Misconceptions on tolls

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
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The Confederation Bridge

Senator remains optimistic that tariffs on fixed link could still be reduced or eliminated

There are three popular misconceptions about the tolls on the Confederation Bridge.

1. The Confederation Bridge contract runs until 2032 and can’t be changed.

Contracts are amended all the time; if you have two willing partners.

According to the original agreement, many of the bridge bondholders were European; with the Canadian dollar down over 25 per cent, their financial returns when converted to Euros has dropped significantly.

They may be highly motivated to change the contract.

The bridge was built to last 100 years and the Government of Canada guaranteed annual payments of $42 million (in 1992 dollars indexed to inflation) over 35 years to bondholders, an amount that equals the annual subsidy for the former Borden ferry service; however, if the contract is extended and the amortization period is increased, say for seven years, tolls could be reduced by half overnight.

Increase the contract by a long enough period and the tolls will disappear.

But the reality is that we don’t actually need the co-operation of the bridge company. If the Government of Canada matches the “no tolls” policy they have promised to Quebec on the new 100 per cent federally funded $5 billion Champlain Bridge, Islanders could simply save their bridge receipts, submit them with their income tax and the tolls could be deducted from taxes owing or if the individual owed no taxes, a cheque could be issued equal to the amount spent on tolls.

The federal government has various targeted tax breaks for different segments of society and this would simply be another on that list.

 2.  If tolls are eliminated on the Confederation Bridge, we will lose the Wood Islands ferry.

The Government of Canada subsidizes seasonal ferry services in Canada and also year round services, including Souris to Magdalen Islands. Why would the seasonal Wood Islands service, so vital to Eastern P.E.I., be suddenly stopped?

The P.E.I. Terms of Union, when our province joined Confederation, promised “continuous communication” to the mainland. Over the years, with the advance of technology, that has changed from winter ice boats to the current year round bridge. This is the deal we made to join Canada.

Seasonal ferry services are not part of the constitutional arrangements, but the Government of Canada subsidizes various services in our country because these ferries increase prosperity, jobs and trade in the region affected. They are good for the growth of our country and that is why they are financially supported. Does anyone really believe that the Government of Canada would want to hinder the prosperity that the seasonal ferry service brings to Eastern P.E.I.?

3.  It can’t be done. It will never happen. Tolls won’t be eliminated or reduced.

Maybe the pessimists are right — it all could be a wasted effort. But I am not so sure.

I take comfort from what happened in Quebec. The Champlain Bridge had tolls until 1990, so the Premier of Quebec originally had no objection to tolls on the new Champlain Bridge (which were projected to be in the $4 to $5 range), but then changed his mind, successfully rallied his province, led the fight and changed the position of the Government of Canada.

The first step in our fight for equal treatment should be in the Prince Edward Island Legislature, the Parliament that represents all Islanders. A debate on the issue should be initiated by the MLAs and hopefully after careful explanation of the facts, a resolution could be passed requesting that Islanders receive equal treatment to the citizens of Quebec.

Such a resolution, with the weight of the P.E.I. Legislature, would empower the Provincial Government and would be difficult for the Government of Canada to ignore.

To that end, I have written the three parties represented in our Legislature offering to share the material I have collected over the last two years and if requested, I would be prepared to brief their respective caucuses.

By Percy Downe (guest opinion)

Percy Downe is a senator from Charlottetown with a special interest in fairness for bridge tolls for Islanders

Geographic location: Canada, Quebec, Wood Islands Magdalen Islands Eastern P.E.I. Charlottetown

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