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Gordie Howe, Confederation and Champlain — one of these bridges is not like the other: Sen. Downe
Gordie Howe, Confederation and Champlain — one of these bridges is not like the other: Sen. Downe
July 11, 2017
OPINION
Image of Percy E. Downe
Percy E. Downe, Prince Edward Island

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, Ontario, currently estimated in media reports to cost up to $4.8 billion, will 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 which 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.

All three bridges are owned by the Government of Canada. 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?

The government keeps repeating, as Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Amarjeet Sohi stated in the Senate that "related 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."

The Champlain Bridge did charge a toll for most of its existence, as is indicated from a history of the bridge on the website of the body that operates it:

"The bridge was opened on June 28, 1962 without an official ceremony. At the time, the only approach to the bridge was from Wellington Street in Montreal. Since its opening in 1962, it was a toll bridge; the toll was abolished on May 4, 1990 at 12:00 p.m."

The idea that there can’t be a toll on the new Champlain Bridge because it is a “replacement” would also apply to Confederation Bridge, replacing as it did a ferry service, which in turn replaced the ice boats that came before it. Whatever form it took, they all represent the embodiment of a federal commitment to Prince Edward Island as part of its entry into Canada. When Prince Edward Island joined Confederation in 1873, the Terms of Union required that the Government of Canada be responsible for assuming and defraying the costs of “continuous communication” between the new province and the rest of the country.

As time and technology advanced, “continuous communication” evolved from “steam service” to the permanent fixed link that is Confederation Bridge. As busy and important as the Champlain Bridge – new or old – might be, it does not exist to meet a constitutional requirement. Confederation Bridge does.

There have been a number of suggestions for addressing the problem of high tolls. For one, even though the Confederation Bridge contract runs until 2032, renegotiation is not an impossible option. Contracts are amended all the time. With two willing partners, any part of an agreement can be changed. If the contract is extended and the amortization period is increased tolls could be reduced overnight. In fact, if the contract was increased by a long enough period, the tolls could disappear altogether.

A second alternative is one the Government of Canada can undertake unilaterally. At my request, the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) examined the fiscal impact of reimbursing Confederation Bridge tolls by way of a non-refundable tax credit. His findings, released in the summer of 2016, were that, based on the volume of traffic over the Bridge, such a tax credit would cost $2.5 million per year for a 15% credit, which would proportionately increase to $8.3 million for a 50% credit, to $16.6 million to fully reimburse the cost of tolls.

But all these arguments are beside the point. The fact is that the new Champlain Bridge will be toll free because the Government of Canada wants it to be toll free. If they so choose, they could do the same for Confederation Bridge, or at the very least, reduce it to the “modest costs” pledged by the prime minister, when he was asked about Confederation Bridge tolls at a town hall appearance earlier this year:

"The Confederation Bridge in Prince Edward Island has been an essential… link both for the Islanders’ economy and for tourists, and for locals. And you’re right, it is an expensive bridge. It was an expensive bridge to build and it’s an expensive bridge to cross," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in January 2017.

"And I appreciate the challenges you’re facing, and certainly I will make sure that I pass along my concerns to -- your concerns -- to our Islander MPs, and we will look at what can be done to make sure that people are able to travel freely, travel efficiently, and openly across this country at modest costs."

I welcome and encourage the Prime Minister’s efforts to ensure that Prince Edward Islanders can finally travel to the rest of the country “at modest costs”, and like all Islanders, I look forward to hearing the result of his work with Island MPs.

Percy E. Downe is a senator representing Prince Edward Island. He is deputy chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade and is a member of the Senate Committee on Internal Economy, Budget and Estimates.

This article appeared in the June 1, 2017 edition of The Guardian.