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Handley takes heat on bridge

Adam Johnson and Roxanna Thompson
Northern News Services
Published Monday, August 27, 2007

FORT PROVIDENCE - With a ground breaking ceremony looming on the shores of Fort Providence, regular MLAs launched a last-ditch effort last week to hold off the $150 million-plus Deh Cho bridge project.

"How we feel on this side of the house is happy about the bridge, but demoralized by the process," Hay River South MLA Jane Groenewegen said in the legislative assembly.

"Nowhere in the Deh Cho Bridge Act does it say, 'build the bridge at any price,'" said Kam Lake MLA Dave Ramsay.

Regular MLAs passed a motion recommending government hold off the Deh Cho bridge until a cost/benefit analysis could be done on the bridge. The last one was prepared in 2002, when the bridge was estimated to cost $60-$70million.

"We are starved for information that was at one point freely provided," said Great Slave MLA Bill Braden.

However, as a recommendation, the motion has no legislative weight, and cabinet members did not vote on it.

"We can't keep debating these things forever," Handley told MLAs we can't keep debating these things forever.

"Further delays are only going to add uneasiness and more cost," he said. "It could easily kill this project, and the GNWT's credibility."

Handley said he hoped future assemblies would continue to the legacy of the Deh Cho bridge, including building a highways and roads as far as Tuktoyaktuk one day.

"We need to build infrastructure, and we need to get on with it."

The bridge was a cause for celebration for the Deh Cho Bridge Corp., which held a ceremonial sod-turning for the bridge Friday in Fort Providence.

The corporation that will build and operate the bridge runs on a $5 million loan from the territorial government.

The ceremony included the signing an interim contract with one of the contractors for the bridge so that preliminary work can begin immediately.

The work will include clearing gravel sites and establishing a campsite so the project can get underway quickly next spring.

It will take two full years just to put the piers for the bridge in, said Andrew Gamble, project manager for the corporation.

The bridge will be one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the North in many years, said Kevin Menicoche, minister of transportation.

"I'm quite excited that our North and our communities will benefit from it," said Menicoche.

"This is a good news story, it's good for the North and it's good for business and it's good for the long term."

One of the main stumbling blocks for the bridge project has been the construction cost. The price has jumped $20 million since May when Handley first said the project would go ahead.

Handley said the GNWT is considering a "formal offer" from New Brunswick construction company Atcon Group. The company will build the bridge with a "guaranteed maximum price," with a completion date of 2010, he said.

Handley said the "main source" of the $150 million would come from tolls on North-bound commercial traffic of $6/tonne in 2002 dollars, which could be more than $7/tonne in 2010.

The rest of the money will be $2 million a year in diverted savings from annual ice bridge and the ferry service, plus $2 million more a year from general revenue if necessary.

The GNWT will continue to lobby the federal government for more money from infrastructure programs, said Menicoche. A contribution of $50 million is hoped for.

"They're very aware of our need for their support," Menicoche said.

Further threatening the bridge process is a law suit filed in June by a Quebec-based steel supplier.

Canam Group Inc. is suing Deh Cho Bridge Corporation, alleging breach of contract, and is seeking unspecified damages and an injunction that would prevent the bridge builders from purchasing steel from another company until the case goes to trial.

In its statement of claim, Canam said the Bridge Corp. negotiated a contract for the fabrication of all the structural steel needed for the $150 million span across the Mackenzie River.

In May, the Bridge Corp. told Canam that they had decided to hire a general contractor rather than handle separate contracts for the different components of the bridge and would no longer need Canam's services.

The Bridge Corp. filed a statement of defence in July and denied entering into a contract with Canam.

Kam Lake MLA Dave Ramsay is worried about who will be footing the Bridge Corp.'s legal bills, which could add to the price of the project.Premier Joe Handley said

"any liabilities borne by the Bridge Corporation would be paid for out of their profits from operating the bridge.".

-With files from Amanda Vaughan