HALIFAX, N.S. - The Nova Scotia government plans to boost commercial-vehicle tolls on Hwy. 104's Cobequid Pass by 25 per cent, a move that has enraged fleets commonly running the route.Starting Jan. 1...
HALIFAX, N.S. – The Nova Scotia government plans to boost commercial-vehicle tolls on Hwy. 104’s Cobequid Pass by 25 per cent, a move that has enraged fleets commonly running the route.
Starting Jan. 1, the fare on multi-axle commercial vehicles operating on the pass – a four-lane divided highway that opened in 1997 and runs 45 kilometres between Thomson Station and Masstown in northern Nova Scotia – will increase from $2 to $2.50 an axle, or from $9.50 to $12 for an 18-wheeler. Fares for passenger cars are also going up by 50 cents, to $3.50.
The new toll and “the fact that we’re seeing exorbitant fuel prices in this part of the country is a tremendous increase to our industry at this particular time,” said Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association (APTA) president Ralph Boyd. After Boyd sent two letters requesting meetings with Nova Scotia Minister of Transportation and Public Works Ron Russell, the ministry responded and he finally met with deputy minister Howard Windsor and several other officials in mid-December.
“We basically put our case forward of what we’re seeing in the industry now,” says Boyd. “The fact that we were basically told by the previous administration (of Liberal Russell MacLellan, who was kicked out of office by Progressive Conservative Jon Hamm in 1999) that we would not see an increase in toll rates, simply because increased volumes were hopefully going to be there to offset any future increases.
“Unfortunately, they are following the contract with the private partner to the letter,” he said, adding, “they are hanging their hat on the fact that the roadway, in all likelihood, could be paid off in half the time than was originally planned.”
In Boyd’s opinion, the agreement should be followed through as originally drafted; there should be no rush to pay it off sooner.
“If you have entered into a contract and you have budgeted for something and people are comfortable paying what we’re paying today, why would you not just be satisfied letting people continue to pay that?” Boyd asked. “If we were able to pay it off in less time, all well and good. And if not, then what seems to be the rush here?”
It was part of the original agreement, Al Hollingsworth, a spokesmen for the ministry, said in trying to explain the new rates. “There was a series of increases included in that, and the Western Alignment Corp., which runs and owns the highway, is entitled to make these. The only thing we’ve attempted to do, and did do, is to phase them in so they don’t come as a heavy hit.
“Any increase is not a good thing, but (this government) has to live by the contract that we inherited. It’s not something it can get out of, it’s a legal thing,” Hollingsworth said.
He explained that, “what they did do is, instead of getting maybe two or three big ones, they get several smaller (increases) until the highway is paid off.”
The good news at this time is that with the rate of travel, (the government) is now projecting that the highway will be debt-free and owned by the province within 15 years, which is half the original projected time, Hollingsworth said. “They had originally projected 30 years, but the rate of travel has been that great that they’ve been able to retire a good deal of the debt so far and its looking good, at the moment,” he said.
“All these increases were right up front, everybody knew about them three years ago,” said Donald Piercey, Hwy. 104 Western Alignment Corp.’s general manager. The company he manages is government-owned but has the exclusive right to finance, design, build, operate and maintain that highway for a thirty-year period. “They’re saying they didn’t (know of the increase) but all I can say is the information was out there,” Piercey says, adding, “it’s a scheduled toll increase. It was certainly in the public realm. I mean they should have known. God, there was enough fiasco about it.”
Boyd is particularly upset by indications that the road is actually “reaping some financial benefit” because the revenues calculated when it was being built were underestimated. “Volumes of traffic are up considerably, over lets say the first analysis that was done,” Boyd said.
Piercey confirmed that traffic has been on the rise and estimates it to be “maybe up 10 per cent over the modeling.”
“We operate over that roadway with a transponder; we only saw a 25 per cent reduction. So if you look at the fact that we are paying more on an average basis, in comparison to passenger automobiles, and then turn around and get this slap in the face, a 25 per cent increase, I don’t care whether it was part of the contract or not,” says Boyd. “It seems that this particular government is even worse than the previous government at not listening to the major users of that highway and we are a major user.”
