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Somewhere in between

BORDEN-CARLETON, P.E.I. - It's been 10 years of smooth sailing across the Northumberland Strait since developers from Strait Crossing Development put the finishing touches on the Confederation Bridge,...

BORDEN-CARLETON, P.E.I. – It’s been 10 years of smooth sailing across the Northumberland Strait since developers from Strait Crossing Development put the finishing touches on the Confederation Bridge, a 13-km, $1-billion structure linking Prince Edward Island to mainland New Brunswick. But the 10-year period prior to the bridge’s completion was anything but smooth.

The initial planning process began in 1987, when the Government of Canada issued a proposal call challenging the private sector to devise an environmentally, technically and financially sound alternative to the ferry system which operated between the two provinces at the time. When a massive fixed link was proposed, two opposing lobby groups became entangled with one another, each claiming to have the formula to “save” P.E.I. in its own way. Pro-link supporters argued that a bridge would revive P.E.I.’s lagging economy by bringing additional business opportunities, tourism and labour to the Island, while the group against the bridge’s construction claimed that a link would pose a serious threat to the environment and destroy the province’s “island way of life.”

An article in the June 2, 1997 issue of Maclean’s magazine looked back on the tumultuous period and noted that the clash between pro- and anti-bridge Islanders became ridiculous at times. While most bridge opponents offered logical arguments, there were always those preaching the apocalyptic destruction of the island’s quaint civilization, with some offering claims that “the bridge would make it easier for everything from killer bees to prostitutes to enter the province.”

Fast forward a decade and the province is now experiencing increased hustle and bustle like never before. But how many predictions of the bridge’s negative effects came true? How has life changed for businesses and Islanders alike?

For Frank Barry, president of Prince Freight Lines in Wellington, P.E.I., the change has been overwhelmingly positive. When a plan for the bridge was first proposed, Barry says he had only one thing in mind: “Put the piers in the water and get it done.”

Prince was among the many Island-based carriers to use the Marine Atlantic ferry service to move freight to and from the New Brunswick mainland. But even though Barry says the ferry service was “tremendous” at the time, he admits that the high volume of traffic at the crossing was too great for the ferry to run at a suitable level of efficiency. Barry recalls “unbelievable waits” because of tourism in the summer, and with the high volume of potatoes leaving the Island in winter, long waiting times were suffered practically year-round.

“That impacted our business. People were expecting your truck and you try to tell them when it’s going to be there, but you had to wait for four boats to cross and, of course, you didn’t live up to your commitment. People get pretty aggravated at that,” Barry says.

Tyson Kelly, operations manager with Bulk Carriers in Cornwall, P.E.I., says anyone who still grumbles about the bridge must have nothing better to do since the bridge’s benefits have been significant for all Islanders. The luxury of returning to work quickly after a bad weather delay has been one of the key benefits for Kelly and his company.

“When a weather storm would hit the (ferry), you could be 18 to 24 hours waiting for the weather to clear and then you’ve got to load all the boats with all the traffic and get them all over,” he says. Though the bridge can be forced to shut down when bombarded with high winds, after re-opening, it’s a mere 13-minute trip to the other side – a laughable amount of time compared with previous multi-hour delays.

This increase in efficiency has subsequently boosted the province’s competitiveness, and the number of truckers on the Island has exploded as a result, says Godfrey Baldacchino, Canada research chair in island studies for the Institute of Island Studies.

“The transport industry is extremely happy, because it’s important not just to get things to market, but to get things to market as fast as possible,” Baldacchino says. “Whether it’s seafood, whether it’s agriculture; the speed at which you can get things to the market is an absolutely crucial thing to do. The bridge has certainly helped in that respect.”

But the trucking industry tends to be one of the few cases where the verdict on the bridge has been unilaterally in favour – at least the portion of the trucking industry that survived. It has been rumoured that a number of smaller P.E.I.-based carriers were ultimately pushed out of business because of the bridge, unable to cope with a rejuvenated competitiveness with the mainland market.

Most surviving carriers tend to shrug off this rumour, instead blaming company closings on natural changes to the economy rather than the bridge itself. Barry knew of a potato hauler that became obsolete once the French fry plants found an alternate way to produce the fries – a change Barry says would have happened with or without the bridge.

John MacLean, owner of MacLean Transport in Victoria Cross, P.E.I., says that despite the concern from smaller carriers that the bridge would open the door for more competition, the positive outcome for the Island has far outweighed the negative.

“There was a certain stigma (before the bridge was built). There were certain people on the Island that worked here because other trucking companies just didn’t want to come over here because of the uncertainty, the delays,” he says. MacLean noted that a trip to Moncton, N.B., which might have taken eight or nine hours in the past, now takes only three or four, “which means one truck can do the work of two or three. It’s a win-win situation.”

