More info needed on toll bridge debate

City council has extended the deadline for a report on the pros and cons of charging drivers a toll to cross Diefenbaker Bridge to July 22. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

The debate over charging a toll to cross Diefenbaker Bridge will see another day after council approved a motion asking for more data, and more discussion with the provincial government.

On Monday, city administrators presented a long-awaited report laying out the benefits, drawbacks and potential costs of charging drivers to use the bridge. That report met strong opposition from some councilors, but gained the necessary support needed to revisit the issue this fall.

Couns. Charlene Miller, Evert Botha, Blake Edwards, Terra Lennox-Zepp and Ted Zurakowski all voted in favour of the motion calling for a second report. This report will include traffic count data from this summer, as well as comments from the Minister of Highways on how charging a toll would affect provincial Urban Connector funding.

Toll Bridge advocates were cautious with their support, with many emphasizing that Prince Albert needed to start discussions on how to pay for a second bridge. They view charging a toll as just one of several options.

“The reason I put this forward was to get a second crossing over the river, and also to avoid a P3 partnership that the (provincial) government likes to do,” said Miller, who originally asked for the report in 2017. “A (partnership) between the province, the city and the federal government, I would be in favour of doing. That’s why I have asked for this report.”

“Do we need a second bridge? Possibly, and if we do, who’s going to pay for it?” Edwards added. “We’ve all probably heard some number of $100-million to replace a bridge. Well, if that’s a P3, how is the city going to pay $33-million for a new bridge? This was an idea to help pay for that.”

Edwards argued that the city pays for some maintenance costs on the bridge, and because of that, council was justified in at least considering the possibility of charging a toll.

The City of Prince Albert contributed a small amount of funds to repair projects in 2011 and 2016. That last project involved paying $126,000 after the provincial government refused to fund repairs and guardrail extensions for the bridge’s on-ramps and off-ramps. The province funded fully funded the rest of the repairs at a cost of more than $3-million.

“In both cases (2011 and 2016) it was something we felt needed to be repaired and the province didn’t want to agree to that particular item,” Prince Albert’s public works director Wes Hicks said. “There was a small change order and (the city) paid that amount.”

The question of who should pay the toll is still unsettled. The report contained financial estimates for both charging and not-charging Prince Albert residents, however no councillor openly voiced support for making Prince Albert-based businesses or residents pay. Some did approve of charging drivers from the surrounding rural municipalities.

“I would like to see a possible solution of charging them a monthly fee for regular users, with maybe a breakdown of $20, because we know a lot of the RM people are coming in across that bridge on a regular basis,” Edwards said. “This idea is to help them. We’re not against them, it’s to help them, because of the maintenance that needs to be done, and more to come, on this bridge.”

Coun. Dennis Ogrodnick was the most vocal critic of the decision. He refused to support any motion that would place a toll on the bridge, which he said amounts to just another tax on residents. He also argued that the provincial government should foot the bill for a new bridge, not the City of Prince Albert.

“Does Prince Albert need a second bridge? I don’t think we do,” he said during Monday’s meeting. “I think the province (and) the region need a second bridge. Therefore, let the province and the region come up with the plan and the money to build a second crossing.”

“We don’t need a second crossing,” he continued. “I don’t think the citizens of Prince Albert should pay for a second bridge…. The north of the province, people from Saskatoon going to Candle (Lake), they’re the ones who need a second bridge, so I think if the province wants to build a second bridge, let them build a second bridge.”

Barring unforeseen delays, the next toll bridge report will come before council in November.

A Prince Albert and Area Second Bridge River Crossing Study released in 2013 gave two possible options for constructing a second bridge. The first would have cost a minimum of $120-million, while the second would cost around $153-million.