New Brunswick industries that depend on transportation panned the idea on Thursday of charging for highway use, calling tolls unwanted taxes.

A Cobequid Pass toll highway employee waves vehicles through the westbound toll booths. The Nova Scotia route was built under a public-private partnership and opened in 1997.

Finance Minister Blaine Higgs said Wednesday he would look at the business case of introducing highway tolls near the end of a 10-stop public consultation tour during which many New Brunswickers suggested introducing the levies as a revenue-generating tool.

Serge Losier, president of the New Brunswick Peat Moss Association, pointed out the that firms he represents would have to absorb the higher transportation fees associated with paying tolls.

Since competitors in Quebec don’t have to pay to head south into the United States, New Brunswick peat moss companies wouldn’t be able to pass on the toll burden to customers, Losier said.

More than half of New Brunswick’s peat moss is sold in the U.S..

New Brunswick firms produced 12.9 million bales of peat moss in 2009 worth $120 million, according to the latest figures from the New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources.

“We sell in all-U.S. dollars and, with the high value of the Canadian dollar, this toll cost would add to the misery,” said Losier, who is also the vice-president of operations at Lamèque’s Acadian Peat Moss.

The truckers who deliver peat moss south of the border aren’t in favour of tolls, either.

Jean-Marc Picard, executive director of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association, said his industry is saddled with the high price of fuel as well as the costs associated with maintaining trucks to safety and environmental standards that are increasingly more stringent.

“Whenever we talk tolls, it certainly straightens the hairs on my neck,” Picard said.

David Plante, vice-president for New Brunswick of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said highway tolls came up at board meetings of his organization on Wednesday night and Thursday morning in Fredericton.

The idea was met with concern, since tolls would add costs for manufacturers shipping by truck, he said.

“Tolls are a new tax, so our position would be that the government must show that it is serious about tackling its spending problem before even considering new taxes or increasing taxes.”

Two jurisdictions near New Brunswick have used highway tolls to fund road construction and maintenance, rather than channelling the money to government general revenues.

In New Hampshire – a drive-through state – tolls at five major plazas on three different corridors, including Interstate 95, brought in US$110 million in the last fiscal year.

That’s about 28 per cent of what the state earns on charges to drivers, who also pay gasoline and motor vehicle taxes.

By law, the road tolls allow New Hampshire to maintain only its 144 kilometres of turnpike road but not its roughly 6,760 kilometres of state highways, which means the turnpike is in better condition.

Bill Boynton, spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, said tolls fund road improvements when the gasoline tax doesn’t keep up, as more people drive fuel-efficient cars.

In Nova Scotia, the Highway 104 Western Alignment Corp., a public-private partnership that built the Cobequid Pass Toll Highway in 1997, uses annual tolls under a 30-year agreement to give return to investors, pay for toll operations, cover annual maintenance provided by the Nova Scotia Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal and contribute to paying off its long-term debt.

For the year ended March 31, 2009, the latest figures available, motorists taking the Cobequid Pass paid about $18.5 million in tolls.

For Charles Cirtwill, the president and CEO of Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think-tank, highway tolls make sense only when motorists are being offered “something unique,” a value-added alternative to an existing route.

“In New Brunswick, they’re talking about putting a charge on an asset that already exists,” Cirtwill said.

“Frankly, if the government wants to raise taxes, they should just raise taxes and stop fooling around.”