Federal Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Amarjeet Sohi confirmed in reply to a question in the Senate that the new Gordie Howe Bridge in Windsor, Ontario, currently estimated in media reports to cost up to $4.8 billion, will have a toll. We now have a situation in this country where two major multi-billion dollar bridge projects are underway, the Gordie Howe Bridge and the replacement Champlain Bridge which will also cost over $4 billion. But while the Gordie Howe Bridge will charge a toll, the Champlain Bridge in Montreal will be toll-free. Meanwhile, Prince Edward Islanders continue to pay a toll of $46.50 to use Confederation Bridge, which cost slightly over $1 billion to construct.
All three bridges are owned by the Government of Canada. So why are taxpayers paying the full construction and maintenance cost of the Champlain Bridge, while users of the other two bridges must pay a toll to cover those same expenses?
In the middle of the last federal election, Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau announced that if elected, he would not institute a toll on Montreal’s new federally-funded replacement Champlain Bridge even though tolls were charged on the existing Champlain Bridge until 1990.
The government’s commitment to a toll-free Champlain Bridge flies in the face of its plan to, in the words of its 2016 Economic Statement, “leverage its investments in infrastructure, by bringing in private capital”. In other words, government will no longer be expected to foot the entire bill for large-scale infrastructure projects, but rather will partner with, or leave the entire job to, the private sector. Of course, private investors aren’t going to fund Canadian infrastructure projects out of the goodness of their hearts: they expect to make their money back with more besides, and that means tolls. All this begs the question, if toll revenue is so important to the sustainability of an infrastructure renewal program, why isn’t there a toll on the Champlain Bridge?
It is the position of the government that, as Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Amarjeet Sohi stated:
“(R)elated 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.”
In point of fact, it bears remembering that the Champlain Bridge did charge a toll for most of its existence, from its opening on June 28th 1962 to May 4th 1990. Furthermore, the original plan for the replacement Champlain Bridge included tolls that were estimated (by the Parliamentary Budget Officer) to range between $2.60 and $3.90, and was a part of the 2014 Federal Budget. However, the tolls became an issue during the 2015 Federal Election campaign and were dropped by the new government after they won the election.
Minister Sohi said that the government plans to structure the tolls on the Gordie Howe Bridge in such a way that “there’s not too much burden on immediate users.” It would appear that what constitutes “too much burden” varies from one location to the next, from the $46.50 toll on Confederation Bridge to leave Prince Edward Island, through the toll (as yet undetermined) on the Gordie Howe Bridge, to a toll-free Champlain Bridge.
If all Canadian taxpayers must collectively finance both the cost of construction and maintenance of the Champlain Bridge, and Montreal ends up getting a $4 billion government funded bridge with no tolls, then Canadians in the rest of the country have a right to receive equal treatment. If we are going to discard the longstanding user pay policy for transportation megaprojects in Canada, then Prince Edward Islanders can look forward to the removal of tolls on Confederation Bridge. And residents of Southern Ontario should be able to cross their new Bridge without paying both to build it and to use it.
The question the Government of Canada must ask—and answer—is whether the policy of a toll-free Champlain Bridge makes any financial sense to anyone. And why are Canadians being treated differently depending upon where they live?
Percy Downe is a Senator from Charlottetown.