Council set to reopen toll bridge debate at Monday meeting

Charging a toll to drivers crossing Diefenbaker Bridge could generate between $500,000 and $4.5-million in revenue for the City of Prince Albert, according to a new report released this week.

Prince Albert city council requested the report in 2017 with an eye on using the funds to pay for a second bridge. After several extensions, the report will be brought forward at the July 22 executive committee meeting for further discussion.

According to the report, roughly 24,000 vehicles cross Diefenbaker Bridge each day, not-including motorcycles or bikes. That amounts to nearly 9-million vehicles a year.

However, report author Cheryl Tkachuk, the City of Prince Albert Financial Services Director, wrote that any revenue estimates are “highly speculative” due to the large number of variables.

“Preliminary economic data has been compiled and suggests that a bridge toll could generate annual revenue,” Tkachuk wrote. “Exact revenue would be highly dependent on the rate structure implemented.”

“Further study of the type of vehicle activity, including residential association, should be conducted prior to a decision being made to implement a toll system,” she continued. “Traffic counts are effective but information regarding residency of vehicles is very limited.”

Revenue projections vary considerably. Tkachuk estimates that charging all drivers who cross the bridge could generate between $2-million and $4.5-million per year. However, that estimate drops to between $500,000 and $1.9-million if the city only charges residents who live outside of Prince Albert or the R.M. of Buckland.

Money from the toll isn’t guaranteed to go directly into the city coffers. Installing the necessary infrastructure required to run a toll bridge would cost a minimum of $1.3-million. When combined with other maintenance and operating fees, Tkachuk estimates that it could take up to three years for the toll bridge to pay for those expenses.

Tkachuk did not give an official recommendation in the report. However, she did list several considerations and implications that could negatively impact the city should it choose to charge drivers for crossing the bridge.

Declining use of city facilities is the main concern.  Tkachuk said the toll could make people think twice about crossing Diefenbaker Bridge to use sports and recreation areas like Little Red River Park, Kinsmen Water Park or Cooke Municipal Golf Course.

She also wrote that establishing a toll could negatively affect business in the city, with residents in northern rural and First Nations communities choosing to go to Shellbrook for things like groceries, while residents south of the river may no longer using the city’s airport and landfill.

She also wrote that a toll bridge could make it difficult for local service clubs, non-profits and municipal organizations to attract volunteers from north of the river.

Drivers looking for alternatives to Diefenbaker Bridge would have to travel roughly 120 km west (Petrofka Bridge) or roughly 100 km east (Gronlid Bridge) for the nearest year-round crossing.

They could also travel 26 km east and use Cecil Ferry, which operates on a seasonal basis. According to the provincial government, Cecil Ferry transports around 20,000 vehicles per year, and sees the highest percentage of truck traffic among all cable ferries in Saskatchewan.

The City of Prince Albert cannot unilaterally start charging drivers to cross Diefenbaker Bridge. The Ministry of Highways must give approval for implementing a toll, and SGI must give the city permission to access their vehicle database for the automated toll system.

The Toll Bridge Report is one of 15 items on Monday’s consent agenda. Council will also hear six reports, including one on traffic light removal and another on updating the city’s taxicab bylaw.