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Percy E. Downe
On June 4th as part of a speech series leading up to the federal election called “My Vision for Canada,” Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer condemned trade barriers for having “held captive our nation’s potential for far too long … They make it more expensive to run a business, they hurt consumers with higher prices and less competition, and frustrate big-dreaming innovators who want to change the world.”
He further stated that he would “work tirelessly to tear down trade barriers between provinces and territories” and pledged that a Conservative government would undertake a “government-wide effort” to remove them. “I will work tirelessly to tear down trade barriers between provinces and territories that have held captive our nation’s potential for far too long, so we can fully realize the benefits of Confederation that were promised 151 years ago.”
In light of his promise, Islanders want to know what solution Mr. Scheer envisions for the tolls in Prince Edward Island, the greatest trade barrier our province faces, which hinders our trade within Canada and around the world.
Will the leader of the Conservative party do a fact-based analysis and identify that the $55 million in tolls Islanders are currently paying every year to leave our province have “held captive” our trade potential? What is his plan of action? If Mr. Scheer is truly serious about eliminating this barrier, he obviously has a willing dance partner in Progressive Conservative Premier Dennis King, who in the recent provincial election promised to “work with the federal government to decrease the cost of bridge tolls and ferry service for Islanders.”
Just imagine Prince Edward Island with a reduced toll for Confederation Bridge and Wood Islands Ferry. The agriculture and fisheries exporters who are currently spending tens of thousands of dollars every year to get their product to market could reinvest that money in expanding their businesses and employing more Islanders.
The impact on our economy of reducing tolls would mean everyone benefits: Islanders travelling for medical appointments, tourists visiting, and businesses unburdened by export costs. All these changes would create a healthy economy for our province. Toll reduction is a chance to build a better future with genuine results.
Various solutions have been advanced to address the problem of high tolls. A means of paying for these proposed solutions would be to utilize existing funds available under the Investing in Canada Plan. The primary goal of the plan is to "create long term economic growth” through, among other things, investment in trade and transportation infrastructure. In the recent 2019 federal budget, however, the government acknowledged that the pace of spending under the plan is “slower than originally anticipated,” with just under $20 billion of the $180 billion fund having been invested so far, only 11 per cent of the total amount.
Another proposed solution is the idea of tax credits. By offering tax credits for bridge and ferry tolls, travellers and exporters could recover their expenses without having to renegotiate contracts or other complicated measures. Such an investment to effectively reduce the toll on Confederation Bridge and the Wood Islands Ferry would expand the prosperity of the province and would be a productive use of federal funds.
Whatever the solution, Prince Edward Islanders are interested in what all the political parties will do, including Elizabeth May and the Greens, to give Prince Edward Island a better future. Given the change introduced in 2015 to the federal policy for infrastructure transportation funding, mutual respect requires that this problem be resolved. That change came during the 2015 federal election campaign when the promise to eliminate the toll on the Champlain Bridge in Montreal was made and honoured. Thus it appears that a federal election year is the best - and possibly only- opportunity to bring about similar changes to our tolls. The consequence of failure is that no government will ever give up the revenue generated by tolls, and we will be stuck with ever-increasing costs to travel and trade.
What plan of action do Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Scheer and Ms. May have for our toll problem?
Percy E. Downe is a Canadian senator from Charlottetown.