By Ian Ross
A new $5.3-million Canada Customs and Immigration inspection facility financed by two forest products companies in the Fort Frances area will be open to vehicle traffic this winter.
The joint-owners of the international bridge, Abitibi-Consolidated and Boise Cascade Corp., a paper and wood manufacturer in International Falls, Minn., teamed up to build a more expansive inspection facility on the Canadian side to eliminate traffic bottlenecks between the two communities.
Jim Gartshore, general manager of Abitibi's mill in Fort Frances, says the toll bridge has been privately owned by the two companies since the early 1900s, when the mills were collectively known as the Ontario-Minnesota Pulp and Paper Co. A rail bridge was built to facilitate commerce before vehicle lanes were added in phases over the years.
Because it is a privately owned structure, known as a Section 6 bridge by the federal government, and similar to Windsor's Ambassador Bridge, the owners are responsible for any improvements or upgrades as requested by Customs and Immigration.
Handling roughly about a million crossings annually, the current inspection station built in 1978 is too small to handle truck traffic generated between the two mills and to carry out in-depth vehicle searches in support of Canada's gun control legislation and the renewed commitment toward tighter border security, Gartshore says.
The project, which began construction last July, includes a new two-storey travellers' building, housing offices and four primary inspection lanes.
"The new building is about three times the size of the existing building," and will be situated just off the bridge instead of directly on the structure as is the current facility, says Gartshore.
Two smaller buildings will be for secondary and tertiary inspection for more detailed vehicle searches. A vehicle compound is also being constructed.
"It's probably coming at the right time with the increase in border security," says Gartshore. "We're giving them good working conditions in a nice new facility with lots of room."
Customs and Immigration will furnish the interior with electronic surveillance and inspection equipment.
Gartshore says the main building is closed in for the winter with most of the outside finishing and masonry work complete. Contractors from Tom Jones Construction of Thunder Bay are finishing off the canopies and the inspection areas are in the final stages of construction, expected to be completed by Jan. 6. The facility will likely be operating by the end of February.
Abitibi-Consolidated and Boise are splitting the $4.8-million construction costs for the buildings, while Transport Canada is contributing $500,000 for "de-bottlenecking" border points through road improvements, says Gartshore.
Corners are being rounded off and a new section of road called Veterans Avenue has been built to channel truck traffic away from the downtown area.
"It's a small project, but it's very important for the locals and hopefully it will clear up the border crossings, and we'll have no problems for the next 20 years."