Provincial government won’t support toll on Diefenbaker Bridge

Diefenbaker Bridge. -- Herald file photo.

The provincial government says it will not support any plans to charge drivers a toll for crossing Diefenbaker Bridge.

The letter from Highways and Infrastructure Minister Greg Ottenbreit is included in the agenda package for Monday’s regular council meeting. In it, Ottenbreit wrote that the government “does not support tolling highway infrastructure at this time; this includes the Diefenbaker Bridge.”

Ottenbreit wrote that the toll would “place an additional hardship or restriction on roadway users” and warned council that implementing a toll anyway would lead to loss of funding, specifically from the Urban Highway Connector Program (UHCP).

The UHCP is a provincial grant that helps cities maintain urban connector roads, which link highways on opposite sides of the community. The provincial government also provides Prince Albert with an annual Operations and Maintenance (O & M) grant.

Those two grants amounted to a combined $207,265 in funding for Prince Albert during the current fiscal year. The City has received more than $1.7 million in UHCP and O & M grants since 2011.

City administrators have recommended that council receive and file the information, while also marking the item “closed as completed.”

Roughly 24,000 vehicles cross Diefenbaker Bridge every day, which amounts to around 9 million per year. That number includes three and four axle commercial vehicles, but not motorcycles and bikes.

Installing toll bridge equipment would cost the city a minimum of $1.3 million plus additional taxes, according to a 2019 report from City of Prince Albert financial director Cheryl Tkachuk. Tkachuk wrote that all revenue projections were “highly speculative,” but estimated the city could earn between $500,000 and $4.5 million, depending on whether the toll targeted all traffic or just out of town vehicles.

Debate over implementing a toll began in 2017 when Coun. Charlene Miller asked for a report on its viability. At the time, Miller said a toll could help the City pay for a second bridge, and she encouraged anyone who didn’t like the idea of a toll to come up with an alternative.

Diefenbaker Bridge is the only bridge crossing the North Saskatchewan River within 100 km of Prince Albert. The closest non-bridge crossing is the Cecil Ferry roughly 26 km east of the city.

Ottenbreit’s letter is one of 30 items up for debate at Monday’s regular council meeting. Other items include the third and final reading for the Plastic Checkout Bag Bylaw, which would ban the use of plastic checkout bags, and the final vote on the proposed Down Payment Assistance program, designed to help low income homebuyers purchase their first home. The session starts at 5 p.m. in City Hall.