The Confederation Bridge

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It has become not only an engineering marvel, but an image of Canada and a vital link between two provinces. It is the Confederation Bridge, but the story of it dates back far longer than the bridge itself, all the way to the 19th century.

Today, I am looking at the bridge that links New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. This bridge, which spans 12.9 kilometres over the Northumberland Straight, is the longest bridge in the world over ice-covered waters.

For most of the existence of Canadian settlement on Prince Edward Island, there has been the desire to link with the rest of Canada.

The linking of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island was something both provinces and the federal government wanted. To that end, the federal government hired surveyors and engineers in the summer of 1887 to look at creating a subway line running from Carleton Point to New Brunswick. The idea did not disappear. In 1893, the Ottawa Daily Citizen would report quote:

“The proposed tunnel, according to its present location, will traverse these between Cape Tormentine in New Brunswick and Carleton Point in Prince Edward Island, and the description of the strata which will probably be encountered will be given as shown by the series of bore holes put down during the past season along the line of the route.”

This idea was put forward by George Howlan, a major political figure on Prince Edward Island. He would raise it as a Member of the Provincial Legislature, then as a Senator, and even as a delegate to the British Parliament.

When he died in 1901, the idea began to fade.

Since the technology of the day and the cost was too much to create this subway link between the two provinces, it fell to ferries to shoulder the load.

By the time the 20th century came along, the winter ice boat service was proving to be highly unreliable. To resolve this, the SS Prince Edward Island, a custom-built railcar ferry was built in England and would come to Prince Edward Island to operate year-round.

The SS Prince Edward Island arrived in 1915 but the new port at Carleton Point had not been constructed yet. As a result, the ferry operated its service out of Charlottetown and Georgetown until the port at Carleton Point had been finished. Finally, in early 1917, the port was finished and the SS. Prince Edward Island began service from its new location. The ferry proved to be incredibly popular and in its first year alone, it made 506 crossings to New Brunswick.

In 1931, the SS Charlottetown was built and came into service to help the SS Prince Edward Island handle the growing traffic. At the time of its construction, the SS Charlottetown was called the largest ice breaking car ferry in the world, capable of holding 16 railway cars and 25 vehicles. Costing $2 million to build, it measured in at 308 feet long. At the same time, Borden was growing thanks to the workers who were working in the ferry and railyard.

Ten years after the Charlottetown launched, on June 18 1941, it would suddenly sink beneath the waves. In heavy fog near Port Mouton, it struck something and over the course of two days, it would sink between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Thankfully, there were no passengers on board and the 30 crew were able to get to safety with Captain John Read leaving the ship last. He had been the captain of the ship since it was launched in 1931.

The Windsor Star reported quote:

“When word of the accident was received, arrangements were made with the Maritime Foundation Company at Halifax to dispatch two wrecking tugs to the scene but due to fog the tugs were unable to make contact. A number of small motor vessels reached Charlottetown and endeavored to beach her but were unable to do so.”

Over the next two decades, the amount of automobile traffic would greatly increase on Prince Edward Island, especially with the completion of the Trans-Canada Highway in the 1960s. The MV Confederation would be built in 1962, and then the MV Lucy Maude Montgomery and the MV John Hamilton Gray.

Proposals began to pop up in the 1950s and 1960s, but the support for such a project varied depending on the economy of the day. Typically, the talk of a fixed link to the mainland happened when there was an election.

In 1957, another federal election year, the idea gained traction due to the fact that the government had opened the Canso Causeway and the St. Lawrence Seaway, two other megaprojects. A rockfill causeway was proposed by Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, and then a bridge was proposed at a cost of $148 million, or about $1.5 billion. To put it in perspective, that cost was 1/3 of what the St. Lawrence Seaway cost.

The Saskatoon Star Phoenix wrote quote:

“Earlier, he hinted strongly that his government may support construction of the proposed multi-million dollar causeway…At a luncheon at the island capital of Charlottetown, the Liberal leader told a gathering of some 100 party organizers his administration will support the cause way if it found the project would eventually put back into the economy more than it took out in costs.”

In 1962, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker announced that $105 million would be provided for a causeway to handle cars and trains but gave no specific start date.

The Windsor Star would write quote:

“There are 104,000 persons living on the island. Estimated cost of the causeway to join Potatoland with the mainland would be $105 million. This is better than $1,000 for every man, woman and child. Of course, the whole idea is utterly fantastic. So is a $105 million causeway to serve 104,000 people but then, the election breezes are blowing.”

Lester B. Pearson would be critical of the planned causeway, and promised that his government if elected would speedily conclude investigations and only build the causeway if it was feasible but acknowledged it would take upwards of eight years to build it.

Diefenbaker won that election but lost the next one, and the Liberal government said it would go ahead with the crossing. In 1965, Pearson would state he hoped to have the causeway built by 1970.

In 1968, Premier Alex Campbell and 11 of his 12 cabinet members went to Ottawa to ask that the project be resumed. He argued the causeway would pay for itself by eliminating $6 million in annual deficit due to the ferry service.

