About 16 years after an earlier discussion, the mayors of Fort Frances and International Falls are talking about ownership of the bridge that connects the Ontario and Minnesota communities across the Rainy River.
International Falls Mayor Harley Droba recently reported that Fort Frances Mayor June Caul has contacted him about the intent of Resolute Forest Products to sell off its ownership stake in the International Bridge. Resolute is a part owner with Boise.
Fort Frances Mayor June Caul was informed of the company’s intentions during a meeting earlier with Resolute officials, Droba reported to the Falls City Council last month.
Caul has told Fort Frances news media she was told there are a couple of firms interested, and that she has some concerns about maintaining the public’s access to the bridge.
Ownership and access is also a concern for the Falls community, Droba said.
“Pending who purchases it, which is the $100,000 question at this point, what that does for transit between International Falls and Fort Frances, and tolls,” he said.
Darwin Joslyn, general manager of Minnesota Dakota & Western Railway Company, said the U.S. portion of the bridge is owned, operated, and maintained by MD&W a subsidiary of Packaging Corporation of America, which operates the Boise paper mill.
“In spite of the fact it is not a critical part of our business with the permanent closure of the Fort Frances mill, we have maintained the bridge for maximum use into the future,” he said. “Over the years, we have received inquiries from interested parties about the purchase of all or part of the bridge.”
When this occurs, he said nondisclosure agreements, or NDAs, are typically put in place to protect the privacy of parties before discussions begin.
“At this time, we are currently under a legally binding NDA,” he said Tuesday morning. “We recognize the importance of the International Bridge to both U.S. and Canadian trade and tourism, as well as residential travel. Like the rest of the community, we look forward to normal bridge operations and the day travel restrictions are lifted and residents can again see family and friends.”
Droba said Caul indicated there are conversations going on about a governmental entity in Fort Frances to purchase the portion on their side “and some concern on their part to see if a governmental entity is interested in purchasing on our side.”
It’s one of only two toll bridges on the United States-Canada border, the other the Detroit-Windsor bridge, and the only toll bridge on Minnesota’s northern border.
“This is a unique situation ,” Droba told the Koochiching Economic Development Authority Board last month. “We will be working with them as closely as we can to rectify this.”
Droba said Councilor Joe Krause has noted the option of moving the location of the bridge is included in the city’s comprehensive plan.
Minnesota Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, said he has not been a part of any of the conversations about the sale of the bridge and would do some checking. He said long-term maintenance needs to be part of the discussion.
“I have a concern that the bridge needs to stay open to the public since both the cities of International Falls and Fort Francis are so tied together,” he said.
Ecklund told The Journal a Minnesota Department of Transportation staff member said the department is not aware of any recent developments about the sale of the bridge.
“Previously, MnDOT was not interested in purchasing this bridge due to the age/condition,” he said. “Any new owner presumably would be interested in maintaining the crossing and collecting the revenue stream from the tolls.”
This isn’t the first time for the discussion. In November 2005 the International Bridge and Terminal Company and the Minnesota Dakota and Western Railway, then joint owners, and their parent companies, Abitibi-Consolidated and Boise Cascade, announced the International Bridge was for sale.
That led to a Border Sister Cities Task Force being formed that explored the possibility of a new bridge paid for by governments on both sides of the border.
A plan shelved in 2011 and revisited in 2019 for a new port of entry also considered an option that included a relocation of the U.S. port of entry, which would have required the bridge location to be changed. No further discussion has been had on the new port plan.
The bridge tolls are among the highest in North America. The price for a round trip is generally $7 per car. The toll is more for trucks. Commuter cards cost $21 for 12 round trips.
Locals with discount cards can cross for much cheaper, about 80 cents per round trip.
The international bridge consists of two bridges side by side — a steel bridge constructed in 1908 and a concrete bridge built in 1979.
The span of the steel bridge is 860 feet while the concrete bridge spans 949 feet.