Opposition Leader President Bharrat Jagdeo on Wednesday said the huge hikes in tolls announced by the Berbice Bridge Company Incorporated (BBCI) are not in keeping with the 20-year contract he signed with the company while he was president in 2006 and he called on the government to press the company on how it arrived at the figures.
“That increase is not part of the contract. There is no way [in] that financial model that increase is catered for… it is not only unconscionable it is criminal,” Jagdeo told a press conference at his Church Street, Georgetown office.
“It says under the PPP model, you have it here… what it was and where it would end up in 2026. The only two years you would have increases were those two years and by 6.4 percent and then 17 percent,” he added as he pointed to a graph of the projected tolls from 2006 to 2026.
Jagdeo reiterated the position of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), which has said it is categorically opposed to any increase in tolls but noted that in 2014 and 2015 there should have been increases to the tune of 6.4 percent and 17 percent, respectively. He urged that the current administration make the contract public so the citizenry could see the terms for themselves and do the calculations on the increases.
Up to May of 2015, when general elections were held, no change had been made to the original toll structure.
On Tuesday, the BBCI announced that it would be instituting an across-the-board hike in tolls as of November 12th, 2018, but Public Infrastructure Minister David Patterson assured residents of the county that the government would do everything in its power to ensure that they pay no increases. “My position remains the same. I will not be approving any toll increases for the Berbice River Bridge crossing and that is our position on that. We will be seeking legal advice from the Attorney General’s chambers on the legal implications on what is the power and authority under this Act,” Patterson said, while noting that he was conveying the view of Cabinet. “I want to give all assurances to the people, especially in Region Five and Region Six, that the government will do all that is necessary to ensure that commuters can continue to use the bridge safely and without any particular undue harassment and tolls,” he added.
The increases follow several years of fruitless talks between the company and the government over the hiking of tariffs. The company has sustained significant losses and has not been able to pay any dividends to its shareholders since its construction.
It is not the first time that BBCI has proposed increases. In July of this year, Chairman of the Board Dr. Surendra Persaud had said that under the bridge contract, the fares should have been raised in increments, which would have taken them to the figures now proposed.
Persaud said the company cannot continue on an unsustainable path and its legal advisors, law firm Cameron and Shepherd, advised that it does what is within its legal remit and institute the hikes in the tolls. It was the law firm that also set the date and Persaud said that it had nothing to do with politics and the fact that the same day the country will hold local government elections.
Both Patterson and Jagdeo do not believe the BBCI Chairman.
“There is political implication and political reasoning and political machinations behind this here,” Patterson said on Tuesday.
He urged Berbicians to lobby their political representatives to question the former president, under whose tenure the contract was signed, to explain how he foresees them paying perhaps what is the “highest worldwide toll for a bridge.”
He said that government would also welcome discussions with Jagdeo and he should also be asked if he was prepared to “come to discuss with government a solution” on how the proposed tolls could be reached. “Obviously, the genesis of this is squarely on what the opposition would have prepared and we are willing to listen [to him] since this is a document that he would have prepared and is his and their making,” he said.
Calling the move a “political gimmick,” Jagdeo said that he believes that the Chairman of the Board, who is a staunch supporter of the AFC+APNU government, has a role to play in setting the date for the increases and that it is anticipated that Patterson will intercede.
It’s all about politics and the ‘Knight in Shining Armour’ is Patterson…I am giving a position in relation to the decision of the Board, but this is a Chairman, who I think instigated this sort of thing. This is their guy who is a member of the Board,” he said, holding up a photograph taken during the 2015 election campaign with Persaud sitting next to current Junior Health Minister Karen Cummings and an AFC executive. Persaud was described then as a supporter of the APNU+AFC coalition.
And while Patterson has assured residents that government would explore all options available as the “entire gamut of possibilities are open,” Jagdeo said that all Patterson has to do is not sign the toll order. Without the agreement of the subject minister to a proposed hike, it cannot be instituted as that is the process by law, Jagdeo said, making reference to Section 4(i) of the Berbice River Bridge Act. “We urge the minister not to sign the toll order. We believe this is a ploy… It’s a gimmick in the campaign season,” he said.