The Berbice Bridge Company Incorporated (BBCI) today announced a proposed 420 per cent increase in tolls to cross the Berbice River Bridge. This recent announcement comes on the heels of a similar effort to increase tolls in May 2018, when the government, through the subject Minister David Patterson, said it will not countenance any increase in rates since they will have an adverse effect on ordinary Guyanese having to utilize the bridge.
TIMELINE OF THE BERBICE BRIDGE
The Berbice River Bridge – the bridge was constructed through a public-private partnership between the then Bharat Jagdeo Government and sections of the Private Sector. A bill was passed in the National Assembly and assented to by then President Bharrat Jagdeo in 2006 to facilitate this arrangement. The National Insurance Scheme (NIS) and the New Building Society (NBS) were made to invest heavily into the construction and operation of the Bridge which to date has yielded no returns for the National Insurance Scheme. The government, in 2017, undertook to pay NIS the more than $5BILLION it was owed and needed desperately to sustain its operations.
No application for toll increase – From its construction to 2015, the year when the PPP/C lost the Regional and National elections to the APNU+AFC, the BBCI never sought an increase in its tolls. However, a request for an increase was made in March of 2015. This was rejected by the current administration who in turn instituted river taxis for school children, nurses, teachers for two periods daily – morning and afternoon – to ease the burden on the travelling public.
Government reduced toll – In 2016, the government came to an agreement with the BCCI to reduce its toll fees in keeping with a campaign promise by the APNU + AFC. Tolls were reduced by 10 per cent and $155M per annum subsidy paid from January 2016.
Despite the agreement met in 2016, the BCCI wrote to the government requesting increased tolls in March 2016, 2017 and July of 2018.
The government offers to undertake maintenance – Following the BBCI’s failure to get government’s approval for increased tolls, it was revealed that the 39 pontoons, an integral part of the bridge’s infrastructure had not been serviced for two- and one-half maintenance cycles (since the bridge’s inception). In the interest of public safety, Minister Patterson approached the Cabinet to undertake the maintenance of these pontoons. Approval was granted, and some $90M granted to the Demerara Harbour to take responsibility for the maintenance programme. An additional offer was made by the government to undertake maintenance of the bridge for the remaining nine years of its contractual life, at an estimated cost of $9BILLION, starting in 2019.
BCCI rejects the offer – The offer by the government was rejected out of hand by the BCCI, which said the offer only addressed operational costs and not its indebtedness, while its financiers wanted their investments and returns on investment which the agreement with the previous government guaranteed at a rate of between 9 and 12 per cent. The subject Minister reminded that his mandate was to discuss operations. The BCCI was asked to consider a reduced rate of return, to which it responded that its investors were unwilling to negotiate. It was then proposed that government purchase the bridge. The subject minister promised to submit an offer from the government to the BCCI.
BBCI proposes increased tolls – Unaware that the meetings with BCCI were merely being used as consultations, in keeping with the act of 2016, Minister of Public Infrastructure, David Patterson received a letter from the BBCI chairman thanking him for meeting and reiterating the company’s position that there is a toll order and based on legal opinion they will be increasing tolls to cross the river bridge effective Nov 12, the day of Local Government Elections.
Govt rejects toll increase – According to Minister Patterson, the government sees this recent attempt to introduce the tolls for crossing the Berbice River Bridge as unconscionable and will do everything possible to prevent BCCI holding commuters at ransom.
Legal options being considered – the Attorney General Chambers has been asked by the government to examine its options. Another option being considered will see the Public Security Minister ordering that the Berbice Bridge be kept open for the public’s safety.
The proposed toll increases will make the Berbice Bridge the most expensive river bridge crossing in the world.
By: Kidackie Amsterdam.