Rona Ambrose clear on bridge tolls; on both or none, Prime Minister

Published on February 11, 2016

Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose.

Interim federal Conservative leader Rona Ambrose was well prepared for the question on tolls for the Confederation Bridge. She was on P.E.I. this week where she made her position clear - tolls should be charged on the new Champlain Bridge in Montreal. It was a mistake to remove them and that decision results in unfair treatment for Prince Edward Island and the high tolls over the Confederation Bridge.

 Former prime minister Stephen Harper said the same thing since 2014. Despite pleas from Quebec municipal, provincial and federal politicians, Mr. Harper was firm - if there are no tolls, there will be no bridge. The crumbling Champlain Bridge in Montreal needs immediate replacement and Ottawa planned to install tolls to pay for it. The former PM also said if the city or province wanted to avoid tolls, then he was only too happy to transfer ownership and control and paying the costs over to those bodies.

During the federal election campaign, the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois all campaigned on a pledge of no tolls but never offered solutions on how to pay for the new bridge. It was political pandering for votes and now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must explain why he is treating the rest of Canada differently.

Ms. Ambrose is right. Placing tolls on the new Champlain Bridge is the right thing to do. Ottawa built the current bridge in 1955 and tolls were in place until 1990 to pay for it. When he answered a question in the Commons in April 2014, Mr. Harper said: “The government is building a new major local bridge in the city of Montreal. We are not doing this in any other part of the country. The only basis on which we can do that is with financial participation by the local people. That means if there is not a toll, there will not be a bridge.”

But now, the $4 billion Champlain Bridge will be toll-free when it opens while the $1 billion Confederation Bridge charges $46 for a passenger vehicle to cross. At one time it might have seemed fair. Until Ottawa changed the rules last fall.

The federal Liberal pledge to remove Champlain tolls has irked Canadian taxpayers and reopened debate on Confederation Bridge tolls. It has focussed attention on the unfairness of the new federal position on infrastructure costs.

P.E.I. Senator Percy Downe is pushing for Ottawa to lift tolls on the Confederation Bridge so Islanders will receive equal treatment. He is urging the P.E.I. legislature to pass a supporting resolution. The idea has drawn support from the P.E.I. PC Opposition as long as the viability of the Northumberland ferry service isn’t jeopardized.

Mr. Trudeau’s decision to eliminate Champlain tolls is a case of playing favourites. The PM can fix the problem he created. Ottawa must either charge tolls on the Champlain or reduce tolls on the Confederation Bridge. As Ms. Ambrose argues, “He has created this inequality and this imbalance in the federation . . .”

When Mr. Trudeau detailed Liberal policy concerning the Champlain Bridge at a stop in Brossard, Que., on Sept 3, 2015, his arguments were equally applicable that day to the Confederation Bridge as they were to the Champlain.

The prime minister could just as easily have been standing in Borden-Carleton at the approaches to the toll booths when he argued that, “The (Champlain) Bridge is a vital piece of infrastructure – not just for Quebecers who use it daily, but for Canada . . . billion(s) worth of merchandise pass over this bridge each year . .  the Champlain Bridge is an essential artery . . . It is a national bridge and an important trade corridor for the regional and national economies . . . The Liberal Party recognizes the important role that the Champlain Bridge plays in the broader Canadian economy. We will ensure that all Canadians have the vital infrastructure they need to stay mobile, make it to work on time, and contribute to the economic growth of our country.”

Amen.

Mr. Trudeau just made the perfect argument to drop tolls on the Confederation Bridge. The ball is now clearly in the federal court.