A tunnel to Newfoundland? Federal government pushes for underwater link to mainland

Newfoundland Cottage Photo by Shutterstock/Bozo Davor

Newfoundland’s rugged coastline, colourful homes, and picturesque waters make the island a favourite among tourists and cottagers. But its isolated perch in the North Atlantic Ocean can make it difficult to access. To remedy this, the federal government is contemplating moving forward with a long-proposed underwater tunnel linking Labrador to Newfoundland.

In a fall mandate letter to Catherine McKenna, the minister of infrastructure and communities, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made it clear that the link should be made a priority in order to “connect our country and improve quality of life.”

The project was first proposed in 2004 when the Newfoundland and Labrador government conducted a study examining the link’s feasibility. The study was revisited and updated in 2018 to reflect contemporary prices and workload.

The studies explored the idea of connecting Point Amour, Labrador, to Yankee Point, Newfoundland, across the narrowest section of the Strait of Belle Isle, either by way of a suspension bridge or an underwater tunnel. Suspension bridges, however, were ruled out because of the high construction costs (estimated at $4.2 billion) and operational risks, including icebergs colliding with the bridge.

Both studies concluded that the safest and most cost-effective option is to build an underground tunnel excavated by a tunnel boring machine. The tunnel, which would be a single lane, forcing vehicles to wait their turn to cross, would cost $2 billion to construct and take 15 years to finish. With an assumed travel speed of 80 km/h, the crossing would take approximately 20 minutes.

The study also explored building an electric rail line in the tunnel that would shuttle vehicles across. At $1.7 billion, it is a slightly cheaper option than building a road and would take approximately the same time to cross.

“I think it’s a good idea, and I think absolutely it would have a positive impact on tourism, not just for the island but for the whole area,” says Boyd Payne, who rents out vacation cottages on Newfoundland’s west coast.

Currently, the island is accessible by plane and, if you’re driving, by ferry. A year-round ferry runs from North Sydney, N.S., to Port aux Basques in southwestern Newfoundland (in the summer, there’s also one that runs to Argentia, about a 90-minute drive from St. John’s). But the ferry’s “always affected by the weather,” says Payne, who’s made the commute many times. The ferry trip can take anywhere from six to eight hours, depending on the weather, and, according to the CBC, Marine Atlantic, the company that runs the ferry, reported 204 cancellations in 2018-19.

While the tunnel would take significantly less time to cross than the ferry, it would not connect to any major highways in Labrador, meaning a trip to Quebec City would still take approximately 30 hours, a similar travel time to the ferry.

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Looking on the positive side, Payne says this might appeal to cottagers and tourists interested in visiting the Labrador area. “That would be a vacation route that I think would be appealing,” he says. Approximately 15 to 20 per cent of the cottagers who stay in Payne’s rentals come from Newfoundland while the rest come from Ontario and the U.S., with many driving.

Before any firm construction plans for the tunnel are set in place, it’s estimated that approximately $20 million will have to be spent to complete further studies and engineering work. Don’t plan your drive to Newfoundland just yet.

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