By the end of the decade, the causeway was called the oldest established unfulfilled promise in Canada. By that point, the cost estimates had ballooned to $300 million.

Approach roads and railway lines were actually built but the project was abandoned in 1969 in an announcement by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and the ferry service would continue.

NDP leader Tommy Douglas would criticize this, stating quote:

“On the basis of the information that we have now, I think the people of Prince Edward Island are being short-changed.”

Former PEI premier Walter Shaw would state quote:

“This is a black day for this province. It is one of the greatest betrayals of Prince Edward Island since we entered Confederation.”

It was not until the 1980s that the federal government approached a fixed link option for Prince Edward Island. In 1986, a Toronto construction firm put forward the proposal to build a bridge at the cost of $500 million. Interest was growing in having a bridge and Environment Minister Thomas McMillan, who also represented Prince Edward Island, would state quote:

“This is not just an old political football we are throwing around. There is an enormous amount of interest in cabinet.”

Once again, it was an election year, this time in 1987, that the idea gained traction. The Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney wanted to conduct several megaprojects, and three proposals for a tunnel, bridge or tunnel-causeway-bridge were called for.

Mulroney had been impressed with Japan’s Prime Minister, Yasuhro Nakasone, who said during a visit in January 1986 that his country’s private sector had assumed control over some services run by the government, including a 15-kilometre bridge across Tokyo Bay.

The debate over the fixed link was heated and a referendum was called for Jan. 18, 1988 to see what the residents of Prince Edward Island wanted.

Premier Joseph Ghiz would state quote:

“Ultimately we as politicians will have to make up our minds on this and we will do that but first the provincial government wants to see Islanders expression of interest by holding public meetings and the vote.”

At a debate over the matter at the Holland College Auditorium in Summerside, 500 people crammed inside to voice their opinion.

Derek Key would state quote:

“The fixed crossing will be a challenge rather than any threat to Islanders. I say we should go for it.”

Donald Deacon, a former Liberal MLA, would caution over having a mega project as they did not always succeed.

Opponents to the bridge cited the worry over ecological damage from the construction, and the impact the bridge would have on the lifestyle of the island. There was also concern over the federal government pushing for a fixed link but not shouldering the cost. Those in favour of the fixed link cited that it would improve the ability of the island to export, and the tourism industry, thereby improving the economy.

In the referendum, 59.4 per cent of the respondents voted in favour of the link.

With the vote so close, it was still politically dangerous to back the project but Premier Ghiz decided to go ahead with it. He would state quote:

“The philosophical question about whether or not to join our quaint island to the rest of Canada has been resolved. But I am only prepared to put my weight behind this project if the federal government can provide assurances that the link will not harm the environment.”

Tom McMillan, the federal environment minister, would state quote:

“By any standard it is a distinct expression of opinion on behalf of Islanders for a fixed link.”

A supporter of the bridge, Kristo Zorkin, would state quote:

“The result is very exciting news in parallel to what we are saying in Western Canada. Many islands are facing the reality of tying themselves to the mainland for that economic link.”

The government of Prince Edward Island formally approved the project but demanded compensation and re-training for the 650 ferry workers who would lose their jobs, and compensation for fishers who would lose their fishing grounds during construction. The federal government agreed to this.

It would be a few years before the project would begin due to environmental reviews and court challenges initiated by the opponents to the bridge.

There was also the worry for Borden, Prince Edward Island, which had grown up around the ferry service link. With the bridge, many questioned if Borden would survive. Mayor George Ramsay of Borden would state quote:

“If this goes ahead, there will be little reason to stay here.”

Ottawa would sign an agreement with Strait Crossing Development Incorporated, a private consortium, with SCDI assuming the costs of building, operating and maintaining the bridge. In return, Ottawa agreed to pay an annual subsidy of $41.9 million, which would last for 35 years and then ownership of the bridge would transfer to the federal government. That is slated to happen in 10 years in 2032.

In 1992, the Northumberland Strait Crossing Project was announced and a new project would begin.

An interesting aspect of the construction of the bridge was that it required a changing to the Constitution. When Prince Edward Island joined Confederation, it was required that steamship service be provided to connect the island’s railway system to the mainland.

Critics of the bridge would state that scrapping the ferry service violated Canada’s Constitution, since motorists would be required to pay tolls.

Mark Freiman, the lawyer for the anti-bridge side, highlighted the 1873 constitution stated Ottawa would provide quote:

“efficient steam service of the conveyance of mails and passengers.”

He would say quote:

“Efficient steam can only mean a ship.”

The Constitution Amendment Proclamation of 1993 would deal with this issue, making it clear that the government could charge a toll for the crossing without violating the terms of union. This would allow the government to finance the bridge.

As the agreements were being signed, critics were still hoping to prevent the bridge project from going ahead. PEI NDP leader Larry Duchesne would state quote:

“We’re against the bridge because it failed to pass an acceptable environmental review procedure. The judge confirmed our fears that the bridge was unsafe.”

With PEI in an election year, there were some who believed it would become an election issue but the pro-bridge side didn’t see that being an issue. Group Spokesman Jim Larkin would state quote:

“I don’t think the bridge is going to be an election issue at all. There is a real need for this project to go ahead.”

