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Arlington Bridge Woes to Come

In late November, the Arlington Bridge was closed for the foreseeable. The 111-year-old bridge has been the subject of studies of structural soundness for decades as it has been in a continual state of decline and repair. The city finally put their foot down after the most recent inspection determined the bridge was unfit for traffic passage. 

According to an assessment done by city engineers, the extent of corrosion on the steel-truss bridge has increased drastically in recent years. While annual safety repairs have been the method of maintaining the bridge, this is no longer enough to make the bridge safe, considering the extent of the damage. While these annual repairs have worked thus far, they were ultimately a band-aid solution. 

As a result of the closure, all vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians will need to find an alternative route, such as the Slaw Rebchuk Bridge on Salter or the McPhillips Street underpass. The Arlington Bridge goes overtop the Canadian Pacific Railway yards, the fastest method over for many. Between the two alternative routes are eight lanes heading in each direction, all of which are already at capacity during rush hour. With the closure of Arlington, no transit routes will be affected. 

While city officials have said the bridge is not dangerous at this point, there are risks of continuing traffic over the bridge on a daily basis. Also taken into consideration is the safety of the CN railyards below, as potentially damaged and corroded pieces might fall. 

After the rail yards were created in 1881, the city was split, with the north end totally cut off from the rest of Winnipeg. The project to build the Arlington Bridge began in 1911 as a means of living around the Canadian Pacific Rail yards. Opened in February 1912, the bridge was not suitable for trolleys, a common mode of transportation in the era, as the lead-up to the bridge was far too steep. Installing an additional trolley was the initial idea for building the bridge. No trolleys ever crossed the bridge, and the tracks for the trolleys were torn up by 1928 to be used elsewhere in the city. 

Winnipeg was a rapidly expanding city at the turn of the 20th century, noted across North America as potentially becoming the next great city, and it made sense to connect the city via the massive bridge. At this time, the north end was the primary location for working-class Canadian immigrants. Unless they worked at the CPR rail yards, those in the north end had no way of accessing the rest of the city. 

As was typical of the era, the streets on the bridge are very narrow as they were not designed for the massive vehicles we have become accustomed to seeing. At the time of its construction, the bridge would be used by pedestrians and the few motor vehicles in the city. As the use of motor vehicles expanded, the use of the bridge expanded as well. However, it was soon after the uptick in motor vehicle traffic that troubles with the bridge became apparent. Repairs were required on the bridge as early as 1931 after smoke from a fire damaged the bridge substantially. Additional structural repairs were required by the 1940s.  

Some councillors at the time called for the bridge to be torn down, calling it a safety hazard. Also worth noting is the idea of building the bridge was unpopular to begin with. Only after being bundled into a series of projects was the construction of the Arlington bridge approved. 

The cost of constructing the bridge in 1911 was approximately $250,000, equivalent to $6.5 million in modern funds. In 1946, $50,000 worth of repairs were made to the bridge. 

In 1967, the city was first told by engineers the bridge should be replaced, at which point plans to replace it were considered but never capitalized on. Instead, repairs have been taking place on the bridge. It was at this time the first weight restrictions were introduced, preventing large trucks and buses from crossing. 

In 1972, the bridge was closed for two months for repairs. In the same year, the first suggestion of moving the rail yard altogether to accommodate greater connectivity in the city came. The federal government offered funding to assist such a major project, but the city was not fast enough with a full-fledged plan, and the federal money was made unavailable by 1975. Talks of moving the rail yard continue to take place today as an alternative to building a new bridge. 

Currently, a city-funded study of the bridge is taking place to assess whether repairs of the bridge to give it another 25 years of life are feasible, perhaps to buy time to build a replacement. The cost of the assessment conducted by the city is set at $850,000. Thus far, the study has determined that steel corrosion has noticeably accelerated in recent years. The city has said the damage is “widespread and has progressed to the point where it is no longer viable to make annual reactive safety repairs.” 

A part of the engineering study has been to determine whether the bridge will ever be able to carry vehicle loads again. While city representatives have said they understand the inconvenience of the bridge closure, the primary goal is to avoid a greater disaster; avoiding a collapse is the utmost priority of the city. According to the City of Winnipeg website, the Arlington Bridge has “been on the city’s radar for nearly a decade.” 

In 2011, the city, under the mayorship of Sam Katz, suggested replacing the Arlington bridge was the best option and would be worth the hefty price tag. Engineers on the assignment devised a plan to create a three-lane bridge in 2018 at an approximate cost of $330 million, a price that will only have gone up by now. There is little doubt that a project of this magnitude will require funding from all three levels of government. While there is hope that the new provincial government will be ambitious enough to aid such a project, plans have yet to be proposed. 

One city representative has said the city has been considering replacing the aging bridge for decades, which leaves many to wonder why it has taken so long. Considering it was 1967 when the Arlington Bridge was first recognized as a depleting and unsustainable service, the problem has remained unresolved over these last 55 years. 

In February of this year, six months after winning the election to be mayor, Scott Gillingham said the city does not have the money to replace the bridge. This is despite his prioritizing a project to widen Kenaston Boulevard.  

In the meantime, the north end of Winnipeg faces the greatest obstacles from the bridge closure.  

While the sustainability of the Arlington Bridge has been up for continual debate since its construction, it has been under particular scrutiny since 1967. Since 1967, the city has seen eight mayors come through, each of whom has had to confront the issues that come with the Arlington Bridge. 

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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