“…and they must reduce it, and we must not give up until the fare is reduced” – Nagamootoo
WITH the Berbice Bridge Company keeping its stubborn position not to reduce the toll as demanded by government, a river taxi service will begin tomorrow with students, nurses and pensioners travelling for free.
Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo Friday evening told Berbicians that the river taxi service is expected to reinforce the message to the Berbice Bridge Company that the present toll is “unconscionable.”
“…and they must reduce it, and we must not give up until the fare is reduced, and we expect support from the chambers of commerce, and the Private Sector Commission,” Nagamootoo said at the opening of the Berbice Expo.
The company is insisting that the toll reduction must meet the approval of its shareholders before being implemented, and that process is dragging on. The government wanted the bridge toll reduced at the start of this month, but in the face of the impasse moved to start the river taxi service to bring relief to Berbicians unable to pay the toll.
The Prime Minister told Berbicians that the reduction of the toll was important not just for transportation reasons, but that it would also bring down the cost of producing and transporting goods.
He thanked Berbice for standing in solidarity on this issue and appealed to the business community to invest in water taxis and small passenger boats that will ply the Berbice River.
“The Blairmont/Rosignol to New Amsterdam water taxi service, which will begin on Monday, September 21 with a pilot run with boats from Georgetown, will bring new life to New Amsterdam and to this Ancient County,” Nagamootoo said.
In his budget speech last August, Finance Minister Winston Jordan proposed a reduction of the Berbice bridge toll from $2,200 to $1,900 for motorcars, and a 10 per cent decrease for other motor vehicles. The government is in favour of further reductions as the years go by until the toll structure becomes reasonable.
The government has proposed that the reduction will not cost the Bridge Company a cent, since the government would pay, even in advance, whatever the company would lose as a result of the reduction.
However, the Board of Directors of the company objected to this move, saying that they must first consult with their shareholders before such a decision could be made.
But after weeks of consultation, Minister of State Joseph Harmon on Friday advised reporters that the government was made aware that the consultation process is still ongoing.
“We’ve had some communication with the bridge authorities and what they have said is that the consultation with the shareholders is not complete. So that is still a work in progress,” he said.
But with the authorities still engaged in these consultations, Harmon related that the government remains hopeful that “good sense will prevail” at the appropriate time and that a decision to benefit the people will be taken.
Just last month, Minister Jordan had opined that the company which was operating the bridge was using “delaying manoeuvres” to avoid implementing the reductions.
The company had responded to the minister’s comments with a declaration that the reductions were not a done deal.
The company argued that the $36 million being paid by government to offset the reduction in the toll was not enough, since that amount would not take into account a planned increase in the toll.
If the government did not agree to the increased toll, then the company would demand another 19-year concessionary period to operate the bridge without paying corporate and other taxes.
Apart from the state-owned National Industrial and Commercial Investments Ltd (NICIL) being the single largest shareholder, Queens Atlantic Investment Inc (QAII), which is controlled by Dr. Ranjisinghi ‘Bobby’ Ramroop, had, in 2011, acquired even more shares in the BBCI, making that entity the second largest shareholder.
The holders of ordinary shares in the BBCI are the National Insurance Scheme, New GPC, Secure International Finance Company, Hand-in-Hand, and Demerara Contractors.
Since the announcement of the budget estimates, Berbicians and others who use the bridge welcomed the planned toll reduction.
Calls have also been made by critics for the government to pay off the investors of the bridge and take over the operation of the facility.
By Ravin Singh