Sunday, February 25, 2024

Two Small Rural Bridges Have Council Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Tucked away in the far reaches of this municipality is a little piece of paradise that features a lush green forest, the soothing sound of water rushing along a creek bed, and a bounty of nature that would have kept the likes of John Muir busy for weeks exploring. While this little piece of paradise might make the perfect setting to commune with nature, it is also the setting for an infrastructure dilemma that has frustrated three terms of council over the course of the past seven years.

If you take a drive along the 2nd Concession South between Bognor and Walter’s Falls, and make a left turn onto the gravel-topped Holland-Sydenham Town Line, you’ll travel a winding road, surrounded by trees and agricultural land. Along the route you’ll pass just four driveways to residential properties. The drive is enjoyable and relaxing, but you won’t be able to travel the full length of the road, which would bring you to Grey Road 29 if not for a closed bridge. Two bridges to be precise, structures 21 and 22 officially, one immediately after the other, and both having reached the end of their useful lives.

The two bridges were closed in January of 2016 after failing inspection, and the council of the day had planned to close them permanently. However a new council elected in 2018 had other plans, expressing a desire to keep all bridges in the municipality open. In the years since, council has encountered one stumbling block after another in their quest to see the bridges replaced, and the valuable link for area farmers reopened.

Next week council will revisit bridges 21 and 22 once again, after deferring making a decision on the fate of the two small rural bridges last week, after a lengthy discussion of the four options presented to council, none of them particularly appealing to members of council.

This is an issue that has been on council’s plate for seven years, it has passed through the hands of three terms of council, but a solution has remained elusive.

Like council, these two bridges have been on my plate for seven years. Seven years of hearing council grapple with the issue, seven years writing about what should be a simple problem to solve. Two small, aged, rural bridges, one right after another, barely 40 feet in length between the two of them, failed inspection in 2016 at a time when the council of the day had determined that they should remain closed, primarily due to the low traffic count when compared to the 80 other bridges and culverts owned by the municipality.

The next council, elected less than two years later, committed to keeping all bridges in the municipality open, including bridges 21 and 22.

In a perfect world, in a less complicated world, the bridges would simply have been replaced in a timely manner, and seven years later most of us would barely remember that the bridges even exist, but the farmers for whom those bridges are a valuable route would certainly be appreciative.

But our world is not so perfect, and it can be frustratingly, and unnecessarily, complicated.

Agriculture drives the economy of our rural municipality, and it is farmers local to the area of the two bridges who have been inconvenienced by the closure of the bridges. Without the use of the bridges, the detour for farmers can add hours to their day, and it has been noted that the hill on the 2nd Concession can be a hazard to a slow moving tractor pulling a trailer. So these bridges should be a priority, and they clearly have been for the last two terms of council, but unfortunately, the neighbouring municipality, which should be jointly responsible, and the County, who it is believed should be responsible for one of the bridges, have not shared Meaford council’s desire for these bridges to be replaced and reopened with the cost being shared.

While grappling with the prospect of having to fund the replacement of these two bridges, in 2018 it was determined that, being on a boundary road the bridges are the responsibility of both the Municipality of Meaford and the Township of Chatsworth, and then the nightmare truly began. Chatsworth has resisted any plan to jointly fund the replacement of the bridges despite them being located on a boundary road.

A couple of years later, Meaford asserted that one of the two bridges meets the 20-foot span criteria, which, being on a boundary road, would make that bridge the responsibility of Grey County, however the County has rejected any notion that they should be responsible for that bridge.

Two small bridges on a boundary road, and the neighbouring municipality and the County don’t want to share in the cost of replacing them. Frustratingly, although Councillor Steve Bartley expressed at council last week that he doesn’t want to let the County off the hook, it seems virtually pointless to pursue the County any further if the goal is for the bridges to ultimately be replaced and reopened, as the County has said that if they were to assume responsibility for the one bridge that meets the 20-foot span criteria, they would leave it closed and remove it.

It seems to me that if the Municipality of Meaford wants these bridges replaced and reopened, we must be prepared to pay the full cost, because in spite of years of discussion, Chatsworth hasn’t budged in their position that, like the County, they too would opt to leave the bridges closed.

Municipal decisions don’t necessarily have to be fair, but they ought to be just, and this is a seven-year wrong that should be corrected, even if Meaford ratepayers must eventually pay the full freight.

Let’s not forget that at the very beginning of this ordeal, this municipality assumed it was responsible for both bridges, the only party to have at any time claimed any responsibility for these bridges. Seven years later, nothing has changed, the bridges remain closed, and neither the County nor Chatsworth has agreed to share in the cost of replacing the bridges, and both have said that they would opt to leave the bridges closed.

On this issue, council is certainly between a rock and a hard place, and the only solution that would guarantee the replacement and reopening of the bridges would be for the Municipality of Meaford to fully fund the more than $2 million it will cost to replace them.


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