Bridge tolls or none?

It all de­pends upon where you live in Canada — P.E.I., Que­bec or On­tario

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY SEN. PERCY DOWNE Percy Downe is a Se­na­tor from Char­lot­te­town.

Fed­eral Min­is­ter of In­fra­struc­ture and Com­mu­ni­ties Amar­jeet Sohi con­firmed in re­ply to a ques­tion in the Sen­ate that the new Gordie Howe Bridge in Windsor, Ont., cur­rently es­ti­mated in me­dia re­ports to cost up to $4.8 bil­lion, would have a toll. We now have a sit­u­a­tion in this coun­try where two ma­jor multi-bil­lion dol­lar bridge projects are un­der­way, the Gordie Howe Bridge and the re­place­ment Cham­plain Bridge that will also cost over $4 bil­lion.

But while the Gordie Howe Bridge will charge a toll, the Cham­plain Bridge in Mon­treal will be toll-free. Mean­while, Prince Ed­ward Is­lan­ders con­tinue to pay a toll of $46.50 to use Con­fed­er­a­tion Bridge, which cost slightly over $1 bil­lion to con­struct.

The Govern­ment of Canada owns all three bridges. So why are tax­pay­ers pay­ing the full con­struc­tion and main­te­nance cost of the Cham­plain Bridge, while users of the other two bridges must pay a toll to cover those same ex­penses?

In the mid­dle of the last fed­eral elec­tion, Lib­eral Party leader Justin Trudeau an­nounced that if elected, he would not in­sti­tute a toll on Mon­treal’s new fed­er­ally-funded re­place­ment Cham­plain Bridge even though tolls were charged on the ex­ist­ing Cham­plain Bridge un­til 1990.

The govern­ment’s com­mit­ment to a toll-free Cham­plain Bridge flies in the face of its plan to, in the words of its 2016 Eco­nomic State­ment, “lever­age its in­vest­ments in in­fra­struc­ture, by bring­ing in pri­vate cap­i­tal”. In other words, govern­ment will no longer be ex­pected to foot the en­tire bill for large-scale in­fra­struc­ture projects, but rather will part­ner with, or leave the en­tire job to, the pri­vate sec­tor.

Of course, pri­vate in­vestors aren’t go­ing to fund Cana­dian in­fra­struc­ture projects out of the good­ness of their hearts: they ex­pect to make their money back with more be­sides, and that means tolls. All this begs the ques­tion, if toll rev­enue is so im­por­tant to the sus­tain­abil­ity of an in­fra­struc­ture re­newal pro­gram, why isn’t there a toll on the Cham­plain Bridge?

It is the po­si­tion of the govern­ment that, as Min­is­ter of In­fra­struc­ture and Com­mu­ni­ties Amar­jeet Sohi stated:

“(R) elated to the new toll-free Cham­plain Bridge in Mon­treal, the bridge that we are build­ing is a re­place­ment. It is not a new bridge. The bridge that al­ready ex­ists needs to be re­placed. The rea­son we are com­mit­ted to not hav­ing a toll on the new Cham­plain Bridge is that the cur­rent one does not have a toll.”

In point of fact, it bears re­mem­ber­ing that the Cham­plain Bridge did charge a toll for most of its ex­is­tence, from its open­ing on June 28th 1962 to May 4th 1990. Fur­ther­more, the orig­i­nal plan for the re­place­ment Cham­plain Bridge in­cluded tolls that were es­ti­mated (by the Par­lia­men­tary Bud­get Of­fi­cer) to range be­tween $2.60 and $3.90, and was a part of the 2014 Fed­eral Bud­get. How­ever, the tolls be­came an is­sue dur­ing the 2015 Fed­eral Elec­tion cam­paign and were dropped by the new govern­ment after they won the elec­tion.

Min­is­ter Sohi said that the govern­ment plans to struc­ture the tolls on the Gordie Howe Bridge in such a way that “there’s not too much bur­den on im­me­di­ate users.” It would ap­pear that what con­sti­tutes “too much bur­den” varies from one lo­ca­tion to the next, from the $46.50 toll on Con­fed­er­a­tion Bridge to leave Prince Ed­ward Is­land, through the toll (as yet un­de­ter­mined) on the Gordie Howe Bridge, to a toll­free Cham­plain Bridge.

If all Cana­dian tax­pay­ers must col­lec­tively fi­nance both the cost of con­struc­tion and main­te­nance of the Cham­plain Bridge, and Mon­treal ends up get­ting a $4 bil­lion govern­ment funded bridge with no tolls, then Cana­di­ans in the rest of the coun­try have a right to re­ceive equal treat­ment.

If we are go­ing to dis­card the long­stand­ing user pay pol­icy for trans­porta­tion megapro­jects in Canada, then Prince Ed­ward Is­lan­ders can look for­ward to the re­moval of tolls on Con­fed­er­a­tion Bridge. And res­i­dents of South­ern On­tario should be able to cross their new Bridge with­out pay­ing both to build it and to use it.

The ques­tion the Govern­ment of Canada must ask — and an­swer — is whether the pol­icy of a toll-free Cham­plain Bridge makes any fi­nan­cial sense to any­one. And why are Cana­di­ans be­ing treated dif­fer­ently depend­ing upon where they live?

FILE PHOTO

The new Cham­plain Bridge in Mon­treal un­der con­struc­tion.

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