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Govt bluntly refuses to reduce Berbice Bridge toll

Shadow Public Works Minister, Joseph Harmon addressing the National Assembly on the issue of the Berbice Bridge toll

Despite the passage of a motion by the majority-controlled National Assembly for a reduction in the Berbice River Bridge tolls to ease the financial burden on Berbicians, Public Works Minister Robeson Benn vowed not to do so because the bridge would face financial collapse and investors would be scared away.

“I will not reduce the toll. I will not reduce the toll to any person in Guyana until by economic modelling and defining we can determine that it would be of benefit to the Bridge Company and the shareholders and the people of Guyana as a result,” he said.

The law governing the Berbice Bridge empowers the Public Works Minister to adjust the tolls after consultation with board of the Berbice Bridge Company Inc. The administration has maintained that the company is privately-owned and none of the government’s representatives enjoys voting rights.

Insisting that reduction of the toll “cannot be done any other way,”  Benn  bluntly said Ï will not reduce the toll at the whims and fancies” of Harmon but after examining demand and supply as well as the impact of the sustainability of the bridge.

Government parliamentarians credited the bridge with boosting economic activity, including faster movement of cheaper agricultural produce and the opening of new and expansion of old businesses.  However, opposition MPs charged that the bridge has been responsible for higher cost of living including steep transportation costs. “What is evident is that the bridge is pressuring the people in Berbice. …. if the Berbice River Bridge is the people’s bridge then stop pressuring them and give them a good life,” said Amna Ally of A Partnership for National Unity (APNU).

Benn rejected APNU of using inaccurate figures about the tolls and profit being made by the Berbice Bridge Company. He also accused Harmon of attempting to secure political mileage among Berbicians by calling on government to drop the cost that vehicles have to pay for crossing the east-west thoroughfare.

The Public Works Minister charged that Harmon, his Shadow Minister, made “an emotive populist appeal” that could scare away private investors for fear that their assets would be easily expropriated or nationalized. Unfortunately, he said those assets would be taken away from Guyanese unlike foreign investors whose bauxite and sugar industries had been taken away by the then government in the 1970s.

Benn noted that a trip across the bridge takes six minutes compared to several hours by the ferry. About 1,828 vehicles traverse the Berbice Bridge daily compared to 690 by the MVs Torani and Makouria ferries. A barge still serves the Rosignol-New Amsterdam route to shuttle students at GUY$17.00 per person.

The Shadow Minister of Public Works, in wrapping up debate, said government was never keen on addressing the matter because it was first demanded in 2012 budget talks. “This is not something we pulled out of a hat. It has always been there,” said Harmon. He flayed Benn for refusing to reduce the toll even before the motion was put to the House after the debate. “Mr. Speaker, that is a certain level of arrogance. It smacks of arrogance… He has no regard for resolutions of this Assembly, no regard for the people of Berbice.

While government argued that the cost of vehicles with the full complement of occupants crossing the bridge was almost the same price as crossing with the Berbice river by ferry, the Alliance For Change’s (AFC) Dr. Veerasammy Ramaya countered by saying the toll was 22 times more than the vessel.  He flayed the President Donald Ramotar administration for failing to grasp the opportunity to win back much needed seats in its traditional Berbice stronghold. “All the votes that they loss in Berbice they could have reduce the toll and get back their one seat. I thought this would have been an incentive,” he said.

Ramaya recommended that government provide free bus transportation for school children if it did not want to reduce the toll.

Commerce Minister, Irfan Ali noted that the toll was determined by several factors including the projected number and frequency of traffic as well as willingness-to-pay survey by the Inter American Development Bank that was conducted In 2002. The survey had solicited several views such as the need for constructing the bridge, willingness to pay and problems persons had encountered travelling by ferry.

Ali cautioned that if the toll was lowered unilaterally and the contractual obligations were affected, the bridge company could sue government for damages.