Bridge From Island To Canada Mainland Nears Parliament OK

PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND

PLANS to build a bridge linking Prince Edward Island with the New Brunswick mainland are going ahead despite unresolved questions about its economic viability and environmental effects, opponents of the project say.

Canada's House of Commons on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved enabling legislation to permit government-subsidized financing of the controversial eight-mile long, $840-million (Canadian; US$663 million) bridge. The bill is now before the Canadian Senate, which is expected to give the final OK by next week.

"We need not only an environmental study, but a serious study of the finances," Sen. Heath Macquarrie says. He promises to do everything he can in the Senate to delay or defeat the legislation. Even he, however, expects the bill easily to pass muster next week given its backing by both the ruling Progressive Conservative Party and opposition Liberal Party leaders. "Something on the order of the auditor general is needed to go through this," Senator Macquarrie says. "There is a distinct danger that this w ill be a heavy drain on the taxpayers of this country."

Though eventually replacing several ferry boats and 650 ferry workers, the bridge would still cost taxpayers far more than continuing to operate and upgrade the ferry service, contends Macquarrie and other opponents, including Prince Edward Island fishermen, citizen groups, and unions.

Elmer MacKay, who chairs the federal Department of Public Works, disagrees. As one of the biggest backers of the bridge, Mr. MacKay's view is that the bridge will cost taxpayers no more than the present ferry service - about $42 million a year for 35 years - or $1.5 billion when adjusted for inflation. He also cites a 1988 referendum that showed that more than 60 percent of island residents approve of the bridge.

The "fixed-link," he says, will make it immeasureably easier to reach the island year-round and increase the flow of tourists and dollars to the island. Lobster, fish, and commerce of all kinds will be easier to transport. "The rate of economic growth in PEI [Prince Edward Island] has been stultified by the lack of access," Mackay says. "Despite the rhetoric, these ferry services are slow and don't facilitate commerce."

MacKay told the Monitor in a phone interview that he had recommended the project for parliamentary approval, based on economic viability assessments conducted for his department and various other economic reviews.

Prominent among these is a cost-benefit review carried out by a consulting firm hired by Strait Crossing Inc., the Calgary, Alberta-based bridge building company that hopes to build the span. The report has been roundly criticized by two subsequent reports - an internal public works study and an external one by Peter Townley, a cost-benefit expert and professor at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

"I think [New Brunswick Premier Frank] McKenna and MacKay are backing it because they think it will create jobs," Prof. Townley says. "It's pretty clear that although it would generate benefits as far as time saved traveling, the costs are higher than the ferry service."

Although the project would involve as many as 4,000 workers, Townley says unemployment would not be affected much since it would draw already-employed workers from the surrounding area. In addition, many tourists will be drawn away from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, neutralizing any overall benefit for the depressed maritime economy, he says.

Fishermen say the project to span the Northumberland Strait would result in ice buildups that would scour the shore and harm valuable spawning and other fishing grounds. A one-month environmental study found no harmful effect. But a federal court judge has ruled that a thorough environment study is required. MacKay says he will decide soon whether to order a full review.

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