New Brunswick

Saint John bridge tolls still in place

The removal of tolls at the Saint John Harbour Bridge isn't going to happen by Friday, as previously promised.

Authority refuses minister's request

It remains unclear when the tolls on the Saint John Harbour Bridge will be lifted.
The removal of tolls at the Saint John Harbour Bridge will not happen by Thursday evening as had been previously promised, officials said.

Government lawyers had asked the Saint John Harbour Bridge Authority to remove the 50-cent toll, wrap up operations and turn over administration of the bridge to the province by 7 p.m. AT on Thursday, Transportation Minister Claude Williams said in the New Brunswick legislature.

However, the authority has refused to hand over the bridge to the province unless its $22-million federal debt is eliminated, saying it will not let go of its asset without being rid of the liability.

"Tolls on the Saint John Harbour Bridge were originally scheduled to be removed on March 31," Robert McDevitt, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners said in a press release on Thursday afternoon.

"However, until Bill 14 is passed by the Provincial Legislature, the tolls unfortunately have to remain in place."

The bill is not expected to be passed until next week.    

"We know that everyone has been looking forward to the removal of the tolls. Our customers have shown patience during the last year, both throughout the reconstruction project and, for the past few months, since the announcement of the planned removal of the tolls," the statement said. 

"We understand their disappointment and once again ask for their understanding and patience," McDevitt said.

Waiting on word

Ken Anthony, general manager of the Saint John Harbour Bridge, said the authority is waiting on word from the legislature about what it can do.

"We've worked very hard to get all our ducks in a row, everything in place so that we could do that. Everything on the bridge authority's side is done, and has been done for several weeks.

Now, without the legislation passed, we don't know what we can do."

Meanwhile, poeple who work on the bridge are still waiting to hear what will happen next.

"It would be nice if we had a nice, concise date that we're going to be finished," said Chas Goguen, who has worked on the bridge for three years.

"We still come in, day after day, until we get the official word that we're done," he said, adding that "it's a little hectic."

Many of the bridge employees have found work elsewhere, but don't know when to give a start date, Goguen said.

On Wednesday, the Progressive Conservative government accused the Liberals of stalling, suggested that was why the tolls would remain in place beyond the deadline.

Liberals have argued that the province could remove the tolls whenever it wanted.

Interim Liberal leader Victor Boudreau and other opposition MLAs spent four hours sparring with the government over the bill to dissolve the bridge authority and turn the structure over to the province.

They called the bill is flawed because it leaves taxpayers on the hook for up to $200 million of maintenance costs.

Maintenance, speeding concerns

Meanwhile, some drivers and safety officials have expressed concern about what's going to happen once the tolls come off.

"The upkeep of it, the speed, you're going to have people flying through there and in the winter time, will that bridge be maintained properly? That's the question in the winter," said Dave Maxwell, who lives on the west side of Saint John.

"I feel there will be a lot of accidents on there unless it's well maintained," Maxwell said. Drivers have to slow to a stop before dropping their money into the toll baskets, and then merge into the proper lanes. But some have skipped this step in recent days.

A police cruiser has been posted at the toll gates to monitor speeding during high traffic hours.

"There's always been a speed issue there anyway, but (the toll) always did assist us as far as any great speeds, because people went through the gates," said Sgt. Jeff LaFrance, head of the Saint John police traffic unit.

"Once the tolls are removed, there's no restriction to the flow of traffic and I feel we'll have some speeding issues there."