Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Broken bridge troubles political waters

Some claim delay in rebuilding it due to riding's Conservative bent

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NEAR WASKADA -- That's some detour.

To get home, Shirley Kernaghan parks her car on the highway shoulder, crawls through a barbed-wire fence without snagging her garden-green slacks or blue windbreaker --"I'm a farm girl," she explains -- and hikes 300 metres across an uneven pasture thick with burrs and foxtail.

She's 65.

She comes to an abandoned highway bridge that's buckled in the middle and hasn't been used for half a century. She climbs an aluminum ladder onto the bridge, crosses it, then descends by another aluminum ladder she's left there. She walks through waist-high weeds for another 75 metres to reach a different vehicle.

All that because the Coulter Bridge on Highway 251 west of Waskada was knocked out by last year's flood on the Souris River.

Kernaghan makes the trek three times a week to get to her job stocking shelves and overseeing produce at the community-owned Waskada Community Foods grocery.

Why doesn't she just take the recommended 40-kilometre-long detour -- 60 kilometres, if you want to drive on pavement -- to get around the Coulter Bridge? "Because I'm stubborn and I'm determined," she said.

It's also because the 40-km detour -- 80 km return -- is a dusty gravel road only designed so a few farmers could drive into town to collect mail and groceries.

Now it's seeing a hundred big oil trucks per day, school buses and every other kind of traffic. People describe the dust from the big trucks as "like whiteouts." Some drivers have lost windshields. One set of parents refuses to let their child ride the school bus out of safety concerns. Instead, they drive the child the 60-km paved route through Melita every day.

The bridge affects everyone. Adam McGregor and his family farm 6,500 acres on the east side of the Souris River and 3,500 on the west side. He kept track of the added distance he logged last year between farms: 3,000 kms. That's enough to drive to Banff and back.

The situation won't be rectified soon. Construction of a new bridge hasn't even started. It's expected it won't be built until November 2013. That will be 21/2 years with no bridge for the southwestern community in the heart of Manitoba's oilpatch.

That leaves people with lingering suspicions. People always say the Conservatives could run a yellow dog or a roadkill skunk in this riding and get elected.

"You see, we're not NDP down here. We're Conservative, and I think that means a great deal," said Kernaghan, a grade-school and special-education teacher for 38 years before she retired.

Not true, the province says. A total of 80 bridges were damaged in last year's flooding along the Assiniboine and Souris rivers. Of those, one of the highest priorities to repair was the bridge at Grand Valley west of Brandon on the Trans-Canada Highway. Otherwise, the highway could have been closed.

Four bridges were completely destroyed by flooding: the Coulter Bridge; the bridge north of Hartney on Highway 21; the bridge on Provincial Road 227 over the Portage Diversion; and the bridge on PR348. "We have so many competing priorities coming at us," said Ruth Eden, director of structures with Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation.

Residents were hoping to put up a one-lane portable bridge, called an Acrow bridge, such as the one the province spent $2.2 million to erect on Highway 21 near Hartney. The Acrow bridge is the evolution of the free-span Bailey bridges used to carry tanks in the Second World War.

Eden said an Acrow bridge would cost $4 million to $5 million, not the $700,000 residents estimate. The high cost is because it would have to be raised higher than the Acrow bridge at Hartney. It would also be longer, which becomes a problem for bearing heavy loads such as oil trucks. As well, the Coulter Bridge is the first span over the Souris in Manitoba, so it receives the brunt of ice floes and debris, which an Acrow bridge can't withstand. If it's any consolation, the new Coulter Bridge will be completed before Hartney's, Eden said.

People here aren't buying the excuses. They feel it's the only time in recent memory they've asked the government for anything. "If we had to wait for government to do things, we'd never get anything done down here," Waskada Mayor Gary Williams said. "We just kind of want them to get out of the way."

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2012 A9

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