Kelly says changes to the shape of the P.E.I. trucking landscape since the bridge’s inception can be chalked up to survival of the fittest.

“You’ve got to get with the times. You’ve got to stay competitive if you’re going to stay in business. If you want to stay where you were when you started back in 1970, you won’t survive,” he says.

One of the few complaints from the trucking industry about the bridge has been its tolls – an issue native to most every bridge crossing. Peter Nelson, executive director of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association, recently lamented the numerous tolls plaguing the East Coast in a letter to a local publication.

“In order for Midland Transport to ship a bag of P.E.I.-produced Cavendish French fries from Borden, P.E.I. to St. John’s, Nfld., there are $450 in toll costs (from the Confederation Bridge, Cobequid Pass and Marine Atlantic). Day & Ross can ship a bag of fries from McCain’s in Western New Brunswick to Calgary with no tolls,” Nelson told Truck News. “The Confederation Bridge is one of six toll points in the Maritime/Atlantic region that work against the regional economy and interprovincial trade.”

Other local industry figures seem less concerned with tolls – as long as prices are reasonable.

“From our perspective, we would be happier if there were no tolls at all,” Barry says. “Some people say if you go from province to province, it should be free. That would be wonderful, however I don’t think it’s very realistic. Having said that, we wish to keep the toll as low as possible. It certainly is an expense, but I don’t mind paying a reasonable price to cross the bridge.”

Baldacchino has found that many Island residents would like to see a policy where tolls discriminate against mainlanders and favour Islanders. However, Baldacchino notes that as part of the Trans-Canada Highway, the purpose of the Confederation Bridge is to connect the country and it “doesn’t make sense to put a price on that.”

One group that paid a dear price when the bridge was completed was Marine Atlantic, which had about 600 jobs slashed when the bridge opened. Though the ferry service is an obvious example of a group negatively affected by the bridge’s existence, in other industries and other areas of island life, the perception of the bridge’s character is mo
re mixed.

The tourism industry saw an initial spike right after the bridge opened, with a record number of tourists visiting the Island the year after the bridge opened. However, since that time, tourist rates have dropped off to their pre-bridge numbers, a phenomenon outlined in Baldacchino’s book, The Bridge Effect.

“There was an initial novelty effect, but that usually wears off very quickly, and now that the island is closer than it was before, it’s even less exotic,” Baldacchino says. “That’s part of the dilemma of island tourism planning. In the case of islands, when you make things more accessible you might think that you might get more people, but people will only come and they will only increase only if they consider the place attractive enough to warrant coming over. And sometimes the place becomes less attractive because it’s more accessible, rather than the opposite.”

Baldachhino’s book also discusses the projected environmental decline in the Northumberland Strait. At present, many forms of sea life, including lobsters, scallops, mussels and certain types of fish, are being pushed further into the sea. Though Baldacchino says there is a sense that the bridge may have exacerbated the problem, there is little hard evidence to back the claim up.

“The one thing that we know that has been proven scientifically with analysis, both before and after the bridge was built, is the amount of particulate matter in the Strait has increased,” he says. “So that might have a bearing on the clarity and prosperity of the water and in turn might have a bearing on the spawning of fish or of lobster and other creatures.”

Many of the 40% of Islanders who voted against the construction of the bridge also voiced a fear that the bridge would have a negative socio-cultural impact on the Island.

“They were very much concerned that P.E.I. would become kind of a Coney Island location, which would just become a playground for the rich and famous coming in from other places,” Baldacchino says. “I don’t think that that has happened. If anything, my understanding is that the bridge has actually helped make stronger the Islanders’ identity. This is again, one of the interesting effects of bridges. Because they exist, because they are very clearly physically there, they remind Islanders all the time that there is, in a way, a case which they have to define themselves.”

Baldacchino says that in a way, the Confederation Bridge has now become incorporated as part of the iconic landscape of the Island. “So, the size of the Island, the distance from the mainland, the size of its population, the robust nature of its culture, have all helped to identify Island life as distinct from anything else.”

Though it seems as though the bridge’s original detractors have been forced to eat their words (at least somewhat), the jury still seems to be out on what the long term effects on island life will be. While the trucking industry will no doubt enjoy many more decades of competitive, booming business, other groups will likely continue to watch the mammoth structure with a skeptical eye.

“It’s a very conservative culture and Islanders are suspicious by nature. However, I think the Islanders have (taken on) a guarded acceptance of the bridge. I think they have basically integrated the bridge into their own scheme of things,” Baldacchino says.

“This was always conceived as a federal project, money basically from Ottawa, and it was meant to be a major boost to the infrastructure, not just for the province, but for the region to facilitate this economic development.

“For example if you look at ‘big box’ department stores, they have certainly mushroomed over the island, but that comes with a downside because there were a number of local stores that had to shut down. So it’s not a 100% blessing or 100% curse – it’s somewhere in between.”

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