Last Updated on Tuesday, 16 October 2018, 14:25 by Denis Chabrol
The Guyana government would be seeking legal advice to block increases in the Berbice Bridge tolls including having the Ministry of Public Security declare the thoroughfare a public good, Minister of Public Infrastructure David Patterson said Tuesday.
“I want to ensure the entire Berbice that we would do everything in our powers to ensure that this burdensome toll is not passed on to them,” he told a news briefing.
Reacting to the privately-owned Berbice Bridge Company’s hours earlier that tolls would be increased from November 12, 2018 by at least 150 percent, Patterson was adamant that he would not support the hike.
The Public Infrastructure Minister said he would be asking Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs to advise on the available options, one of which would amount to residents of Regions Five (West Berbice) and Region Six (East Berbice-Corentyne) not having to pay the increases the company announced.
Among the options are an amendment to the Berbice Bridge agreement, increased subsidy, an injunction or “if the Minister of Public Security says it’s a vital and important service and says declare an order to keep it open, we’ll do that”.
“The entire gamut of possibilities are open. I don’t know which one we will do this time but I do know that the outcome there will be no fare increases to the people of Berbice,” he said.
He said Finance Minister Winston Jordan has already informed that government could not afford to increase its subsidy to offset toll increases.
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Patterson virtually ruled out the reintroduction of the Berbice Ferry because the Rosignol and New Amsterdam stellings have fallen become dilapidated and the ferry vessels have since been deployed to serve other riverain communities. “It will be a tremendously costly exercise to bring them back to speed to the extent where they can have a ferry docking at them,” he said.
Patterson could not say how much it could cost government to take over the bridge, but noted that the Berbice Bridge Company has said there is a GY$6 billion debt and investors had injected GY$9 billion into the project.
Among the investors is the cash-strapped National Insurance Scheme whose board is being chaired by Dr. Surendra Persaud, the same person who is also Chairman of the Berbice Bridge Company.
Patterson acknowledged that Dr. Persaud is staunch supporter of the Alliance For Change political party, but said he must be praising the importance of the bridge and the need to increase the tolls because the NIS needs monies.
The Public Infrastructure Minister said government has already decided to set aside GY$238 million to subsidise the bridge’s operations during next year and to ensure the maintenance and integrity of that crossing.
He opined that it was no coincidence that the company has announced that the new tolls would take effect on November 12, 2018, the date of local government elections. “We do note that by that move alone there is political implication and political reasoning and political machinations behind this here,” he said. The Berbice Bridge Chairman has said the decision to implement the new tolls on that date was in keeping with legal advice by the law firm, Cameron and Shepherd.
Cabinet, he said, was approached twice, and lastly agreed on August 21, 2018 that the Public Infrastructure Ministry, through the Demerara Harbour Bridge, company would maintain the bridge’s 39 pontoons at a cost of GYD$9 billion for the remaining nine years of the concessionary agreement.
In response, Patterson said the company said it needed to be paid its projected profits of GYD$9 billion on behalf of several investors. The contract provides for a 9 to 12 percent rate of return, but none of the financiers wanted to reduce the rate. The company also claims a GY$6 billion debt.
he noted that from 2008 to March 2016 there had been no request for an increase in tolls until the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) lost power in May 2015.