A link to an island at crossroads Bridge: Canada's Prince Edward Island will soon be connected to the mainland by the longest span of its kind in the world. Residents of the quaint province see the structure as a mixed blessing.

Sun Journal

August 31, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BORDEN, Prince Edward Island -- Prince Edward Island always has defined itself as a place apart from the rest of the world. The people who live here refer to it simply as The Island, and divide themselves into "Islanders" -- those born here -- and "CFAs," which stands for "Come From Away."

The rust-colored hills furrowed with potato plants and the clapboard houses fronted with wide, covered porches seem unchanged from 100 years ago. Much of the ambience stems from the difficulty of getting here: There's the little airport near the capital of Charlottetown and two ferry routes, only one of which runs all year.

But that is about to change as the longest bridge of its kind in the world, spanning a nine-mile strait, nears completion. When the bridge opens in June, the island will be a 15-minute drive from the mainland, instead of a 45-minute ferry crossing that can drag out to four hours when the strait is blockaded by ice.

There is a certain ambivalence, to say the least, among residents about the differences that the "link" -- to use the local parlance -- will mean for life here.

Betty Howatt can't see the big concrete bridge from the vegetable field that runs down toward the river from her farmhouse in Tyson Point. It's hidden by a small peninsula on the farm's western border.

"Thank God I don't have to look at the damned thing," Howatt says, hands on hips. "If we ruin what we've got, what's the point? People come here because it's a beautiful, pastoral, green place. If we get as many visitors as they say we will we're going to lose that."

But Howatt, organizer of a group formed to fight the bridge, admits that she is beaten. The link will be built, and most on the island will welcome its completion. If it changes things, folks figure, that's the price of progress. With an unemployment rate of 14.5 percent, Prince Edward Island maybe can use a little progress, the reasoning goes.

Until recently, the island regarded its insularity as a virtue. It was first settled by the French, then occupied by the British in the 18th century, but it was spared the warfare between the two colonial powers that scarred much of the rest of the continent. In 1864, Charlottetown was the site of a meeting that led three years later to Canada's peaceful independence from Britain. Typically, though, island leaders waited until 1873 to join the new nation.

Farming and fishing have long been the foundations of the local economy, only recently joined by tourism.

The island supplies most of the potatoes consumed in Canada and a great number of the frozen French fries to fast-food outlets across North America. In a nod to the indigenous fishing %J industry, you can order a McLobster sandwich along with your fries at the local McDonald's.

A less-discussed aspect of the island economy is the reliance on government handouts, mainly unemployment payments. Despite economic growth of 4.7 percent in 1995, year-round jobs remain in short supply and more than a third of the income generated on the island is attributed to federal programs.

Government largess is on the wane here and throughout Canada, strengthening the economic argument for the bridge. Officials argue that the span will speed the transit of farm products off the island and lure more manufacturing plants and tourists onto it.

Support for the project, a scant majority before work began in 1995, has risen to 75 percent in recent polls.

"What the construction has done is eliminate some of these doubts people had," says Kevin Pytyck, who runs the project for Strait Crossing Development Inc., a consortium of Canadian, Dutch and French companies that will build and operate the bridge using a $514.5 million government-guaranteed bond sale and $31 million in annual government payments for the next 35 years.

It's described as the "world's longest continuous multispan bridge." That means that while there are longer roads across water -- over the Chesapeake Bay, for example -- they include causeways or tunnels or interruptions such as islands.

The island bridge will be a series of 800-foot spans. At its highest point, drivers will be 200 feet above the water and near the center will be out of sight of land at either end.

Some on the island worry that the pressure of the winter ice pack will sink the bridge; others fear it will damage the island's fishing grounds and even change the weather by delaying the annual breakup of ice in the strait.

Pytyck waves aside such concerns and argues that the debate over the bridge's impact on the island's lifestyle is overblown.

xTC "This won't change the fact that this is P.E.I.," he says. "As for all this talk about the island way of life -- there may be as many definitions of that as there are people you talk to."

Perhaps, but the whole point of the bridge is to bring change to the island -- in the form of a more stable economy.

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