Merchants question wisdom of bridge decision

Some downtown merchants are unhappy with Courtenay council’s decision to include cantilevers in 5th Street Bridge repairs. Cantilevers will add $2 million to an estimated $6.3 million to recoat and renew the bridge deck, and increase the construction period from six to eight months.

Council voted 5-2 in favour of cantilevers. Doug Hillian and Manno Theos were opposed, favouring instead the recommended $6.3 million, and to explore options for a 6th Street pedestrian/bike bridge, estimated to cost $2-$4 million. Theos feels the cantilever option will create serious traffic congestion and adversely affect downtown businesses. He suggested a four-lane bridge, which David Frisch does not advocate because he wants to see people on bike and on foot. Melanie McCollum, Wendy Morin, Will Cole-Hamilton and Mayor Bob Wells also voted in favour of cantilevers.

“We’re a growing community,” said Greg Wilson, owner of Butcher’s Block on Fourth Street. “They (councillors in favour) were saying we’re all going to be biking, basically, and we’re not going to put any effort into roads or parking. I don’t think it’s true. We’re spending that much money on basically a Band-Aid, which would be fine, but it’s not going to help traffic in the future, because people are moving here, constantly. We definitely need a third bridge, maybe not right away.”

“The City keeps saying they care about the downtown, but through all this, they’ve showed it doesn’t,” added Wilson’s son Colby, who works at the business. “It’s the worst case scenario. After the disaster up top on Fifth (Complete Street project), that’s foreshadowing what’s going to happen with the bridge. There is going to be business go out, and people laid off in downtown.”

Colby suggests a three-lane bridge is what’s needed — an idea shared by Michael Gilbert, co-owner of Michael’s Off Main on Fourth. Gilbert also suggests a temporary bridge could be built off Anderton Avenue, running into the park during construction.

“I’m shocked that they wouldn’t be trying to finally go for possibly a new bridge with three lanes,” said Gilbert, who feels council needs to rescind the cantilver option. “It would make traffic flow smoother, they’d get their bike lanes, they get viewpoints, they get pedestrians. They get everything.”

The Downtown Courtenay Business Improvement Association has yet to comment.

“It’s a tough decision,” said former mayor of Comox Paul Ives, a lawyer whose office is at 5th and Fitzgerald. “They (council) have an obligation to maintain and improve the bridge, and there’s going to be inconvenience for at least six months. I think there’s maybe ways they can mitigate that on the traffic management side of it. They say they can’t do night work, but maybe there’s a way of working around that…The reality is for me, and I suppose many businesses downtown, would be that there’s still people driving cars, and there will continue to be for the next number of years, at least for the useful life of this bridge.”

The City has said that recoating will potentially extend the life of the bridge another 50 years.

As it stands, in terms of non-vehicle traffic, Ives said commuters can walk or take the 10-15 seconds to bike across the 5th Street Bridge, single file. He feels the real issue faced by council is how to alleviate the public’s concerns during construction.

“There is going to be, undoubtedly, traffic chaos,” Ives said. “I think we can all remember what happens when the bridge at 17th goes up, even for half an hour at rush hour.”

The bridge is expected to remain open to single-lane traffic during construction, though it might need to be fully closed for short periods. Construction will happen in 2020 or 2021. Council is expected to consider a draft borrowing bylaw this fall. The project will receive a $1.96 million federal grant if completed by March 2022. The remaining $6.3 million is proposed to be funded by the City, with funding sources possibly including reserves and borrowing. Loan authorization could be through the Alternate Approval Process (AAP) or a referendum. The AAP involves at least 10 per cent of electors petitioning against the proposed borrowing bylaw. If this were to occur, a referendum would be required to place the borrowing request before electors.

“I think they forget, though, that money was provided on the basis of a rehabilitation project,” Ives said. “The $2 million was at one point about half the cost, or less. To say there’s a free $2 million here and that justifies doing the cantilevers, that’s probably something they’re going to get some blowback on.”

He notes that Wells has acknowledged that previous councils had deferred the project, thus the rising costs. Furthermore, building a new bridge would cost $25- to $30-million, which the City doesn’t have.

“We all saw what happened to Victoria (former Johnson Street Bridge). A $60 million bridge became $100 million bridge,” Ives said. “From my perspective, I would say that people now have an opportunity to provide further feedback. The Master Transportation Plan is out there as well. Adding two more months, and adding $2 million more, is that the best use of taxpayers’ money? Is it the best use of having inconvenience additional to what they proposed? I think that’s something they’re going to get some feedback on…The council will listen to people, but you’ve got to get in front of them. There’s always that silent majority that doesn’t speak up. This is still early enough in the process that further input can be provided.”

Project updates are available at Or call City Hall at 250-334-4441 and ask for engineering services.

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