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CAPITAL BEAT: Downe beats own drum on Confederation Bridge toll issue

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While it would be perhaps unfair to call Senator Percy Downe a one-issue politician, there is no question he is not prepared to let go of the idea of free trips across Confederation Bridge anytime soon.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in the province recently, the Island senator urged  media representatives to question the nation's number one politician on the issue. Downe, who worked in the prime Minister's office during Jean Chretien's term, is now officially "independent"  after Trudeau turfed Liberal senators out of his caucus while still in opposition in the wake of the Senate expense scandal.

The prime minister argued, during a one-on-one interview with The Guardian, Downe is simply using that new-found independence to press the issue. He stopped far short of saying he was going to act on his idea anytime soon - if ever. Senator Downe argues simple that tolls have been abolished on the Champlain Bridge in Montreal. Like the link between the Island and New Brunswick, the Montreal bridge is owned by the federal government. If there are no tolls on that federally owned bridge, he argues, there shouldn't be tolls on any federal bridges.

The provincial government has offered token support to the idea, a stand perhaps determined by their assessment of the chances the effort will be successful. There is no question it is a long shot, but it would seem at first glance to be a no-lose situation for a provincial politician. If it succeeds, it is politically popular-- if it fails it is Ottawa’s fault.

However, things aren't quite that simple. There is the matter of Northumberland Ferries and its champion at the federal cabinet table - Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Lawrence MacAulay. The privately owned service suffered a public relations disaster last year, operating with just one vessel for most of the season. Earlier this year, the government announced it was seeking proposals for an operator for not only the Wood Island’s Caribou, Nova Scotia service but two other ferry systems in the Maritimes.

Whether that will eventually lead to another operator taking over remains to be seen, but this is definitely a make or break year for the service. It has to operate on schedule and prove itself to once again be a dependable alternative for travelers if it is to survive in the long term. Talk of a free ride on the bridge makes that harder to do and, if free bridge tolls are a long shot, a free ferry system is a pipe dream.

MacAulay was one of the first detractors of Senator Downe's suggestion and his position at the cabinet table gives him direct access to the prime minister in a way Downe does not enjoy. The fact Trudeau mentioned the investment in Northumberland Ferries during the interview is certainly proof of  the cabinet minister's influence. That, more than anything else, will likely ensure the idea never really gets off the ground.

- Andy Walker is an Island-based writer and commentator

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