The Confederation Bridge, the world’s longest bridge over ice-covered waters, stretches 12.9 km across the Northumberland Strait, linking Borden-Carleton in Prince Edward Island to Cape Jourimain in New Brunswick. Its creation was not without controversy on the Island, even though it offered a swifter, more consistent connection to the mainland. This monumental bridge, costing $840 million, was inaugurated on 31 May 1997.
The desire for a stable link between Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, thereby connecting PEI to the larger Canadian mainland, has roots in 1873. As PEI agreed to become part of the Confederation, the Island’s leaders underscored the necessity of a continuous mail and passenger service with the mainland, embedding this condition in the Confederation terms.
Despite this commitment, the initial years presented challenges. Traditional vessels found the dense winter ice of the Northumberland Strait insurmountable, leading to frequent interruptions in ferry service. In 1885, Senator George Howlan of PEI proposed a stationary connection to the mainland, imagining a tunnel resting on the seabed. The subsequent year witnessed a delegation from PEI lobbying in London for a railway tunnel, but their appeals were ignored.
Even as ferries improved to counter the Strait’s harsh winter, discussions about a permanent link persisted. In 1962, this concept regained traction when Prime Minister John Diefenbaker pledged $105 million for a vehicular and train causeway. Despite a change in political leadership, the project commenced but was abandoned in 1969 by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau due to escalating expenses.
The closing decades of the 20th century saw the federal government grappling with the rising costs of supporting the Island’s ferry services. Consequently, Ottawa invited private sectors to express interest in creating and overseeing a fixed link. After receiving twelve proposals and ensuring PEI’s endorsement, the initiative progressed.
PEI’s government greenlit the venture but set terms. They secured compensation and skill enhancement for over 650 ferry workers who would be rendered jobless, assurance for fishermen affected by the construction, and anticipated substantial economic gains for the Island due to the project.
The green light was finally given in 1993, after clearing environmental evaluations and legal impediments. An agreement was formed with Strait Crossing Development Inc. (SCDI), a private group. SCDI was tasked with the bridge’s construction, operation, and upkeep. In exchange, they received an annual $41.9 million subsidy from Ottawa, mirroring the earlier ferry service costs, and were authorized to levy tolls commensurate with ferry prices (subject to annual inflation). After 35 years, the bridge’s proprietorship would revert to the federal government.
The blueprint for the 13 km-long bridge had to address formidable challenges: severe winters, treacherous ice flows, and forceful winds characterizing the Northumberland Strait. Furthermore, the Ottawa agreement mandated that the bridge should endure for a century, which is roughly double the typical lifespan of bridges.
To keep its commitment of allocating over 90% of the construction work to locals from the Atlantic region, SCDI acquired a 165-acre plot in Borden, PEI. On this land, they set up an expansive yard to manufacture the colossal concrete beams and pillars that would become the bridge’s central elements. To ensure a harmonious working environment, the company secured a deal with leading trade unions that determined wages, working conditions, and guaranteed no strikes or lockouts for the project’s duration.
Constructing the bridge was akin to assembling an enormous concrete jigsaw. The team crafted and joined 175 crucial structural elements, ranging from the foundational pier bases anchored on the ocean bed to the primary girders that form the bridge’s spine. Specific shields were conceived to shield the pillars from the dense ice that occupies the Strait each winter. Some of these colossal components, weighing upwards of 7,500 tonnes, were conveyed from the production site using a towering 102 m crane. Cutting-edge GPS technology enabled precise placement of these parts on the seabed, ensuring a margin of error of just 2 cm.
The project, at its zenith, engaged nearly 2,500 personnel. Its final expenditure touched the $840 million mark, with 70% of this amount being invested in PEI itself.
As the bridge neared finalization, an advisory panel was constituted by the federal government to christen it. The public’s participation was sought, and over 2,200 individuals contributed their suggestions. On 27 September 1996, the bridge was officially named the “Confederation Bridge.”
The grand opening of the Confederation Bridge on 31 May 1997 drew an impressive crowd of around 75,000 enthusiasts, many of whom seized the unique opportunity to traverse this architectural wonder on foot.
The bridge’s inception dramatically uplifted PEI’s economy. Tourism expenditure surged by 63% in the inaugural year, with visitor numbers surpassing a million for the first time in PEI’s annals. In 1998, the bridge witnessed 1.6 million vehicles, a sharp rise from the near 1 million using ferries in 1996. This surge, attributed partly to the bridge’s novelty, eventually stabilized, with annual traffic averaging about 1.5 million vehicles.
This post has already been read 127 times!