Despite toll increase, bridges still owe N.S.

While bridge tolls to cross Halifax harbour have gone up this year, it seems the Halifax-Dartmouth Bridge Commission still owes the province money.

While bridge tolls to cross Halifax harbour have gone up this year, it seems the Halifax-Dartmouth Bridge Commission still owes the province money.

The agency that oversees the bridges owes about $53 million, down from $123 million in 2007. That debt — some of which was incurred to build a third lane on the Angus L. Macdonald Bridge in 1999 — was financed through the province.

The bridges that cross Halifax harbour were discussed before a committee at the Nova Scotia legislature on Wednesday.

Wayne Mason, the vice-chair of the board of commissioners for the Halifax-Dartmouth Bridge Commission, was asked if the bridges would ever be paid off.

"Will they ever be paid for? Not in the foreseeable future. Will we ever be out of debt? Not in the foreseeable future," he said.

Both the Angus L. Macdonald and A. Murray MacKay bridges are due for major retrofits.

The Macdonald Bridge is scheduled to have its deck replaced in about four years — a job that could cost as much as $200 million and take 18 months to complete.

The MacKay Bridge will have similar work done in about 12 years. That upgrade is expected to cost as much as $350 million.

"Just when you see the $60 million getting down and you're going to say, 'Well, we're out of debt and that's paid off,' we do have this redecking project," said Mason.

In April, commuters started paying $1 per crossing to help pay for the work. It works out to an increase of 25 cents.

Mason said the Halifax-Dartmouth Bridge Commission is looking at issuing bonds to help raise the money needed to pay for the work on the Macdonald Bridge.

Steve Snider, the CEO and general manager of the Halifax-Dartmouth Bridge Commission, said he doesn't know if other increases are likely.

Future increases

"We have this major project coming up. We did make an application and the toll increase has been granted and that toll increase will serve us for this project," said Snider.

He was also asked if the commission will apply for another increase.

"I don't know. I can't say never, but right now what we have received is going to serve us for the project we have," Snider responded.

"There's no plans or intentions on any other increase."

Those responsible for the bridges said there's little more they can do to ease congestion. Ten years ago, the Halifax-Dartmouth Bridge Commission requested a study to determine what it could do to encourage people to not use the bridges so much.

Mason said the conclusion wasn't encouraging.

"The study showed that substantial change in demand would only occur if a very significant increase in tolls were applied," he said.

"A 500 per cent increase in tolls to bridge tolls would result in a bridge demand reduction of only 15 per cent."

Mason said there are no plans to further increase the tolls on the bridge.