Ask not for whom bridges are tolled, they’re tolled for thee, Islanders

P.E.I Senator Percy Downe is making a one-man argument for the usefulness of the Canadian Senate. Downe, a career political hack appointed to the Senate in 2003, is doing what Canadian senators were originally supposed to do. He’s standing up for regional interests in Ottawa.

In the beginning, the Senate was set up – with the U.S. model in mind – to give the smaller provinces some leverage in the parliamentary system. They received a disproportionate number of seats in the Senate to offset the rep-by-pop dominance of Ontario and Quebec in the House of Commons. Thus, while MPs from the Maritimes are a today a mere 7.4% presence in the Commons, members from the Maritimes and Newfoundland account for 28.6% of the seats in the Senate.

Of course, that numerical strength is meaningless unless it’s used to actually stand up for regional interests. It’s probably not a stretch to say that throughout our 149-year history instances of that phenomenon have been rare. With Senate seats from the smaller provinces normally handed out to party faithful, there’s scant chance that a senator will put regional interest ahead of the interest of the rep-by-pop oriented party leadership that appointed him.

But that’s what Downe appears to be doing, and he’s doing it with an issue that is very simple to understand. He is asking why Islanders have to pay a $46 toll to use the $1-billion federally-financed Confederation bridge while Montrealers will get to use the $4-$5 billion federally-financed Champlain bridge replacement for free?

Politically risky

This is a good question, but it is one that carries some political risk. For one thing, to avoid the appearance of a party split, such regionally sensitive issues are usually debated behind closed caucus room doors. That caucus solidarity custom was challenged when Justin Trudeau booted Liberal Senators out of the federal caucus a couple of years ago. Downe’s performance looks like an unintended consequence of that move. But there’s a bigger danger as well – the questioner stands a good chance of being branded a threat to national unity, guilty of pitting one part of the country against another. We have certainly seen a good bit of that kind of pitting in our history, and there are still remnants about – see Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall. And the notion that Quebec gets special treatment at the expense of the Maritimes is certainly present down this way.

But Downe’s CV does not indicate that he’s a garden variety Quebec basher. According to his Wikipedia entry, after starting his career in the Liberal backrooms of PEI he went o Ottawa with the federal Liberal sweep of 1993. He worked for various ministers before capping his sherpa career with two years as Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s chief of staff, just before his appointment to the Senate.

I’m not sure what else he has been up to in the Senate, but on two issues at least, Downe has been earning his pay. One issue is the tax gap. Downe has been after the Canada Revenue Agency to reveal the gap – the difference between what the government believes its tax revenues should be and the taxes it actually collects. Downe started his campaign on the issue when the Conservatives were in power. The media also took an interest in the subject, resulting in a Liberal campaign promise to end the CRA’s secrecy about the tax gap. When the Trudeau government backtracked on the commitment – revealing just the gap for HST and GST and leaving hidden the more controversial and costly international tax gap – Downe was quick to criticize.

His questioning of the fairness of bridge tolls also started when the Conservatives were in power. The Harper government was committed to tolls. This user-pay approach was the practice from the time the Champlain bridge first opened in 1962 and lasted until 1990. And a combination of federal subsidy and user pay has historically been the rule for transportation links between P.E.I and the mainland.

Chided Mulcair

The Harper Conservatives never put a price tag on the tolls for the Champlain bridge replacement when it was announced in 2011. But the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) estimated a toll of between $2.60 and $3.90 would be needed to cover the cost of the new span. The Conservatives, with a snowball’s chance in hell of winning seats in Montreal, hung tough on tolls. Not so the New Democrats, who held most of the seats in Montreal, and the Liberals, who held a few and coveted the rest. In typical partisan fashion, Senator Downe skipped over the Liberal stand and, pre-election, aimed his salient question at NDP Leader Tom Mulcair’s argument that tolls were not justified because the Champlain bridge is of national importance.

“The NDP Leader’s no tolls policy will surely be well received in Quebec given that several NDP MPs hold seats along the south shore where the bridge will be built, but the price tag of the NDP Leader’s populist position could be enormous,” Downe wrote in a pre-2015 election post designed to encourage Atlantic Canadians to challenge the NDP’s stance on polls. “If Montreal ends up getting a $5 billion (sic) bridge, paid for by the Government of Canada with no tolls, why would the rest of Canada continue to pay any toll on our bridge or ferries?”

