The 8-mile-long (12.9-kilometer) Confederation Bridge, which crosses the Northumberland Strait between Jourimain Island, New Brunswick, and Borden-Carleton on Prince Edward Island, is the longest bridge over ice-covered water in the world. Its daring conception, the quality of its engineering, and the logistics of its realization are among the factors that make it one of the great constructional feats of the twentieth century. The project is also environmentally, politically, and culturally significant.
Prince Edward Island, on Canada’s Atlantic coast, is the nation’s smallest province, with a population of around 130,000. It lies in the Gulf of St. Lawrence at an average of 15 miles (24 kilometers) across the strait from mainland New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The strait freezes for up to three months every year, and links with the island historically were expensive, freight and passengers having to be moved by ferry. In 1912 the Canadian government decided to build a railcar ferry to run between Borden-Carleton and Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, and the Prince Edward Irland was commissioned in 1917. In the first year she made only 506 round-trips. In 1938, as a response to wider automobile ownership, a car deck was added, and the vessel continued to operate until 1969. The subsequent decades saw improvements to the service, and new ferries now make the seventy-five-minute crossing at hour-and-a-half intervals. Prince Edward Island has become a vacation resort and by the beginning of the 1990s tourism had joined commercial fishing and agriculture as a mainstay of its economy.
Between 1982 and 1986 several consortia approached Public Works Canada (PWC) with proposals for a privately financed permanent link between the island and the mainland. Three were for bridges (the first estimated at Can$640 million), one for a tunnel, and another for a combined causeway-tunnel-bridge link. In December 1986, the central government instructed PWC to commission feasibility studies of fixed-link alternatives. By June 1987 twelve expressions of interest were in hand, and the acceptance of Strait Crossing’s proposal was announced in
December 1992. Strait Crossing Development (SCD), a consortium of Janin Atlas, Ballast Nedam Canada, and Strait Crossing, was established to develop, finance, build, and operate the Confederation Bridge.
The proposal, put before the island population in a plebiscite the following January, was generally supported, but lobster fishermen and conservationists raised concerns that led to protracted delays. Their conservation measures won for the contractors the Canadian Construction Association’s 1994 Environmental Achievement Award. Working with the Canadian Wildlife Service, SCD provided nesting platforms for endangered osprey in Cape Jourimain National Wildlife Area. The consortium also initiated a Lobster Habitat Enhancement Program, using dredged material to establish new lobster grounds in three formerly nonproductive locations. Construction work commenced in mid-July 1995.
The shore-to-shore Confederation Bridge consists of three parts. The 1,980-foot (0.6-kilometer) east approach from Borden-Carleton and the 4,290-foot (1.3-kilometer) west approach from Jourimain Island, New Brunswick, join the 6.9-mile (11-kilometer) main bridge across the narrowest part of the Northumberland Strait. Its two-lane carriageway rises from 120 feet (40 meters) to 180 feet (60 meters) above the water at the central navigation span. The bridge takes about ten minutes to cross at the design speed of 50 mph (80 kph).
Engineers designed for a 100-year life, taking into account the combined severe effects of wind, waves, and ice. In part, this was achieved by using concrete up to 60 percent stronger than normal in construction. The concrete employed in the 60-foot-diameter (20-meter) ice shields, designed to break up the ice flow at the pier bases, was more than twice normal strength. Because climatic conditions limited on-site construction to six months of the year, the bridge was designed to be assembled in the summers from posttensioned concrete components precast during the winters. The parts of the approach bridges were cast at a staging facility in Bayfield, New Brunswick, transported by land or water to the site, and assembled by a twin launching truss with a traveling gantry crane. Another staging facility was set up in Borden-Carleton to precast the 175 main bridge components. Some weigh as much as 8,000 tons (8,128 tonnes); the main box girders are 570 feet (190 meters) long, yet designed to be joined with tolerances of less than 1 inch (2.54 centimeters).
In August 1995 a purpose-built floating crane, the Svanen, began placing the components of the east approach bridge, completing it in November; the west approach was built the following spring. The main bridge followed, and by August 1996 the navigation span was the last to be placed. On 19 November the structure was complete: sixty-five reinforced concrete piers, founded on bedrock, supported the 8-mile (12.9-kilometer) superstructure which curves gracefully across Northumberland Strait. During the next six months, the finishing work—the polymer-modified asphalt cement road surface, traffic signals, emergency call boxes, weather monitoring equipment, closed-circuit television cameras, and toll booths—was carried out, and the bridge was opened on 31 May 1997. The estimated direct construction cost was Can$730 million.