A marvel of Canadian engineering, the 12.9 km (8-mile) Confederation Bridge, linking Prince Edward Island to New Brunswick across the Northumberland Strait, is the longest bridge in the world crossing ice-covered water. Developed by Strait Crossing Development, Inc. (SCDI) through a private-public partnership, the $1 Billion structure opened in 1997 and is managed by Strait Crossing Bridge Limited (SCBL).
First, the background: without the promise of a railroad, Canada as a political entity would not have come into being in 1867. When the ceremonial last spike was driven in 1885 in British Columbia, that promise was fulfilled. Or was it?
There remained Prince Edward Island, separated from the mainland by the Northumberland Strait and often referred to as the “Cradle of Confederation,” since it was at the 1864 Charlottetown Conference that talks about joining the then British colonies to form one country began. The solution to link the island to the rest of the country was a ferry service, operated by CN Marine (later Marine Atlantic) which brought trains, and later cars, from the terminal at Cape Tormentine, NB to Borden-Carleton, PEI.
And so it remained for 130 years. It was far from a perfect solution — there were wait times of four hours or more in the peak season as tourists competed with transport trucks hauling PEI potatoes to market or bringing in essential goods to supply 150,000 Islanders. But it was certainly a superior service when compared with the ice boats which were used into the 1880s. Equipped with runners for snow and ice, and carrying passengers and mail, they were hauled by crewmen across the ice floes in winter.
While today the notion of a fixed link joining Canada’s smallest province to the mainland seems like a ‘no-brainer’, building a bridge wasn’t met with universal acceptance in the 1980s. It was a debate that raged for years, with proponents citing improvement to the provincial economy and opponents concerned about environmental, safety and financial issues. It was settled at the polls in 1988 when Premier Joe Ghiz ordered a plebiscite which resulted in a 59.4 percent vote in favour.
A public-private partnership
But before construction could begin there were five years of negotiations. The contract that was signed on October 7, 1993 between the Government of Canada and Strait Crossing Development Inc. (SCDI), on the same day Michel Le Chasseur, General Manager of Strait Crossing Bridge Limited arrived on site, was significant for two reasons, he explains.
First, it fulfilled the constitutional obligation of the Government of Canada to link PEI to the rest of the country – an obligation dating back to 1873, when PEI joined Canada, six years after Confederation. It also represented the first P3 project of significance in Canada, a unique private-public partnership between the Government of Canada and SCDI, the company tasked with designing, building, financing and operating it, and its shareholders, OMERS (Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement Services), Vinci Concessions Canada and Strait Crossing Inc.
“In doing so the government shifted the risk of construction,” Le Chasseur says. “The budget was set for $730 million in 1993, but it actually cost $1 billion, where the cost overrun would then be recovered as part of a 35 year concession to operate and maintain the bridge in exchange for tolls. The toll, which is collected at Borden-Carleton, PEI, is set at $47 for cars and on a sliding scale for trucks, depending on the number of axles.
Building the high road
The multi-award winning 12.9 km Confederation Bridge, which opened on May 31, 1997, was designed by a consortium, headed by a joint venture of J. Mueller International and Stantec (then SLG Consulting) and used precast concrete parts, fabricated on land and assembled on-site. The finished product represents an incredible engineering feat.
It features a multi-span concrete box girder, with the 11 km long main bridge supported by 44 piers; the 1.3 km west approach (from New Brunswick’s Cape Jourimain Island) is over 14 piers while the 0.6 km east approach (from Borden-Carleton, PEI) rests on seven piers. What may be a surprise to people outside the industry is that the bridge features a hollow core and, adds Le Chasseur, “12,000 km of post-tensioning cable and that is what really holds the bridge together.”
Managing the Confederation Bridge
Le Chasseur knows this bridge intimately as he was onsite the day the gates opened for staff, which, together with subcontractors, amounted to a 6,000 person work force during the construction phase which spanned 1993 to 1997.
“People ask me if I sit with two feet on my desk and count cars all day?” he says, but that’s far from the reality of managing such a complex bridge system. “We operate it as if we’re the owners. We’re not – the government is the owner – but we do exactly what home or business owners do. For example, we buy property and liability insurance and if something needs to be repaired, we repair it, just like an owner would do.”
