In 1873 Prince Edward Island reluctantly agreed to join the young Dominion of Canada. A key demand of the proud colonists was that the federal government establish “efficient Steam Service for the conveyance of Mails and Passengers” across Northumberland Strait. By 1885 frustration over poor winter ferry service led an influential Island senator, George Howlan, to demand that Ottawa solve the problem by laying a 14-km-long iron tube across the bottom of the shallow strait. What Howlan described as an underwater “subway” was never built, but ever since the possibility of a fixed crossing has been a feature of Island politics. And now the issue is once again engaging Islanders’ attention—and gaining support in Ottawa.
In two weeks Peter Kiewit Sons’ Co. Ltd., a large Toronto construction firm, will release in Charlottetown details for a proposed $500-million bridge across the strait between Borden,P.E.I., and Cape Tormentine, N.B. That proposal follows two others —also in the half-billion-dollar range —made last spring by Canadian construction consortiums, one for a tunnel under the strait and the other for a combined bridge-causeway-tunnel. In Ottawa, Environment Minister Thomas McMillan, Prince Edward Island’s representative in the federal cabinet and a long-time proponent of a fixed crossing, has met senior executives and received formal proposals from all three consortiums. “This is not just an old political football we are throwing around,” he said. “There is an enormous amount of interest in cabinet.”
The first proposal came last May from OmniSystem Group, a consortium formed by Lavalin Inc. of Montreal and the Urban Transit Development Corp. of Toronto, a transit equipment manufacturer which Lavalin recently bought from the Ontario government. Under OmniSystem’s proposal, passenger cars would drive aboard enclosed brightly lit flatcars and be hauled through a tunnel, located 100 feet beneath the 90foot-deep strait, by electric trains for 13 minutes.
Two Nova Scotia businessmen, John Chisholm, president of Nova Construction Ltd., and Joseph Shannon, an entrepreneur who owns among other things a small road-building company, did the original plan for a combined bridge-causeway-tunnel. Shannon said that he did the financial analysis for the initial proposal on his home computer. He added that since then, several large U.S. firms, including giant Bechtel Group Inc. of San Francisco, have offered engineering, technical and financial support to redesign his original plan.
Executives of Toronto’s Kiewit Sons’ claim that their proposal for a bridge would avoid many of the environmental problems created by causeways, roads built upon a wide base of rockfill which block tidal flows, marine life and ice.
According to McMillan, none of the proposals would require federal money. Each consortium proposes to borrow money on the open market, then lease the completed structure to the federal government for yearly payments of between $30 and $40 million — roughly the same amount that Ottawa currently pays to subsidize ferry service. In 25 to 35 years Ottawa would own the structure and be free of all but routine maintenance costs. The potential
for long-term saving, McMillan added, is staggering.
Since last spring Islanders have been debating the new plans for a fixed crossing. Representatives from OmniSystem and the Chisholm and Shannon group have crisscrossed the Island seeking support for their competing proposals by giving presentations and slide shows at Rotary Club lunches and fishermen’s meeting halls.
But some Islanders oppose a permanent link because they say it could threaten their easygoing lifestyle. The issue is so volatile that Premier Joe Ghiz has declined to commit himself publicly, preferring to wait until joint federal-provincial studies on the project are completed. “So far they have not proceeded, so there is nothing to comment on just yet,” Ghiz said last week.
McMillan added that studies of the social, environmental and economic impact of a crossing are needed, and he has asked Ghiz to participate in the studies. As well, McMillan acknowledges that, after the studies are made public, the politicians should measure popular opinion on the subject through public hearings or a referendum. He declared, “People wax eloquent about the quality of life on the Island; what is the quality of life for a person without a job?” Added McMillan: “We have to crack the essential nut of the problem—the cost of doing business on a sandbar in the North Atlantic.” George Howlan would probably approve.
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