Transport companies are passing on the cost of the new Deh Cho Bridge toll to their customers in Yellowknife, Fort Providence and Behchoko, leaving some worried that the cost of goods north of the Mackenzie will increase for consumers.
The $202-million bridge, originally estimated to cost $55 million 10 years ago, will be primarily funded by commercial vehicles weighing over 4,500 kg. Passenger vehicles do not have to pay tolls.
Tolls for crossing the bridge are $75-$91.25 for commercial vehicles with two to four axles, $150-$166.25 for trucks with five or six axles and $275-$291.25 for seven or more axles.
“All trucks utilizing the bridge must pay a remittance fee for every northbound crossing. Therefore, we will be instituting a Toll Service Charge per shipment on all freight delivered,” Jane Douziech, vice president and general manager of Grimshaw Trucking L.P., stated in a letter to customers last month.
Grimshaw’s toll service charge will be $4.50 per flat on freight up to 562 lbs, $0.80 per hundredweight (cwt) for freight between 563 and 24,375 lbs, with a maximum charge of $195.
“These fees are non-negotiable and will commence as soon as the bridge is open to traffic,” Douziech stated.
Westcan Freight Systems is also passing on a “crossing fee” to customers. For less than a truck load, the charge will be $0.80 per hundredweight (cwt); for a “full truck load,” five to six axle loads will cost $175 and seven or more axle loads $320. That amounts to 115 per cent of the original toll charged to customers.
Representatives from both Grimshaw and Westcan declined to comment.
Yellowknife Centre MLA Robert Hawkins said while he respects the right of companies to charge what they will for freight delivery, he is concerned the territorial government is going to be blamed for costs passed on to the everyday consumer.
“My fear is that the GNWT will be the face of the increase and somebody in the system, whether it’s the trucking company or the retailer, will be using this as a cash cow,” he told The Journal.
As an example, Hawkins said he was told by one Yellowknife retailer that bags of wood pellets for heating will be going up by one dollar because of the bridge toll. He said for himself, that amounts to an additional $500 spent per winter on just one product.
He questioned how much of the cost increase is actually required and how much is simply unfair revenue grabbing by retailers.
“I’m all for the bridge – I always have been and I’ll steadfastly stand behind that – but the ultimate issue is that if the toll should be a 10 cent increase on your particular product, it should be 10 cents. But the consumer, if they’re being charged an additional dollar, the government’s the one who’s taking the blame for it,” he said.
Hawkins said he raised the issue in the legislature, but received a disinterested response from Transportation Minister David Ramsay. Ramsay and other members of cabinet maintain the bridge will actually help lower costs for consumers by removing increased fees for goods flown in during the weeks the old ice bridge and ferry would be closed.
But without a proper analysis, Hawkins said the government won’t be able to tell if there’s a rate shock happening in stores in Yellowknife. While he’s against regulating what companies are allowed to charge, he said the government could get involved by making typical costs for the most-frequently purchased goods known to the public so customers can make informed decisions on price increases.
As it stands, that is not being done. Hawkins said he has taken it upon himself to track prices of foods like milk and cheese in grocery stores to see if prices have gone up in a month.
“The consumers will have to pay their fair share, absolutely, but I think the middle class is the one going to be hammered by this, and if you’re on income support for some reason or on a fixed income, your money just doesn’t spread as far every day with these changes,” he said. “I just think someone should be looking out for the consumer, and I’m not seeing it here.”
Truckers generally ‘okay’ with tolls: guild
Larry Hall, president of the North American Truckers Guild, said most trucking companies are aware of the toll cost and have adjusted their rates accordingly, but for those who haven’t done their homework, the size of the toll could be a bit of a shock.
“Throughout North America, there are toll bridges – that’s really nothing new – but generally speaking the tolls range in price from $5 to $50,” he told The Journal in an email. “When you show up in the NWT and get a bill for $200 or $300, it may cause some short-term pain, but you most likely won’t make that mistake twice.”
Though the tolls are higher than most, Hall said, most transport companies understand that bridges are expensive to build and that someone has to pay the bill.
“I understand that the cost for the Deh Cho Bridge is amortized over 35 years and a lesser toll means a longer amortization term. This new bridge provides 24/7 access to the North and removes many of the cumbersome problems associated with ferries and ice thickness on the Mackenzie. Reliable and timely delivery of goods and services is a reasonable trade off in my opinion.”