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A bridge, a ferry and a dot-matrix printer:

Driving the Trans-Canada Highway through the Maritimes

Writing and photos by Mark Richardson

Illustration by Molly Margaret

Edmundston, N.B.

Published June 29, 2023

The Trans-Canada Highway follows two routes through the Maritimes. One travels across the southern part of Prince Edward Island and connects to the mainland by a long bridge to New Brunswick at one end and a ferry to Nova Scotia at the other. The second part, on the mainland, links Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and carries on all the way to British Columbia.

Mark Richardson is driving the length of the Trans-Canada Highway from St. John’s to Victoria. This is his second report of a seven-part series.

I drove both routes this month, traversing the mainland route eastbound from my home in Ontario as far as North Sydney, N.S., where I sailed by ferry to Newfoundland to officially begin my cross-country trek. After driving west from St. John’s to Channel-Port aux Basques, I took a ferry back to Nova Scotia and then, after a three-hour drive, took a third ferry across the Northumberland Strait to the east end of PEI.

I was lucky: The engine of the MV Confederation ferry broke down a few days later and is expected to be out of service until mid-July, severing the connection between Caribou, N.S. and Wood Islands, PEI.

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The PEI ferry in Nova Scotia.The Globe and Mail

The Trans-Canada Highway picks up again south of the ferry terminal and west of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island, which is itself connected to the mainland by a causeway built as part of the Trans-Canada Highway project in the 1950s. Feelings in Cape Breton at the time were mixed about the permanent connection.

I met in Port Hawkesbury with Kevin MacDonald, a retired high school teacher who was 11 years old on the day the Canso Causeway was opened in 1955. “The Premier responsible for the causeway, Angus L. MacDonald, had died the year before and so his brother gave a speech for him,” he remembered.

“His brother was Father Stanley, and he spoke in the traditional Gaelic to the crowd, who all understood the language. And he gave them his opinion of what he really thought of the politicians. The people all laughed and cheered and so the politicians, who were sitting behind Father Stanley, all laughed and cheered too. They weren’t from Cape Breton and couldn’t understand anything he was saying – just as well too.”

Prince Edward Islanders were much more enthusiastic about the federal government committing to build either a bridge or a tunnel to their island, and the province was the first to sign onto the agreement to create the Trans-Canada Highway. There were only 120 kilometres to complete, though the island has no sand or gravel suitable for highway construction and everything must be hauled in from the mainland.

Left: Confederation Bridge

Right: Pokiok Hotel

“I remember times – when the ferry was the connecting link – when the traffic would be backed up miles sometimes, waiting to get across,” says Ernie Hudson, the province’s Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure. Now, the 12-kilometre Confederation Bridge, which may be renamed Epekwitk Crossing, brings trucks onto the island instead of railcars, and all the roads are busier. The bridge must still be paid for, too. It cost $1.3-billion in private funds when it was completed in 1997, and the federal government has paid $41.9-million a year ever since to the consortium that built it. The deal ends in 2032 when the operation will be transferred to Ottawa.

Until then, the company charges a toll to use the bridge: There’s no charge to enter the island, but it costs $50.25 to drive off it to New Brunswick, as I did. Islanders are upset by this steep fee and a current petition to drop the price to $20 has almost 15,000 signatures, but the provincial government says there’s nothing it can do.

In Nova Scotia, there’s also a toll to drive on the Trans-Canada Highway, but the $4 to travel on the Cobequid Pass is no longer charged to Nova Scotia residents. For them, it’s been free since the provincial government removed the charge last year.

@globedrive Mark Richardson is driving the #transcanadahighway here he is at the #confederationbridge almost 13-km long connecting #pei to #newbrunswick ♬ original sound - Globedrive

“There’s no plan to remove the tolls at the Cobequid Pass for [non-resident] folks who are travelling through,” says Kim Masland, Nova Scotia’s Minister of Public Works. “It’s a process of maintaining the balance, of keeping that section of highway to a standard that people have become very accustomed to.”

The 45 kilometres of the pass was completed in 1997, like the Confederation Bridge, and it’s fully twinned and accessed only from controlled interchanges, with six major bridges and separate underpasses for trails and wildlife. The original Trans-Canada Highway ran parallel to the east through the scenic Wentworth Valley, and horrific head-on crashes were not uncommon on the two-lane road.

In the 1990s, the Nova Scotia government planned to widen the valley road but Wentworth residents Carol and Bob Hyslop had different ideas. “Traffic was terrible,” Carol told me. “Fumes from the traffic were terrible – children were getting asthma. You couldn’t cross the road.” They formed the Wentworth Valley Environmental Protection Association and began a letter-writing campaign that persuaded the government to relocate the highway to the snowy and more challenging Cobequid Pass.

