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Woolwich defers decision on fate of Peel St. bridge

A decision on the fate of the Peel Street bridge in Winterbourne is on hold as the township reviews options, including maintaining it for its heritage value, perhaps for use by pedestrians.

In the latest round of discussions about the century-old structure, Woolwich councillors meeting Tuesday night voted to defer the matter until at least February. That would give staff time to draft a new report and to consider the financial impact following 2021 budget deliberations.

The heritage value of the bridge was front and center in discussions, led by a presentation from Kae Elgie, chair of the Architectural Conservancy Ontario. Citing a number of studies, she noted the bridge checks several boxes in evaluating its significance under the Ontario Heritage Act.

A 2013 study by the Heritage Resource Centre at the University of Waterloo, for instance, found the Peel Street structure to be worthy of designation.

“The Winterbourne Bridge is an important landmark in the rural landscape as it is the only significant double-span camelback Pratt through truss bridge in the region.”

Even the township’s own heritage evaluation done as part of the current review found the structure to warrant designation, Elgie pointed out, adding that an official heritage designation would open the door to grants to help with the preservation of the bridge.

The span has been closed since 2017 after being deemed unsafe. Rehabilitating it to carry vehicles would cost about $1.6 million, while repairing it to carry just foot traffic would be about $1.1 million. In both cases, another $1.1 million in today’s dollars would have to be spent in 2040, followed by $700,000 to demolish the bridge when it comes to the end of its lifespan in 2050, the township has determined. A staff recommendation calls for its permanent closure and eventual demolition.

In discussions in the past few weeks, councillors appeared to be leaning towards maintaining a crossing at Winterbourne, perhaps even a new bridge that would cost upwards of $4 million. Coun. Murray Martin has been the most vocal advocate for that option, arguing in favour of providing a service to the Old Order Mennonites in the area who are currently forced to take long detours using horse-drawn buggies.

For Coun. Patrick Merlihan, however, the cost of a new bridge to serve a small number of users doesn’t make financial sense. Instead, he suggested the heritage value would best be maintained by reopening the current structure to pedestrian traffic only.

“I won’t be supporting demolishing the bridge,” he said in moving to defer a decision until after the budget process in order to get a better handle on the finances.

The deferral also serves Winterbourne residents who say they’re interested in exploring options to save the bridge. Some have already been in contact with the local MP and MPP to find out about funding possibilities.

That group includes Kim Hodgson, who also pressed councillors to hold off on making a decision.

“If we go with removal, that goes against the heritage assessment. That doesn’t make sense,” she said, requesting additional time while residents make a pitch to raise money.

“I don’t think it should be demolished before we try.”

Ryan Tucker, an engineering project supervisor with the township, said the bridge can be rehabilitated – it’s not so rundown that it can’t be fixed – with cost being a big factor.

In deferring the matter, councillors charged Tucker with drafting another report for February. In the meantime, the township is looking at erecting barricades at either end of the bridge to keep pedestrians off of the structure. While it’s been inaccessible to vehicular traffic since 2017, pedestrians can and do still use despite the posted signs.

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