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Steen defends toll

Growing backlash to highway fees

Thorunn Howatt
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Sept 05/01) - There's a growing backlash against the territorial government's proposal to charge highway permitting fees for a $100 million construction program.

But Transportation Minister Vince Steen said the opposition isn't unexpected.

"We didn't expect this thing to be accepted easily," said Steen, adding that residents can expect some short-term pain for long-term gain.

A contingent of highways department officials has been touring communities to explain the proposed permitting system that would have commercial haulers charged a fee to travel territorial highways based on the number of axles on their trucks.

The group is answering questions about the proposal as well as taking residents' pulses on the issue. The permit structure is part of a new legislation being considered, including Bill 9, The Commercial Vehicle Trip Permit Act and Bill 10, the Public Highway Improvement Fund Act.

The bill has passed through its first two readings and is expected to come up again in legislature in November.

"You may have to pay a penny more for your beer or your milk," said Steen.

"If they still object to paying a penny more for their beer after driving Highway 3, I will be happy to pay that penny."

Steen admitted costs for everyday goods like groceries or anything else that has to be hauled North will go up because retailers will have to pay more for shipping. According to a fee schedule set out by the government, a straight-haul, single-axle truck carrying a commercial load will pay a $190 permit to travel from the Alberta border to Yellowknife.

"But in the end we will have a highway system like the Yukon and Alaska."

The bills are purported to pave the way for a $100-million investment over the next four years throughout the territory.

Steen said transportation infrastructure will open up the North to industry and tourism.

Opposition growing

But many critics don't see things Steen's way.

"How realistic is it to ask 40,000 people to pay for $100 million worth of highway?" asked Mike Vaydik, executive director of the NWT Chamber of Mines.

"We're concerned it's bad for mines, it's bad for exploration and it will have an impact on the cost of living," said Vaydik. The mining chamber contracted a consultant to work on a study identifying the fee's impacts.

The results should be released within the next week.

"It will add about two cents per litre on the price of gas," he said.

And Vaydik was sure the mining industry will be harmed by the tax.

"It could make or break some of these small base-metal mining companies," he said.

One of those is Fortune Minerals, which is developing the NICO Mine 160 km northwest of Yellowknife.

"It's going to have a profound impact on our project," said Fortune president Robin Goad.

In a letter to Finance Minister Joe Handley, Goad said toll fees could make the development of the mine uneconomic.

He cited one of the developing diamond mine sites as a case in point.

"If they are moving 4,000 trucks a year, that's $4,000."