If you want to go into a bar where the band is playing, you have to pay the cover charge - even if you’re just passing through.
At least, that seems to be the way the province of New Brunswick is looking at it.
That province, facing a large deficit, is looking at establishing toll booths to raise anywhere from $43 million to $60 million. There are three different options, but the one that the rest of the Atlantic provinces might find interesting is New Brunswick’s Option 2, which would see toll booths set up at several of New Brunswick’s border points, charging $40 round-trip for trucks and $10 round-trip for cars.
Some of those fees will be recovered from New Brunswickers, but many, under the border toll gate proposal, would be for vehicles entering New Brunswick and then heading elsewhere.
I guess it’s handy being a province that’s also a transportation choke-point — you can tax people heading for neighbouring provinces, without ever having to worry about those neighbours returning the favour.
The beauty? A large proportion of the ones doing the paying aren’t even among your voters, and you can argue that it’s just your way of recovering the costs for damage done to your highways by the people driving through.
It’s not so sweet for everyone else.
In 2014-15, 95,552 commercial vehicles crossed into or out of Newfoundland and Labrador on Marine Atlantic. (So, 47,776 round-trips.) If just two-thirds of those vehicles were coming from Central Canada, there would be $1.27 million in additional toll costs, costs that would immediately transfer to Newfoundland customers. (You can hardly expect trucking companies to just absorb the costs — heck, just look at the number of businesses that put a fuel price surcharge in place when gas and diesel prices went up; and, while you’re at it, the number of those keeping surcharges in place despite the precipitous fall in fuel costs.)
Prince Edward Island? Well, the Confederation Bridge is the main route onto the island, but its operators don’t release truck traffic numbers. An estimate in a Transport Canada trucking study done in 2006 suggested 320,000 trucks used the bridge round-trip - which seems high. If that estimate is right, the new tolls would add, well, millions and millions to the tab for P.E.I residents.
Some New Brunswickers have made comparisons to tolls charged on the Confederation Bridge and the Cobequid Pass toll highway: well, yes and no. Both of those tolls were put in place to recover specific private sector costs for building and maintaining transportation assets. New Brunswick’s move is simply an effort to collect revenue. It is, by definition, a money grab.
It might also make for some interesting traffic changes: if you’re a truck driver going from Halifax to P.E.I., it might be worth your while to avoid the $40 toll on the major highway, and simply tool into New Brunswick on the frighteningly narrow New Brunswick Route 970 — a lovely little road, for sure, but a frightening piece of highway to meet a tractor-trailer on.
And imagine if other provinces took up the tollbooth torch: if you’re a Haligonian buying manufactured products from Ontario, you might be facing an Ontario toll, a Quebec toll, a New Brunswick toll and maybe even a home-grown Nova Scotian toll as well.
It’s an imaginative way to play pass-the-bucks - except for the provinces, like Newfoundland and Labrador, P.E.I. and, to a degree, Nova Scotia - at the end of the line.
Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org - Twitter: @Wangersky.