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Tolling Points

Toll Discrepancy in Canada Raises Fairness Issues for All

By: 
Bill Cramer

A series of major bridge projects in three Canadian provinces has led to an interesting argument about tolling, with a senator affiliated with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party arguing that it’s unfair not to expect drivers to pay for the infrastructure they use.

In an opinion piece late last month in The Windsor Star, Prince Edward Island Senator Percy Downe makes an airtight case that the urgently-needed replacement for Montreal’s Champlain Bridge should be tolled once the C$4.2-billion project is complete.

Close observers of Canadian geography might be asking right about now: Why would a senator from Prince Edward Island, on the country’s east coast, want to write about a bridge in Quebec for a southern Ontario newspaper?

His position, what’s good enough for one should be good enough for all.

Fair Is Fair

Downe’s objection goes back to a Trudeau election promise in 2015 that put an end to earlier talk that the new Champlain Bridge would be tolled. The fairness issue arises because drivers in Downe’s home province of PEI pay $47 to cross the Confederation Bridge from the New Brunswick mainland, and the new Gordie Howe International Bridge between Windsor and Detroit will also be tolled.

Canada owns the first two structures, while the Gordie Howe is a P3 run jointly by the governments of Canada and Michigan, U.S. Ultimately, Downe says, the federal government owns all three.

In May, the federal Auditor-General estimated that Trudeau’s promise to Quebec would cost Canadian taxpayers at least $3 billion in lost revenue over 30 years. Downe estimates lost tolls plus routine maintenance costs for the Champlain Bridge at $146.8 million per year.

“Why are Canadian taxpayers paying the full construction and maintenance cost of the Champlain Bridge in Montreal, while users of the other bridges pay a toll to cover those same expenses?” he asks. “To be specific, why is the federal government prepared to spend over $146 million annually to remove the toll on the Champlain Bridge and cover the maintenance costs, but refuses to spend much less to remove the toll on Confederation Bridge? The subsidy to the Confederation Bridge operator, plus the lost revenue from tolls, would cost less money than the yearly cost of the subsidy to the Champlain Bridge.”

Back to First Principles

With that quote, Downe’s local agenda becomes clear: In late May, the Summerside, PEI Journal Pioneer cited his call for Ottawa to eliminate the Confederation Bridge toll, at a cost of less than $17 million per year.

But his more detailed post for The Windsor Star is more about principles, citing the commitment in Trudeau’s 2016 economic statement to “leverage its investments in infrastructure, by bringing in private capital.” At that point, the argument is less about phasing out a small toll in a small, island province and more about sticking to principles.

The economic statement commitment meant that “government will no longer be expected to foot the entire bill for large-scale infrastructure projects, but rather will partner with, or leave the entire job to, the private sector,” Downe writes. “Of course, private investors aren’t going to fund Canadian infrastructure projects out of the goodness of their hearts: they expect to make their money back with more besides, and that means tolls. All this begs the question, if toll revenue is so important to the sustainability of an infrastructure renewal program, why isn’t there a toll on the Champlain Bridge?”

Without it, the bigger-picture issue is that “Canadians in the rest of the country have a right to receive equal treatment,” he declares. “The question the government of Canada must ask—and answer—is whether the policy of a toll-free Champlain Bridge makes any financial sense to anyone. And why are Canadians being treated differently depending upon where they live?”

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