St. Louis residents discuss bridge closure

Matt Gardner
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Repairs are currently underway on the St. Louis Bridge, much to the relief of area residents impacted by its closure last week.

The St. Louis Bridge is shown in the background behind the bison statue in the community south of Prince Albert last May. The Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure has announced a repair plan for the bridge following a brief closure for inspections.

Village of St. Louis Mayor Les Rancourt noted that his constituents were not shy about expressing their displeasure after the bridge was closed due to a crack in the structure.

“As soon as it got closed on Friday, the phone pretty much was going all week and weekend, and up actually until last night when they finally got the lights up there and opened it up,” Rancourt said.

According to the mayor, the main obstacle created by the closure was the vastly increased driving time for those travelling through the area.

As a result of the detour that passed Highway 25 and Highway 3 at Birch Hills, the length of a drive to St. Louis stretched to an hour and a half each way.

“It (took) twice as long to get to Prince Albert each way and (there was) the added cost of fuel and time,” Rancourt said.

“We also have people from the north side of the river that attend school in the community as well as work in the community. So in order for them to get to St. Louis with the bridge closure, they basically had to drive to Prince Albert, drive to Birch Hills, drive to St. Louis and then do the exact same thing to return home.”

Rancourt pointed out that the effects of the bridge closure extended beyond St. Louis, affecting traffic flow for motorists throughout the area travelling along Highway 2.

Local businesses also felt the impact, with St. Louis Meats owner Brad Nicolas noting that the long detour discouraged many of his customers from travelling to the store.

“I just did beef for people across the river and they didn’t want to drive 200 kilometres around to pick up meat here … (when) they’re four kilometres across the bridge,” Nicolas said.

Yet the bridge closure affected workers as well as consumers.

“I have a young fellow that works for me here full-time and he lives three, four clicks on the other side of the river, so it was a pain in the butt for him,” Nicolas said.

“He had to find a place to cross with a Ski-Doo and come in the morning when it’s 50 below on his sled and come here looking like a frozen Popsicle,” he added with a chuckle.

Despite the problems, Rancourt said that village residents understood the government’s reasons for closing the bridge.

At the same time, they were glad to see repair efforts going forward, even with only one lane open at a time.

“We’re happy that the repairs are going to be underway and that the bridge is open again,” Rancourt said.

“We understand that there was some frustration with the closure, but we also understand that … safety is the paramount (concern) for pretty much everybody involved.”

The recent closure, however, has in some respects served as a preview for anticipated effects of the St. Louis Bridge’s permanent closure to traffic, which will follow the construction of a new bridge.

As a replacement for its nearly 100-year-old predecessor, the new bridge is being constructed 1.6 kilometres east of the existing bridge -- a development that has not pleased many St. Louis residents.

“Right from the get-go, the simple fact that they were building it outside of our community, a kilometre and a half east, was not a big seller,” Rancourt said.

The reality is, this bridge is old and it needed to be replaced, and I think with this closure, it might actually show the people the importance of that. Les Rancourt

He added, “People will drive by instead of stopping and maybe getting gas or stopping at the local meat store … When the traffic was flowing by, it’s a lot easier just to pull in than it is to pull off the main grid and then drive them a little distance.

“People’s patterns change though. We do recognize that there will probably be some loss of business and revenue that way.”

Nicolas echoed the mayor’s concerns and anticipated that the effect would be most pronounced on summertime traffic, when motorists heading to the lakes often stop by St. Louis to buy gas and other supplies.

“A guy’s going to have to put up some big plywood signs and let people know where we’re at,” Nicolas suggested.

Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure spokesperson Doug Wakabayashi said that the site for the new bridge was chosen after an extensive engineering location study several years ago.

“It took into consideration things like foundation conditions on the riverbed for the piers of the bridge, traffic operation, service to adjacent land and bridge structure alignment and also geotechnical considerations,” Wakabayashi said.

A consultant also performed an origin-destination study of traffic that used that section of Highway 2, concluding that less than 10 per cent of traffic passing through St. Louis actually stopped there.

Aside from the location study, the Ministry performed extensive consultations with local governments in the area, including the Village of St. Louis, the RMs of St. Louis, Birch Hills and Prince Albert as well as the North Central Transportation Planning Committee.

“There were also public meetings held regarding the location,” Wakabayashi said. “The new location did have the support of most of the local governments -- obviously not St. Louis.”

Despite some residents’ displeasure with its location, Rancourt indicated that the need for a new bridge is widely recognized.

“The reality is, this bridge is old and it needed to be replaced, and I think with this (recent) closure, it might actually show the people the importance of that,” he said.

“The new bridge is going to probably be welcomed … We just don’t want to lose our old bridge if we could maintain that for some usability. That would still be a plus for our community.”

Unfortunately, the high costs of maintaining the old bridge render such a possibility unlikely.

“It’s 100 years old, and it’s at the end of its service life,” Wakabayashi said. “It would require significant rehabilitation to handle traffic into the future.”

See also:

Repair plan announced for St. Louis Bridge

St. Louis Bridge under inspection

Organizations: Prince Albert, Ski-Doo, North Central Transportation Planning Committee

Geographic location: St. Louis, Birch Hills

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