Government not budging on Berbice Bridge tolls

Government not budging on Berbice Bridge tolls

Minister of Public Works Robeson Benn on Thursday staunchly defended his position of refusing to reduce the Berbice River Bridge tolls. The call came through a motion tabled by Joseph Harmon of A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) who called on Government to instruct its representative on the Board of Directors of the Berbice Bridge Company, to demand an immediate reduction in the tolls charged for crossing the bridge.

“This motion… it’s ill advised, it is not the type of resort available for the Parliament to deal with … the Berbice River Bridge as we all know, is a successful project as a public private partnership, it has been built despite many attacks and criticisms, it has been operating properly, it is a signal achievement for public private partnership method…” the Minister stated.

Minister Benn rejected the call stating that to do so would cause the bridge to face financial collapse and scare investors away. He explained that the investors would develop the fear that their assets would be easily expropriated, adding that in this case, assets would be taken away from Guyanese, unlike foreign investors who brought slaves and indentured workers to Guyana.

“This effort unfortunately sends a very bad signal from the parliament with respect to how we mobilise funds for investment, with respect to how we invite investment and people to come to partner and work with us in Guyana …”

He named Republic Bank, Guyana Bank for Trade and Industry, Scotia Bank, Demerara Bank, Citizens Bank, NIS and NBS as having interest in the bridge, and stated that the opposition’s motion imperils their investment.

“This is a shot fired across the bows of all those persons who want to continue to invest in our country. This is an attempt to make a de facto expropriation or nationalisation of a private investment. This is what it is!…this is when we will be expropriating, taking away the money and hard earned cash and interest investment from our own people. Unheard of!”

The Minister also pointed to the inaccurate figures used about profit making by the Berbice Bridge Company, slamming Harmon for his attempt to gain political mileage among Berbicians. He noted also that rates paid during the ferry service in 2005 and the toll rates now are similar.

Minister Benn also disabused the opposition’s notion that that the National Industrial & Commercial Investments Ltd. (NICIL) was a preferential shareholder, indicating that the body only had one share. He further maintained that the company is privately-owned and none of the government’s representatives enjoys voting rights.

He insisted too that he would not order the reduction of the toll, “…until by economic modelling and defining we can determine that it would be of benefit to the Bridge Company and the shareholders and the people of Guyana as a result.”

The Minister was supported in his rejection by Minister of Tourism, Industry and Commerce, Irfaan Ali who noted that the toll was determined by several factors including the projected number and frequency of traffic, as well as willingness-to-pay survey by the Inter American Development Bank that was conducted in 2002. The survey had solicited several views such as the need for constructing the bridge, willingness to pay and problems persons had encountered travelling by ferry.

Minister Ali cautioned that if the toll was lowered, it would affect the contractual obligations and could lead the bridge company to sue government for breach of contract and damages.

Minister Ali also supported Minister Benn’s statement that government and NICIL have no direct ownership in the Berbice Bridge Company.  He however, added that while the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) owns 20 percent of ordinary shares, it is only represented by one Director on the Board, and no one Director can determine or undermine the decision of the full Board.

However, opposition MPs charged that the bridge has been responsible for higher cost of living including steep transportation costs and was pressuring the people in Berbice. MP Dr. Veerasammy Ramayya of the Alliance for Change posited that the current administration could use the reduction of the toll as an incentive to win back much needed seats in its traditional Berbice stronghold.

Nevertheless, despite the Government’s rejection, the combined parliamentary opposition approved the motion.  (GINA)

You must be logged in to post a comment Login