Written by Matthew Copes
With the development of railways in the latter part of the 19th century, the movement of freight in Eastern Canada became far more efficient than it had ever been.
On the downside, trains couldn’t travel the relatively short distance between Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick across the Abegweit Passage – the narrowest portion of the Northumberland Strait.
When Prince Edward Island became part of Canada in 1873, the federal government committed to establishing a year-round link to ensure that citizens, mail, and freight could move freely.
The idea for a permanent link was largely the brainchild of Irish-born politician and shipping magnate George William Howlan, who proposed building a railway tunnel beneath the passage.
But though Howlan was confident that the link would spur development, drive commerce, and increase the region’s collective wealth, the proposal gained little momentum and ultimately died after his death in 1901.
The fact was that construction costs were prohibitively high, the engineering challenges were too great, and the strait was home to one of the world’s most forceful and chaotic tidal cycles.
During peak times tidal flow often exceeded 20 knots, which was strong enough to push locomotive-size boulders along the passage bed at a healthy clip.
In addition, the Northumberland Strait and Abegweit Passage were covered with thick ice for much of the year, all of which meant that any permanent structure would be subject to such epic forces that its lifespan would be hopelessly short.
After confederation in 1867, Canada’s federal government operated a number of ferries and steamships that provided regular service between Cape Tra-verse on Prince Edward Island, and Cape Tormentine in New Brunswick.
But though service was relatively reliable during the spring, summer, and early fall, as ice accumulated in the winter many smaller vessels were relegated to port for months on end.
The government was technically living up to its obligations, but a safer, more efficient, and more economically feasible solution was needed.
Amidst increasing cries for more reliable year-round transportation, the federal government decided to implement a revolutionary railcar ferry service,
At great expense, ports on both sides were modernized to handle increased traffic from larger vessels and to connect existing rail lines to docking berths.
Though expensive to operate, this system worked well until the 1950s, when the idea of a permanent link resurfaced yet again – this time during the federal election campaign.
By the mid-‘50s the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway was well underway, and politicians and business leaders touted large infrastructure projects as panaceas for a variety of social and economic ills.
The first proposal to span the strait called for massive rockfill causeways at either end, with a tunnel in the middle over which even the largest oceangoing vessels could pass.
But like those that had come before, this proposal languished until the mid-’60s when the federal government finally put its money where its mouth was by calling for tenders and earmarking 150 million USD for the project.
In the early going, feeder roads were constructed and rail lines were extended into multiple ports, but after a 1969 feasibility study concluded that upgrading the existing ferries was a more realistic option, the project was put on hold indefinitely.
Renewed interest in the fixed link didn’t emerge again until the election of Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney in 1984.
Intent on funding the project and making it the jewel in his political crown, Mulroney tasked Public Works Canada with gathering proposals from engineering and construction companies.
After a multi-year process, three interested firms submitted proposals that included tunnels, bridges and causeways.
Meanwhile, as the cost to operate the ferry service continued to increase, the prospect of finally having a fixed link was becoming more and more likely.
The government proposed providing a fixed annual subsidy to fund construction, but Mulroney’s initiative sparked fiery debate amongst residents of Prince Edward Island, most of whom were divided into two groups.
The first were anti-linkers known as Friends of the Island.
They argued that construction would permanently damage the environment, and that the bridge would adversely affect the very lifestyle that made the island such a unique and pleasant place to live and work.
The group also pointed to similar projects elsewhere, many of which ran way over budget and ended up benefiting only tourists, big businesses and political insiders, all at the expense of locals.
As far as they were concerned, the ferry service was meeting their needs adequately, and rising costs weren’t their concern.
On the other side of the aisle were the pro-linkers, more commonly known as Islanders for a Better Tomorrow.
They claimed that building a bridge was inevitable, that nearly everyone would benefit in one way or another, and that the environmental impact would be minimal.
After all, the bridge wouldn’t leak oil and diesel fuel into the strait like the ferries and steamships had been doing for more than a century, and in addition, it would open up a number of new business and job opportunities for locals.
In early 1988, Prince Edward Island’s Premier Joe Ghiz initiated a plebiscite, in which all members of the electorate would have an opportunity to make his or her voice heard.
When the ballots were counted nearly 60 of those who’d participated had voted in favor of the link, but the debate was far from over.
The federal government still faced a number of hurdles and legal challenges, most of which hinged one constitutional legality and environmental impact.
When it was determined that the bridge would be no more environmentally harmful than the ferries and steamships had been, Strait Crossing Development, Inc. was awarded the construction contract.
