Prince Edward Island—Confederation Bridge TollPublished on 10 May 2016 Hansard and Statements by Senator Percy Downe
Hon. Percy E. Downe:
Minister, thank you for being here today. I noticed in your mandate letter that you have responsibility for infrastructure that would increase trade and economic growth across Canada, and I also see you have responsibility for the toll- free replacement for the Champlain Bridge, and that leads me to Confederation Bridge in Prince Edward Island.
When Prince Edward Island joined Confederation, Canada made a promise of continuous communication to the mainland, so over time the ice boats were replaced by the ferry service, and the ferry service was replaced by Confederation Bridge.
Prince Edward Islanders agreed to a toll on Confederation Bridge, which cost $1 billion to build, because at the time the Government of Canada had a user-pay policy for all major infrastructure projects. Your government, however, changed that policy and announced that the new $5 billion replacement for the existing Champlain Bridge will have no tolls, even though they had tolls up until 1990. In the interests of treating all Canadians equally and fairly, what relief is your government proposing on the current $46 per-trip toll that islanders have to pay on Confederation Bridge?
Hon. Amarjeet Sohi, P.C., M.P., Minister of Infrastructure and Communities: Thank you for your question, honourable senator. First, I’ll answer your question about the focus on trade and transportation and a major infrastructure corridor.
As you may recall, the Prime Minister has given me a mandate, and one part of the mandate is to refocus the existing Building Canada Fund towards trade and transportation corridors.
I am working very closely with my colleague, the Minister of Transport, to realign some of the resources from the Building Canada Fund, particularly the national component of the fund, to focus on trade and transportation corridors because we believe in growing our trade. We believe in expanding our economy and making our economy more productive and efficient, so we have to have investment in that area.
On your second question related to the new toll-free Champlain Bridge in Montreal, the bridge that we are building is a replacement. It is not a new bridge. The bridge that already exists needs to be replaced. The reason we are committed to not having a toll on the new Champlain Bridge is that the current one does not have a toll.
As for the Confederation Bridge, it is a federally owned asset, and the agreement with Strait Crossing Bridge Limited goes until 2032, and under that operating agreement the bridge operator has the authority to amend the tolling structure and rates. Transport Canada’s only role with respect to tolls on the Confederation Bridge is to review annual changes to the tolling structure and the rates to ensure that they are compliant with the provisions of the agreement.
The distinction that I make is that one was a new structure where there was no bridge before, and the other is a replacement for an existing structure. Thank you.
Senator Downe: Thank you for the comments, minister, but I think if you read my question, you’ll see I talked about a replacement bridge as well.
Confederation Bridge is a replacement for the ferry service. Canada made a commitment to Prince Edward Island and to Prince Edward Island residents for continuous communication, which has been interpreted by the courts to be an evolution of transportation. We went from ice boats in the winter to the ferry service to the technology to build a bridge, so it’s a replacement. More important, it’s honouring the commitment Canada made to Islanders to get us to join Canada.
What we need from you, minister, is some of that infrastructure money for an existing infrastructure project to increase trade and economic development in Prince Edward Island.
You’re quite correct that the contract was signed with a private company for 35 years, but there are a couple of options your government could consider. The bridge has been constructed to last 100 years. If the contract was extended by the Government of Canada and it paid the subsidy that is now going to the company for another seven years, tolls would fall in half overnight. If you extend it by 20 years, tolls would disappear.
The other possibility is that the Government of Canada has targeted tax measures for people in all parts of Canada. It might be possible for Prince Edward Islanders to save their receipts and to claim them on their income tax, as other Canadians do in specific tax areas, if the toll was eliminated. If you don’t pay taxes, you get a cheque for the amount. But we need you and your infrastructure funding to address this change in policy that your government has implemented when you announced that the replacement bridge would not have tolls, even though the bridge it is replacing used to have tolls. Would you consider that, minister?
Mr. Sohi: Thank you, honourable senator. I want to touch on the changes we have made to the Building Canada Fund to help the Atlantic provinces. As you may recall, under the New Building Canada Fund, there were restrictions for which road projects the Building Canada Fund can be used for.
In discussions with my counterparts in Atlantic Canada, we came to know that the vast majority of the infrastructure dollars allocated to the Atlantic provinces were not being used because of those restrictions. We have removed those restrictions. That will free up hundreds of millions of dollars for the Atlantic provinces to use for roadway infrastructure. Where that money goes is a decision made by the provinces, not by the federal government. They will determine their priorities. If a particular province wants to use those resources for the expansion of the roadway system or replacement of the existing structures or any other way they feel they need to allocate those resources, they’ll be able to do so.
As far as the Confederation Bridge is concerned, I understand that the contract is in place until 2032. I know this is an area that Minister Garneau is responsible for, but as I said earlier, I understand and appreciate the concerns. The decision not to toll the Champlain Bridge is because it’s a replacement structure, as well as there was no consultation done with the area’s municipalities, the business community or the residents who would have paid this toll. That is the reason we have committed to not having a toll on the Champlain Bridge.