MacNevin said the Town of NEMI is in favour of the proposed option, since it won’t bypass the town, and local businesses can continue to capitalize from the traffic that flows into Little Current.
The province has not said how soon the process would start, although one of the first steps will likely be to tender out the project, and MacNevin is hopeful that process will get underway soon.
“How long that takes, I don’t know, but I’m hoping it’s as short as possible,” he said.
“If they have the funding commitment, there’s no reason not to go ahead as quick as possible. I’m hoping we’re talking a year as opposed to another five or six.”