Alberta Transportation plans to charge user fees to finance a new bridge over the Peace River to replace the aging La Crete ferry in northern Alberta, an act enabled by a new bill introduced in the legislature Tuesday.
Bill 43, the Financing Alberta's Strategic Transportation (FAST) Act, would allow the government to use tolls to finance new roads and bridges.
Transportation Minster Ric McIver said tolls would only apply to new projects, and only in cases where there are other routes people can use for free.
"In other words, as an Albertan, if you never want to pay a toll in your life, you don't have to, period," McIver said.
The minister said the fees would only go toward the cost of the project, not into general government revenue and the tolls would end once the project is paid for.
Opposition Leader Rachel Notley called the bill a "Trojan horse" that would open the province up for more tolls.
She said then-opposition leader Jason Kenney refuted NDP concerns that the UCP was planning toll roads if they won the 2019 election. At the time, he said tolls would only be used for industrial routes.
"What we've got today is a piece of legislation that is not limited to industrial roads," Notley said. "It covers all provincial highways serving any community."
The NDP leader said tolls could be used to finance highway widening projects, such as the Deerfoot Trail through Calgary.
"Jason Kenney promised us that this kind of model, this kind of toll, would not be applied to regular Albertans going about their daily lives," she said. "He told us it would just be for industrial use. That's not what this legislation says."
The $200-million Highway 697 bridge over the Peace River would be the first project financed in this manner if the bill passes.
McIver said the plan has the support of both Mackenzie Country and the La Crete Chamber of Commerce because they would rather have a bridge than a new ferry. He said the project could be completed by 2025 or 2026 using toll financing.
However, it isn't clear whether the highway has the traffic volume to finance the construction.
McIver said the ministry has tracked the number of vehicles that use the highway and the figures suggest it would take about 30 years to pay for the bridge.
NDP transportation critic Rod Loyola said the government was using tolls as a form of blackmail.
Loyola said McIver told Mackenzie County in a letter last summer that the traffic numbers over the Peace River were too low, ensuring a bridge would never be built, but that would change if tolls were imposed.
Loyola said other municipalities will take heed.
"This government's message to Alberta communities is that a project can vault to the front of the line if tolls are imposed," Loyola said.