Tiny Isle Grudgingly 'Joins' Canada

Some view the new bridge that will link Prince Edward Island with the mainland as progress; others resist it.

AFTER years of controversy, a huge structure now rising out of the icy Northumberland Strait has convinced Prince Edward Islanders they will finally get a bridge to the Canadian mainland - whether they like it or not.

Traveling out to take a closer look, Kevin Ranahan sweeps his converted lobster boat around in the foam-streaked waters of the strait, throttling into the wind.

"There it is," he says, his voice flat.

Ahead against the horizon, enormous concrete pillars rise defiantly out of the rough waters - the first supports of an eight-mile span that by 1997 will link Borden, Prince Edward Island (PEI), with Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick. It will be the first continuous link between the province and the rest of Canada.

The bridge has been hailed by its builders and public officials as an C$840 million (US$613 million) engineering marvel that will stand up to the strait's severe weather and bring jobs, investment, and tourism to the island.

"We need this bridge," says Alan Holman, a Charlottetown businessman. "We have high unemployment on this island, and it's going to alleviate that. It's also going to make this island a whole lot less insular."

Others islanders are less sure that's a good thing. When the ferry boats disappear in a couple of years, so will the more deliberate and gentle island way of life, they say.

"A bridge will change this island completely," says Mr. Ranahan, a ferry-boat captain who along with 650 other ferry workers will lose his job when the bridge opens. "It's pleasant, slow-paced right now. But it's not going to stay that way."

A "fixed link" with the mainland has been discussed ever since PEI joined the Canadian federation in 1873. But even though it was approved 59 percent to 41 percent in a 1988 plebiscite, resistance lingers.

Some islanders say elected officials rammed through the project with only a superficial environmental review and a deeply flawed cost-benefit analysis.

Of course, anyone who has visited will tell you why people will drive great distances to get to Prince Edward Island - and why in the summer they plan ahead and then wait in long lines to catch a ferry to this gemstone of a province.

This is, after all, the rural landscape of the novel "Anne of Green Gables," where the land rolls like the ocean and disks of packed hay squat in fields gold with stubble.

Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery's story of an orphan growing up on a PEI farm is replete with loving details that have made the island a top tourist destination - particularly for Japanese women who are adoring fans of the spunky red-headed Anne.

Is the hour or two travel time the bridge will save island visitors really worth the risks to the island's unique ambiance?

Wayne Carew, who owns a car dealership in the town of Summerside near Borden, thinks so. He sees progress, not problems, from the bridge.

"It costs a lot of money to transfer goods in and out by ferry boats," he says. "The bridge will save time and money and bring new jobs."

With continuous access to the mainland for its truck fleets, the island's food-processing industry is already sinking millions into expanding plants. That means more jobs. Land prices are rising fast near the bridge at Borden as speculators bid up the prices. "The bridge is going to open up a whole list of opportunities," Mr. Carew says.

Yet there is also concern on this tranquil island that the bridge will bring an explosion of "attractions" and "sites" geared to day-trippers. "We think it's going to ruin the island," says Betty Hawett, who with her husband runs a fruit farm just a mile off the Trans-Canada highway, not far from Borden. "People don't come here to see a bunch of staged attractions - they come to see a green field with a cow in it."

In Borden itself, locals became upset this summer when a bar owner attempted to bring in exotic dancers - a phenomenon blamed on the increase in outside traffic and workers since bridge construction began in 1993.

But fears of a disrupted way of life aren't the only serious concerns. Mrs. Hawett, former leader of Friends of the Island, a group that opposed the bridge in court but lost, says the costs-versus-benefits are still a question mark. Ice damage to crops and fish is another.

Island's 'ice out' phenomenon

Farmers and fishermen worry that the bridge's concrete pillars will block the rapid outflow of ice in the spring - a phenomenon they call "ice out." If that happens, the chilled air could be held along the PEI shoreline, a delay in warming that would disrupt crop cycles, Hawett says.

When completed, the span across the Northumberland Strait will be the longest span in the world over waters clogged with thick ice in the winter. During the spring thaw, ice jams can reach 10 to 20 feet high as they pile up on the shore - and any other object in their paths.

