The toll bridge in International Falls logs close to 900,000 crossings a year between the U.S. and Canada. On summer weekends, traffic can be backed up two to three hours as tourists and commercial trucks head north. But the bridge is also important to the locals. The nearly thousand-foot span is a vital link to two communities that sometimes consider themselves one.
"I think the relationship between the two communities and the way that we're interwoven socially, economically, recreationally, that bridge is kind of the thing that binds us," said Paul Nevanen, an economic development director in International Falls.
Nevanen says there are lots of cross-border family ties. People cross the bridge to shop or attend church. On Tuesday nights in the winter, dozens of International Falls curlers cross the border to the area's only curling rink in Fort Frances. If people in Fort Frances want to see a movie, they have to cross over to International Falls.
That bond has come at a cost. Community officials say the bridge tolls are among the highest in North America. It's the only toll bridge on Minnesota's northern border with Canada. The price for a round trip is generally $6 per car. The toll is more for trucks. Locals with discount cards can cross for much cheaper, about 80 cents per round trip. Still, International Falls Mayor Shawn Mason says that adds up for people who cross frequently. Mason says now that the bridge is for sale, she worries the tolls could get worse.
"That is our fear, that if a private developer would secure the bridge, one of the purposes, one would think, a developer would want is to secure it as an investment," said Mason. "And if you want to see profits and revenues, where are those funds going to be generated from? Of course, a toll."
It's probably the only opportunity we'll have to get the situation right here... and just take that little nuisance away from all the people that live in the border communities.Fort Frances Mayor Dan Onichuk
The bridge, along with an adjacent railroad bridge, is jointly owned by Boise Cascade and Abitibi Consolidated, a Canadian paper mill. Boise is getting rid of properties it doesn't need. There's no price tag on the structure, but a Boise spokesman says a number of private companies have expressed interest. Leaders in International Falls have been meeting with state transportation officials to come up with a plan to make a bid on the bridge.
Officials in Fort Frances are doing the same with the Transportation Ministry in Ontario. Fort Frances Mayor Dan Onichuk says now is the chance to put the bridge into public ownership and eliminate tolls. Onichuk says getting rid of tolls would increase commerce between the two towns.
"It's probably the only opportunity we'll have to get the situation right here and create a little bit of an economic boom as far as a lot of the local commercial businesses," said Onichuk, "and just take that little nuisance away from all the people that live in the border communities and all our friends from the United States that come up to visit us."
There's federal money available to help Minnesota acquire the bridge. Eighth District Cong. Jim Oberstar-(D), says the state can access millions of dollars in federal funds to improve border infrastructure. Oberstar favors a government purchase of the bridge. He says acquiring the bridge would create an opportunity to make improvements to the structure to speed up the flow of traffic.
"I think a newly designed, realigned bridge between International Falls and Fort Frances would give a great lift to the spirits of the people in the borderland and a tremendous boost to travel and tourism across the borders of our two countries," Oberstar said.
If the bridge is to go into public ownership, things have to move quickly. Boise officials say they're willing to work with the communities, but they'd like to finalize a sale in months rather than years. International Falls officials say they hope to see a partnership between Minnesota and Ontario come together by the end of this summer.
Real estate experts estimate the bridge could sell for between $8 million and $12 million. The Minnesota Department of Transportation is reviewing its options. The state is also waiting to see whether the province of Ontario is willing to get involved in a purchase.