For whom the bridge tolls

by Carroll McCormick

MONTREAL, Que. — The federal government insists that tolls are non-negotiable for the replacement Champlain Bridge. Montreal area politicians say, ‘No way.’ Quebec’s trucking industry says ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’

The Harper government worked tolls into its 2014 budget, noting in its Economic Action Plan 2014 Act, No. 1, “The New Bridge for the St. Lawrence Act will … provide the Minister of Public Works and Government Services with the authority to enter into an agreement with a third party (P3 partner as operator) and for the latter to collect tolls, fees or other charges that may be imposed in respect of the bridge.”

The federal government announced this year that the new bridge will be a public-private partnership (P3) and that there will be a toll on it when it opens in 2018. Although no one knows, or is just not saying how much the toll will be, federal Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel has said that $7 is incorrect; rather, it will closer to what is being charged for the A30 ring road ($1.50 per axle for trucks) and the A25 ($2.50 per axle for trucks during peak periods and $1.88 per axle for off-peak periods).

Really? The A25 cost $500 million and the A30 cost $1.5 billion. The new Champlain Bridge will supposedly cost between $3 and $5 billion. If tolls reflect construction costs, perhaps $7 is the better guess. Gregory Thomas, federal director, Canadian Taxpayers Federation, believes that to avoid price gouging, an independent commission should regulate tolls. 

“We think that the bridge developer should have to make the case to a third-party regulator for the bridge tolls.” Furthermore, he notes, “We don’t see a very transparent connection between fuel taxes that are collected and the building of roads. In our view it would be better to replace regular fuel taxes with tolling.”

In any case, tolls on the new Champlain Bridge appear to be a fait accompli. “The only thing remaining,” says Marc Cadieux, director general, Quebec Trucking Association (QTA), “is ‘how much will it cost?’”

Quebec politicians, including Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, are against the toll. 

“The trucking industry is opinionated on both sides. Some say, ‘Say no to tolls, Marc,’ and others say, ‘Just lobby that the fees will be feasible’,” Cadieux says. However, he elaborates, “There has to be a financial incentive to use it. I am here to represent the fluidity of the highway transportation, reasonable costs and that new toll charging systems not be invented.” 

Cadieux is referring to the fact that the A30 and A25 have different tolling systems. Worse, the A25 consortium adds an extra $5.20 administration fee on the toll for users who do not have transponders. This triggered a class action lawsuit last year.

“The QTA is fighting (the different tolling systems), to not reinvent what already exists. The government should oblige the P3 to use a common toll system,” Cadieux says. He adds that Lebel is aware of this problem. 

“Consumers have every right to demand (standardized toll collection technologies),” Thomas comments.

If tolls cost less than the cost of fuel, time and wear and tear on trucks inching across the current Champlain Bridge, that would benefit the trucking industry. As currently envisioned, the replacement bridge will have three lanes in each direction, as does the Champlain Bridge now. Unlike the current bridge however, which reserves one lane inbound in the morning and one outbound in the afternoon and evening for buses, the new bridge will have a dedicated inbound and a dedicated outbound lane for public transit. Hopefully, the replacement bridge will be able to easily digest current and future traffic. Lower prices during off-peak hours, although apparently not part of the public discussion right now, could even help smooth out the daily traffic flow, and offer truckers an option.

“If you have peak hour tolling the trucking industry could make a rational decision when to use the road, to use it at non-peak times,” Thomas suggests.

There is a concern that vehicles could swarm free alternatives to the new Champlain Bridge, such as the Jacques Cartier and Mercier Bridges, the Lafontaine Tunnel or even the A40 to and from Trois-Rivieres. This may not happen, but still, there could be unintended consequences, even if only locally. 

For example, Valleyfield has been complaining that eastbound trucks that skirt the A30 tollbooths are a noisy nuisance. They do this by exiting the A20 onto Boulevard Monseigneur-Langlois and then reconnecting with the A30 beyond the tollbooths. “There has been pressure. This is a debate within the debate,” Cadieux says.

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