20 years of fixed link

Con­fed­er­a­tion Bridge turns 20, con­tin­ues im­pact on P.E.I.

Cape Breton Post - - Cape Breton | Atlantic - BY SALTWIRE NET­WORK STAFF news@cb­post.com

On a blus­tery and grey May 31 morn­ing in 1997, thou­sands of peo­ple gath­ered at the foot of the Con­fed­er­a­tion Bridge.

It was the mo­ment for which many Is­lan­ders had lob­bied, and oth­ers op­posed, for decades — a real “fixed link” to the main­land.

To­day, it’s hard to over­state the im­pact that day and the struc­ture it cel­e­brated had on Prince Ed­ward Is­land.

The colos­sal Con­fed­er­a­tion Bridge, which spans 12.9 kilo­me­tres across the Northumberland Strait, is one of the largest bridges in the world and the long­est that is rou­tinely pum­melled by count­less tonnes of frozen sea ice.

It is the pri­mary route for most of Prince Ed­ward Is­land to ac­cess the main­land and vicev­ersa for hun­dreds of thou­sands of visi­tors to the province ev­ery year.

It is an en­gine that drives al­most ev­ery facet of the P.E.I. econ­omy and the liveli­hoods of many Is­lan­ders, di­rectly or in­di­rectly, rely on its un­in­ter­rupted op­er­a­tion.

Books have been writ­ten about it, doc­u­men­taries made.

Count­less tourists have pur­chased un­told amounts of knick­knacks sport­ing its vis­age.

Michel LeChas­seur, gen­eral man­ager of the Con­fed­er­a­tion Bridge, has watched it all un­fold since the be­gin­ning.

LeChas­seur was hired in 1993 by Strait Cross­ing Inc. — the com­pany that built and op­er­ates the bridge — as the con­struc­tion project’s direc­tor of ad­min­is­tra­tion and fi­nance.

Even as the bridge was be­ing built, he re­called, there was still a lot of de­bate about what it would even­tu­ally mean for P.E.I.

“I think it spelt change and we’re all hu­man be­ings, change is not nec­es­sar­ily viewed as an easy thing,” LeChas­seur said as the struc­ture’s 20th an­niver­sary neared. “But this one was a fun­da­men­tal change … it was a tough time. And there were mixed emo­tions.”

Mixed in­deed.

Only a few years ear­lier, in 1988, about 60 per cent of Is­lan­ders voted in favour of build­ing a fixed link to re­place the tra­di­tional ferry ser­vice be­tween Bor­den-Car­leton, P.E.I. and Cape Tor­men­tine, N.B.

There was great con­cern from some at the time that a bridge would de­stroy part of what made P.E.I. unique.

But that was 20 years ago and it has been a very long time since LeChas­seur has heard any­one talk like that.

“In the first years I would hear that — but I don’t hear that any­more.

“At the end of the day, from a busi­ness stand­point, it has helped in the devel­op­ment of P.E.I. There is no doubt about it.”

“If that change had not hap­pened I think you could see the ef­fect on our econ­omy for sure,” added Heath Mac­Don­ald, P.E.I.’s min­is­ter of eco­nomic devel­op­ment and tourism.

From the pro­vin­cial govern­ment’s per­spec­tive, the 20th an­niver­sary of the Con­fed­er­a­tion Bridge open­ing is a sig­nif­i­cant mile­stone in the his­tory of P.E.I., the min­is­ter added.

“Look­ing back, I don’t think there are too many peo­ple that would ar­gue it didn’t help progress Prince Ed­ward Is­land and trans­form it to where we are to­day,” said Mac­Don­ald.

“We’re still an is­land — peo­ple still view us as an is­land and I think they al­ways will.”

As for what the next 20 years will bring for the Con­fed­er­a­tion Bridge, LeChas­seur isn’t re­ally sure be­yond 2032, when re­spon­si­bil­ity for man­age­ment of the bridge will trans­fer to the fed­eral govern­ment.

“What is the in­ten­tion of govern­ment? Your guess is as good as mine,” said LeChas­seur.

But un­til then, op­er­a­tion of the bridge will be busi­ness as usual, he said.

“I think the bridge is per­form­ing ex­tremely well. Bet­ter than the ini­tial plans back in 1997. We do have a long-term main­te­nance pro­gram … but the struc­ture it­self, the con­crete and steel, is do­ing im­pec­ca­bly fine. We don’t fore­see any­thing ma­jor hap­pen­ing other than reg­u­lar main­te­nance,” he said.

That will, how­ever, in­clude at least two more rounds of repaving the bridge. It’s al­ready been repaved twice since it opened.

SALTWIRE NET­WORK PHOTO

Con­fed­er­a­tion Bridge, which joins Prince Ed­ward Is­land to New Brunswick, turns 20 years old to­day.

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