Prince Edward Island Premier Dennis King is calling on the federal government to support reducing the toll on the Confederation Bridge by 60 per cent, so that it sits at $20 by September.
King spoke with federal officials about decreasing the amount it costs to cross the bridge to New Brunswick in November, and then sent a letter on Dec. 9 to Dominic LeBlanc, Canada’s minister of infrastructure and a New Brunswick MP.
The current regular car toll of $50.25 on the bridge is not affordable for Islanders and Island businesses, said King. He would also like to see the cost of taking the ferry between P.E.I. and Nova Scotia drop to $20.
“When you do business on a global scale, the way we do business now, that has become a competitive disadvantage for us,” he told CBC News this week.
King asked LeBlanc to form a working group of federal and provincial officials to talk about reducing both the toll and the ferry fare.
“We keep hearing the comparables to the Champlain Bridge, which [began construction] in 2015 in Montreal. That’s subsidized to the tune of close to $200 million a year from the federal government,” said King.
King pointed out that the 3.4-kilometre Champlain Bridge, which carries a federally regulated highway and connects two parts of the city of Montreal, has no toll.
By comparison, he said, the federal government pays about $90 million a year for the Confederation Bridge and the ferry.
“If we were subsidized at the same level [as the Champlain Bridge], we could get to a $20 fee for the ferry and the bridge,” said King.
Traffic volumes on the two bridges are vastly different. The Champlain Bridge, one of the busiest in North America, sees 50 million vehicles cross it every year, while in the pre-pandemic year 2019, nearly 900,000 vehicles crossed the Confederation Bridge.
P.E.I. Senator Percy Downe has been advocating for a lower bridge toll for years, and also uses the Champlain Bridge example to complain about double standards.
Downe has also spoken with King on the topic before. One prominent occasion was just after King became premier in 2019; this is also expected to be a provincial election year.
“We all pay for that at the grocery store and everywhere else. It’s a cost-of-living factor and it’s grossly unfair when others are using federally owned bridges and not paying any toll at all,” said Downe.
The federal government’s recent decision to freeze the bridge toll for 2023 was “the first step,” he said.
“[It was] the first time the Government of Canada has actually acknowledged that the tolls are a hindrance and a problem in Prince Edward Island,” Downe said.
On Dec. 19, the federal government announced that the bridge toll would not go up with the cost of inflation in 2023, as is set out in the terms of operation for the Confederation Bridge.
Downe said the fact that King has taken this issue to the federal government means “we’re making progress.”
No one from the federal Ministry of Transport or Ministry of Infrastructure was available for an interview with CBC News, but the office of the Minister of Transport sent a statement.
“Our government recognizes the important role the Confederation Bridge plays for Islanders and the economy of Prince Edward Island,” the statement read.
“We will continue to work with the government of Prince Edward Island to make life more affordable for residents and look at other avenues we can take to do so.”
‘Islanders get a better deal’
The financing for the plan is still up in the air, but in the end, King acknowledged, “it would be taxpayers that would be picking up the difference.”
A federal subsidy could help finance the reduced toll, said King, though the provincial government recognizes it would have to contribute as well.
The member of Parliament for Egmont, Bobby Morrissey, said he would welcome the opportunity to discuss reducing the toll.
“I believe that we can negotiate a better agreement that will see Islanders get a better deal, or it would not be as expensive to cross the bridge,” said the federal politician from western P.E.I.
The federal government has been responsive in making life more affordable for Islanders, said King, so he’s hopeful they will also listen on this issue.
“I think if you have willing partners on both sides looking to find a solution, that we can find a reasonable way forward,” he said.