Skip to content

Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Halifax’s Bridge to Nowhere

Read more articles by

HALIFAX – With the current studies exploring the potential of a third Halifax harbour crossing, and the recent announcement of the closure of pedestrian and bike lanes for a year and half during planned resurfacing of the Macdonald Bridge, I’ve been thinking about Halifax bridges a lot these days.

Urban planners and city officials have begun to explore the costs and logistics of creating a third bridge over, or under, the narrows between the South End CN Railyard in Halifax, and the Woodside area of Dartmouth. The price tag is an estimated $1.1 to $1.4 billion. According to the Harbour Bridges Commission, the need for a third harbour crossing is due to projected population growth, which, obviously, means more car traffic.

Steve Snider, general manager and CEO of the commission hopes that “more people will get out of their cars, but doubt[s] if all people are going to get out.”

The idea that increased population automatically means more cars is absurd, and the lack of any real attempt at trying to encourage active transportation is disheartening. HRM does not need another car-oriented connection into the peninsula. It represents a backward step in planning, while the rest of the world invests in pedestrian and transit oriented infrastructure at smaller, walkable scales. While the city investigates the possibility of a third crossing, they are also considering cutting funds to harbour ferry services and are continuing to let the Metro Transit system fallow and decay. Plans to widen Bayers road and build even more highway overpasses contribute to the trend of cars-first, people-never planning in HRM.

These issues have lead me to think about that old ramp to nowhere [pg. 6, PDF], up near the Mackay bridge, that extended out toward the water and into the sky, demolished in 2009. There’s surprisingly little written about it, but with a bit of research I learnt that this stumped-ramp was officially called Structure 9, and was originally built as part of the Cogswell Interchange series of planned highways but was never used.

I’m sad that Structure 9 was demolished in 2009, because it would have served as an apt symbol of the current guiding-philosophy of HRM planning. A ramp-to-nowhere, along with the Cogswell interchange, are pieces of highway infrastructure that spin users around and around, getting them nowhere fast.

This city must move away from car-oriented infrastructure. That billion dollars needed for a third harbour crossing could be directly reallocated to transit, alleviating the traffic on the existing bridges with more frequent and reliable bus service, and the funding of more ferry service. The planned closure of the pedestrian/bike lanes along the Macdonald bridge are further evidence of short-sited visions of mobility planning in the Municipality, and symbolic of the city’s official attitude toward active transportation.

Plus, HRM and provincial planners seem to be ignoring that Mi’kmaq legend: any attempt at a third harbour crossing will lead to its inevitable collapse (which can be read about in Paul Erikson’s book North End Halifax.) Let’s hope the city and province heed to the lessons of this prophesy, which in the 2012 context has taken on new meaning. May the plan of a third harbour crossing follow the predictions of the myth, and fall apart before it’s built. Let’s avoid the legend’s foretold disaster, and instead alleviate the capacity of the current bridges in a healthy, smart and people-oriented way.

Photo by  Paul Coffin



  1. I agree with everything in this piece (aside from the godawful HDR photo that is). It amazes me how poor Halifax is at learning from both the mistakes and great ideas of other cities. $1-1.4 billion dollars is a LOT of money, and that’s building costs alone. What will the long-term maintenance costs be?

    My dream is that planners and politicians pull their heads out of their collective rear ends and realize this city can be a leader in people-first design. With the suburban heavy representation on HRM council though, I’m not holding my breath. They seem to be quite content to put their grandchildren into incredible amounts of debt in the name of their cars.

  2. I’m not sure where your “research” on the Mackay Bridge ramp comes from, but anyone who has lived in Halifax for more than twenty years knows that ramp was part of the original bridge and used for many years. In the early 90’s, that single lane ramp was replaced with the current double lane ramp. I guess there wasn’t enough money to remove the obsolete ramp until a few years ago. So, yes, you can still make the point that money was spent to move more cars, but please do it with accurate information.

  3. There is a much more serious problem here at issue. We have bearaucracts that are spending money like drunken sailors. We need to get rid of the open wallet thinking. I’ts all about traffic flow and here’s one example, coming down barrington into Hollis and with 1/2 lane cut off by the new RBC building, and the parking spots that are still there, it creates a bottle neck, same thing on lower water street, if you make these streets one way, get rid of the parking. I’ts not rocket science. 

  4. If you’ve been doing a lot of thinking, you obviously need to be doing a lot more, based on this ridiculous article.

    The most obvious mistake was corrected by Dave, regarding the “ramp to nowhere” faux pas. Did you ever think to ask someone over 19 years of age if they remembered it and what it was? Cripes.

    But even more flawed is the entire premise of the article. First, if a third bridge is ever built in the south end, it will be to remove heavy truck and other commercial vehicle traffic from the Halterm container pier and the downtown. Will there be some car traffic. Yes. But the plans also call for a dedicated transitway. Did you miss that too?

    Secondly, it will be funded from bridge tolls, JUST LIKE THE EXISTING BRIDGES ARE. There is no tax money going towards them. Maybe you should have read the financials in the HDBC annual report you cited.

    Finally, it will completely change the traffic and development plans for HRM. Ever think what the lands around Shearwater and Eastern Passage could be if it wasn’t such a ridiculous chore to get there from the peninsula? They are the closest undeveloped lands to the downtown. No need to keep pushing west into Bedford and Hammonds Plains and Timerlea/Tantallon. You can see Shearwater from downtown. This would let people get to that area. Think that might be GOOD for the environment and the city instead of sitting behind 18-wheelers on Water St for an hour every afternoon before getting on the highway to distant suburbia?

  5. Keith is correct. The plan is for the bridge to be self-funded by tolls, it would include a transit/HOV lane, and it would take truck traffic out of the core. The ability to shift some growth closer to the core is another huge advantage.

    My sense is that the bridge has been unfairly pigeonholed as “car” in an unhelpful “cars vs. people” view of planning. The reality’s a lot more complicated. For example, failure to invest in infrastructure in the core can easily just push people and businesses farther out into the suburbs. There were terrible highway projects in the 1970’s, sure, but most of the damage these days is being caused by inaction and underinvestment.

  6. The ruse that this bridge will be “self-funded” falls apart if there isn’t enough traffic on it to pay the contractors or banks. Then, the government will “step in” to save what will have become a white elephant.

    Likewise, the idea that this piece of expensive car infrastructure will simply “take large trucks off other parts of the system.” This has been said of every ringroad, bypass and throughway that has ever been built. And yet they always seem to fill up with SUVs from the burbs.

    Then there’s this “this is about developing the center of the city.” Ever notice how really functional cities don’t have highways in their core? This is because mass transit is what brings downtown alive. Highways and expensive bridge projects just encourage more driving, more sprawl, and more urban delight.

    Halifax will put itself backwards about 20 years if it spends this billion on a bridge instead of transit and bikeways.

  7. If Halifax is taking such drastic measures in their projections in population growth— stop thinking about another car bridge and start thinking about furthering commuter rail—light rail or a subway system.

  8. The McDonald bridge is the third fixed harbour crossing. The first 2 were in the narrows and were destroyed. One in a hurricane, and the other the swing span floated away on a high tide. Part of the McDonald bridges opening ceremonies was a shamen who removed the curse.