Bridging Confederation

It has torn at the psyche of Islanders for more than a decade. On the one side there have been those afraid of environmental risk who also fear a loss of the Island way of life. On the other, those looking for convenience, cheaper transportation and the potential benefits that both will bring.

Now, as the mammoth Confederation Bridge–the so-called fixed link that connects Prince Edward Island to mainland Canada–gears up to open June 1, debate has been replaced by rising excitement, although apprehension and uncertainty remain.

At 12.9 kilometres, it’s one of the longest continuous multispan bridges in the world. Multispan means it’s a repetition of the same structure over and over, from shore to shore. It’s been a feat, if not of technology, of sheer size. It has been an immense construction project that has come in on time and on budget, that employed 6,000 people directly during a 3 1/2-year period, and that had incalculable spin-off benefits on both sides of the Northumberland Strait.

A promise of continuous and efficient year-round transportation service to the mainland was one of the reasons why the tiny province agreed to join Confederation in 1873. Over the years, that service has taken different forms, from iceboats in the late 1880s that were alternately rowed through open water, then hauled over the ice by crew members to more recently, the Marine Atlantic ferry service that runs from Borden-Carleton, P.E.I., to Cape Tormentine, N.B.

Continuity and efficiency, however, have never been guaranteed. Ferries frequently get stuck in ice. Just before Christmas 1996, a ferry was pushed onto a sandbar by high winds, and passengers were stranded aboard for three days. Travelers, especially in summer months, inevitably face long lineups and extended waits in the ferry terminal parking lot.

The idea of having a more permanent connection is almost as old as Confederation itself. One of the first promoters was Senator George Howlan who, in 1885, called the service “a disaster waiting to happen” after three iceboats with 15 passengers and seven crew were caught in a blinding snowstorm and forced to camp overnight on the ice.

In 1957, the Diefenbaker government toyed with the idea of building a causeway. Eight years later, the Pearson government announced plans for a $148-million combination bridge and causeway, and construction began on both sides of the strait. However, the project was finally cancelled by the Trudeau government in 1969.

In 1985, the idea was back on the table when several Nova Scotia businessmen submitted an unsolicited proposal to then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for a combined bridge-causeway-tunnel. Public Works Canada officials were instructed to assess the feasibility of the proposal, other proposals were subsequently received, and by 1988 the government had three finalists on a short list. All recommended a bridge, rather than a tunnel, causeway or some combination of the three. In 1993, the contract was signed with Strait Crossing Development Inc., a consortium of Canadian, Dutch and French companies.

The idea, of course, was not without controversy. Leading up to an Island-wide plebiscite held in early 1988, the anti-link Friends of the Island group argued that a link would pose environmental risks and threaten the Island way of life. Those in favor of the link, Islanders for a Better Tomorrow, maintained that a bridge would mean convenience and cheaper transportation costs. In the end, Islanders voted 60/40 in favor of the project, although debate continued throughout public hearings held by the Federal Environmental Assessment Review Office the following year and, in fact, right up until 1993 when construction began.

The federal government’s interest in seeing the link constructed was simple. Besides giving Islanders easier access to the rest of Canada, it was a way to eliminate the subsidies paid to Marine Atlantic, the Crown corporation operating the ferry service between Cape Tormentine and Borden-Carleton. The privately-owned, government-subsidized ferry service that operates during the summer months between Wood Islands, P.E.I., and Caribou, N.S., will continue. Once the bridge opens on June 1, the government will decommission the Marine Atlantic service, and will begin to pay $41.9 million per year (in 1992 dollars) for 35 years to Strait Crossing.

This subsidy, together with the tolls charged, will finance the operation of the bridge that will employ roughly 60 people. Fares, which will be indexed to inflation, are expected to be the same as what one pays now to cross on the ferry; $20 for a car, plus $8.50 per adult. At the end of 35 years, the bridge, which was constructed with $840 million of private money, will belong to the federal government.

The bridge spans the Northumberland Strait at its narrowest point between Borden-Carleton and Cape Jourimain Island, N.B., three kilometres north of the existing ferry terminal at Cape Tormentine. It is made up of 45 pre-cast concrete marine spans, set on piers spaced roughly 250 metres apart. There are an additional seven approach spans on the Island side and another 14 approach spans on the New Brunswick side with a navigation channel in the middle of the bridge that is approximately 60 metres at its highest point.

The pieces were, by and large, constructed on land, in fabrication yards in P.E.I. and New Brunswick, and dropped into place by the HLV Svanen, a twin-hulled floating crane that is the only one of its kind in the world, with a capacity to lift 8,200 tonnes. One needs to see the actual size of the bridge to comprehend what was required for construction: Three million tonnes of aggregates; 340,000 cubic metres of concrete; 53,000 tonnes of reinforcing steel; 13,500 tonnes of post tension cable; 8,000 tonnes of miscellaneous metal fabrication; 139,000 tonnes of asphalt paving.

Strait Crossing spokesperson Krista Jenkins says most of the technology applied during construction has been used elsewhere in the world. “What is unique is the sheer size of the components.”

The bridge was given its name earlier this year, after 1,400 people submitted a total of 2,200 suggestions to Public Works and Government Services Canada Minister Diane Marleau who made the final decision.

Once operational, the bridge will have closed-circuit video cameras as well as emergency telephone call stations located every 500 metres along the two-lane roadway. There will be around-the-clock lighting and snow removal, and a bus service for pedestrians and cyclists. In addition, a radar reflector system will guide vessel traffic under the bridge.