That appeal to regionalism aimed at the NDP may have had some impact – Maritimers decided to vote lemming-like for the Liberals to get rid of the Harper Conservatives. But to his credit, post-election, with the Liberals holding most of the seats in Montreal and all of them in Atlantic Canada, Downe is still on the case.

Constitutional obligation

He recently put the PBO to work calculating, among other things, the cost of tax credits for Islanders using the Confederation Bridge as well as the hit to the federal treasury of waiving tolls on the Champlain Bridge. In his request to the PBO Downe raised a valid question about the tolling of national transportation links. He argues that unlike the Liberals’ political commitment to the Champlain bridge, the federal government has a constitutional obligation, dating back to P.E.I’s entry to Confederation to maintain transportation links to P.E.I.

Confederation Bridge plays an important role in Prince Edward Island and its history. When the province joined Confederation in 1873, the Terms of Union required that the Government of Canada be responsible for assuming and defraying the costs of efficient and “continuous communication” for the conveyance of mail and passengers between the Island and the mainland. In other words, a year-round connection between Prince Edward Island and Canada was a precondition for the colony’s entry into Confederation. As time and technology moved forward, the nature of that connection evolved: from a steamer during the summer and iceboats in winter; to a year-round ferry; and ultimately, to the bridge we have now…

Prince Edward Islanders understood, given the existing user pay policy for major transportation infrastructure projects, that if we wanted a bridge to replace the year-round ferry service, we had to agree to a constitutional amendment that included a toll charge; as such, travelers currently pay a toll of $46.00 to cross the 12.9km long Confederation Bridge. At $3.56 per kilometer, Confederation Bridge must surely be the most expensive driving experience in the country. The fees we pay to use the bridge, and the seasonal Wood Island Ferry service that connect our province to the mainland are a considerable financial barrier to anyone seeking to travel or trade outside our province.

However, it now appears that the toll rule for major transportation infrastructure is being changed. As such, Prince Edward Islanders cannot afford to ignore the precedent that would be set by a “toll-free” Champlain Bridge versus the $46.00 toll on Confederation Bridge; a constitutionally required “essential condition” of Prince Edward Island’s terms of joining Confederation. If all Canadian taxpayers must collectively finance both the cost of construction and maintenance of the Champlain Bridge, and Montreal ends up getting a $5 billion bridge paid for by the Government of Canada with no tolls, then Prince Edward Islanders expect to receive equal treatment.

You may read the entire request to the PBO here.

The PBO recently responded to Downe’s request, providing some interesting estimates. Islanders pay about $17 million a year in non-commercial tolls on the Confederation bridge. A non-refundable tax credit would cost the federal treasury about $2.5 million a year. And the cost to the feds of not collecting tolls “to fully cost recover the building, operation and maintenance” of the Champlain is estimated at $4.3 billion over 30 years- or about $143 million a year.

The appointed Senator has opened a can of worms. The Island’s elected federal Liberals, led by Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAuley, have been quick to try to close it. MacAuley, whose riding includes its Wood Islands connection, argues that that getting rid of tolls on the Bridge would kill the ferry from Pictou, hurting tourism in eastern P.E.I. After all, who would pay $70 to travel with their car by ferry when a couple more hours driving will get you to the Island for nothing? That complication, combined with the somatic conditions prevailing here in Liberal Land, may be enough to make the issue go away. Or the Liberals may go for the tax credit idea, an inexpensive way of creating an appearance of fairness.

But whatever happens, we should keep an eye on Senator Downe. If we’re looking for someone to raise issues from a regional perspective, he may be as good as its going to get until the high Liberal tide we’ve been swamped by recedes some time in the future.

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About Richard Starr

RICHARD STARR has had careers as a journalist, public servant, broadcaster, political staffer and freelance policy adviser. He is author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, appearing in everything from Atlantic Insight to Atlantic Progress. A lifelong student of Maritime history, Starr is married to playwright and former MP Wendy Lill. They live in Dartmouth.
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