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Bob and Carol Hyslop in 2012.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

“She had the most powerful computer in the world,” former MP Bill Casey told me when he introduced us 11 years ago. “It was only a Commodore 64, with a dot-matrix printer, but it got a highway moved to the top of a mountain.”

Carol grinned when we met again earlier this month and I reminded her of this. Her husband died eight years ago, but he told me at our first introduction that “I’m proud of her. She took on the government and won. She proved you really can make a difference.”

The entire Trans-Canada Highway in New Brunswick was fully twinned in the 1990s and paid for by tolls – at least until 2000, when the new Conservative government kept its campaign promise to remove them. The cost didn’t just disappear, however. It’s been paid through other taxes ever since.

“Now we have what they call shadow tolls” of about $30-million each year, says Jeff Carr, New Brunswick’s former minister of transportation and infrastructure. “I’m not sure if a highway is ever paid for. It’s an ongoing process. I equate it to somebody who has a mortgage on their home that’s due to expire, and maybe they decide to do a kitchen or bathroom renovation and redo their mortgage to pay for that.”

Of course, the new highway meant the end of the road for many smaller New Brunswick businesses that serviced the old route, and those derelict motels and garages can sometimes still be seen when you drive the slower and more scenic Highway 103 that runs beside the Saint John River. Gerald Stone remembers when the empty space across from his house at Pokiok, N.B., was a bustling Irving rest stop, and when the building next door was an Esso gas station and restaurant. His mom once worked as a waitress at that restaurant.

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Gerald StoneMark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

“I never was for something like this,” he says, looking toward the new highway nearby, “but my mother and father were killed right up here at Shogomoc in a head-on collision, on that road,” he adds, turning to look at the quiet road that runs past his home. “If the four-laner had been there, that might never have happened.”

Harold and Frederica Stone were killed on the night of June 6, 1971, along with their friend Irene Stairs, when a drunk driver and his passenger travelling in the opposite direction crossed the line in front of them. “Five Residents Killed In Flaming Car Crash,” declared the Daily Gleaner the next day. To the authorities, the reasons were obvious: “Police investigating the accident said it was unlikely an inquest would be held,” reported the Gleaner, and that was the end of it.

@globedrive Mark Richardon is driving the #transcanadahighway here he drives the sharpest curve, a 40km/h curve in #novascotia just west of Seal Island Bridge. #highway1 #roadtrip ♬ original sound - Globedrive

Drivers and passengers still lose their lives on the Trans-Canada Highway – this month’s bus crash tragedy in Manitoba is a clear reminder of that – but the road is considerably safer than it used to be. Smart construction, and a lot of dollars, help to improve it every year, though as New Brunswick’s Jeff Carr says, it’s a never-ending process.

The Lexus RX 500h hybrid I’m driving, supplied for this cross-country journey by Lexus of Canada, is a powerful vehicle. For most of my drive, that power is wasted as I cruise the uneventful, multilane traffic of the Trans-Canada Highway. I would be quite happy in the 275-horsepower RX 350 or, even better, the 246-horsepower RX 350h hybrid that’s easier on gas consumption.

I did get a chance, however, to bring out the performance side of the 367-horsepower RX 500h. I took a side trip to visit a friend in Saint John, and on my way back to the Trans-Canada Highway south of Fredericton, I took 785, a winding country road he recommended.

The extra power comes from adding the hybrid electric motor to the 2.4-litre turbocharged inline-four of the RX 350. When you’re not stepping too hard on the throttle, the motor reduces the demand on the engine and saves gas, but when you do want that extra kick, it steps up throughout the rev range to provide a claimed acceleration time to 100 kilometres an hour of 5.9 seconds.

The empty country road was bumpy and often off-cambered, but to its credit, the RX 500h never put a tire wrong and allowed for a swift, smooth and satisfying drive. My loaner car is equipped with the adaptive variable suspension that continuously and instantly adjusts the shock absorbers for such variations, as well as an advanced all-wheel-drive system that constantly assesses the best distribution of power between the axles.

Long story short, the RX 500h was rewarding to drive on a poor-quality road. Let’s hope, however, I don’t have to test it on such asphalt too frequently.

Mark Richardson is the author of Canada’s Road: A journey on the Trans-Canada Highway from St. John’s to Victoria (Dundurn).

Read more in this series:

Of moose, a monument and a devastated port town: Driving the Trans-Canada Highway in Newfoundland

Construction, make-work projects and the bright side to the dark side: Driving the Trans-Canada Highway in Quebec and Ontario

Canada’s national highway didn’t come easy – it took some daredevils and squabbling to make it happen

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