CHARLOTTETOWN — The premier of Prince Edward Island is asking the federal government to reduce the tolls for the Confederation Bridge to make trips to and from the mainland more affordable.
Dennis King said Monday he wants the toll for cars to drop to $20 from $50.25 by September to eliminate what he calls a "competitive disadvantage" for Islanders. The tolls for cars and trucks should come down for the bridge linking P.E.I. with New Brunswick and for the ferry service that connects the Island with Nova Scotia, King said.
"If you look at the cost of living in Prince Edward Island, it's the highest in the country ... and one of the reasons why is that all of the goods that come to P.E.I. come here on wheels," King said in an interview from his office in Charlottetown.
"And one of the added costs ... is the fact that all of those trucks need to pay a toll either on the bridge or the ferry when it's in service."
On Dec. 9, King sent a letter to federal Infrastructure Minister Dominic LeBlanc, suggesting federal and provincial officials come together to strike a deal to bring those costs down. King said he has yet to receive a written response.
"The federal government has treated Prince Edward Island very fairly during my time as premier," King said Monday. "This isn't a criticism. This is a request to work together ... This isn't me standing here saying, 'Damn you feds, I need more money.'"
The 12.9-kilometre Confederation Bridge is Canada's longest bridge and is a federally owned asset managed by Strait Crossing Bridge Ltd., a private company that has the exclusive right to collect all tolls until 2032.
King said that when he travelled to Ottawa to meet with LeBlanc in November, he was aware that Strait Crossing was poised to raise the toll for cars by $4.25 in 2023, which would have been the highest increase since the bridge opened in 1997.
On Dec. 19, federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announced tolls for the bridge would be frozen for 2023 to help Island residents and businesses struggling to cope with high inflation and the damage caused by post-tropical storm Fiona last September.
At the time, Alghabra said Strait Crossing would receive an additional subsidy to deal with inflationary pressures. The company's federal contract stipulates it can raise tolls when traffic drops off, as it did after the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in 2020.
Alghabra's press secretary, Nadine Ramadan, issued a statement Monday saying Ottawa recognizes the important role the Confederation Bridge plays for Islanders and the economy of P.E.I., which is why tolls were frozen last month.
"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," Ramadan said in the statement.
King said he is looking for a longer-term solution.
"I couldn't be any more appreciative of the fact that we did pause the $4.25 — I don't want to be ungrateful," King said Monday. "But because there's been previous (financial) interventions by the federal government to deal with COVID and the cost of living, I think that means there is a path forward ... to a longer-term reduction in tolls."
He said a federal-provincial committee could also look into reducing fares charged by the ferry service, which is operated under a federal contract by Northumberland Ferries Ltd.
As for the bridge, King said lowering the tolls is a matter of fairness, considering there are no tolls on other federally regulated bridges, including the relatively new Samuel De Champlain Bridge in Montreal, which carries far more traffic than the Confederation Bridge. The Montreal bridge, completed in 2019, replaced a bridge that charged tolls between 1962 and 1990.
The premier said the annual federal subsidy for the new Champlain Bridge is close to $200 million a year, compared with more than $80 million for the Confederation Bridge and the ferry service.
"We think that if we're treated equally, and the subsidy is the same for Montreal as it would be here for P.E.I., that's how you get the math to get down to $20 (per car), which is a more reasonable toll," he said. "It would make life more affordable here and more competitive for the people who chose to do business here."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2023.
— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax
The Canadian Press