The latest push to save the old steel bridge on Middlebrook Place suffered a setback last week when Centre Wellington council voted to demolish the structure rather than rehabilitate it.
The Save Middlebrook Bridge Community Action Group had won a reprieve last fall when the township agreed to review costing options. On February 22, however, councillors in a 4-2 split vote decided spending some $720,000 to remove the bridge made more sense than $1.1 million to repair it for pedestrian use.
The decision may come down to funding. Centre Wellington’s current 10-year capital plan for bridges and culverts calls for $28.5 million in spending, including $350,000 for its share of the removal of the Middlebrook bridge by 2029. A dozen of its 111 bridges and culverts are currently closed.
As the bridge is part of a boundary road, Woolwich is responsible for half the costs. Council there had also backed the demolition option.
Centre Wellington Coun. Kirk McElwain remains unconvinced by his colleagues’ decision.
“There’s no question it’s a matter of setting priorities. If the only priority is the bottom line, then they made the right decision. If priorities also include active transportation and heritage, then in my opinion, they made the wrong decision,” he said in an interview.
The Middlebrook Place bridge has significant historical value as one of the few remaining camelback truss bridges in the Region of Waterloo. It’s been closed since 2013 due to safety concerns. Demolition isn’t planned for several years, however, offering some hope for reprieve.
“With the new council we can revisit again. I don’t think staff are going to change their mind unless we’re able to find alternative funding. We have all made some suggestions – our MP had his office suggest a grant that may help, but to my knowledge, staff never looked into that either. I think they had pretty much determined what they wanted to do,” said McElwain.
The updated report by council staff presented a large list of increased costs for the bridge, no matter what option was chosen. Staff are now reporting it would cost some $720 000 to remove the structure and near $1.1 million to rehabilitate the bridge, with an estimated $2.1 million in future lifecycle costs.
“You have nothing at the end of demolishing the bridge, absolutely nothing. And you’ve paid $700,000 for nothing. Whereas for $2.1 million, you have a very important part of our active transportation system and a heritage asset. When they’re gone, they’re gone,” said McElwain.
Coming up with a way to save the structure is now in the hands of citizens such as Stephanie Lines-Toohill, an organizer for the Save Middlebrook Bridge Community Action Group.
“We’re disappointed, but we’re not disheartened – we half expected that anyway,” she said of council’s decision. “So, in a way, we’re feeling stronger because now we’re clear about council’s position and now we can try to regroup and push forward as a community group. We are going to look further into alternative funding sources.”
Supporters say they were given just five days to prepare for last week’s committee meeting. Mark Walker was one of the delegates and a co-organizer of the group trying to save the bridge, one he’s crossed many times as an avid cyclist.
“The current mayor and council, I recognize that they have challenges and they have done a good job of being stewards from a capital and fiscal perspective, so were not downplaying or [failing] to recognize that. But I think there is another part of stewardship that they are not living up to, which is the wishes of the community. This community has really spoken out loudly about saving this bridge, be it for heritage or active transportation,” he said.
Walker’s daughter, 13-year-old Olivia, is a young supporter of keeping the bridge, hoping she can enjoy it in the future the same way previous generations have before.
“I don’t know a whole lot about everything that is going on and the structure of the bridge, but I do know it’s definitely historic and we’ve already had one taken down locally and in Elora and replaced by a bridge that isn’t as special to the community. I think that we really need to keep things like this around, we’re going to be able to look back on them and be able to see we have these historic things that make us Elora and a community.”
Centre Wellington’s decision brings it in line with Woolwich’s position.
“That is what we have come to understand from our conversations with Woolwich Township, they have not changed their plan to my knowledge – it is still their intention to remove the bridge without replacement in 2028,” said manager of engineering Adam Gilmore told councillors at last week’s meeting.
Woolwich Township Mayor Sandy Shantz said in an interview there has been some back and forth at the staff level but Woolwich council hasn’t seen many details on the Middlebrook bridge, adding she understands the challenges in keeping the structure.
“Bridges are tough because they’re very expensive, and small municipalities really have a hard time with that. I know it’s hard for trails or potential trails across the rivers. Once a bridge is gone, it’s hard to get it back. So, yes, it would be nice to save it but I also I’m also aware of the economics of it,” said Shantz.
“We didn’t see a lot of detail on the Middlebrook bridge as a council. We were focusing more on the Peel Street bridge. We’ve lost a number of bridges over time – we just don’t have the finances to do it all. If money was available from somewhere else, by all means, it would be wonderful to keep that connection.”
The advocates for Middlebrook bridge say they felt the decision was rushed by Centre Wellington council, with citizens feeling like they were blocked out of the conversation.
“I think Stephanie and Mark are doing what they can do basically, which is raise public awareness, try to find ways to provide alternate funding. I don’t think there’s any intention for them to reconsider at all,” said McElwain. “It’s not just the two of them anymore. They have a lot of people involved in this now and different active transportation groups – biking groups and the trail system folks – all want to preserve this bridge. They’ve got a lot of people involved, and I’ll do whatever I can help.”