House of Commons Hansard #55 of the 37th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was liability.

Topics

Business Of The House

10 a.m.

Scarborough—Rouge River
Ontario

Liberal

Derek Lee Parliamentary Secretary to Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, there have been discussions between parties in the House and I believe you would find unanimous consent that Bill S-5 be considered at all stages today, that is second reading, committee of the whole, report stage and third reading.

Business Of The House

10 a.m.

The Speaker

Is there unanimous consent to proceed in this fashion?

Business Of The House

10 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Blue Water Bridge Authority Act
Government Orders

10:05 a.m.

Edmonton West
Alberta

Liberal

Anne McLellan for the Minister of Transport

moved that Bill S-5, an act to amend the Blue Water Bridge Authority Act, be read the second time and, by unanimous consent, referred to a committee of the whole.

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10:05 a.m.

Algoma—Manitoulin
Ontario

Liberal

Brent St. Denis Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Transport

Mr. Speaker, at the outset I would like to ask for consent to share my time with the member for Sarnia—Lambton.

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10:05 a.m.

The Speaker

Is it agreed that the hon. member split his time with the hon. member for Sarnia—Lambton?

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10:05 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Blue Water Bridge Authority Act
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10:05 a.m.

Liberal

Brent St. Denis Algoma—Manitoulin, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak at second reading on the proposed legislation, an act to amend the Blue Water Bridge Authority Act.

The proposed legislation amends the Blue Water Bridge Act of 1964 by updating the ability of the Blue Water Bridge Authority to borrow funds.

For those members who may not know, the Blue Water Bridge connects Point Edward, which is near Sarnia, Ontario, with Port Huron, Michigan. It joins Ontario Highway 402 to Michigan Highway Interstates 69 and 94 on the U.S. side.

The Blue Water Bridge is the second largest Canada-U.S. gateway in terms of exports and the second busiest crossing for trucks. An average of 14,000 vehicles per day cross the Blue Water Bridge and on a busy day as many as 20,000 vehicles, including well over 6,000 trucks, may cross this international bridge.

The Blue Water Bridge is Canada's fastest growing crossing with traffic increases of about 8% per year. The bridge is primarily a long distance crossing. I am told that approximately 250,000 to 300,000 trucks per month from the province of Quebec alone cross this bridge heading to the United States. Obviously this crossing is important to many of our provinces, not just Ontario.

In 1992, 50 years after the bridge was first opened for traffic, an international task force studying the Blue Water Bridge crossing concluded that the existing bridge was operating in excess of its designed capacity and that a second bridge should be built.

On July 22, 1997, a second Blue Water Bridge span was open to traffic. Once the new bridge was opened, the original 60 year old bridge was temporarily closed for much needed rehabilitation.

The Blue Water Bridge Authority has owned and operated the Canadian half of the bridge since the early 1960s. The authority was created by the federal government by an act respecting the international bridge over the St. Clair river known as the Blue Water Bridge. This act was proclaimed on May 21, 1964.

The Blue Water Bridge Authority is a public body basically independent of the crown operating at arm's length. It is not an agent or employee of the crown and the crown is therefore not liable for its debt. It receives no federal funding.

The governor in council appoints the directors of the authority and the reporting mechanism is through Transport Canada.

As I previously indicated, the purpose of the amendment to the Blue Water Bridge Act of 1964 is to update the ability of the Blue Water Bridge Authority to borrow funds. The current act limits the authority to borrow funds when the bond interest rate is less than or equal to 6.5%. This restriction is not in keeping with current practice.

Other international bridges have an established maximum borrowing limit. The amendment proposes a maximum borrowing limit of $125 million which would be adequate to handle its long term debt, currently totalling approximately $60 million, and its multiyear capital plan totalling an additional $55 million.

The Blue Water Bridge Authority is continually looking for ways to improve its operation and to make its crossing as efficient and as safe as possible. Its capital plan identifies major modifications to the terminal layout to improve the flow of traffic and to address the safety concerns identified by independent consultants.

Without the passage of the legislation, the authority will be unable to borrow the necessary funds to make these improvements. The proposed legislation stipulates that all borrowing transactions are subject to the approval of the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Transport. The bill also reinforces that the federal government is not liable for any borrowing by the authority.

The authority is not for profit. Its revenues come primarily from bridge tolls but it also has rental income from things like the duty free shop and from broker establishments at the crossing.

The proposed legislation to amend the Blue Water Bridge Authority Act is important for Canada's economic viability and competitiveness. With the Canada-U.S. trade growing at an average annual pace of more than 10%, we cannot afford to ignore the crucial economic role that our international border crossings play in facilitating the movement of this trade.

I hope all members will join me in giving expeditious consideration to this important initiative. The Blue Water Bridge Authority needs the legislation in order to continue to operate and to maintain this important transportation link efficiently and to make capital improvements in the most cost effective manner possible.

