Tackling tolls: Could Confederation Bridge ever be free to cross?

There may be no easier assignment for a P.E.I. journalist: go find Islanders willing to share their thoughts on the Confederation Bridge toll. Anyone who leaves the Island in a vehicle has paid it. It's safe to say most, would rather not.

'Someone has to pay,' says bridge's general manager

Since the Confederation Bridge opened 20 years ago, the bridge toll has increased from $35/car to $46.50. (Steve Bruce/CBC )

There may be no easier an assignment for a P.E.I. journalist: go find Islanders willing to share their thoughts on the Confederation Bridge toll. Anyone who leaves the Island by car, truck or motorcycle has paid it. It's safe to say most, would rather not. 

'So far as I'm concerned, the toll should be dropped or eliminated entirely.' - Jordan Giddings, Confederation Bridge user

"I mean it's $46.50 now. That's quite a high toll," said Patrick Schwartz. "It'd be nice if you're from the Island to have a discounted price."

"I find it kind of infringes on our rights as Islanders to perhaps get away," added Jordan Giddings. "You know, we don't all have all kinds of money. So far as I'm concerned, the toll should be dropped or eliminated entirely."

But despite online petitions, and a big push by P.E.I. senator Percy Downe in the last few years, the toll hasn't dropped. In fact, since the bridge opened in 1997, it's steadily increased — from $35 per car to $46.50.  

The bridge's general manager, Michel Le Chasseur, admits he hears from angry Islanders every time that toll increases.

But don't point the finger at him. He and the private company that operate the bridge — Strait Crossing Bridge Limited — are just following the rules.

"The toll's gone up by 75 per cent of inflation every year on January 1st. That's the rule. The federal government set that," said Le Chasseur. "We have a contract. And a contract is a contract."

Michel Le Chasseur, Strait Crossing's General Manager, says if bridge tolls were lowered or eliminated, the federal government would have to compensate Strait Crossing for lost toll revenue. (Steve Bruce/CBC )

Toll increases part of 35-year contract 

The contract. It's the very reason this push to eliminate the bridge toll is such a tricky business.

When the federal government decided to connect P.E.I. to the mainland, it struck a deal with several private companies and their shareholders, all packaged under one name: Strait Crossing Development Inc. (SCDI). 

SCDI was tasked with designing, building, financing, and then operating the $1 billion bridge for 35 years. In return, the federal government agreed to pay off the bridge over those 35 years through an annual subsidy. The contract ends in 2032.

Ottawa also agreed to let SCDI keep all the bridge's toll revenues for the entire length of the contract. 

According to the latest numbers made public, between 1997-2013 — those toll revenues added up to more than $500 million.  And while the company won't release a breakdown of just where that money goes, Le Chasseur acknowledges at least some portion is profit for SCDI and its shareholders.  

It's not clear what will happen with Confederation Bridge tolls, once the federal government's contract with Strait Crossing expires in 15 years. (CBC )

Who should pay — users or all taxpayers? 

So, the bottom line, says Le Chasseur, if the federal government wants to lower or eliminate the tolls, taxpayers will need to compensate SCDI for lost toll revenue.

"The old phrase nothing is free, that's absolutely correct," said Le Chasseur. "You pay at the toll here, or you pay through your taxes. You still pay. There's no such thing as a free bridge or free health care. Someone has to pay."

And Senator Percy Downe says that someone should be the federal government.

"The government is in the subsidy business — ferries in BC, ferries in Atlantic Canada, now bridges," said Downe. "They have to be consistent."

You pay at the toll here, or you pay through your taxes.  You still pay.- Michel Le Chasseur, General Manager, Strait Crossing Bridge Limited

It's not an argument Downe ever felt the need to make. That was until the Trudeau government made a promise during the last election campaign — one the government's since confirmed it will honour —  to completely subsidize the cost of Montreal's new $4 billion Champlain Bridge, and to not charge a toll. 

"Both these bridges are owned by the Government of Canada," said Downe. "Why are we paying, and they're not?"

'The government is in the subsidy business,' says P.E.I. Senator Percy Downe. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

'A political decision', says P.E.I. MP Wayne Easter 

Federal Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi has explained the Champlain Bridge won't have a toll because it's replacing another bridge. 

P.E.I. Liberal MP Wayne Easter has a different explanation — politics. 

"It came down to the fact that the three parties in the last election, all vying for votes in the Montreal area, made a political decision that they wouldn't put tolls on the Champlain Bridge. It's as simple as that," said Easter. "That's being honest about it."

So with few federal votes to vie for in P.E.I., should Islanders ever expect the free tolls here? Senator Downe says of course. In fact, he has a renewed sense of optimism, thanks to a comment made by the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a town hall in Ontario in January. 

P.E.I. MP Wayne Easter says his government promised not to charge a toll on the Champlain Bridge in an effort to secure votes in Montreal. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Trudeau acknowledged the Confederation Bridge is "an expensive bridge to cross" and said he'd take the matter up with Island MPs.

Downe is hopeful that means the federal government will actually consider his ideas to make the bridge crossing more affordable for drivers — either by offering drivers a tax rebate, or lowering the tolls and compensating SCDI through annual subsidies, long after 2032.

"You extend that contract out, and you can reduce the tolls dramatically. You extend it out long enough, and there'd be no tolls at all," explained Downe. 

But at this point, Easter says Island MP's have not had any discussions with the prime minister about the bridge toll issue and Downe's ideas. 

The bridge opened 20 years ago, on May 31, 1997. (Kelley Edwards/CBC)

And while Easter acknowledges that it "may not be 100% fair" that drivers on the Champlain Bridge won't have to pay tolls, he's not sure lowering the toll on the Confederation Bridge is viable, or even necessary. 

You extend that contract out, and you can reduce the tolls dramatically.- Percy Downe, PEI Senator

"How many people today remember when we didn't have a bridge? When we had car ferries? When you sat in line for three or four hours, missed the boat by 10 minutes, then waited for three boats in order to get across?" said Easter.

"You've got to think back and remember what the cost of that was, versus what the cost of the bridge tolls are."

Of course, once the federal government's contract with SCDI expires in 15 years, who knows what will happen then. 

Transport Canada says it will, "evaluate options for the Confederation Bridge operations well in advance of the end of the current agreement scheduled for 2032."

In the meantime, says Wayne Easter, just be grateful for that easy 10 minute drive across the Northumberland Strait, even if it does come at a cost. 

About the Author

Steve Bruce

Video journalist

Steve Bruce is a video journalist with CBC P.E.I. He landed on the Island in 2009, after stints with CBC in Fredericton, St. John's, Toronto and Vancouver. He grew up in Corner Brook, N.L.