P.E.I. Senator Percy Downe pushes Ottawa to drop bridge tolls

P.E.I. Senator Percy Downe used an appearance by Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Amarjeet Sohi at the Senate question period Tuesday to ask if the government is going to help Islanders get a toll-free bridge.

Senator says what's good for Montreal is good for P.E.I.: No tolls

Senator Percy Downe says Islanders need relief from the $46 bridge toll. (CBC)

P.E.I. Senator Percy Downe continues to push for Ottawa to eliminate tolls on the Confederation Bridge.

Downe used an appearance by Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Amarjeet Sohi at the Senate question period Tuesday to ask if the government is going to help Islanders now that Montreal is getting a toll-free bridge. 

"During the last federal election, the Liberal Party promised that the new bridge in Montreal, the Champlain Bridge, which will cost $5 billion to construct, fully paid for by taxpayers of Canada, will have no tolls," Downe explained to Compass host Bruce Rainnie. "That's a change in the long-time infrastructure transportation policy, which was user-pay."

"Our Confederation Bridge was built under user-pay, our bridge cost $1 billion, and we pay $46 as you know to cross it. So the question is, is there any relief for Prince Edward Islanders in the toll we have to pay?"

Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Amarjeet Sohi says Montreal's Champlain Bridge is different from the Confederation Bridge, because it is a replacement structure, not a new project. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
The minister said it was different with the Champlain Bridge, since it is replacing an existing structure, without tolls, whereas the Confederation Bridge was a new one, and there were tolls before on the ferries.

Downe took a different view, explaining his point to the minister.

"I addressed that, the Champlain Bridge did have a toll until 1990, and then it was removed," Downe said. "And the Confederation Bridge ... is a replacement for the ice boats we used to have, that evolved into the ferry, that evolved into the new technology that allowed us to build a permanent bridge. So it is in fact a replacement for the ferries."

"More importantly, it was a commitment Canada made when it wanted Prince Edward Island to join Confederation. The Canadian government promised continuous communications with the mainland, and that has evolved from the ice boats to a bridge, so it is a replacement, and I think that was new information for the minister."

Approached P.E.I. Legislature

Last December, Downe asked the P.E.I. Legislature to consider passing a motion requesting Ottawa consider new measures about the bridge tolls.

He'd like to see a strong message sent to Parliament, along with some suggestions.

Senator Percy Downe says the Confederation Bridge shouldn't be considered a new construction by Ottawa, but rather a replacement for ferries, and even the original ice boats. (CBC)
"There's a couple of options," he said. "You enter into negotiations with the bridge company. The bridge has been constructed to last 100 years, but the contract is for 35 years. So if you extend the contract for seven years, you can reduce tolls by half overnight. If you extend it for 20 years, the tolls would be eliminated."

"A second option is to do what we do for northern Canadians, the Government of Canada gives a travel subsidy," he explained. "So if you use the bridge you would save the receipts and submit them with your income tax. If you didn't pay income tax you would simply submit your receipts and receive a cheque from the government." 

"Or the third option is we take some of the billions of new infrastructure spending and use it to improve our economy and help our trade (by eliminating tolls)," Downe said.

Progress will take time

Asked if he felt any progress on tolls was being made, Downe suggested patience in key.

"These things take time," he said. "As you well know I worked for years on overseas tax evasion, in fact nine years, and just recently in the federal government, we finally had some action, the government committing $444 million to fight overseas tax evasion."

"So I'm hopeful that over time ... it may well be over the next federal election where this becomes an issue and we have a resolution."

From the CBC Compass interview by Bruce Rainnie


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