Proposed project opens debate to toll bridges/roads in other parts of province
South Peace News
Peace River MLA Dan Williams says his constituents want a new bridge and are willing to pay tolls to get it.
The issue of potential tolls on Alberta roads and bridges came up during the last provincial election, when then-premier Rachel Notley warned the UCP plan to add user fees to infrastructure hinted at by Jason Kenney would actually mean tolls.
At the time, the UCP called that fearmongering. Party spokesperson Christine Myatt said then that, “[The] UCP has never suggested applying tolls to existing public infrastructure. We need to find new and creative approaches for needed industrial infrastructure.”
However, the UCP brought forth a piece of legislation in early November called the Financing Alberta’s Strategic Transportation Act [FAST Act] to make user fees on new public infrastructure in Alberta possible.
Transportation Minister Ric McIver says the legislation is in response to a request for a new bridge by the La Crete Chamber of Commerce and Mackenzie County.
Although the minister says he offered to replace the aging ferry at Tompkins Landing, they requested a bridge instead.
There is a bridge nearby that crosses the Peace River at Fort Vermilion, but residents of La Crete say it adds too much time to their trips to take that route.
McKenzie Kibler, press secretary for Ric McIver, Alberta’s Minister of Transportation, says the government is focused on delivering a user-financed Highway 697 bridge to La Crete that is “overwhelmingly supported by the local community.”
Kibler says consultations were done with the affected communities in the northern part of Williams’ constituency.
“The whole of Mackenzie County supported the project; the reeve of the county wrote a letter of support,” Kibler says.
“Consultations were also done with indigenous communities in the region who were supportive.”
In response to the new legislation, NDP MLA Rod Loyola has accused the UCP of “blackmailing” municipalities to agree to tolls to get their projects built.
“This is almost like blackmail,” Loyola says. “McIver says a project he couldn’t justify building can jump to the front of the queue if the community submits to tolling. This sends a clear message to municipalities across Alberta that their critical economic projects will drop down the priority list unless they submit to tolls.”
According to the new legislation, toll revenues must only be used to cover the capital costs of the project and will be lifted once those costs are paid off. Toll fees will be decided on a project-by-project basis.
A new bridge in the Town of Peace River, which is also in Williams’ constituency but was started under the NDP government, has just opened to traffic. The old Peace River bridge is now being repaired and resurfaced.
Kibler says the Peace River bridge won’t become a toll bridge, a concern that was also raised in the last election.
“The twinned bridge in the town of Peace River was already funded and won’t have fees,” he says.
Kibler says the Highway 3 bridge in Lethbridge is not being considered for user fees either.
Williams spoke to Bill 43 during question period at the Legislature on Nov. 24.
“My constituents have written, begged, and pleaded with this government to please build a bridge where there is a ferry at Tompkins Landing, and the members opposite seem intent on trying to stop my constituents and telling them that they’re wrong,” Williams says.
“It’s very interesting. Apparently, my constituents don’t want a bridge there. Apparently, they don’t want to pay for it,” he added.
“The primary role of any elected official on any side of the House is to listen to Albertans and our constituents. The truth is, Mr. Speaker, that that’s exactly what I’m doing for those who live in the most rural and northern communities in the province,” Williams says.
“We’ve spoken loud and clear. We’re not children to be managed. This is not a game. This is not a television show on History Channel. The truth is that many of our constituents have to cross a bridge made out of ice to commute, to get to work.”
He continued to target the NDP.
“We have Albertans in my constituency willing to put down $200 million of their money to build a bridge, but that’s not good enough for the members opposite. They say, ‘You’re not allowed to spend your money, because we’re trying to drive fear into the hearts of people in Edmonton and Calgary, saying we’re going to put tolls up on infrastructure we won’t do,’” he says.
“The truth is, Mr. Speaker, there is no other way to get this bridge built, and the members opposite are doing everything they can to prevent my constituents from getting what, I believe, is their due, their right.”
In response, NDP opposition MLA Rakhi Pancholi says Williams is part of the “D team” of the UCP caucus, but she is pleased to hear Williams say local decision-making is his Number 1 priority.
“It’s interesting. When that member had the opportunity to bring forward a private member’s bill, it appeared that his first priority was actually rolling back women’s reproductive health rights, but apparently now he shifted gear. We hope to hear no more from that member with respect to rolling back women’s reproductive health rights, and he can focus on that local decision-making that’s so important to him. So I look forward to that,” she says.
Bill 43 passed third reading on division on Dec. 3.