New Brunswick·New

Saint John bridge tolls debate stalls

The Saint John Harbour Bridge is scheduled to become toll-free on Friday, but a last-minute political squabble could delay the change.

Political squabble could delay tolls being lifted by Friday

Liberal Leader Victor Boudreau wants to see the government's deal with Ottawa before agreeing to remove ((CBC))
The Saint John Harbour Bridge is scheduled to become toll-free on Friday, but a last-minute political squabble could delay the change.

The bill to remove the 50-cent tolls passed second reading in the legislature Tuesday.

But the Alward government has accused the Liberals of stalling, which could prevent approval before Friday's deadline.

Interim Liberal leader Victor Boudreau defended his party's actions, saying it's because the government has refused to table its agreement with Ottawa regarding the bridge.

Boudreau said he wants the tolls removed, but not if the deal leaves the provincial government stuck with too high a maintenance bill.

"The issue here is that the government is asking the Opposition to vote on a deal that could potentially cost the province of New Brunswick upwards of $200 million and we have not seen the deal, or have not been able to question the specifics of the deal."

Boudreau said that estimate includes the Harbour Bridge Authority's outstanding $22-million federal debt and potential maintenance costs on the aging bridge over the next 25 years.

Transportation Minister Claude Williams has agreed to table the agreement with Ottawa in the legislature as early as Wednesday. ((CBC))
Under the deal, announced last November by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Premier David Alward, Ottawa is supposed to forgive the debt on the bridge and the tolls are supposed to be removed by March 31.

But that can only happen if legislation to dissolve the Harbour Bridge Authority is passed first.

The authority will refuse to hand the bridge over to the province if the debt is not eliminated.  It will not let go of its asset without being rid of the liability. The tolls won't come off until the deal is complete.

"The deal will get through," said Boudreau. "If it takes a few extra days, so be it, but we need to do our job as Opposition."

Transportation Minister Claude Williams said if the Liberals keep dragging out the debates, it will be Saint John motorists who pay the price.

"If the bill doesn't pass by March 31, the consequence is the toll will be there until the bill is passed in the Legislature."

Williams has agreed to table the agreement with Ottawa in the legislature as early as Wednesday.

The bill must pass third reading by midnight Thursday, if the tolls are to end this week.