Nipigon bridge delays slow $100M of goods shipped daily

TORONTO -- The sudden closure and partial re-opening of the sole bridge connecting east and west travel in northern Ontario has raised concerns for the trucking industry that depends on the route to move $100 million worth of goods across Canada daily.

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About 1,300 trucks cross the Nipigon River Bridge, in Nipigon, Ont., every day, according to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation's 2012 commercial vehicle survey -- amounting to about $100 million in cargo daily.

"This is probably one of the most important transportation infrastructure points in the country," said Nipigon Mayor Richard Harvey.

The Ontario Provincial Police closed the bridge Sunday afternoon after damage to the structure's steel decking was reported amid wind gusts and frigid temperatures. The OPP has since opened one traffic-controlled lane and warned drivers to "expect delays."

Cars and most trucks are crossing the bridge about 10 to 15 minutes slower than usual.

Oversized trucks, however, remain in limbo. Ministry staff decide on a "case-by-case basis" whether to allow trucks weighing more than 63,500 kilograms over the bridge, said Bob Nichols, a ministry spokesman, in an email.

Prolonged weight and size restrictions would mean these types of vehicles -- which often carry specialized, heavy equipment like wind turbines -- would be left with few other options. Another complete bridge closure would leave much of the industry scrambling.

"Then we could find ourselves in a very difficult situation again," said David Bradley, the president of the Canadian Trucking Alliance and Ontario Trucking Association.

Truckers lack alternate routes in the area when the bridge is out of service.

They could opt to travel through the United States, but that's become more difficult post 9-11, when the U.S. beefed up security measures at the border. Officials now consider Canadian cargo passing through to be the same as an international shipment, resulting in paperwork headaches for truckers.

"The U.S. authorities basically choked off" that route for Canadian truckers, said Bradley.

The Canada Border Services Agency and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have been working to overcome these hurdles for Canadian truckers, he said, but no industry-wide plan is in place yet.

In the interim, CBSA, the Canadian Trucking Alliance, and the U.S. CBP are trying "to develop temporary measures" to allow Canadian truckers easier passage through the states while the bridge remains partially closed, Esme Bailey, an agency spokeswoman, said in an email. They plan to finalize the measures later this week.

It's unclear when the bridge will fully re-open or if it will have to be closed again for repairs.

Crews are on-site, working to determine the cause, Patrick Searle, another Ontario transportation ministry spokesman, said in an email. The Ontario Minister of Transportation, Steven Del Duca, will be in Nipigon on Wednesday to provide an update on the situation, he said.

If officials need to close the bridge again, Mayor Harvey said, the township's emergency plans include creating an alternate route.

The $106-million bridge project replaced Nipigon's old two-lane structure with a four-lane one. It opened westbound lanes to two-way traffic in November, and is expected to be completed in 2017.


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