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Judging the value of area’s old steel bridges

Repair one, demolish the other two. Such was the original plan following a study of three old steel truss bridges in Woolwich Township.

The Glasgow Street bridge in Conestogo is currently being rehabilitated. In Winterbourne, the Peel Street bridge is still closed, but slated to be converted for use by pedestrians and cyclists rather than being torn down. Now, the fate of the Middlebrook Place bridge is being revisited.

While that third structure, a boundary-road bridge shared with a neighbouring township, may yet remain closed for eventual removal, Centre Wellington has opted to review costing estimates in response to calls to save the bridge in the vein of the Peel Street span. The arguments are much the same, centering on the historic value and its appeal to hikers and bikers.

Whereas the Glasgow Street bridge was deemed worthy of retention due to traffic counts, the other two carried insufficient numbers to warrant remaining open. When it comes to converting them for pedestrians, cost was the biggest factor.

Woolwich council ultimately decided the Peel Street span would be rehabilitated for recreational uses, both for Winterbourne residents and the wider community of hikers and cyclists. Perhaps in poorer condition, the Middlebrook structure’s fate may involve more money and will certainly involve two councils instead of one.

Only the Glasgow bridge is open today, though it has been shut down numerous times for repairs. Middlebrook has been closed since 2013, while Peel was shuttered in 2017.

The recommendation for permanent closure hinges principally on economics: maintaining them for vehicular traffic or even pedestrian use would be costly, an expense hard to justify given low usage. Moreover, millions spent today and over the next couple of decades might not extend the lifespans of the structures to anything like the amount of time they’ve already been in place, the original study found.

In order to get another century out of such crossings, the existing bridges would have to be replaced. That’s even more cost-prohibitive; so much so that the option is barely worth mentioning. Moreover, such moves would undo perhaps the number-one reason for preserving the existing spans: the historical value.

All three bridges harken back to an earlier time in the township, with steel and wood instead of the ubiquitous concrete and asphalt. Their single lanes are more in line with a small population and buggy travel.  Longtime fixtures in their respective locations, they are in essence pieces of the landscape and the local heritage.

There are undoubtedly those who would keep the bridges in operation for the sake of history alone, noting you can’t put a price on pieces of the past. The townships will have to be much more pragmatic, however, as the costs are significant. In spending millions, councillors have to look at how many people benefit and for how long. Such spending typically requires a long-term return, and  reports suggest the Middlebrook and Peel bridges will have come to the end of their lifespans by 2050; that may not be long enough for a payback. And even in the parlance of this area’s relatively short history, 30 years doesn’t amount to much.

While many people may appreciate the history and the aesthetics, most of us wouldn’t be happy to see large tax increases to pay for privilege. Everyone is well aware – or should be – that there’s an infrastructure deficit in Woolwich, along with every other municipality, province and, indeed, the country itself. There’s nowhere near enough money to meet today’s requirements, let alone tomorrow’s, as the existing infrastructure continues to age and deteriorate.

Still, the heritage considerations can’t be dismissed out of hand. The region has a very poor track record of protecting historical structures, many of which were left to crumble while others were torn down in favour of ugly, badly designed and poorly built replacements. That’s to be avoided at (almost) all costs.

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