Nova Scotia

The high cost of not commuting: Halifax bridges lose millions due to COVID-19

Halifax Harbour Bridges says lost revenues due to fewer people commuting is costing them millions of dollars. The bridge commission is putting off some non-essential maintenance work and cutting spending as a result.

'We don't expect traffic to get back to last year's levels this fiscal year'

There has been little traffic on either bridge since COVID-19 arrived in the province. (Robert Short/CBC)

Halifax Harbour Bridges is putting off some non-essential maintenance work and cutting spending as its revenues fall off due to a lack of traffic on the Macdonald and MacKay bridges. 

Fewer people are commuting to work because of the pandemic. Less traffic on the bridges means less money coming into the bridge commission through the tolls it collects.

Alison MacDonald, communications manager for Halifax Harbour Bridges, said bridge traffic in April 2020 was only 45 per cent of normal volume.

"Our traffic has been significantly reduced," said MacDonald. "If traffic is down 45 per cent of what it normally is, then revenue is approximately the same. Revenue is 45 per cent of where it was last year as well." 

From April 12-28 last year, 615,618 cars crossed the bridges. During the same time this year, only 291,881 cars made the trip.

Before the pandemic, about 105,000 vehicles crossed the Angus L. Macdonald and the A. Murray MacKay bridges on an average workday, according to the Halifax Harbour Bridges website.   

Alison MacDonald is a spokesperson for Halifax Harbour Bridges. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

MacDonald said they have never seen such a sustained reduction in traffic.

"There's no rush hour on the bridges right now. We don't expect traffic to get back to last year's levels this fiscal year," she said.   

That has cost Halifax Harbour Bridges millions of dollars, according to MacDonald.

To cope with the financial loss, part of the work on the approach spans of the Macdonald Bridge has been put on hold. The protective paint on the approach spans was to be removed, the steel inspected and repaired, and a new coat of paint applied.

That non-essential maintenance will now go ahead at a later date. Halifax Harbour Bridges is also reducing its non-essential spending as it deals with its reduced cash flow. 

Some non-essential work won't be going ahead on Macdonald bridge this year because of a drop off in revenue. (Jennifer Henderson/CBC)

MacDonald said the bridge commission is still in good financial shape, so major repairs will proceed. Those include replacing an expansion joint on the MacKay Bridge this summer and the bearings on the Macdonald Bridge's approach spans. 

Expansion joints are small gaps in a bridge that allow the structure to move slightly. The joints prevent damage caused when a bridge moves slightly from winds or when the metal in the bridge expands or contracts with seasonal variations in temperature. 

Bearings are pads underneath the road deck that absorb the destructive effects of shock and vibration as the bridge bears the weight of moving cars. 

Over time, both the expansion joints and the bearings wear down and need to be replaced. 

"Even though traffic is down, which means our revenue is down, we do continue to do the projects that are required to ensure the long-term safety of the bridges," MacDonald said.

The work on the MacKay Bridge will lead to several weekend closures this summer, but the reduced traffic could actually help make travelling a bit easier, said MacDonald.

Work to repair the expansion joint on the MacKay bridge will go ahead this year despite the drop in revenue. (Robert Short/CBC)

Normally such a shutdown would make the Macdonald Bridge extremely busy as it picks up the traffic that would normally travel on the MacKay. 

"We're hoping that this year because of reduced traffic that when we close one bridge to do the work, the other bridge can more easily accommodate [the traffic] so the disruption to the travelling public won't be as great," said MacDonald. 

But traffic is slowly starting to increase.

In the last week of May, the bridges had 60 per cent of their normal volume of vehicles. MacDonald expects that trend will continue as the province relaxes restrictions imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

Last year, the bridges collected $32.7 million in revenue.