The factors leading to the decision to build a fixed link connecting Prince Edward Island to New Brunswick, and thus the rest of Canada, date back to 1873 and PEI’s decision to join Confederation. Knowing the importance of maintaining links to the mainland, the Island’s political leaders insisted that a clause requiring the federal government to establish and maintain a service to convey mail and passengers to the Island year round be enshrined in the terms of Confederation.
In the early days that promise proved difficult to keep. Vessels couldn’t handle the thick ice that jams the Northumberland Strait in the winter and ferry service was often disrupted for days. In 1885, PEI Senator George Howlan first floated the idea of building a fixed link to the mainland. Howlan called for a tunnel-like structure that would lie on the ocean floor. A year later a delegation travelled from PEI to London to lobby for a railway tunnel, but those efforts fell on deaf ears.
Over the years, ferry service improved with the construction of ships that could better handle the tough winter conditions in the Strait, but talk of a fixed link crossing was always in the background. The idea gained momentum again in 1962, when Prime Minister John Diefenbaker announced Ottawa would commit $105 million to build a causeway that would handle cars and trains. Although Diefenbaker lost the election, the subsequent Liberal government said it would go ahead with the project. Work began on the crossing, but in 1969, with cost estimates skyrocketing, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau cancelled the project.
By the late 1980s, with the federal government facing ever-increasing costs of subsidizing ferry service to the Island, Ottawa called for “expressions of interest” from private companies interested in building, operating and maintaining a fixed link structure connecting PEI to the mainland. Twelve groups submitted proposals and the federal government said it would back the project as long as PEI supported it.
In spite of decades of complaints about the ferry service, the idea of building a fixed link stirred controversy on the Island. Premier Joe Ghiz chose not to take a public position and called for a plebiscite to allow Islanders to decide the issue. The debate quickly galvanized the province. “Friends of the Island” — a coalition including a union (worried about the loss of ferry jobs), fishers and environmentalists — argued the bridge would bring too many people to the small island, endangering their distinct “island way of life.” On the other side, “Islanders for a Better Tomorrow” — primarily a business-oriented group — argued a bridge would increase tourism and provide a reliable and more cost efficient way to deliver products and produce to the mainland. On 18 January 1988, 59.5 per cent of Islanders voted in favour of building a bridge to the mainland.
The government of Prince Edward Island formally approved the project with conditions. It demanded of the federal government — and won — compensation and re-training for the more than 650 ferry workers who would lose their jobs, compensation for fishers whose fishing grounds would be disrupted by construction, and a promise construction would bring substantial economic benefits to the Island.
Finally in 1993, after a series of environmental reviews and court challenges initiated by “Friends of the Island,” Ottawa signed a deal with Strait Crossing Development Inc., a private consortium. SCDI would assume the costs of building, operating and maintaining the bridge. In return, Ottawa would give SCDI an annual subsidy of $41.9 million a year (a figure equal to the amount it cost the federal government to maintain the ferry service), and SCDI would be allowed to collect tolls equal to the cost of ferry service (adjusted annually for inflation). In 35 years, ownership of the bridge would be handed over to the federal government.
With the contract in place engineers now had to design a 13 km long structure that would have to withstand the harsh winters, ice flows and high winds of the Northumberland Strait. In addition, the contract with Ottawa stipulated the bridge would have to last 100 years — about two times longer than the average lifespan for bridges.
To fulfill its promise that more than 90 per cent of the construction work would go to Atlantic Canadians, SCDI purchased a 165-acre farm in Borden, Prince Edward Island, and built a massive fabrication yard to construct the giant concrete girders and piers that would be the centre pieces of the bridge. To ensure labour peace, it signed an agreement with the major trade unions outlining wages and working conditions in exchange for a no strike or lockout provision for the duration of the project.
Building the bridge was similar to putting together a giant concrete puzzle. Workers fabricated and connected 175 major structural pieces — from the pier bases and shafts that sit on the ocean floor to support the bridge, to the main girders that are the backbone of the structure. Special ice-shields were designed and installed to protect the support piers from the pack ice that flows through the Strait every winter. Each of the pieces, some weighing more than 7,500 tonnes, were transported from the fabrication yard by a 102 m high floating crane. Newly developed GPS systems allowed engineers to place the components on the ocean floor with an accuracy of 2 cm.
At its peak, the project employed almost 2,500 workers. The final cost of the project was estimated to be $840 million. The government of PEI reported 70 per cent of that was spent on the Island.
As the project neared completion, the federal government created an advisory committee to come up with a name for the bridge. The public was asked to submit suggestions and some 2,200 people responded. On 27 September 1996, Ottawa announced the winning name — “Confederation Bridge.”
The Confederation Bridge was officially opened 31 May 1997. An estimated 75,000 people turned out for the celebration and the chance to walk or run across the engineering marvel.
The bridge created an immediate impact to the Island’s economy. In its first year of operation tourism spending increased 63 per cent and visits to the Island topped the one million mark for the first time in the Island’s history. An estimated 1.6 million vehicles crossed the bridge in 1998 (compared to the almost 1 million vehicles transported by ferries in 1996). Some of the increase was attributed to the novelty factor of the bridge itself. In subsequent years bridge traffic has levelled off to approximately 1.5 million vehicles a year.
In recent years there has been growing discontent from residents of Prince Edward Island about the increasing cost of using the bridge. In 2016, the toll for a single two-axle vehicle was $46 (annual toll increases are limited to no more than 75 per cent of the rise of the Consumer Price Index). PEI Senator Percy Downe has championed the campaign to reduce or eliminate the tolls for Island residents. Downe requested Ottawa’s Parliamentary Budget Officer report on the feasibility and cost of either reducing the tolls or providing a tax credit for residents of the Island who use the bridge. That report, issued in August 2016, concluded that offering Island residents a 15 per cent non-refundable tax credit would cost the federal government $2.5 million a year in lost revenue. The report also found that the tolls could be reduced by an estimated 46 per cent and still provide enough funds to operate and maintain the bridge until the estimated end of its lifespan in 2097.
However, given the fact Ottawa has a contract with Strait Crossing Development Inc. that is in place until 2032 (when ownership of the bridge is transferred to the federal government) it’s unlikely Island residents will see any change to the toll and financing structure any time in the near future.