-Benn says gov’t won’t comply
While the opposition early yesterday morning passed a motion in Parliament for a steep reduction in the Berbice River Bridge tolls, government rejected the move with Minister of Public Works Robeson Benn saying that an economic analysis of the initiative would be necessary first.
Passage of the motion with the opposition’s one-seat majority came after a bruising four-hour-long debate that was punctuated by a power cut that plunged Demerara into darkness. The motion to cut the tolls was moved by APNU MP Joseph Harmon and is a delicate matter for the ruling PPP/C as its constituency would have mainly benefited from it.
“I will not reduce the toll. I will not reduce the toll to any person in Guyana until by economic modeling and defining we can determine that it would be a benefit to the (Berbice) Bridge Company and the shareholders and the people of Guyana as a result,” Benn told the National Assembly.
Harmon, who brought the motion in December last year, stressed that the “exorbitant” charges for the Berbice Bridge crossing were literally taking a toll on the pockets of Berbicians.
Harmon submitted to the House the current and proposed toll structures, stressing that the latter was derived after the financial analysis trends pertaining to profits to date. His motion noted that “…since its commissioning in December 2009 the Berbice Bridge has facilitated the crossing of over 650,000 vehicles resulting in an annual revenue of over $1.5B for the Berbice Bridge company.”
His motion also argued that “…the toll for crossing the Berbice River is exceedingly high when compared to a similar crossing of the Demerara River and represents a significant devolution of wealth from the people of Berbice in particular to the benefit of a private company.”
He argued that government could alleviate the financial burden of the bridge on Berbicians by empowering the Public Works Minister to adjust the tolls after consultation with the board of the Berbice Bridge Company Inc, as is provided for in the law.
“And whereas section 3 and 4 of the Berbice River Bridge Act 2006 provides for the minister responsible for public works to make toll orders…Be it resolved that the National Assembly calls on the government of Guyana to instruct its representative…to demand an immediate reduction in tolls charged by the Berbice Bridge Company Inc for crossing the Berbice River…,” the resolve clause to the motion read.
Harmon’s motion had proposed that the present toll for motor cars and minibuses be slashed from $2,200 to $1,000. It also wanted the toll for a 50-seater bus cut from $12,800 to $9,000 and for a 30-seater bus from $7,200 to $6,000 among other adjustments.
However, in his address, the Transport Minister remained adamant that he would not recommend the lowering of the fares. “I will not reduce the tolls at the whims and fancies of the honourable Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Harmon,” Benn declared. Harmon is a retiree from the Guyana Defence Force.
Benn said that while it was noted that the tolls were reduced last year August it was not to facilitate the hosting of the PPP/C’s congress as is believed by the public but that it was a decision made by the company . The PPP/C had held its congress in Berbice around the same time. Benn said that he was told by the company that the reduction was implemented to facilitate the increase in the travel of students during the August holidays. Nonetheless, he said that the lowering of the toll was illegal and did not garner his approval. As such, he pointed out that he had warned the company against a repeat this year. Thursday was the first occasion that Benn had declared that last year’s lowering of the toll was illegal.
Fellow PPP/C MP and Commerce Minister Irfaan Ali, in a passionate and earsplitting presentation, which saw him suffering laryngitis midway into his speech, stressed that government has no
direct ownership stake in the company.
“Currently (government holding company) NICIL has one “special or golden share” that does not give it any voting rights or influence on any matters in the ordinary course of business, including toll rates,” Ali said.
This had been the subject of public debate last year, with analyst Christopher Ram and others arguing that the Articles of Association of the company expressly provide that in respect of specified matters, “no action can be taken by the [Bridge] Company, without the affirmative vote of the holder of the Special Share.” He and others had also pointed out that government, inclusive of the National Insurance Scheme, owned 76% of the issued shares of the company and this gave them influence in the company’s decisions. The proponents of the cut in tolls had also argued that the government had structured the Berbice bridge tariffs to provide a windfall for favoured investors, such as New GPC.
As he compared the Berbice River Bridge (BRB) to the Demerara Harbour Bridge (DHB), Ali said that the tolls established in 2008 were determined by a number of variables, including the projected vehicular traffic and that a fare structure change may result in a collapse of the company.
“Assuming that the past traffic flows reflect future flows, if the proposed rates are applied the Berbice River Bridge Company would be forced by this parliament to make a loss and face possible bankruptcy,” he said.
“Additionally the country would suffer and harm the prospect of attracting similar investment in the future with government having to finance major infrastructure projects…this will be tantamount to disrespect to the rights of the private sector to be free to invest in Guyana and be guaranteed that the rules of law and their legitimate expectations are upheld,” he added.
Dr. Veerasammy Ramayya, speaking for the AFC, lamented the pressure and daily financial stresses Berbicians face in having to pay the fares. He said that his party also believes that the tolls are way too much and should be lowered.
He recommended to government that free buses be provided for students if the toll would not be reduced and that the ferry service be reintroduced as an alternative for Berbice commuters.
APNU’s Amna Ally told the house that while government parliamentarians heckle and tease about the DHB as compared to the BRB, the evidence was there to show how much the former has benefitted Guyanese.
“I do not stand here to make a comparison between the Demerara Harbour Bridge and the Berbice River Bridge. But how can one justify the rates charged by the Berbice River Bridge as against the Demerara Harbour Bridge….who has a car like mine pay $200 at the Demerara Harbour Bridge but on the Berbice Bridge that same car is $4,000. I wonder what could be the justification for that?” she asked.
Ally, herself an educator, also lamented the difficulty of parents and students in paying the high fares daily as she pleaded with government to agree with the motion. “I urge the government to consider our nation’s children’s future, the future of our young people and subscribe to the opposition’s motion to reduce the cost of the Berbice Bridge toll or to advise the Company to so comply. Time for excuses has run out…we want the bridge toll to be reduced nothing more nothing less and if you want to make it a political issue then so be it,” she contended.
The House was plunged into darkness during Ally’s presentation as a result of a power outage. This led Ally to declare “Gosh this is a sign of the dark days to come under this PPP government,” much to the giggles of the opposition but noisy rebuttals from the government side. Shortly after, Parliament’s generator kicked in and Ally thanked Prime Minister Samuel Hinds, who she felt had a role to play in the return of power to the National Assembly.