Originally called the Northumberland Strait Crossing Project, the first public announcement was made on December 2, 1992, and the following year Canada’s Constitution was amended to reflect the change from mandated ferry service to a fixed bridge.
Also included in the amendment was the authorization to charge tolls to pay off construction costs and fund year-round maintenance, and with that, Confederation Bridge was born.
Construction of Confederation Bridge began as a joint public-private venture in the fall of 1993.
Despite its contentious history, Confederation Bridge is a relatively simple two-lane link between Borden-Carleton on Prince Edward Island and Cape Jourimain on the New Brunswick side.
Technically speaking, the structure is a curved, multi-span, post-tensioned, balanced cantilever, concrete box girder bridge.
During the construction of balanced cantilever bridges, self-supporting decks are erected in balanced sequences on either side of foundational piers to minimize unnecessary stresses on other structural components.
Concrete box girders were incorporated to increase strength and minimize weight.
Measuring just over 8 miles (12.9 km) long from end to end, Confederation is Canada’s longest bridge, and the longest in the world that spans a stretch of water that’s covered in ice for much of the year.
All told, Confederation Bridge is made up of nearly four dozen individual segments, the longest of which is the 820-foot (250 m) navigation span that towers 200 feet (60 m) over the water below.
The 36 feet (11 m) wide bridge deck is supported by 62 individual piers, each of which extends approximately 115 feet (35 m) below the surface, and another 32 feet (10 m) into the bedrock below.
Piers are protected by reinforced concrete shields designed not only to withstand impact from massive multi-ton ice blocks, but to deflect them safely away from the structure.
During construction, precast and prestressed components weighing up to 7,500 tons were built at dedicated yards on the shore, the largest of which was at Amherst Head.
Once completed and ready to be incorporated into the structure, prefab components were moved into place by the heavy-duty Dutch catamaran HLV Svanen, or via a custom launching gantry built into the bridge itself.
All told, construction lasted between October of 1993 to May of 1997, was carried out by more than 5,000 workers, and cost nearly 2.5 billion USD when inflation is taken into account.
But though the bridge was largely complete by mid-November of 1996, construction crews worked through the winter paving the deck and installing guardrails, wind barriers, lighting and toll plazas.
In addition, the federal and provincial governments did their part by developing the abandoned rail yard Borden-Carleton into a tourism center dubbed Gateway Village.
It’s estimated that the bridge will remain in service for at least a century, at which time maintenance costs are projected to become prohibitively expensive.
To ensure that the controversial new bridge received a name befitting its cost and prominent position in the region, a committee was established in early May of 1996 to comb through the thousands of submissions that flooded in from all across the country.
Despite scores of unique and catchy suggestions however, the committee settled on the relatively unimaginative Confederation Bridge.
Though a popular historical reference to Canada’s unification, detractors pointed to the fact that “confederation” was already commonly used in the names of everything from museums and malls to restaurants and bowling alleys.
Nonetheless the name stuck, and the bridge was officially opened at the end of May in 1997.
After a nationally televised ceremony including a Canadian Coast Guard-led maritime parade and an impressive flyover by the Snowbirds – the Canadian equivalent of the Blue Angels – more than 75,000 residents walked and jogged across the 8-mile span before the bridge was officially closed to pedestrians and opened to vehicular traffic at about 5:00 p.m.
That evening, the stalwart ferries made their final voyages, and over the summer the rail heads and much of the port infrastructure on both sides of the strait were permanently dismantled.
Since opening, Confederation Bridge has been privately owned, managed and maintained by Strait Crossing Bridge Limited (SBCL), but in 2032 these functions and ownership will transfer to the Canadian government.
Each year since 1997, the government has paid SBCL approximately 50 million USD for its services, which is identical to the subsidy it had previously paid to the operator of the private ferry service.
The toll rates since 2022 have been 50.25 Canadian dollars for two-axle automobiles and $8.50 for each additional axle, though tolls are only charged for those traveling westbound from Prince Edward Island to New Brunswick.
Toll collections are put toward paying off construction costs and for general maintenance, which in recent years has far exceeded initial estimates.
In the first few years after the bridge opened, Prince Edward Island’s economy purportedly grew by between 5 and 7%, due largely to the expected spike in visitors that jumped from about 750,000 in 1996 to nearly 1.25 million in 1997.
Since then however, numbers have dropped and leveled off to pre-bridge levels, all of which has some locals asking – was it worth it?