Islanders demand free ride on Confederation Bridge

Revenue raised from tourists should subsidize Islanders who cross the bridge

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CORNWALL, PEI Jun 24, 2015/ Troy Media/ – The total so far is 7,000 signatures and counting.

That is how many people have put their digital John Hancock to an online petition on the website “Change.org” started by Taylor MacDougall. It calls for Islanders to drive free over the 13 kilometer span called the Confederation Bridge that links Prince Edward Island with New Brunswick.

Right now, everybody pays $45.50, regardless of the address on the driver’s license. The longest bridge in the world over ice covered waters is actually a public-private partnership. A private company called Strait Crossing designed and built the structure and will operate it until 2032.

Toll on Confederation Bridge adjusted each year for inflation

A toll of $35 was set by the federal government when the bridge opened in 1997, but Strait Crossing is allowed to raise the amount to account for inflation each January 1.

MacDougall argues tourists should in fact subsidize Islanders who cross the bridge. Her reasoning is visitors come to the province knowing they have to pay a one-time fee. However, she notes in the petition “as permanent residents we don’t have that luxury, every single time we want to leave our Island we are forced to pay $45.50, along with other personal travel costs.”

While the idea may become popular among Islanders, it would likely put the province at any unfair advantage when it comes to promoting itself in the tourism marketplace. As a lifelong Islander, I realize saying to visitors “come on over so you can pay for my next shopping trip to the Mainland” isn’t exactly an award-winning tourism slogan.

We also run the risk of getting into a turf war with our Maritime neighbours. What is to stop New Brunswick from saying its residents can ride the approach roads to the bridge for free but Islanders have to pay a toll?

The petition is addressed to Premier Wade MacLauchlan, despite the fact the bridge is under the control of the federal government. While he has said little publically on the issue, it is unlikely MacLauchlan would disagreed with the idea.

In fact, his chief of staff, Robert Vessey, is on record as calling, at least in a roundabout fashion, for an adjustment to the toll while he was minister of transportation and infrastructure in the government of Robert Ghiz. His comments were triggered by plans to build a structure to replace the Champlain Bridge in Montreal.

Unlike the Confederation Bridge, the new Montreal structure will be built by Ottawa and the federal government is proposing a toll to help pay the cost of maintenance. Right now, that charge is projected to be between $2 and $6 – much less than Island-New Brunswick toll, which is also under federal government jurisdiction.

However, before Vessey could mount a campaign against Ottawa he had moved from a front row politician to a behind the scenes bureaucrat.

That mantle has now been take up by Senator Percy Downe. Both Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard are now arguing the new Champlain Bridge should be toll-free. With a federal election just months away, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has joined that chorus.

Senator Downe maintains the NDP policy makes no economic sense, but like any true politician he adheres to the maxim that “all politics is local.” He knows it’s a winner to say to a local audience why should people in Montreal get something we don’t have.”

He goes even further, saying if Mulcair supports a free bridge in Montreal, he should also lobby not only for free access to Confederation Bridge but also for free ferry services throughout the country – most prominently the one connecting Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Does Mulcair care only for Quebec?

“Is Mr. Mulcair in favour of free bridges and ferries everywhere in Canada, or just in Quebec?” Senator Downe asks. “Islanders – be they from the Island of Montreal or Prince Edward Island – should be seeking a clarification from the Leader of the Official Opposition about his no tolls policy.”

Since the majority of Mulcair’s caucus is from Quebec and zero per cent of his MP’s are from PEI, not too much imagination is probably needed to answer the question. The NDP leader also knows the importance of playing to the local audience, as do Mayor Coderre and Premier Couillard.

While playing to the hometown crowd is usually a winner, it is not always the best use of taxpayer’s dollars. Bridges and ferries have to be paid for and the fairest way is to split the cost among the people who use them.

A life-long resident of Prince Edward Island, Troy Media Syndicated Columnist Andy Walker has been a writer and commentator for over 30 years.

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