Hollingsworth hopes the rate increases aren’t a deterrent to usage, because that would change the financing projections. “Again, we think the economy is strong enough that (toll payers) can absorb it,” he said. “We’d love to be able to say it’s free, but we can’t. We don’t own it.”
Hollingsworth said that, if the Nova Scotia government and the Hwy. 104 Western Alignment Corp. “follow the letter of the contract,” there would be further increases in 2003 and 2005. n
Quebec muses new
By Carroll McCormick
MONTREAL, Que. – After years of no road tolls in Quebec, talk of pay-for-use highways has resurfaced with the passing of Bill 164 this fall.
This bill includes standards for public-private highway partnerships and guidelines for establishing and collecting tolls.
Toll talk has so far been limited to just two highway projects. The first is a 10-kilometre, six-lane extension to Hwy. 25. (The A20 between Riviere-de-Loup and Montreal becomes the A25 on Montreal Island after passing through the Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine tunnel.) This would run north across Riviere des Prairies to link with the A440 in Laval. The other project is a long-standing dream to complete the A30 South Shore ring road to completely bypass the Island of Montreal.
Many people remember the old days of toll highway after toll highway in Quebec. Coin used to be collected on the A15, A13, A40, A10 and the Jacques Cartier and Champlain bridges. But today’s thinking, says Pierre Toupin, the director of partnership and transportation planning with Transports Quebec, is to consider tolls only on new highways, of which not so many are planned. “We will not put tolls on existing highways,” he says.
For those who follow changing government winds, however, it is worth noting that Bill 164 places no such restriction on where tolls could be collected. Any public-private transportation infrastructure project falls under the bill and the newly legislated right to establish tolls.
Quebec Transport Minister Guy Chevrette was reported to have said that the tolls on the A25 and A30 could be between one and two dollars, but he acknowledged that this is just a guess.
“It is too early [to put a dollar figure on tolls],” says Toupin. “Only after the partners have been selected can the tolls be determined. The announcement of the tolls for the 407 in Toronto came very late.”
The $325-million extension to the A25 is currently undergoing environmental impact studies, which Toupin expects will be completed in late 2001. The optimum toll system for this stretch of highway has not been worked out yet, but says Toupin, “One of the solutions is to have a toll on the bridge on the Riviere des Prairies.”
The impact of the A25 extension and tolls on truck traffic is not yet well understood, says Toupin. “We do not have good data on trucks. Trucks ranging from Laval (to points east or the US) could be interested in this.”
The South Shore ring road would seem to be a blessing for truck traffic that has no need to cross onto the Island of Montreal, but so far the completion of the A30 has stalled on the $530-million cost of completing the highway and two bridges.
The Quebec Trucking Association (QTA) is solidly behind the project,
which would go a long way to easing the horrible congestion on the Island of Montreal. Yet Transports Quebec estimates that only 700 trucks would use Autoroute 30 each day. The QTA disputes these figures, and so do others.
Jean-Robert Lesard, the vice-president of Robert Transport in Boucherville, says he’s certain Transports Quebec’s figures are wrong. According to him, around 350 Robert trucks alone cross Montreal Island every day.
“I don’t know how Transports Quebec counts it, but over 24 hours a lot of trucks pass over the Met,” said Lesard earlier this year in reference to through traffic.
Transports Quebec thinks the traffic, and thus the toll revenues would be too meager to entice a private concern to complete the A30. “There is not enough traffic, from our estimates, to make it a private freeway, charge tolls and recoup interest,” said a Transports Quebec official. “It would not be realistic.”
Another option that could attract a private partner is to have a public-private partnership build a toll ring road. But in the time leading up to the federal election in November, Transports Quebec Minister Chevrette had no luck getting the attention of the federal Minister of Transport and his purse.
But during the election, federal politicians announced that $357 million in federal funding would be used to build the two bridges required for the ring road. Almost immediately though, Prime Minister Jean Chretien backpedalled away from the promise; the ring road is back in limbo.
Truckers used to burning up their fuel and logbook time in Montreal’s snail-paced traffic might happily pay a toll to zip from one end of the metropolis to the other. This opportunity, mind you, could easily be a decade away. n
Vancouver Council okays vehicle levy
By Frank Condon
VANCOUVER, B.C. – The Greater Vancouver Regional Council has approved a plan to place a levy on every motor vehicle registered on B.C.’s Lower Mainland.
