A six-month closure of the Petitcodiac River causeway linking Moncton and Riverview begins Monday afternoon, a step required to finish a new bridge that's part of a decades-long effort to restore the river ecosystem.
For years, officials have feared the closure will create traffic tie-ups as thousands of vehicles that use the causeway daily shift to the Gunningsville Bridge. For people and companies that use it, there's some anxiety.
Kim Wilmot works for Ayles Natural Landscaping Ltd. in Riverview. She said the company has crews that work across the Moncton region, with most of it on the Moncton side.
"Nobody really knows how it's going to impact anybody since we haven't experienced it yet, but I foresee that there will be some delays coming into Riverivew," Wilmot said.
She said they're considering changing start and end times, or sending crews home with work trucks so they can start their day from home.
The closure is necessary to realign the river channel under the new bridge, remove the temporary road detour and old causeway gate structure, and build ramps to the bridge.
"We're at the point now where we're ready to divert the new river channel underneath the bridge," said Mike Pauley, the bridge project manager with New Brunswick's Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.
He expects that water will flow under the bridge and downriver starting around the first week of June. Reaching that point will require moving thousands of cubic metres of mud and silt.
Pauley began working on the project in 2008. The province improved dikes upriver of the causeway and has dumped rocks along the riverbank to reduce erosion in areas along the Moncton waterfront.
"I'll be very, very happy when it is finished," Pauley said.
The closure is expected to be complete by Oct. 5, wrapping up the $61.6 million project.
But it begins Monday morning, starting with uncovering signs along routes to the causeway saying it is closed. By mid-afternoon, the route across the river will be fully closed.
With many people having Easter Monday off, the full impact of the closure on traffic is expected starting Tuesday morning.
In 2018, the province estimated about 27,500 vehicles cross the causeway daily, while about 26,500 vehicles cross the Gunningsville Bridge.
Austin Henderson, a spokesperson for the City of Moncton, said the municipality expects residents to see delays.
Henderson said that while COVID-19 and more people working from home was initially expected to reduce traffic counts, more recent figures show the number of vehicles crossing the river remains about the same as before the pandemic.
Municipalities on both sides have spent years preparing. Changes were made to the intersection on the Riverview side of the Gunningsville Bridge, and emergency services have put plans in place.
"We are telling people to plan ahead, leave yourself maybe 30 minutes to an hour just to be safe and we are expecting that as time goes on people will get used to it," Henderson told Radio-Canada.
The causeway was envisioned, in part, as a way to help the flow of traffic in the region. It connects to Wheeler Boulevard in Moncton, a ring road that circles the city and connects with Dieppe.
A Moncton Daily Times newspaper story from 1960 says the causeway would bring a drinking water supply to Moncton's doorstep, reduce traffic flow issues, and bring new industry to the city when it becomes a seaport.
Construction began in 1966 and was completed in March 1968, effectively turning the upriver portion of the river into a lake used for boating and swimming, despite untreated sewage flowing into the water.
The structure quickly led to a variety of environmental problems. Fish counts dropped and it became inhospitable for salmon. The river channel narrowed as more silt was left behind.
Ronald Babin said the causeway effectively suffocated the river.
"This was our environmental catastrophe that we had to change," Babin said.
Babin helped found the Petitcodiac Riverkeeper group in 1999, which demanded steps to restore the river's ecosystem, including upgrades now underway to the nearby wastewater treatment plant.
Decades of advocacy eventually led to Liberal Shawn Graham promising to permanently open the causeway gates, a first step to restoring tidal flow. The gates have been open since April 14, 2010.
It wasn't without opposition. Those who owned property near the lake created by the causeway opposed the change. Some property owners were compensated by the province.
Construction of the 240-metre steel girder bridge to replace the causeway began in 2017.
"The communities have been waiting for that for years and years because that causeway has created a major disruption in our ecosystem," Babin said of the pending causeway closure. "And so we we're now correcting that."
Once named one of Canada's most endangered rivers, the Petitcodiac is one of the largest river restorations in Canada, Babin said.
"This is quite an important milestone and something to celebrate," he said.