Building Confederation Bridge: The project director looks back 20 years later

Paul Giannelia, the public face of the consortium that built Confederation Bridge, shares his memories of its building and opening.

'We never dreamt it would take that long to get everybody lined up facing the same way.'

@islandliving_pei posted this sunny picture of the Confederation Bridge with hay bales. (@islandliving_pei/Instagram)

Paul Giannelia, the public face of the consortium that built Confederation Bridge, shares his memories of its building and opening.

Giannelia is now the CEO of Strait Crossing Inc. At the time he was project director in charge of construction.

He also took the lead in public consultations on the bridge.

He joined Island Morning host Matt Rainnie on the 20th anniversary of the opening to look back at that time. Below is an edited version of that conversation.

What are your thoughts, Mr. Giannelia, thinking back 20 years ago today, to the opening of the bridge?

The number one thought is the 20 years went by awfully quick. It does seem like yesterday on so many fronts.

When you look back at the construction, and the process of that, what were some of the biggest challenges?

Time was our number one enemy. We needed to get it done in a very, very short period of time because of the short weather windows and also the seasonality of it. There's ice in the strait for quite a few months and we only had 183 working days every year on the water. That was, I guess, the number one challenge, was the schedule we had to deliver on.

The biggest challenge, probably, at the end of the day, ended up being, looking back on it, it took us about six years to go through a multiplicity of meetings with Ottawa and the community at large on both sides of the strait. And just took about six years of many, many public meetings about, "This isn't going to hurt. It's going to turn out OK and everything's going to be good." We never dreamt it would take that long to get everybody lined up facing the same way.

This was a heated, contentious issue, and for you to come forward from being the project director to really being the face of the project and answering those questions, what was that position like for you?

It was actually a lot of fun. We ended up with a bit of a routine where public meetings would always start at the same time, right after supper time. Some of them went on for five hours and some of them went on a little bit longer and we'd be in the middle of the night still answering questions. It took on a little bit of a life of its own but it was a good time. And we got the job done.

I know some people still 20 years later who say they will never cross that bridge. They say building that bridge took away Prince Edward Island's islandness. Can you appreciate those arguments at all?

Those were comments that we heard from people, but on the alternative, I've not heard once that we should take the bridge away and bring back the boats. I'm not trying to be flippant on that but I think there were significant improvements in people's mobility.

Increasing mobility for people increases quality of life.

How does it compare to other projects you worked on?

For sure it had more public engagement than any other project we ever worked on. We worked on a lot of large projects that got done more quietly.

If I were to ask you your best day on the job and your worst day on the job, do a couple of days jump to mind for you?

We had a couple of major storms that we had to deal with the consequences of when they swept in during our construction time. They weren't extreme but they were severe storms. Living through those nights was a little bit unnerving. When we were bringing the Svanen over across the Atlantic we were on a very tight schedule, of course, and tropical storm Barry was coming up the coast from Florida and we had to think about turning back the vessels, the tugs that were hauling the Svanen across the Atlantic … We ultimately made the decision to do that.

You're coming to Prince Edward Island in a couple of weeks for BridgeFest. What is your connection like to P.E.I. now? You're kind of part of P.E.I.'s history.

They're all great memories for sure. It was a big part of my life, and our daughter was born within a month of the bridge contract starting, the construction starting, and now she's finishing second year of Toronto law school. That kind of says it all for me. The time sure went by pretty fast.

With files from Island Morning