by Daniel Martins

Maritime truckers are hailing a proposed Maine toll road, but say the cost of travelling the new link between New Brunswick and southern Quebec should be offset by reduced levies on routes in Atlantic Canada.

“We are at the breaking point in terms of tolls,” said Peter Nelson, executive director of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association.

“You can ship a (truckload of) french fries from Florenceville to Calgary and not pay too many tolls, but to ship the same fries from P.E.I. to Newfoundland, it’s $475.”

He praised the proposed Maine road, which is being pushed by private investors and, if built, would run from Calais to Coburn Gore on the Quebec border south of Sherbrooke.

It would greatly cut transport time to central Canada, Nelson said.

Currently, most trucks travel north through New Brunswick to Rivière-du-Loup, Que. before making their way west in Canada.

Nelson said lowering tolls would facilitate regional trade, aiding the Atlantica project, the proposed area of economic integration between the Atlantic provinces and the northeastern United States.

It would also help the Graham government’s self-sufficiency agenda, he said.

But Nelson says time is running out for east-west trade. With tolls charged at six locations across the region, including ferries, toll roads and the Confederation bridge, transportation costs to ship goods to Newfoundland, for example, are slowly becoming prohibitive.

“That’s the worst-case scenario, and that’s the one that’s causing shippers, manufacturers and producers to look hard at Atlantic Canada in terms of what they want to ship down and where else they want to ship goods to get a bigger (profit) margin,” he said.

He called for the four Atlantic premiers, plus their transportation and regional development ministers, to sit down and hammer out a regional toll strategy.

But New Brunswick’s transportation minister Denis Landry said Tuesday that the issue was not on the table at the moment.

Truckers pay tolls or fares on two routes that connect New Brunswick to neighbouring provinces: the Confederation Bridge and the Bay Ferries daily sailings to Digby, N.S. The Saint John Harbour Bridge also charges a toll.

To cross the Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island, travellers must pay $40.75 for a two-axle vehicle, with each axle after that adding $6.75 more.

But Ian Munro, director of research for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, which heavily promotes the Atlantica concept, says those amounts are already subsidized.

“To the extent that these guys want to lower the cost in tolls, that just means Joe Q. Public will have to pay the cost of freight,” he said Tuesday.

Instead, he said AIMS would rather see wider use of tolling, as toll tracking improves, putting more of the cost of using infrastructure on the user.

Munro said he was pleased with the proposed new Maine road, as was Bill Denyar, the president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce.

Denyar also downplayed complaints over higher tolls, highlighting the importance of having good highways and bridges.

“People like having that good infrastructure in place, it certainly beats the alternative,” he said.

“If we can’t trade our goods efficiently and cost effectively, we have a problem.”

But he acknowledged that high toll costs could hurt the Atlantic Provinces, particularly Newfoundland,

“We need to get our act together and start thinking about the Atlantic region, Atlantica, as a regional economy. If we don’t do that, then ” transportation and trade links (to Newfoundland) and, to a lesser extent, P.E.I. and Cape Breton, will be at risk.”

He said that reforming trade links could include re-examining toll amounts.