The idea of building a fixed transportation link across the Strait of Belle Isle that would connect the island of Newfoundland to Labrador is an ambitious venture that’s been floated for decades to no avail.
However, the project — with a price tag now pegged at up to $2.7 billion, depending on the financing arrangement — has been given new legs now that the federal Liberals have been re-elected. During the campaign, the party pledged in its platform to support the proposal in order to make travel more secure.
In the runup to the election, the Liberal platform made a very specific reference to the fixed-link project when it indicated that the party intends to move forward with a National Infrastructure Fund if elected.
“We will begin right away by supporting projects like the Newfoundland-Labrador fixed transportation link, which will give people living on the island of Newfoundland a permanent and secure way to travel to and from mainland Canada, while helping to make things like food and household goods more affordable,” the platform says. “Further projects will be identified as the National Infrastructure Fund is established.”
The link is supported by Newfoundland Premier Dwight Ball who compares it to the Confederation Bridge which links Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. He maintains the 16-kilometre link would be a nation-building project with benefits for all Canadians, but that the province can not fund the project on its own. Ball met recently with Quebec Premier Francois Legault to discuss the link and other issues.
The Liberals were the only party that mentioned the project in advance of the election. The Conservatives, NDP and Greens did not commit to a fixed link in their platforms although NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh did say in a letter to Premier Ball prior to the election that the proposal deserves “fulsome study.”
The Conservatives indicated they’d prioritize critical infrastructure projects that shorten commute times and included on that list projects like the George Massey Tunnel Replacement Project in B.C., Ontario Line and Yonge Subway Extension in Ontario, and a third link between Quebec City and Levi in Quebec.
Liberal politicians like Labrador MP Yvonne Jones and St. John’s South-Mount Pearl MP Seamus O’Regan jumped on the bandwagon, posting the party’s platform on the issue via their Twitter accounts.
“A great nation-building project. It can happen. We can make it happen,” O’Regan said of the fixed link on Twitter.
Kevin Deagle, press secretary to O’Regan, said in a statement that the MP still supports the project and expects it will be discussed soon by the federal government.
“The development of a fixed transportation link between Newfoundland and Labrador is a priority of this government, as evidenced by the Liberal Party platform from the most recent election. The Minister is fully supportive of this project and discussions regarding the project will take place once the prime minister has formed Cabinet.”
However, the project also has its critics.
Alison Coffin, leader of the provincial NDP, says she’s concerned that the federal government intends to fund the link through the Canada Infrastructure Bank, which means making it a public-private partnership.
“The province’s fiscal situation is dire, and the province could face bankruptcy,” she says. “Our energies must be focused on solving the fiscal troubles we face, not signing on for more huge megaprojects which will be multi-billion-dollar projects.
“We do not have the money. What money we may see could be put to better use. A fixed link would not be a prudent use of resources at this time.”
The province has a laundry list of important projects such as a new penitentiary, fixing crumbling infrastructure, improving health care, education, climate action, investment in jobs, and the provincial debt, says Coffin, “as well as the 50-year financial nightmare that is the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.
“We would also need upgrades to roads and highways on both sides of a proposed link. We have far more pressing needs and very little in the way of financial resources.”
Coffin says the federal government, and by default the provincial Liberal government, can not call the construction of a fixed link “nation building” if it is given to a private corporation for profit.
The idea of a fixed link was first proposed in 1949 and it began generating buzz again in June after a standing committee report on a Canadian transportation strategy recommended that the federal, Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec governments work with the private sector toward building the fixed link. The federal Liberals picked up on the idea in their election platform released in September.
In 2004, a study for the government recommended a tunnel between the island and Labrador be excavated by a tunnel boring machine (TBM) with vehicles being transported on an electric shuttle train. In 2018, an independent pre-feasibility study that examined five different options for a fixed transportation link concluded that a rail tunnel excavated by a single TBM is still the most technically and economically attractive option, at an estimated cost of about $2.7 billion.