Keeping delays short could mean half a decade reconstructing the Skyway bridge.
High above the Bay of Quinte, with a stunning view of the water (if you have time to glance at it), cars and trucks zoom by at speeds comparable to the freeway. The Skyway Bridge connects County Road 49 to Highway 49 in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. It sees about 6,000 vehicles pass over it every day, with loads vastly increased during summer months.
When the Skyway opened in September of 1967, it was an important shift in the County’s history, the first permanent road access from the 401 to Picton.
Fifty years later, the road is still important, but its surface is crumbling, reaching the end of its life.
In 2011, the bridge was included in a study, commissioned by Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation, to determine what work the aging bridge required. The study concluded that the superstructure— the surface of the bridge, but not its beams—needed to be replaced.
The recommended solution was to close the bridge and replace its surface. The job would take an estimated two years.
It’s news no one living and working in the eastern part of Prince Edward County wants to hear. And during a public consultation session last summer, those residents made it clear that it was not an option.
Now, Ontario’s ministry of transportation (MTO) is nearly ready to put a plan in action. Last Thursday, MTO project manager Glenn Higgins presented the plan to council, explaining that, having taken public response into consideration, the superstructure will be rebuilt in 10 parts, dividing the road in fifths and rebuilding on one lane at a time.
The fifth of the bridge that is reduced to one lane will be controlled with a stoplight. Emergency vehicles that need to traverse the bridge can call ahead to allow an operator to halt traffic on both sides for clear passage.
This plan, says Higgins, will take five years instead of two, but has been determined as the most workable solution that would still allow a flow of traffic while repairs happen.
Higgins arrived with permission to contravene the County’s deputation policy of 10 minutes, armed with an hour-long presentation of the plan. However, a room full of residents, concerned about the barge that had sunk the previous week in Picton Bay, meant he was forced to cut the presentation short.
This did not preclude him from describing the method that will be used to move large pieces of concrete and asphalt at the worksite: cranes, loaded on barges.
“I said ‘barges’ intentionally,” says Higgins. “Because people need to know. If the bridge is going to be fixed, there’s only two ways. From the water and above. And if the choice is, ‘we don’t want a barge!’ then there’s an additional 100 full closures. That’s 100 times you won’t be able to get across—emergency vehicles, everybody.”
Council accepted the need to rebuild the superstructure, but was concerned about timelines. This fall, work will begin to replace the Murray Canal swing bridge that connects the County to Brighton. And the MTO is also planning on repairs to the Norris Whitney (Bay) Bridge that connects the County to Belleville.
With only four land crossings, any overlap in road work on the bridges would mean significant extra travel time and mileage for commuters and trucks, and the possibility of depressing tourism income in the County.
Higgins assured council that work on the Norris Whitney and Skyway bridges would not overlap. Minor repairs will take place this summer on the Bay Bridge, and then it will remain in queue until the work on the Skyway Bridge is completed. Higgins says the goal is to begin work on the Skyway in 2018.
And while he has no control over the work planned for the Murray Canal bridge—that is the property of Parks Canada, and they will be replacing it—he is making quite an effort to ensure the two departments collaborate.
The previous week, Higgins had learned of a Parks Canada information session in Brighton that evening while at a meeting in St. Catherines. He arrived just before the meeting’s scheduled end time, only to find it had let out early.
“I saw two staff from Parks Canada who were leaving in a vehicle, and threw myself in front of their car, asked them to stop,” says Higgins. He has since been in touch with the federal agency, working on keeping them apprised of the ministry’s plans.
The ministry will hold a public information session about the work next Tuesday, April 11, from 5 – 8 p.m. at the Prince Edward County Community Centre in Picton.