Construction on the Confederation Bridge began in October 1993 and would continue for the next four years. All of the bridge components were constructed on land in staging yards. The components were made of high-grade concrete and reinforced steel with an estimated lifespan of over 100 years.

All of the large components were built at the Amherst Head Staging Facility. In all, 175 major structural pieces had to be built and the assembled to create the bridge. Each piece weighed in at 7,500 tonnes.

The bridge would be built in an S-design with three curves for safety to prevent people from speeding across the bridge.

The structures had to be built to withstand an iceberg hitting them and bouncing off. Once the components were finished, the HLV Svanen, a custom-built ship that constructed the Great Belt Bridge in Denmark, transported them to their location in the water. The Svanen had a heavy-lift catamaran, which during construction was the tallest man-made structure in the Maritimes.

Over the course of construction, 5,000 people were involved including labourers, engineers, surveyors and managers. As part of the federal promise, 90 per cent of the workers were from Atlantic Canada. When it came time to name the bridge, several options were put forward including calling it the Abegweit Bridge, which was the Mi’kmaq name for Prince Edward Island.

While the majority of Prince Edward Island residents liked the name, the federal government overruled this and on Sept. 27, 1996, it was announced that the name would be Confederation Bridge.

Diane Marleau, the Public Works Minister, would state quote:

“The bridge joining Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick is a symbol of who we are as a country. I believe all Canadians can be proud of the name chosen, Confederation Bridge, a union of people celebrating Canada’s past, Canada’s present and a confident future rich in opportunity and prosperity.”

Many residents were unhappy with this name as they felt Confederation was overused as a name in the province.

Judy Gallant, an island resident, would state quote:

“I guess it will grow on you. The Fathers of Confederation met here and everything but it just gets stuffed down your throat. I think we have a little more imagination.”

Barb Cumberland would state quote:

“People will just call it the bridge. They’ll say, let’s go across on the bridge.”

In 1998, Mary McAleese, the President of Ireland, would call it the Span of Green Gables, during a visit to the island.

The structure was complete on Nov. 19, 1996 and work began through the winter to pave the bridge deck, the placing bridge concrete barrier guardrails and navigational lighting.

As the last girder was put into place, 50 workers and guests gathered to drink champagne and watch fireworks to mark the occasion.

PEI resident Charles Webber would state quote:

“PEI will survive it, no problem whatsoever but it will change, that’s inevitable. Everything changes.”

On May 31, 1997, the bridge was opened to traffic in a ceremony broadcast across Canada on CBC. The Bluenose II sailed by, as did Canadian Coast Guard ships. The snowbirds also did a flyover and the ferries, which had been such an important part in the growth of Borden-Carleton, made their last run. In the hours after the bridge opened to traffic, an estimated 25,000 people walked across the bridge.

Gerry Gallant, president of the Tourism Association of PEI would state quote:

“We haven’t changed much in what we have to offer. We still have the natural beauty we’ve always had. It is just that now people will be able to get here faster and spend more time resting and relaxing.”

PEI Elmer Phillips would state quote:

“I met people from Montreal this morning and I knew they were French and I was awful happy to talk to them. We’re all together now. One happy family.”

For ferry workers, it was bitter sweet as they were now out of jobs because of the bridge. Richard Handy, who had worked for the ferries since he was 19, was one such individual. He would state quote:

“Look at the people out there. I’m out of a job and they’re having a big celebration over it. This is sort of an insult to the Marine Atlantic employees.”

The bridge opening also resulted in one of the worst traffic jams in Prince Edward Island’s history. At one point, people were waiting for hours to drive across the new bridge, with the lineup of traffic stretching 10 kilometres at one point.

One man would say quote:

“I think I’ll come back in October when everybody’s gone. This lineup is incredible. Maybe they ought to put the ferries back on to move things along.”

The day would be marred by tragedy sadly. A New Brunswick man was killed when his small vessel flipped over in the water near the bridge due to high winds.

The final price tag on the bridge was $840 million, which would be about $1.4 billion today.

The bridge would have an immediate impact on Prince Edward Island. In its first year, tourism spending on the island increased 63 per cent and visits to the island passed one million for the first time ever. In 1998, 1.6 million vehicles crossed the bridge, an increase from the one million vehicles that crossed on ferries in 1996.

Currently, there is an effort to reduce the toll cost on the bridge which is $46 for a single two-axle vehicle. In 2016, a committee found that giving island residents a 15 per cent non-refundable tax credit on the toll would cost the government $2.5 million a year in lost revenue. The report did find that tolls could be reduced by 46 per cent and still provide enough funds to operate and maintain the bridge until at least 2097.

With the contract with SCDI still in place until 2032, it is unlikely there will be any changes before that point.

Information from Macleans, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Canadian Encyclopedia, CBC, Edmonton Journal, Windsor Star, Wikipedia, Vancouver Sun, Montreal Star, Montreal Gazette, Fort McMurray Today, North Bay Nugget, Owen Sun Times

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