Muskoka Lakes debates $3.5M Bala Falls Road bridge replacement

·3 min read

The future of the Bala Falls Road bridge remains uncertain as members of Muskoka Lakes council, staff and community deliberate over whether to fix or replace the century-old bridge — or something else entirely.

Township staff and a project engineer from Tatham Engineering presented two reports to the mayor and council on April 14 with potential plans for the bridge.

Both recommended fully replacing the bridge as the best option out of four, including doing nothing, removing, or rehabilitating the bridge.

The staff report states the bridge’s foundation was constructed in the late 1800s or early 1900s and the latest inspection, done in 2019, found the bridge to be “in fair to poor condition.”

“The bridge is done,” said Ken Becking, director of public works. “Certainly, we can try and rehabilitate it to a degree, but there are limits to which we can go — and those limits will result in a very short-term solution which we will, ultimately, end up having to discard.”

The staff report states fully replacing the bridge would cost $3.5 million in capital costs, plus maintenance costs of $500,000 to $1 million every 25 to 40 years. Not including maintenance, replacing only the superstructure would cost $2 million and rehabilitation would cost $1.3 million.

“I will not get elected next year if I vote for anything other than the rehabilitation of this bridge,” said Coun. Glenn Zavitz during the meeting. His ward resides in Bala.

David Fischer and Jacintha Cowan own the Bala Falls Pub, just around the corner from the bridge. Instead of fixing or replacing the bridge, Fisher said the township should turn it into a walking-only bridge and make it a tourist attraction.

“I don’t see why you would invest that quantity of funds into rehabilitation,” he said. “If you just repair the bridge, it doesn’t generate any income.”

According to feedback from the township’s public consultations on the bridge, collected in late 2020, 18 of 20 respondents said they want the bridge to be rehabilitated.

Seven respondents want the bridge replaced. All respondents want to see the heritage value and current esthetics of the bridge remain intact.

“It’s a beautiful spot,” Cowan said. “We want it to benefit, wholeheartedly, the entire community.”

Fischer shared his perspective in the public feedback campaign. He suggested it as part of a larger effort to bring more tourist dollars to Bala.

For example, he proposed they turn a 95-year-old deconsecrated church next to the bridge, Burgess Memorial Church, into a museum for historical artifacts.

Zavitz proposed the township wait before moving forward on a plan: he said they could factor the bridge into their ongoing Community Improvement Plan for Bala.

No resolution was presented during the meeting. Mayor Phil Harding told Becking and staff to come up with an alternative plan that maintains the current “look and feel” of the bridge and the costs of different options.

Township and staff will return to the subject at their next council meeting on Wednesday, May 12.

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: The Bala Falls Road bridge is the heart of Bala. Our reporter wanted to unpack the different possible fates for the century-old bridge.

Zahraa Hmood is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering the municipalities of Muskoka Lakes, Lake of Bays and Georgian Bay. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.

Zahraa Hmood, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, muskokaregion.com