Another brouhaha has broken out in Parliament and this time it’s an attempt by the opposition majority to have the tolls charged by the Berbice Bridge Company (BBC) reduced for vehicular and other crossings.
The Berbice River Bridge (BRB) was not an economically/financially viable project to start with as no feasibility study was carried out and therefore the apparent high tolls now being charged is necessary for its operation, maintenance and debt service obligations. I was unable to get any financial information but based on my intuition and observation of the traffic using the bridge it seems that the BRB is having a negative return on its investment. If this is so, then for the tolls to be reduced the Government will have to either provide a subsidy or nationalize the entity if it is to remain solvent.
The Government is already heavily subsidizing the Demerara Harbour Bridge, Guyana Power and Light (GPL), Guysuco, etc. and therefore under the BBC Act the Minister of Public Works has the authority to lower the toll but Minister Benn based on his pronouncement has realized that Berbicians are not among the Government’s greatest supporters. Hence he has stated in no uncertain term that the Government has no intention to lower the tolls and place additional financial burden on its already highly taxed supporters elsewhere.
Under the administration of former President Jagdeo during which period the bridge was designed and built, Mr Brassington from NICIL was able to include in the BBC agreement a crafty clause which allows financial and other information considered confidential kept secret. Therefore no one except the Government and BBC shareholders have access to information financial or otherwise which would indicate whether BBC is making or losing money and it is this information which the opposition needs before it can make any meaningful claim that the toll is excessive and for it to be reduced. Unfortunately, the opposition is unlikely to obtain this or any other information considered confidential by the Government anytime soon for several reasons. The Constitution of Guyana is so framed that any legislation passed in the National Assembly has to have the President’s assent before it becomes law. Simply put no one gets anything unless the President say so, law or no law. Therefore unless Messrs. Granger and Harmon get the necessary changes in the Constitution much of their efforts in Parliament will be going nowhere and the minority Government will continue to spend public funds, award contracts, influence the DPP, etc. with impunity and be answerable to no one.
Because no feasibility was carried out for the BBC, alternative modes to provide cheaper and efficient transportation across the Berbice River were never considered and Berbicians were led to believe by the Jagdeo administration that the BBC would provide a cheaper and more efficient means than the ferry to cross the Berbice river although no financial analysis was given at the time to support this claim. Now that financial reality has kicked in there is apprehension and financial dismay by users.
Minister Benn could ease the pain on Berbicians by cross subsidization. He should increase the toll (very low) on the Demerara Harbour Bridge Crossing and use the money to lower that of the BBC to the extent that its distribution appears fair and equitable. This is not a novel idea. New York City has used it for years. Revenue from its Bridge and Tunnel Authority has been used to subsidize the Long Island Railroad. These entities are part of the City’s integrated transportation system.