In environmental hearings, the builders denied the bridge design would clog the strait. Constructed of 200-yard-long girders weighing 8,200 tons each, the bridge sits on massive concrete pillars with special conical ice deflector shields built to withstand 100 years of scraping by the ice.

That may be so. But Allan MacDonald, who has fished in the area for decades, is skeptical. He worries that during "ice out," huge, jagged ice mounds will back up around the pillars and scour herring and scallop beds, permanently damaging strait fishing.

"We would have liked to see a real environmental study done," he says. "We tried our hardest. But it's going to be built now."

For its part, the consortium says the bridge's environmental management plan is "comprehensive." Company literature says it is designed to minimize "potential adverse effects on the marine, terrestrial, and socioeconomic environments." Company officials did not return repeated phone calls requesting an interview.

But Irene Novaczek, a marine biologist who serves on a developer-appointed committee reviewing the bridge's environmental impacts, says not enough baseline environmental research was done.

"The consulting firm hired for the environmental study assured the public that no environmental impacts would occur," she says. "Well, they were being paid by the project people to say that. A responsible panel that heard scientific evidence for a year-and-a-half decided there were too many known and unknown risks, and that the bridge shouldn't be built."

One judge agreed with the panel's findings. But another, higher court judge, did not. The bridge proceeded.

The bridge's cost vs. benefits

Despite heaps of praise for the economic benefits it is supposed to bring, the bridge flunked the crucial test of its own economic value, says Peter Townley, an economics professor at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

He testified before Parliament to that effect. His analysis was later corroborated by independent consultants who agreed that the government's initial 1987 cost-benefit analysis was flawed. A subsequent second analysis, though declared favorable by the government, used faulty data, he says.

"These two studies are not consistent," says Mr. Townley, who specializes in cost-benefit analysis. "Both got their construction cost figures from the federal government. They made up their political minds to build, and they made them up some time ago."

In contrast, New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna told a parliamentary committee in 1993 that "Regardless of what the professor says, common sense will tell you that when you have a project employing 4,000 or 5,000 people over a period of some five years, that will create an enormous amount of economic activity."

When the bridge idea was being vigorously promoted both by Mr. McKenna and by PEI officials, it was sold to islanders and Parliament as a partnership between Canadian business and government, observers says. Only later did it become clearer that the majority interest in the bridge would belong to a consortium of Dutch, American, and French companies.

It was also touted that private funding would insulate the Canadian government from financial risks, including cost overruns.

The bridge was financed through a bond offering to private investors with little government involvement. But in a report last month, Canada's auditor general criticized the deal. The report cited a government guarantee to repay C$661 million of private bonds in an "off-balance sheet" manner both complex and costly. "We estimate that financing costs [for the bridge] could have been reduced by about C$45 million had the government raised this debt through its own borrowing program," the report said.

The government's obligation to pay the bondholders "is unconditional and irrevocable, even if the bridge is not completed on time or not constructed at all," the report said. It also pointed out that one of the three main partners in the bridge consortium was in financial difficulty.

Still, if all goes well, the bridge will be up and running by 1997. At that time, the Canadian government will begin paying the consortium a C$42 million-a-year subsidy for 35 years - about the same rate at which it currently subsidizes the ferry service. The bridge is supposed to cost travelers about the same as the ferry.

In the year 2032, the consortium will hand over title to the bridge to the federal government, and Canada will own its bridge to the island.

"There's been a great deal of fear that the masses are going to move into PEI - that it will become a million-acre honky tonk," Mr. Holman, the Charlottetown businessman says. "One of the trademarks of the island has always been that it is Canada's 'million-acre farm.' I don't see that disappearing."

But James Laxer, a political science professor at York University in Toronto who loves PEI the way it is, is worried.

"I hope my recent visit to Prince Edward Island doesn't turn out to be my last," he wrote in an opinion column in the Toronto Star. "Am I alone in finding the prospect of driving [eight miles] across the sea at an average altitude of [130 feet] ... daunting?"

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