Tolling the highway between Fredericton and Moncton was a great idea in the late 1990s and it’s still a great way to raise revenue for the cash-strapped province, says former Liberal Transportation minister Sheldon Lee.
“They need the money,” he said Friday. “They could pick up about $25 million a year.”
Lee was Transportation minister from 1987-99 in New Brunswick and signed the deal with Maritime Road Development Corp. to build and operate the four-lane toll highway between Fredericton and Moncton.
Those tolls were scrapped by the former Lord government in 1999.
This week, the provincial government announced its annual deficit will be $545.7 million, or nearly $100 million higher than expected. Finance Minister Blaine Higgs said he isn’t ruling out raising taxes to fight the deficit.
Lee said the province is paying a “shadow toll” to MRDC for every car and truck that travels on the Fredericton to Moncton highway, which means out-of-province traffic is riding for free.
“If anybody is using good, common sense, they know very well that we’re building and paying for a highway for the rest of the country to use,” he said.
“We have to pay when we leave our province and go into the United States, and we pay plenty.”
Lee said traffic from outside the province made up about 34 per cent of the cars and trucks on the highway between Fredericton and Moncton in the late 1990s and it would be about 40 per cent today.
The cost to collect the tolls in the late 1990s would have been about $3.5 million a year by operating four toll booths, he said.
Lee said he thinks public opinion has changed in the last 10 years and the travelling public would be more willing to accept tolls.
“It’s well worth it, especially in the winter time,” he said.
“Four lane highways are 75 per cent safer (than two-lane highways).”
Lee said some people probably don’t know the province pays millions of dollars in shadow tolls every year to the company that built the highway. The amount is based on the traffic count from four counters on that highway.
But Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, said putting the tolls back on the Fredericton to Moncton highway is a bad idea.
“They were a good idea when you put them in place because you couldn’t afford to build the highway yourself,” he said.
“They were a bad idea to take them off and it is going to cost you even more money to change your mind one more time.
“At this point, you are better off to stay where you are and think about other things like, oh, I don’t know, an HST increase.”
The Tories promised during the election campaign not to raise the HST.
Cirtwill said the HST is the least economically harmful tax and the Tories should never have promised not to raise the HST unless it was willing to cut spending by five to 10 per cent, which they haven’t done.
“Frankly, it’s not going to help you enough on the revenue side to justify the effort, the grief, the political capital and the various and sundry other things,” Cirtwill said about the highway toll.
“It is one of those things where you are already trapped by your own bad decision in the past.”
Jean-Marc Picard, executive director of the Atlantic Province’s Trucking Association, also argued against putting tolls on the highway to fight the deficit.
“I don’t understand why they can’t … control their costs,” he said.
“They made all these changes in the last budget and they’re still blowing their budget and running into a deeper deficit.”
The tolls planned by the Liberals in the late 1990s would have charged each transport truck about $27.
“If they put tolls on the highway, it is just going to cripple the trucking industry,” said Picard.
“They raised the diesel tax last year, which didn’t help us.”
He said the trucking industry contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy, a lot of jobs and a lot of tax revenue.
“I just don’t think it would make that much of a dent in the deficit,” he said.