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10:10 a.m.

Liberal

Roger Gallaway Sarnia—Lambton, ON

Mr. Speaker, I too am pleased to speak to Bill S-5 and to urge its speedy passage.

The bill is in essence a private bill in that it affects one operation, in this case the powers of the board of directors consisting of four people who are the overseers or managers of the Canadian half of the international crossing known as the Blue Water Bridge, which is located in my riding of Sarnia—Lambton.

In 1937, after 20 years of study between the Canadian government and American interests, agreement was reached to construct a bridge over the St. Clair river at its narrowest juncture which is at the base of Lake Huron in the village of Point Edward.

For close to 60 years the original structure served as the crossing point between Canada and the United States, Ontario and Michigan, and the communities of Sarnia and Port Huron. For almost 60 years the first bridge served the interests of business, family and tourism well by providing a fast and efficient place to exit and enter Canada.

However, in 1964 parliament enacted legislation, known as the Blue Water Bridge Act, which created a board of directors of four people with certain powers, authority and obligations to operate the facility. The reason for that was twofold. First, the automobile in the post-war years resulted in a much greater volume of traffic: business, commercial, tourism, as well as personal use.

Second, the operations of the bridge needed to be self-sustaining and fulfil the expectations of the local, regional as well as national interests. With the passage in 1964 of the Blue Water Bridge Authority Act, control over operations was vested in the authority subject to certain provisions in terms of reporting to Transport Canada.

The legislation has served us well locally and nationally. The authority under the 1964 legislation provided the buildings for Canada customs, immigration and agriculture Canada free of charge. This was part of the 1964 act and continues and will continue to be the case.

Over the period from 1964 to 1992, the volume of traffic grew. This was a three lane bridge located some 50 minutes from Detroit. As both Canada and the U.S. became greater trading partners, as the method of moving goods shifted toward trucks and as the 400 series highways blossomed in Ontario and their interstate counterparts were built in the U.S., something quite startling happened.

Ontario Highway 402 was built in the mid-seventies connecting the Blue Water Bridge to Highway 401 some 100 kilometres away. On the American side, Interstate Highways 94 and 69 connected the bridge to Detroit and Chicago. As trade between our countries blossomed and traffic volume skyrocketed from a few trucks daily in 1938 to well over 7,000 18-wheelers daily today, the Blue Water Bridge is now the second busiest land commercial crossing on the Canada—U.S. border.

In 1992 the Blue Water Bridge Authority, responding to both local and national needs, conducted a feasibility study in concert with its American counterpart operators, the Michigan Department of Transport, and embarked on a bridge twinning project. On July 12, 1997, that second parallel Blue Water Bridge, the new one, was officially opened: a new structure abutting and running parallel to the 1938 structure. The bridge now offered six lanes to facilitate the crossing of goods and people. After the opening of the new span, a commitment of more than $75 million by the Blue Water Bridge Authority, the original span was closed to be re-decked and refurbished, a further commitment of about $25 million.

Since 1997 the volume of truck traffic has continued to grow somewhere in the neighbourhood of 12% per annum. The opening of a casino abutting the Canadian plaza of the bridge, literally almost under the bridge, and the favourable position of the Canadian dollar vis-à-vis U.S. residents, has resulted in an explosion of traffic. Some 20,000 vehicles are crossing daily and more than 1.6 million annually. Each and every month the revenues of the bridge authority have increased, despite the talk that there is a slowdown in the economy.

This means a number of things, reflected in Bill S-5. The bridge authority, through studies commissioned by it, has identified further capital projects to disentangle truck traffic from regular motor vehicle traffic. It must, for safety reasons and to facilitate the just in time delivery of goods, make major changes to its plaza at the base of the bridge. Without the passage of this legislation, Bill S-5, the Blue Water Bridge Authority will be unable to borrow the necessary funds to make these improvements as well as handle its long term debt load and multi-year capital plan.

The 1964 act has worked for 37 years, but in this era of increased trade and tourism this new legislation will allow the Blue Water Bridge Authority to continue to meet our national, regional and local interests. It is a sign and a symptom of success.

In closing I would like to thank the bridge authority and its chair, Mr. Doug Keddy, and the mayor of the village of Point Edward, Dick Kirkland, who have in recent years worked so diligently to ensure the success of this facility. As well, in anticipation I would like to thank the members of the House for their support in the adoption of this bill.

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10:15 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Jay Hill Prince George—Peace River, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am also pleased to rise today to address at second reading Bill S-5, which seeks to amend the Blue Water Bridge Authority Act.

