FORT FRANCES — The bridge linking Fort Frances to International Falls, Minn., is about to get more expensive to cross.
The International Bridge’s owners announced this week that the toll structure for crossing from International Falls to Fort Frances will be “simplified” to four categories from the current seven.
The upshot is that the cost of travelling into Fort Frances from Minnesota will rise steeply for many motorists, and that has some residents of the Ontario town seeing red.
“The local social media groups are on fire,” lawyer and former town councillor Doug Judson said Thursday. “People are furious.
“I’ve told both our MP and MPP that they need to get out in front of this and find a solution, because people are coming for their heads.”
Beginning in November, the price of a 12-crossing Commuter Card for two-axle vehicles will be $90, up from just under $30 today. That more than 200 per cent price hike could cost regular commuters $2,000 a year, Judson said.
It’s a “hot potato issue,” Fort Frances Mayor Andrew Hallikas said, adding that some residents have expressed their concerns to him calmly while others “are being a little more passionate.”
The concern is understandable for a border town like Fort Frances, Hallikas said.
“International Falls and Fort Frances are intertwined,” he said. “We have friends and relatives on both sides of the border, and people are constantly going back and forth.
“And in difficult economic times, a steep increase in the toll is going to adversely affect many families.”
The more-than-100-year-old bridge was built by the operator of a local paper mill and purchased in May 2022 by Aazhogan LP, a partnership of Rainy River First Nations and the BMI Group.
As a member of town council at the time, Judson expressed concern when the bridge was put up for sale.
A June 21, 2021 council resolution called for Ottawa and the province to intervene and ensure Fort Frances interests were protected.
Three days later, Judson sent a memo to the mayor and council advising that they “should insist upon conditions which control or eliminate tolls and secure the necessary ongoing investments in facilities, maintenance and capital improvement” in the event of the bridge’s sale.
This week’s toll announcement “is a really frustrating sort of ‘told you so’ situation,” said Judson.
“I spoke to (Thunder Bay–Rainy River MP) Marcus Powlowski last night and made sure he understood that we have families right now that are looking at, like, $2,200 a year in bridge fares … because they have kids in sports, or custody arrangements in a family split across the border, or work or whatever.
“And it’s just unacceptable, and it’s especially unacceptable because when we were on council, when I was on council last term, I met with Department of Transport officials and told them that if they didn’t put conditions on their approval of the sale of this bridge, this was going to happen, and they gave us assurances (that it wouldn’t).
“And now, lo and behold, this is exactly what we’re facing right now.”
Asked what the town is going to do, Hallikas noted that “the bridge is privately owned and the Town of Fort Frances has no control over private business entities.
“I can tell you,” he added, “that when the bridge first went up for sale the Town of Fort Frances extensively lobbied the federal government, saying that a bridge basically is a strategic asset and should be government owned.
“And we expressed our concerns that if the government wasn’t going to take over that bridge, if a private entity took over that bridge, then really there’s no control over the maintenance of the bridge and the tolls. And that’s come to fruition.”
Hallikas noted that people south of the border are also displeased with the toll changes.
“There’s an equal amount of concern in International Falls and I’ve been in contact with International Falls Mayor (Harley) Droba. He’s equally concerned and his constituents are equally concerned.
“We’re going to be meeting tomorrow. That’s the soonest that we could get together, because of our schedules, and discuss this situation.”
Hallikas said he was going to meet with a representative of Powlowski on Thursday “to discuss the situation, because I know that Marcus is also well aware of the situation and equally concerned.”