Nfld. & Labrador

'Tunnel going nowhere': Ditch the fixed link to Labrador, urges Port aux Basques mayor

If all goes as planned, a fixed link to mainland Canada could kill Port aux Basques. But the mayor of the port town is worried it will destroy the entire province.

John Spencer heading to Nova Scotia to rally opposition to the project

Channel-Port aux Basques is home to the Marine Atlantic ferry, which shuttles passengers and vehicles across the Gulf of St. Lawrence to North Sydney, N.S. (Submitted by Wayne Stacey)

If projections hold true, a fixed link between Newfoundland and mainland Canada could destroy business in Port aux Basques — but the mayor of the port town is worried it will destroy the entire province.

John Spencer is going on a tour of Cape Breton this week to rally opposition to the fixed link. The federal Liberal Party included a promise in its election platform to move forward on the idea, which has been kicked around for decades.

The plan has a lot of hurdles — an estimated $1.65-billion cost, geographical challenges, political opposition and more — and Spencer thinks it could be disastrous.

"Why would we spend all that money to develop a costly venture of a tunnel going nowhere?"

Port aux Basques Mayor John Spencer says a fixed link between Newfoundland and mainland Canada is wishful thinking, but if the projections in the pre-feasibility study are true it could mean the end of his town. (Town of Port aux Basques website)

The provincial government funded a pre-feasibility study in 2018, which estimated the cost and an anticipated 15-year timeframe to complete.

While many figures and estimates in the report alarmed the mayor of Port aux Basques, one stood out in particular.

It assumed 60 per cent of the vehicle traffic using the Marine Atlantic ferry system to come to Newfoundland would reroute to the fixed link. That's based on the fact that 60 per cent of traffic on the ferry comes from places in Quebec or farther west.

"It's going to basically kill this town," Spencer said.

What about the incomplete highway?

If the fixed link existed today, most drivers couldn't use it even if they wanted to.

There is no road linking isolated communities along Quebec's North Shore. A fixed link would depend on about 375 kilometres of highway to be constructed through the region, which poses huge challenges from geographic and economic standpoints.

I think this is a way to appease the electorate in Quebec to build a highway at the cost of the federal government.- John Spencer

Politicians in that region of Quebec have lobbied the federal government for several years to get the highway completed in the interest of saving the isolated communities from a demographic crisis. The small towns are bleeding out as more and more young people leave for better opportunities elsewhere.

When the promise of a fixed link became part of the Liberal platform, Spencer was confused.

"I think it's wishful thinking on the part of the prime minister. Here is the same guy who, in 2015, said he would bring affordability to the Marine Atlantic service," he said. "Then, all of a sudden, he switches gears and now he's onto a tunnel dream."

He worries the idea of a tunnel is being used as a reason for the federal government to fund the highway through Quebec.

"I think this is a way to appease the electorate in Quebec to build a highway at the cost of the federal government."

The proposed fixed link would take vehicles across the Strait of Belle Isle. The most feasible option would be through an underground tunnel with vehicles loaded onto a rail system. (Hatch pre-feasibility study)

He also questions why transport trucks would want to drive through an isolated area of Quebec, when they currently come across a well-maintained, double-lane highway from New Brunswick and throughout mainland Nova Scotia to reach Cape Breton Island.

Spencer worries not only for the future of his town but for the future of the towns dotting the road throughout Cape Breton — as well as the future of Newfoundland and Labrador.

With a $14-billion debt looming over the province and the costly Muskrat Falls megaproject nearing completion, Spencer fears taking on another billion-dollar project could be a boondoggle leading to bankruptcy.

He's going to meet with politicians and business leaders from Cape Breton and Halifax while in Nova Scotia this week.

Spencer said he wants to see the viewpoint from outside his hometown.

"I want to get on the outside the province and look in. I want to get it from their perspective."

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