The government is firm in its view that the proposed toll hikes for the Berbice River Bridge are “unreasonable”, said Minister of State, Joseph Harmon at his post-Cabinet press briefing yesterday.
The tolls- up to 365 percent for vehicular traffic – have shocked Guyana, with the Berbice Bridge Company Inc. (BBCI) insisting it is entitled to increases under the law, and in any case, it is not making monies to cover the required maintenance.
Minister Harmon said that Cabinet was briefed by Minister of Public Infrastructure, David Patterson on Tuesday about the issue. Cabinet also gave its guidance on the way forward.
This included seeking legal opinions on the BBCI proposals. He added that “other options” would be utilised if the BBCI insists on implementing any increases.
He assured that there will be no increases in tolls for the Berbice Bridge crossing, and the government will implement all necessary measures to ensure commuters can continue to traverse the bridge without undue harassment or burdensome tolls.
Earlier this week, Minister Patterson called on Berbice residents to enquire of their elected representatives, the Regional Chairman, Members of Parliament and the Leader of the Opposition, about their views on the proposed toll hikes, since they were enshrined in an agreement signed by then president Bharrat Jagdeo.
On August 21, 2018, the Cabinet approved that the Public Infrastructure Ministry, through the Demerara Harbour Bridge Corporation, would maintain the bridge’s 39 pontoons, at a cost, for the remaining nine years of the concessionary agreement.
According to Minister Patterson, BBCI stated that it would need to be paid projected profits of several billions – at least $6B – to its investors, of which the National Insurance Scheme is the largest.
The contract provides for a 9 to 12 per cent rate of return, but none of the financiers was willing to reduce their rate of returns or offer to sell their shares to the government at a reasonable price.
The proposed tolls rank among the highest bridge tolls internationally, Patterson said Tuesday.
When the government took office in 2015, it implemented river taxis for school children, pensioners, nurses and teachers, and provided $155M per annum in a subsidy starting Jan 2016 to lower the toll for cars from $2200 to $1900.
The bridge was opened late 2008, costing about US$40M, with accusations that the financing model, although using the majority of funds from NIS, highly favoured a few smaller investors.
There are questions now over those high rates of returns for investors, and the feasibility which was carried out, indicated that the bridge would have generated that kind of traffic to guarantee the returns.
Until the bridge’s board was changed by this administration following its assumption to office in 2015, the bridge has been tightly controlled by the New GPC and other directors, with a tight lid over details of the operations.
The new board is being chaired by Dr. Surendra Persaud, who is also holding the same position at NIS.
Government said this week that a review found that none of the pontoons, critical to keeping the bridge afloat, were serviced since 2008.
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