Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A bridge too fine

Riverton gets snazzy replacement

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RIVERTON -- The previous four bridges here, dating back 120 years, were all wiped out by floods.

Those bridges spanning the Icelandic River were built in 1892, 1910, 1932 and 1974 -- the last one knocked out by flood and ice floes in 2011.

So when the fifth bridge -- it and the previous one have been pedestrian bridges -- was unveiled last week, people had to put it to the test.

At the opening ceremony, 157 people got onto the new Riverton footbridge at once. Then it started to sway. Mayor Colin Bjarnason said at that point his son, Kevin Johnson, toting his two boys, decided against being the 158th, 159th and 160th persons.

"It never bothered me," said the mayor of the slight movement in the bridge, which was not considered in danger.

You have to see this bridge. Stantec engineers stop short of saying it's indestructible -- that's what people said about a certain ocean liner -- but claim it will "withstand whatever the river can throw at it."

It's a $2-million state-of-the-art pedestrian bridge that lights up like a chandelier at night. LED lights are embedded in all the cross girders and into every second post along the decking. So at night, said resident Peter McCabe, "It's like you're in New York or someplace."

This isn't New York. It's a town of 560 people that was originally settled by Icelandic pioneers, 105 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Riverton couldn't raise $20,000 for a bridge on its own, never mind $2 million. Its contribution to the bridge is $2.50 per capita, or about $1,500. The province pays the rest under the Disaster Financial Assistance program, with the understanding the federal government will cover 85 per cent of those costs under its disaster assistance program.

Bridges have been a good-luck, bad-luck story for the community. The bad luck is their bridges keep being knocked out by flood ice every generation or so. The good luck is every time the bridge gets rebuilt, the town gets an upgrade paid for by the federal and provincial governments. Each new replacement bridge is built bigger and stronger to meet new building codes. The result is the magnificent $2-million footbridge.

Rivertonians have voted right. Provincially, they are represented by NDP MLA Peter Bjornson (Gimli). Federally, their MP is Conservative James Bezan (Selkirk-Interlake).

However, it seems more a case of first in, first out. Bjarnason said he was on the phone to government officials about obtaining a replacement bridge the same day the old one was destroyed. Stantec came forward with a design proposal and the town council submitted it almost directly to government.

Bjarnason said council didn't hold public meetings and ask for public input on various designs like Souris has. Souris, with three times the population of Riverton, is still waiting for a less expensive footbridge to replace its famous suspension bridge lost in the 2011 Souris River flood.

It's not like Riverton doesn't have a regular bridge for vehicle traffic. There's one half a kilometre away. The new footbridge just reconnects the east side of town, where fewer than half the residents live, considered old Riverton, to the west side for pedestrian traffic. It is also a tourist attraction and a community-enhancer.

Last year's flood knocked out two of the four bridge piers. During the rebuilding, Stantec engineers took out a third pier to remove another target for ice floes. Engineers just kept a single centre pier but braced it with four anchors, burrowed 21 metres into bedrock, on each side.

Stantec said the pier will withstand river ice one metre thick. Stantec also bevelled the pier into a point so it can either split ice floes or at least deflect them away. Sperling Industries built the 90-metre-long bridge in the village of Sperling, just southwest of Winnipeg.

Bjarnason said he feels the bridge helps put Riverton back into the tourist game. In earlier times, Riverton was a more important hub for Icelandic Canadians than Gimli. Plus, a town heritage group recently erected a bronze statue of Sigtryggur Jónasson, known as the Father of New Iceland.

"(Gimli town officials) have been blowing their whistle an awfully long time. We're proving we've got something here and we're going to start letting people know about it," said Bjarnason.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2012 A15

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