Finance Minister Blaine Higgs is acknowledging that putting tolls on provincial highways is an idea he is examining as the New Brunswick government tries to dig itself out of an $820-million deficit.
Higgs was urged to consider the imposition of highway tolls at a pre-budget meeting in Fredericton on Thursday night.
The finance minister said many people have indicated during the pre-budget consultations and surveys that they are willing to pay highway tolls as a way to whittle down the province's substantial deficit.
And he conceded the policy is "something that is of interest."
"In our responses in the surveys, I would say tolls is probably almost number one," Higgs said.
"One of the highest. So that says we got to find out what the real value is in collecting tolls. And then if that makes sense, that one's pretty clear at this point."
'Put the tolls back on the highways. And not just on the tractor-trailers. Put a toll booth at every entrance to the province and you've got everybody.' — John Chisholm
John Chisholm lent his voice to those seeking highway tolls at the pre-budget consultation meeting in Fredericton.
"Put the tolls back on the highways. And not just on the tractor-trailers. Put a toll booth at every entrance to the province and you've got everybody," Chisholm said.
Although Higgs said he was willing to look at toll highways, not everyone at the Fredericton meeting endorsed that plan.
Tim Andrew of Fredericton said tolls would not not rake in as much money as some might hope.
"A proportion of the revenue we derive from the tolls will go to administration," he said.
The head of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association said his members would wind up paying the largest share of those tolls.
Jean Marc Picard said he's heard the rumblings for several weeks about putting tolls back on the highway.
"It's a big concern because our industry is always the biggest contributor to these tolls right, we're always going to pay the most," said Picard.
Picard said truckers are already dealing with high fuel costs and expensive regulations. He said, with the poor economy, many trucks are running partly empty.
"They're removing the Saint John tolls on the bridge in March and now they're turning around and they want to put some more tolls. I mean they're hard to figure out," said Picard.
Picard said some of the biggest carriers in the country are based in Moncton.
He said he'll be consulting his board to see about getting an emergency meeting with the minister of finance.
Highway tolls have a contentious history in New Brunswick. The former Liberal government intended to use them to pay for the construction of the Moncton-to-Fredericton highway. However, the Progressive Conservatives, led by Bernard Lord, campaigned against the tolls in the 1999 election.
Lord removed the tolls in 2000 and taxpayers inherited the costs of the lost toll revenue.
Premier David Alward was elected in the 1999 campaign that had the removals of tolls as a central issue.
The former Lord Tories also brought in the Taxpayer Protection Act in 2003 that calls for a referendum if the provincial government seeks to add a toll to a highway.
Higgs has one more budget consultation next week in Alward's Woodstock riding, which is in the middle of the province's toll-free Trans Canada Highway.