20 years of fixed link
Confederation Bridge turns 20, continues impact on P.E.I.
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.”
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.
Confederation Bridge, which joins Prince Edward Island to New Brunswick, turns 20 years old today.