Paramount in his mind is maintaining the structural integrity of the bridge as well as the safety of the people who travel on it. “You never know what’s going to happen in a day, because you’re running something that’s alive. Every day I ask myself, ‘what is going to happen?’ What could happen? There’s a lot of planning and a lot of not trying to be the fire department (i.e. responding to emergencies) and instead doing prevention with engineering issues, accidents, you name it. At the end of the day we’re risk managers. That’s what we do,” he explains.
“The structure itself is monitored by computers. There are sensors everywhere – not images; it’s data, information, so if something were to go wrong there would be an alarm from the computer. We watch for erosion on the bottom of the strait and what’s going on with the bridge. There are tilt-meters that measure the movement of the bridge because wind and ice floes put pressure on it, so the bridge moves, but it has to move under a certain parameter and when the weather event is over, it has to come back to where it was before.”
Then, every year in May on the anniversary of the bridge’s opening in 1997, there’s a physical inspection where engineers go inside the bridge and inspect it for proper performance and compare with construction details and images from the previous year. “We walk all the way from PEI to New Brunswick and back and that takes a day,” he says. Traffic on the bridge is monitored 24/7 through a series of 24 cameras which are set to zoom and record everything, including accidents and cars which appear to have broken down and may require a tow truck.
Bridge controls monitor wind speed 24 hours a day through a real-time weather monitoring system, with travel restrictions for certain vehicles (those exceeding 2.2 metres [7’2”] in height, motorcycles, and vehicles with objects in tow when steady winds exceed 70 km/h with gusts exceeding 85 km/h). It’s rare the bridge is ever closed to all vehicles, unless the roads leading to the bridge have been closed by the RCMP due to blizzard conditions.
Communications and community
People can stay informed of changing conditions through the website which provides real-time information; by installing the free Confederation Bridge App on a smartphone; or by signing up for email travel advisories about any potential or current travel restrictions.
Except for special events such as Bridgefest, which celebrated Canada’s 150th Anniversary in 2017, and the Terry Fox Run (to raise funds for cancer research) which is held on the bridge every five years, it’s closed to pedestrians and bicycles. SCBL does, however, offer a shuttle service at $4.50/person plus $4 for luggage. It has now extended that to a self-shuttle service which allows university students and/or children living in shared custody situations, for example, to be picked up or dropped off for just $15 to drive across the bridge provided they return within 40 minutes, instead of the full $47 charge.
Another service SCBL offers are gift cards which have no time limitation and which retain their value, even if the bridge charge is raised after purchase.
Much of the opposition to the bridge construction came from environmentalists who were concerned about the effects it would have on the fishery, especially the lobster fishery, but great care was taken to protect it. SCDI worked with marine scientists to strategically place dredged materials in non-productive fishery areas of the strait and helped establish a Lobster Habitat Enhancement Program, while also enhancing the environment for other crustaceans. And at nearby Cape Jourimain, SCDI, in cooperation with the Canadian Wildlife Service of Environment Canada, constructed nesting platforms for endangered osprey.
In 2007, the bridge’s 10th anniversary, SCBL commissioned researchers from Stantec to evaluate the bridge’s impact on the environment by using historic data to analyze pollutant emissions associated with the ferry system and comparing it with emissions from bridge traffic. The results were impressive as they found the equivalent of 16 million litres of fuel and the release of 44,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses have been avoided annually.
Not resting on its laurels, SCBL continues efforts to be environmentally efficient and in 2011 replaced 310 high pressure sodium roadway lights with energy efficient LED lights, thereby reducing the overall energy consumption of the entire operation by 30 percent.
Summing up his 25 years on the job, Le Chasseur describes it as “absolutely satisfying. It’s a very positive experience to take part in building and operating something that extraordinary. The purpose of it was not just to build a bridge but one to which there is no alternative (other than a plane or the Wood Island car ferry which runs only in the summer) for people and goods to travel to and from the island. That’s a huge responsibility.”
So, does Michel Le Chasseur have time to sit with two feet on his desk counting cars, as he says some people believe? You decide!