Premier David Alward: No Highway Tolls in New Brunswick without a referendum.
FREDERICTON - Alward reacted cautiously to questions about tolls on Tuesday after Finance Minister Blaine Higgs raised the possibility last week, saying that if they make sense, they should be part of the next budget.
The premier said the introduction of tolls would not happen without the involvement of the federal government and without the consent of taxpayers.
"It would require a discussion with the federal government, as an example, because the federal government has invested in most of the four-lane highways in New Brunswick," Alward told reporters.
"It also would require going to a referendum as well because of the Taxpayers' Protection Act."
The Taxpayers' Protection Act. introduced in 2003, states government must either hold a referendum or give notice before a provincial election if it intends to introduce a new tax.
In addition, Alward and the Progressive Conservatives promised during last year's election campaign that they would require referendums to help decide significant issues.
The Alward government subsequently introduced referendum legislation, clearing the way for votes on what the premier described as important issues "that have a very large impact on the people of New Brunswick."
The referendum law leaves it up to the government to decide what meets the criteria for a vote, but Alward has always said that increasing the HST and introducing tolls are examples of the kinds of issues that could be put to the public for a decision.
Higgs said last week when he announced the latest projected increase in the province's deficit that the government is investigating highway tolls.
He said a study has looked at placing tolls at five different locations, but he said traffic volumes didn't justify that approach.
"So it's a balance of, 'if you place them, is there a real benefit?'?" Higgs said.
"The analytical work is being done as we speak. It is something being looked at seriously ... If it is to happen and it makes sense to happen, then it should be part of the next budget."
Officials with the Finance Department were unable to clarify the nature of the study under way on highway tolls, saying it appears to be confidential advice to the minister.
The Transportation Department did not respond to requests for an interview.
Liberal finance critic Donald Arseneault said there's too much secrecy about critical choices being made in relation to the province's finances.
"It's confusing for the public, especially when the finance minister makes comments about options he is considering and the premier says something else," Arseneault said.
Currently, the only highway toll in the Maritimes is at the Cobequid Pass in Nova Scotia. The toll - $4 for automobiles and $3 per axle for trucks - raises roughly $20 million every year.
New Brunswick briefly charged tolls on the four-lane highway near Moncton in the late 1990s, before the Liberal government was defeated by Bernard Lord's Tories.
The tolls were scrapped by the Lord government in 1999.
The provincial government has announced its annual deficit will be $545.7 million, or nearly $100 million higher than expected. Higgs said he isn't ruling out raising taxes to fight the deficit.
David Murrell, an economics professor at the University of New Brunswick, said he favours holding a referendum on tolls, but he doubts people would support that kind of extra charge on their highways.
"People probably would vote against it."
Nevertheless, Murrell said it is imperative the New Brunswick government balances its books and highway tolls are a good idea.
"I'm not sure people really realize what the books are like," he said.
"I have a fear that more and more people are not reading newspapers or listening to the news. I think there is less civic awareness out there. The dialogue has to be about how we balance the books within two or three years."