By Bibi Khatoon
The Government remains firm in its position that the increase in tolls by the Berbice Bridge Company Incorporated (BBCI) is unwarranted and says it will be examining its options to stop the company from implementing the increase.
“I know that there will be no toll increase,” Minister of Public Infrastructure, David Patterson said at the Ministry’s Wight’s Lane, Kingston, Georgetown office shortly after the BBCI announced its position.
“I want to assure the entire Berbice that we will do everything in our powers to assure that this burdensome toll will not be passed on to them,” Patterson said.
The Bridge Company had previously announced the toll increases in July and noted on Tuesday that it obtained legal advice which states that it has the power to increase the tolls according to the Berbice River Bridge Contract.
When asked about this, Minister Patterson said his Ministry will be seeking legal advice from the Attorney General Chambers to affirm what powers the Government has.
“We will be seeking legal advice…on the legal implications on what is the power and the authorities under this (Berbice Bridge) Act,” Minister Patterson said.
Further, he sought to assure Berbicians that the toll increases will not materialize.
“I would like to give all assurances to all commuters in Berbice, Region Five and Six that the Government will do all that is necessary that commuters can continue to use the bridge safely and without any particular undue harassment or tolls.”
Among the options that will be examined is the re-introduction of the ferry system, which though costly, “is still on the cards,” an injunction stopping the increase and further subsidies for the BBCI.
Since January 2016, the Government has been providing $155M per annum to the BBCI following an agreement signed with the company to implement a 10% reduction in tolls.
This is in tandem with a promise made by the A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and Alliance For Change (AFC) coalition during its 2015 elections campaign but the Government is now faced with a new challenge as the BBCI announced on Tuesday that it will be moving forward with increases as high as double the current fares.
Patterson disclosed that in addition to the current subsidy, the Government has offered to maintain the 39 pontoons of the bridge for the nine remaining years of the concession period.
Cabinet has granted its approval for $90M in the 2019 budget for maintenance of six pontoons and $140M for the establishment of a loading facility for rehabilitation of the pontoons “in view of public safety.”
This is expected to cost the Government $1B over nine years.
The Minister disclosed that a meeting was held with the BBCI on October 11 where this was related to the officials but the officials countered saying that the proposal only addresses their operational cost but their financiers are still demanding profits.
According to the BBCI contract, 9% and 12% rate of return is guaranteed to the financiers –percentages which Patterson said “were calculated on a pixie dust basis.”
When questioned about renegotiating the contract, the Minister said the Government was told that the investors are only interested in their returns.
The BBCI also claim debts to the tune of $6B.
“They (BBCI) see the only viable reason is the Government buying them out,” the Minister said.
At the end of the October 11 meeting, the Minister said he agreed to send a letter to the company on the Government’s offer and for them to submit a breakdown of the expenses to the Government but the Company is still to fulfil its side of the agreement.
While he noted that the Finance Minister is not interested in doling out more money, he said the Government has always been willing to purchase shares from anyone who is selling at a reasonable price but no one has come forward.