The Berbice River Bridge Toll Controversy

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A MAJOR controversy seems to be brewing over the implementation of the Government’s proposed reduction of the toll at the Berbice River Bridge. Finance Minister, Winston Jordan, in his recent Budget Speech, proposed a reduction of $300 dollars for passenger cars and buses and 10% for all other vehicles beginning September 1 this year. This was duly passed as part of the larger 2015 budget. But this past week, the minister complained that the Berbice Bridge Company Incorporated (BBCI), the company which operates the bridge, was using “delaying maneuvers” to avoid implementing the reductions. The company responded to the minister’s comments with a declaration that the reductions were not a done deal. It further argued that the proposed Government subvention of $36M was inadequate to facilitate the reduction. It instead asked for an increase in the toll or an increase by another 19 years of the concessionary period granted by Government. These proposals were made to the previous Government and the new Government had been in talks with the BBCI on the way forward. The company concluded that it would face bankruptcy if the reductions were implemented under the current arrangements.
While in the Opposition, some of the parties in the now governing coalition and other critics of the Government, had raised concerns about the arrangements regarding the bridge that were entered into by the then Government. They were particularly concerned at the investment of NIS funds which has left the fund in financial disarray. They were also concerned that the Government had made lavish concessions to its friends. For example, it has now been revealed the New GPC, which is owned by a known friend and associate of former President Jagdeo, is one of the largest shareholders.
So where are we? While the presence of the bridge has cut transportation time considerably, the toll costs are out of the range of ordinary citizens. The $2,200 toll for passenger vehicles is exorbitant by Guyanese standards. This is why the governing Coalition had made its reduction a campaign issue which was very popular among the ordinary people who regularly use the bridge.
Now the Coalition has partly addressed the issue, it faces resistance from the BBCI. We say partly, because the reductions proposed by the Government are modest; $1900 is still out of reach for ordinary citizens. Having said that, we do recognise that such matters have to take into consideration other factors such as the ones raised by BBCI. It is our view, then, that the Government’s proposal is a reasonable one that should have been accommodated by the company.
This brings us to the larger question of the role of the Government in ensuring that citizens have ready and equal access to vital services such as transportation, education and health care. It is always a risk to put citizens at the mercy of the market when it comes to these services. In the end, experience has shown that the rich survive and the poor suffer.
We recognise that the age of pure Government ownership may have passed, but we believe that joint public-private arrangements must cater more to the needs of the poor. Too many times Governments in Guyana and the Caribbean, in their haste to attract private investments, have compromised and sold out the interests of ordinary citizens.
In the end, development that hurts the vast majority of citizens is at best cosmetic. A bridge that further impoverishes citizens is not progress. There has to be a more equitable balance between affordable services and profits. The Government must not settle for less. And our private sector must be less mercenary. Our local private sector should be more considerate of the plight of the least among us. On this score, we indict the BBCI.