Although most Canadians have probably not even heard of the Blue Water bridges, the parallel spans connecting Port Huron, Michigan to Sarnia, Ontario, we have all felt the effects of their presence. As the second busiest commercial vehicle corridor between Canada and the United States, the Blue Water bridges are an integral part of the Canadian economy, providing us with access not only to the U.S. market but to Mexico as well.

The modernization of this act would give the Blue Water Bridge Authority the means and capability of conducting its business affairs in a manner similar to that of any other private corporation in Canada. As a result of these changes, the authority will be able to borrow money to invest in infrastructure improvements on an as needed basis up to a limit of $125 million. The act will also ensure that the borrowing activities are overseen by the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Transportation.

While I have some reservations about placing control for approval of borrowing in the hands of only two members of the House, I am hopeful that this arrangement may actually encourage some dialogue between the ministers on infrastructure investment for the rest of Canada's transportation system.

I am pleased to see the Minister of Transport in the House today. Earlier this week Canadians heard the minister defend his inaction on highways by once again reiterating that he could not possibly spend money on roads since they are a provincial responsibility.

If that is the case, then the question is this: why is the federal government collecting taxes that clearly belong to the party responsible for the roads, namely the provinces? It seems simple. If the government will not take responsibility for the roads then it should stop taking the money.

Fortunately we also had the Minister of Finance around to try to defend the paltry $600 million that the government intends to distribute to the provinces for road improvements over the next four years. He reminded us of all the wonderful things that the remaining $4 billion, yes, $4 billion, of fuel tax buys us.

Given the state of our highways it is unconscionable that the finance minister would defend spending 95% of fuel tax revenues on projects other than roads. As the Blue Water Bridge Authority has proven over the past 37 years, reinvesting revenues from operations means that we can afford to maintain infrastructure to impeccable standards.

Imagine for a moment that an American tourist is heading for a vacation in Canada. The American side of the journey is on interstate highways that receive funding to the tune of 95% of all fuel taxes collected by the state. The American tourist gets to the Blue Water Bridge, maintained fully by the revenue it generates, and enjoys a very pleasant crossing.

Then the American tourist arrives in Canada and continues the trip on highways that receive funding of less than 5% of total fuel tax revenues. The pathetic condition of our highways has the American checking his map furiously to make sure that he did not somehow make a wrong turn and is actually heading to Mexico.

I mention Mexico again because it brings up yet another compelling reason for renewed investment in our highway infrastructure, and that is trade corridors. The government has gone to great lengths to ensure that we have free trade with Mexico, yet it has spent no time considering how we will get there.

Access to and from the growing Mexican economy involves more than ensuring that we have enough bridges to the United States. Importers and exporters need to have confidence that the Canadian government is committed to ensuring that our transportation infrastructure will exist long enough for trading relations to fully develop.

We need to invest in developing and maintaining trade corridors to the south and national highways to the east and west to sustain access to the infrastructure such as the Blue Water bridges.

In conclusion, I am pleased to confirm that the Canadian Alliance supports the speedy passage today of all stages of amendments to the Blue Water Bridge Authority Act, Bill S-5, with the hope and the proviso that it may encourage further improvements to our national transportation network.

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10:20 a.m.

Progressive Conservative

Norman E. Doyle St. John's East, NL

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to say a word or two on Bill S-5 simply to get on the record, because it is not a very controversial piece of legislation. It is quite mundane, as a matter of fact, and I want to say on behalf of our party that we support the bill.

The bill will simply update the borrowing rules that apply to the Blue Water Bridge Authority. The current and complex rules for borrowing money are replaced by a requirement that the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Transport approve the authority's borrowing. A cap of $125 million is placed on all borrowing by the authority and the government will not be responsible for repayment of the authority's debt, so there no reason why anyone would not support the bill.

The bridges are operated by the Blue Water Bridge Authority, which includes Canadian and U.S. representatives. The authority operates at arm's length from government and receives no appropriations. It is not an agent of the crown and the government assumes no responsibility for debt incurred by the authority. As I said a moment ago, there is no reason not to support and approve the appropriations outlined in the bill.

The Canadian law governing the authority's ability to borrow money sets out a complex and antiquated set of rules and restrictions such as the maximum rate of interest to be paid, the maximum length of time to maturity for bonds issued in the authority's name, and the maximum rate to be paid on bonds redeemed early by the authority.

The borrowing authority sought under the bill is about $125 million. It is more than double the current outstanding debt of $60 million. The government says that is adequate to handle planned multi-year capital spending of $55 million. That is all we have to say on the bill. We support it.

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10:20 a.m.

The Speaker

Is the House ready for the question?

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10:20 a.m.

Some hon. members

Question.

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10:20 a.m.

The Speaker

The question is on the motion. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

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10:20 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

(Motion agreed to, bill read the second time, considered in committee, reported, concurred in, read the third time and passed)