The levy plan was put forward by the board of directors of TransLink, the region’s public transportation authority, who want to use the money raised to fund the authority’s $450-million Strategic Transportation Plan, or STP, for road and public transportation improvements on the Lower Mainland. The plan calls for more than 500 new buses, 20 new cars for the existing SkyTrain line and half a billion dollars to maintain, improve and add to the region’s major road and bridge network. The STP is strongly opposed by both the BCTA and the British Columbia Automobile Association because those groups feel it does not adequately address road congestion problems in the region.
At a meeting on Dec. 1, the Greater Vancouver Regional District voted 56-50 to approve TransLink’s levy plan. The levy schedule, which is based on both vehicle weight and insurance class, calls for passenger car owners in the region to pay from $40 annually for a compact car used for pleasure only to as much as $120 for an SUV-type vehicle used for business. The levy for commercial vehicles would range from $120 to $250.
For TransLink, getting the levy approved by the District was the easy part, says BCTA president Paul Landry.
“The whole thing could turn out to be a moot point in the end,” explains Landry. “They have the power to pass a bylaw mandating the levy, but they have no mechanism to collect it.
“It would be ideal for TransLink for ICBC (Insurance Corporation of British Columbia) to collect the levy at the point of vehicle licensing. But we (the groups opposed) have asked ICBC not to agree to that and ICBC has so far refused to do it.”
Another option for TransLink would be to have the provincial government collect the levy from registered vehicle owners in the region through the provincial income tax or via the AirCare program (similar to Ontario’s Drive Clean program). But with a provincial election looming in the New Year, Landry says politicians are reluctant to back any new taxes.
“The current NDP government in B.C. is under a lot of pressure right now about taxes and spending,” he says. “And we have received assurances from the leader of the opposition Liberals (Gordon Campbell) that his party would not assist in the imposition of the new tax should they form the next government.”
In truth, though, the TransLink board may have gone through the process of getting the levy plan approved in order to establish a fallback funding option for the STP.
In November, the TransLink board also approved a motion that a formal request be made to the provincial government for increases to the gas tax within the region of one cent per litre in 2001 and four cents per litre in 2002, a plan that has little hope of succeeding.
According to TransLink, the vehicle levy would be introduced only if either federal funding or provincial gas tax increases failed to produce enough funding for the transportation plan. By law, the levy could not come into effect until Oct. 1, 2001.
“We believe our first priority is to achieve federal funding to cover the operational cost for the road system; That’s the funding needed to eliminate the vehicle levy,” says TransLink communications director Ken Hardy. “The federal government currently takes in between $300 million and $400 million in gas taxes from this region annually and puts nothing back.”
Federal funding could be slow in coming, however, and TransLink is clearly ready to forge ahead with the STP as soon as possible. But the approval of the levy plan by Greater Vancouver allows TransLink to prepare its 2001 budget based on proceeding with the STP. With funding in place, on paper at least, TransLink would be able to proceed in March or April of next year with an expansion in service that had been originally planned for next December.
“Lets face it, this is a new tax in a province that feels, not without justification, over-taxed,” Hardy concedes. “But I still think you would find few citizens of the region that are opposed to the plan itself. The trucking industry is one, but they would just like to see more highways built. However, we think there is simply not enough money or spare land for that kind of highway expansion… By the trucking industry’s own estimates, congestion in the region is costing the industry a half-billion dollars a year in lost productivity.”
He says if the transit system is improved to get some single-passenger cars off the roads, that would help a great deal.
“And if we can get some roads built, that will help also. Lots of the benefits of the plan will accrue directly to the trucking industry.”
While Landry agrees there is no question the region needs improvements in both roads and transit, he still feels it would be “madness” to proceed with what his association and others consider an inadequate plan with insufficient financial support.
“We have called for a review of the plan,” Landry says. “We’re not talking about massive freeways, but there is nothing in there for road users. The problem is this is a transit improvement plan that will ultimately be funded by road users. In the meantime, the project will be funded through debt financing that is simply not sustainable. And who do you think is going to pay in the end?
“You would think not having the funding in place would delay the plan,” Landry adds.
“And after 25 years of mismanagement, waiting a little longer to come up with a balanced plan is not a bad thing.” n