Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

Build the tunnel: It's time for Newfoundland to dig itself out of food insecurity

In the middle of a global crisis, and with Newfoundlanders worried about food and other goods, the island's supply chain has been too reliant on weather, writes Geoff Bartlett.

Maybe the time has come to stop arguing and start digging

Trucks and containers are seen waiting at the Marine Atlantic lot in North Sydney, N.S., in this file photo. The Gulf ferry service is considered an extension of the Trans-Canada Highway. (Yvonne Leblanc-Smith/CBC)

In the middle of a global crisis, and with Newfoundlanders worried about food and other goods, the island's supply chain was once again cut off.

Marine Atlantic ferry crossings have been cancelled a number of times due to weather, and the terminals in Port aux Basques and North Sydney have both been closed after already being on limited capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

If there has ever been a time to accept that the island needs a more reliable link to mainland Canada, this is it.

Newfoundland's dependence on shipping, particularly the Marine Atlantic ferry service, for much of its imports and passenger traffic has been a glaring vulnerability for too long.

Increasingly intense storms in recent years have proved how beholden the island is to the ferries — and how jeopardized the security and safety of every Newfoundlander is when the boats don't run for days on end.

This has never been more true than right now during this pandemic.

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

How can residents of the island continue to be OK with such an inconstant link in its supply chain — especially when a much more dependable option is possible?

It's time to seriously look at building an undersea tunnel.

16-km lifeline

The idea of a fixed link to mainland Canada is nothing new, and several studies over the years have looked into its viability.

So far, plans have focused on a 16-kilometre driveable tunnel running under the Strait of Belle Isle, connecting Yankee Point on Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula to Point Amour in southern Labrador.

The idea is popular with politicians in both regions, and in Quebec, where a highway would be built to connect the tunnel to the rest of Canada. However, there have been concerns from those who worry such a project would only serve Quebec's interests, as well as undermine traffic on the Marine Atlantic ferry service; the backbone of the economy in Port aux Basques on Newfoundland's southwest coast.

That's an understandable worry, but Newfoundlanders can no longer limit themselves to just one unreliable and expensive way to get vehicular traffic on and off the island if it is to grow and diversify.

Norway hopes to be first country to build submerged floating tunnels. This illustration shows a cross-section of what it might look like. (Statens vegvesen/Vianova)

Not only that, but the current situation proves it is also a matter of health and security for everyone who lives on the Rock.

An undersea roadway would provide something that the ferries simply cannot: 24/7/365 access to the island via Labrador, benefiting businesses and passenger traffic — and helping to make life safer and more secure for residents.

In other parts of the world such as Norway, Germany and Japan, subsea tunnels criss-cross maritime areas and are an important part of infrastructure as it relates to tourism, trade and nation-building.

Newfoundland and Labrador is obviously not Norway or Japan, with its relatively small population and vast distances between communities. However, in a highly developed country like Canada it should be possible to drive coast to coast through all provinces without having to gamble on the unreliable ferry schedules that Marine Atlantic provides.

Who pays?

Another reason for skepticism around the tunnel project is the cost, which has been projected to be between $800 million and $1.6 billion — which some might say the cash-strapped Newfoundland and Labrador government simply can't afford.

However, it's been suggested by the current premier and longtime road link advocate Danny Dumaresque that the project could be financed through a public-private partnership, much like the Confederation Bridge in Prince Edward Island. It was an important piece of Canadian nation-building that now serves an island much smaller in size and population than Newfoundland.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has even greenlit federal funds to assist in building the subsea link to Newfoundland, which his government also considers a vital project for unifying the country both literally and symbolically.

The province would also save roughly $600 million over the next three decades from not having to run the Straits Ferry. That's not to mention any new revenue generated from an influx of commercial and tourist traffic through the tunnel.

Marine Atlantic's ferry service is frequently dependent on weather conditions. File photo. (Darren Dodge/Twitter)

Dumaresque points to how the P.E.I. bridge was funded: using money saved from ferry service and by using passenger tolls, as a useful model for funding a tunnel project for Newfoundland.

"The P.E.I. ferry service was costing the federal government $40 million per year plus indexing and inflation," Dumaresque said.

"They agreed to give the private company this money for 33 years with no indexing, and the company would have to construct, operate and maintain for 33 years. After the contract ends, people get the bridge for one dollar, and tolls will maintain it."

Dumaresque, who has been pushing for the tunnel for years, said the same could happen with the road link to Newfoundland, but that the term would depend on the cost and how much Ottawa pitches in, which could be as much as 75 per cent.

If you build it, they will come

A road link would also invite more tourists to take the drive through the remarkable landscapes of the Northern Peninsula, perhaps the most underappreciated road trip on the entire island.

Nobody advocating for the fixed link is suggesting termination of ferry service to Nova Scotia. But having another viable way to get vehicles and goods on the island — one that isn't as dependent on weather conditions — is a reason it would take just a few days for the island to run out of home heating fuel and gasoline if the boats stop running.

The Qajaq W ferry connects western Newfoundland with southern Labrador. File photo. (Troy Turner, CBC)

Building an undersea tunnel between Newfoundland and Labrador would ease such anxieties in times like these, when physical and social distancing runs counter to travel by sea, and when many Newfoundlanders worry if the island will run out of food, fuel and other goods.

Maybe it will soon be time to stop arguing about the tunnel, and start digging.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Geoff Bartlett


Geoff Bartlett is an educator and journalist in Corner Brook.

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