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Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Confederation Bridge

As Canada celebrates 150 years, it’s time to reflect on playing a part in the nation’s infrastructure history

The Confederation Bridge connects mainland Canada with Prince Edward Island. It is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

By Eric Tromposch, Vice President, Special Discipline Lead Bridge Design (Calgary, Alberta)

The Confederation Bridge is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. As we celebrate this project’s special milestone and Canada’s 150th birthday, we sat down with Eric Tromposch to discuss how working on this iconic Canadian project has impacted him.

It all began 30 years ago when Paul Giannelia reached out to Stantec and a former Stantec colleague, Gamil Tadros, with a career-defining opportunity. The Government of Canada was requesting proposals for a fixed link across the Northumberland Straight connecting the mainland (New Brunswick) to Prince Edward Island. The submission, review, and selection process took five years but in December 1992 our team was awarded the project.

It may be a strange concept now, but at the time, the internet and email were brand new tools. At the start of the job, documents were being sent via fax. Thankfully by the end of the project, email had replaced the fax and really helped the project team from across the country connect to get this job done.

Related item: Bridges: Supporting our communities

GPS was used during construction of the Confederation Bridge. It was the first time military-precision GPS was used for a construction project.

13 kilometers of ice-covered water
Designing and constructing the bridge was daunting..

We had to find a way to construct a 13-kilometer bridge while battling the elements. The Confederation Bridge is the longest bridge over ice-covered waters. To minimize the climate risks, the design was based on prefabricating components on land. This arrangement allowed the Joint Venture (JV) to fabricate components during the winter and install them when the ice melted from the strait. Taking that fabrication approach into consideration during the design process helped us optimize the bridge.

Career wise, I experienced a lot of firsts. The bridge was designed for a 100-year design life versus the 50-year life required in the Bridge Code at the time. This required site specific load factor calibration and detailed studies of the sea ice, wind, and durability.

Dealing with the ice in the strait was a major challenge. Global experts were retained to determine the appropriate ice loads and to determine the impacts on the sea life in the strait. To reduce the effects of the high ice loads on the piers we designed an elevated conical ice shield. 

The HLV Svanen lifts a portion of the Confederation Bridge into place during construction.

We also used high-performance concrete to enhance the durability of the structure. The Confederation Bridge was one of the first large scale projects in Canada to use high performance concrete. We are seeing that payoff today. After 20 years, the bridge is still in great condition.

Related item: Concrete testing for the Confederation Bridge

Another memorable challenge was the installation of the 8,200-tonne main span cantilever segments. These large elements needed to be precisely positioned and lowered onto onto a match cast element which meant extremely tight tolerances with no margin for error. 

Today, your phone uses GPS to help you get where you want with ease. Twenty years ago, the Confederation Bridge project was the first time military-precision GPS was used for construction. The JV had to get special clearance to use GPS, but it was worth it to get high-precision placement during construction.

This was also one of the first public-private partnership (P3) projects in Canada. Today, many large scale, publicly funded projects are P3s. Twenty years ago, the project requirements were a lot less specific and prescriptive than many current P3s, with more onus on the team to demonstrate that the overall project objectives could be met.

The Confederation Bridge stretches 13 kilometers across the Northumberland Straight.

Bridging our history
2017 is an important year for the bridge and for our country. Canada is celebrating its 150th anniversary and the bridge is celebrating its 20th anniversary. A lot of Canadians are touring our own country, and I’m proud to have been part of a project that has a place in Canada’s history. When you think about iconic structures that define our nation, Confederation Bridge definitely is one of them.

At Stantec, we often talk about working to support our community. I can say with full confidence that this project was one that has made a real difference in the lives of our neighbours in Atlantic Canada.

I’m excited to go back to the Confederation Bridge this weekend to celebrate BridgeFest 150. It’s going to be great to connect with our client, partners, and the community to reflect on the past 20 years.

Related item: Confederation Bridge among best civil engineering projects

Eric has designed structures for major river bridges, as well as buildings, large environmental structures, and specialized industrial structures. It doesn’t matter if the project is complex or routine, large or small, Eric strives strike a balance between design and construction cost. This summer he will taking a walk down memory lane, walking across his project, the Confederation Bridge. 

A lot of Canadians are touring our own country, and I’m proud to have been part of a project that has a place in Canada’s history. When you think about iconic structures that define our nation, Confederation Bridge definitely is one of them.

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