Dump, keep or change Confederation Bridge toll? Malpeque candidates, voters weigh in
'I kind of felt like I was being held hostage'
Shalyn Pinkham has traveled across the Confederation Bridge between Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick many times.
Her daughter, Rory, now 7, was born 15 weeks early, weighing just 1lb 8 oz at birth. She has cerebral palsy and a list of other conditions which have meant many trips to the IWK Health Centre in Halifax.
"In the first few years — her first year, in particular — we took 13 trips to the IWK," said Pinkham.
The family now travels there two to four times a year for appointments. Those trips are pricey, Pinkham said, adding one of the biggest costs has been the toll for the Confederation Bridge.
"That's one of the bigger expenses for sure and it seems to be going up all the time, at $50 almost now a trip," she said.
"My husband had to continue to work, so he would take trips back and forth. So it's not one single trip," Pinkham said. "It could be multiple trips in there over the course of a few weeks."
The province does have several programs for medical travel in place, but all are dependent on household income, and Pinkham said her family did not qualify because their income was too high.
As this federal election looms, she is looking at what the federal parties are promising, if anything.
"I do feel that if people require medical services that aren't available to us on P.E.I. it would be nice if they could find a solution to help eliminate or at least alleviate some of that financial strain."
Angie Hitchcock owns the Home Place B&B in Kensington. She says she has heard complaints from tourists about the bridge toll.
"We've had a couple of guests who have said, 'If I have to pay that kind of money to cross the bridge I might as well just take the ferry and enjoy the scenery,'" Hitchcock said.
Hitchcock herself moved to P.E.I. from Alberta a year ago and said she was shocked at how much it cost to get off the Island.
"I kind of felt like I was being held hostage. You know, it's a lot of money to leave if you just want to go shopping on the mainland," she said, adding it would be better for her bottom line to shop in bulk at stores like Costco in Moncton, but it doesn't make sense.
"We're already down that $47.75 before you even leave your house, and then the gas, and so you have to weigh whether or not it's worth it whether you're going to save anything in the long run."
Hitchcock thinks a cheaper toll might help to boost tourism on the Island even more.
"If they cut it down to 20 bucks, more people would come and go," she said.
Contract complicates things, say Liberals
The contract between the federal government, which owns the bridge, and the company that operates the bridge goes back to the beginning.
Strait Crossing Development Inc. 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.
That makes it tricky to change anything, said Malpeque Liberal candidate Wayne Easter.
"How much is that going to cost you to break that contract, and where do you want to take the money from?" said Easter, who believes something more should be done for Islanders with medical needs.
Fueling the debate recently is the new Samuel de Champlain Bridge in Montreal. The Liberal government built that bridge and made it toll-free.
That led to a campaign by Senator Percy Downe to have the toll eliminated or reduced. He came up with a plan to take the toll down to $20 by dedicating unused funds from the Investing in Canada Plan.
Easter said he thinks there should be a toll on Montreal's Champlain bridge, but he said the infrastructure money Downe wants to dip into is there for other projects — not to reduce tolls.
'Not fair' according Conservative
Malpeque Conservative candidate Stephen Stewart says the Champlain bridge deal was unfair to Islanders, and said as soon as he heard of the proposal, he committed to working to make the Confederation Bridge more affordable.
"Why is Montreal getting a free bridge under the Trudeau Liberal government? It's not fair.," Stewart said.
"I think there's lots of ways we can work on making it better."
But when asked if he had any ideas for making the toll cheaper, Stewart said he didn't want to reveal his thoughts at this time.
NDP calls for subsidies
Craig Nash is running for the NDP and simply says he does not like the toll.
"I really think that if you're on the Island, just show your card," he said, meaning a card to show you're an Island resident.
"We at least should have it free fare for someone who goes for a medical procedure," said Nash. "We need to be able to have those people go across, they shouldn't have to be worrying about 'How am I going to pay for the bridge fare?' It's unacceptable."
Nash said he understands the existing contract makes eliminating the toll difficult, but he'd like to bring in subsidies for people who make below a certain income.
Bigger issues, says Green candidate
Malpeque Green Party candidate Anna Keenan said she agrees the bridge toll should be subsidized somehow for those who use it for medical reasons, and also for work in some situations.
"I think that we can provide targeted assistance to support those people," she said. "Ultimately because of the way that the public-private partnership was set up, the decision about bridge tolls is in the hands of the private company right now. There's not a lot that the federal government can do aside from directly subsidizing it."
"I don't think that it is the highest priority issue for Malpeque when we have a housing crisis, when we have a doctor shortage and when we need to focus the federal government squarely on climate change in the next decade," said Keenan.
But those who have been fighting the toll for years, like Taylor MacDougall, say they think the issue should be top of mind for voters and candidates.
MacDougall started a petition in 2015 to eliminate or discount the toll, which gathered more than 25,000 signatures.
"It tells me that Islanders definitely support this cause and we want to change," she said. "I think they would get an enormous amount of support if they were to put something in place to help Islanders with this cause."
MacDougall said eventually she'd like to present the petition to the Prime Minister, whomever that ends up being.
Straight Crossing has said the company follows the rules of the contract when setting the tolls, and will continue to do so. For instance it is allowed to raise tolls once a year on January 1, based on based rate of inflation.
The company said if the federal government wants to change the tolls, the company would have to be subsidized for lost revenue.
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