More than 3/4 of a million tourists visited the Island in 1996, and that number is expected to jump by 20 per cent once the bridge opens. Tourism represents $177 million a year in direct dollars and employs 18,000 people on the Island that has a population of 133,000. And so, not surprisingly, the 720-member Tourism Industry Association is optimistically awaiting the bridge opening. “We’ve had three years of steady growth,” says association Executive Director Don Cudmore, “and we’re certainly looking forward to seeing our revenues increase once the bridge is in place.”

The Borden-Carleton area, in particular, has been gearing up. Initial fear that the town would become a ghost town with the loss of the Marine Atlantic ferry service has been turned around through a concerted community effort and the input of federal dollars. The recently amalgamated town–population 1,000–has carried out a major infrastructure program to attract industry and tourism. The newly constructed Gateway Village is a turn-of-the-century rural P.E.I. streetscape that includes a visitor information centre, an exhibition pavilion and food and retail outlets. “We want to make a good first impression,” says Brian Keefe of the Borden Area Development Corporation.

Confederation Bridge is also expected to boost the trucking industry as well. The Atlantic Provinces Transportation Commission estimates the bridge will save $10 million a year in waiting time alone. Lowell Hogg, owner of J.L. Hogg Trucking of Cornwall, near Charlottetown, believes that estimate is conservative. Most of his business is short runs, back and forth to Moncton. “With the bridge, we’ll get over to the mainland in 15 minutes, rather than having a truck and driver waiting an hour, and then taking an hour ferry ride. We’ll be able to service our customers a lot better. It’ll be much more efficient.”

One of the concerns leading up to the construction was that the Island’s processing industry could be one of the losers. With the bridge providing easy access to such raw materials as potatoes, french fry magnets like McCains would have no reason to keep their existing plant on the Island. Brian Keefe thinks the reverse is true. “The bridge will give them quicker access to the market so there is no reason for them not to stay.” In fact, in the past decade, both McCains and Irving-owned Cavendish Farms have located in the Borden area, and another Irving-owned company, Master Packaging, has just set up shop in anticipation of the bridge opening.

Not everyone, however, is as convinced of the benefits. The Northumberland Strait is one of the richest lobster fishing areas in Atlantic Canada. Of the $50 million worth of fish and seafood landed there in 1996, 70 per cent of the value was lobster. There are roughly 5,000 fishers from three provinces that depend on this two-month fishery for the bulk of their income. The strait is usually ice covered from January to May, and one of the most important issues during the public hearings before construction started was the effect the bridge would have on ice-out in the spring. The first Federal Environmental Assessment Review Office panel, in fact, recommended against the construction because of the uncertainty. It was estimated that a delay of even one or two days could have serious repercussions on both agriculture and the spring lobster season, by keeping water and air temperatures low and delaying the start of the season.

Allan MacDonald, a fisherman from Rice Point on the Island’s south shore approximately 35 kilometres east of Borden, was a vocal opponent of the bridge at the time. Today, at 69, he still fishes with his son and daughter-in-law, and still has reservations about whether a bridge was the right choice. “Borden, because it’s at the narrowest point of the strait, often has ice when Rice Point is clear. But the winds are from the nor’west here so we know that the ice from Borden will eventually come this way. We can’t put out our gear until it passes. Now with the bridge, the ice may take longer to leave so we could end up with a very short lobster season.” MacDonald predicts that it may take four or five years to really know what effect the bridge has had on the fishery.

Uncertainty has also obsessed the 600-odd Marine Atlantic employees who will lose their jobs once the bridge opens. “This has been an awful experience for these workers,” says Gerard Sexton, a storekeeper on the ferry who is a representative for the Canadian Auto Workers Union. These jobs were some of the best on the Island, well-paid by Island standards. They contributed an estimated $18 million to the Island’s economy. People have been offered re-training, says Sexton, “but for what? There are no other jobs.” Ninety per cent are Islanders, many of whom have worked on the ferry for 20-30 years. They are not prepared to move. “The depression is just setting in,” says a ferry worker who doesn’t want his name used.

Sexton believes the bridge is part of a master plan by the federal government to privatize transportation, and that rather than improving service, the long-term effect will be to downgrade it. The Wood Islands ferry has seen its subsidy reduced in recent years, and it only operates for part of the year. Sexton worries about what Islanders will do if something happens to the bridge.

It’s a worry that is shared. Ironically, the bridge that was supposed to improve transportation between the Island and the rest of Canada could leave the Island more isolated if it is closed due to some natural or unforeseen disaster. Strait Crossing is responsible for emergency planning, while Transport Canada is responsible for contingency planning. The overall plan is expected to be in place before the bridge opens.

In the meantime, another set of plans are being developed to celebrate the grand opening. There will be three days of festivities, beginning May 30. The official opening is scheduled for May 31, and travel on the bridge is to begin June 1. For the past year, Strait Crossing in co-operation with the Canadian Cancer Society has sold tickets for the Canadian Dream Drive, the chance to be the first person to drive over the bridge. If the winner is from outside P.E.I., they’ll be flown to the Island for the festivities, and will drive home in a new minivan.

Once the three days are over and reality sets in, the bridge will be part of the Island way of life. Aside from continuing concern about the effect it will have on ice patterns, aside from the loss of 600 Marine Atlantic jobs as well as the layoff of all those who worked on construction, will it change the essential, indefinable aspect of what it means to live on an island? That, perhaps, is one of the biggest and most unanswerable questions. “I think we’ll just have to wait and see,” says fisherman Allan MacDonald.

“I don’t think so,” says Tourism Industry Association’s Don Cudmore. “We’ll still have a ferry service at Wood Islands. We have another ferry service from Souris to the Isle de la Madeleine, so people can drive onto the Island and take a ferry off. We’re still very much of an island. We’ve just opened ourselves up to the rest of the world.”

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