Mr. Speaker, it gives me great pleasure to speak this afternoon on Bill C-81, an act to amend an act respecting the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Company, which is the formal name of what we in southern Ontario and western New York State refer to as the Peace bridge authority.
I will give a little background on the Peace bridge authority. The authority was incorporated in 1923 under a special act of Parliament, following which the construction of the international bridge commenced in 1925 and was completed in 1927. An act respecting the Buffalo and Fort Erie Bridge Company was enacted in 1934. It empowered the authority to acquire, hold and manage the property and assets within Canada.
The authority owns and operates the Peace bridge and has 10 appointed members, five Canadian and five American. The authority is profitable and has no outstanding long term debt. It is self sufficient with any profits being used to improve and maintain the facility.
The Peace bridge and this act is very important to Fort Erie, the Niagara peninsula, the province of Ontario and Canada as a whole. The Peace bridge is located at the Niagara River crossing between Buffalo, New York and Fort Erie, Ontario. It is the second busiest cross-border highway link between Canada and the United States. More than 300 million vehicles have crossed the bridge since it opened in 1927.
In 1994 the bridge carried nearly eight million vehicles. Over one million or 14 per cent of these were trucks. It is estimated that $65 million worth of trade crosses the bridge daily.
As a result of continued expansion and development of international trade and traffic between the province of Ontario and the eastern United States, passenger car traffic and freight truck and other commercial traffic over the Peace bridge into and from Ontario has steadily increased over the years. Commercial traffic increased to 975,000 vehicles in 1993, an increase of 5.8 per cent when compared to 1992. When comparing 1992 to 1991, commercial traffic increased by 11.6 per cent.
In recent years particularly increases in traffic flow have accelerated due to regional and economic factors and international agreements between the two countries, including but not limited to the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement, the North American free trade agreement and GATT. This has resulted in substantial increases in congestion on the bridge and the adjacent Peace bridge plazas.
Congestion is now at the point where it is not uncommon for traffic to back up on and sometimes across the entire bridge to and from Canada. This has resulted in substantial traffic tie-ups on the Queen Elizabeth highway and on local streets in Fort Erie as well as similar problems on the New York State thruway, the Peace bridge plazas and on local streets in Buffalo. The congestion problems presently being experienced on the bridge will only increase in the future.
To improve traffic flow, the authority plans to implement a 10-year $89 million capital improvement project called the gateway project. This project will have a positive economic impact on both sides of the border.
In Fort Erie alone over $58 million will be spent on improvements that include: $11.6 million for a new commercial facility for Canada bound commercial traffic which will house Revenue Canada's commercial customs operations, commercial brokers and freight package firms; another $25 million on a commercial vehicle processing centre for U.S. bound commercial vehicles; and another $4.3 million for a Canadian gateway complete with new customs booths that will serve as a landmark for residents and tourists entering Canada. It truly will be a gateway to Canada, a gateway to the province of Ontario and a gateway to my riding of Erie.
A further $17.6 million will be spent on bridge painting and structural improvements. The bridge is presently painted with a lead based paint which must be removed for environmental reasons. It will be expensive, but is very necessary.
On the U.S. side there will be upgrading of the traffic plaza and the Buffalo terminus to the bridge which will include a reconfigured plaza providing improved access to major highways and into downtown Buffalo.
It can be appreciated that these proposals will translate into short term construction jobs and long term administrative jobs with a tremendous economic spin off impact throughout the region.
The bill also allows for a borrowing increase for the current projects that I have just mentioned. The amendments to the act will allow the authority to increase its borrowing authority from $50 million to $100 million. The authority's reputable financial adviser has reviewed the financial plans of the authority and has indicated that it has the capacity to borrow this sum of money.
I would like to emphasize that there are no costs to the Canadian government associated with the amendments. Section 6 of the current act specifically protects the government from liability for the authority's debt in the event of a default. All borrowing costs will be borne by the users of this facility.
I was concerned with the user pay implications for my constituents as we now enjoy very reasonable bridge tolls on the Peace bridge. Tolls will have to be increased to fund the necessary bridge improvements. I am assured however that they will remain competitive with tolls charged at other international bridge crossings in the Niagara region and southern Ontario.
The Peace bridge authority is very sensitive to this issue. Presently the passenger tolls are the cheapest of all bridge crossings in the Niagara region. Owners of commercial vehicles will continue to pay slightly higher tolls than those charged at the adjacent crossings. They will benefit from reduced costs resulting from the shorter line ups at the border. The authority is fully cognizant that excessively high tolls would divert traffic to other crossings and will act accordingly.
I was also concerned about the debt servicing of these loans and the ability of the authority to meet its financial obligations. I have been assured that the authority's debt repayment plan is sound. The need for this government to satisfy its concerns on this issue and on the environmental impact are the reasons for an almost one year indepth study and the necessary delay of this bill getting to the floor of the House. This government has acted cautiously and prudently.
I was very concerned about the environmental impact of the proposed capital project as well, but my concerns have been satisfied. Pursuant to section 5 of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the bridge is not required to be subjected to a specific federal environmental assessment.
Given the potential impact of a commercial vehicle processing centre project on adjacent neighbourhoods in the town of Fort Erie and the fact that all transborder functions are a clear federal responsibility, Transport Canada completed an environmental screening of the commercial vehicle project in November 1994. The environmental screening determined that the commercial vehicle project may proceed as its environmental impact is either insignificant or mitigable with known technology. The authority has agreed to comply with the recommended mitigation measures. The commercial vehicle processing centre also meets all local, regional and provincial land use and environmental requirements which I think is very important.
Consequently, the decision to increase the borrowing power and transfer administrative powers will have no adverse environmental impact. Other initiatives under the gateway project will be assessed if need be in accordance with the requirements of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.
The legislation before us today also deals with the issue of future requests for increases in borrowing. This legislation gives the governor in council the power to fix the authority's borrowing limit at an amount greater than $100 million if a need can be shown. We can avoid the need for future legislative amendments which become costly and time consuming and are basically administrative in nature.
This administrative change will give the Peace bridge authority additional flexibility to meet more immediate operational needs and future major capital requirements. The simplified procedure will be more responsive for the Peace bridge authority.
The reduced time required to authorize an increase in the borrowing limit will also be less costly for taxpayers. Any increases of this nature will still be thoroughly reviewed before authorization by the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Transport. As a matter of note, such review would also be undertaken in the state of New York.
The act also provides for a transfer of authority. It is understood that the Minister of Transport has the prime responsibility in co-ordinating the role for federal policy on the international crossings. Of all the international bridge crossings, the Peace Bridge is the only one that comes under the authority of the Minister of Finance. This change therefore is an administrative rationalization. The transfer of legislative responsibility between ministers will correct what can be referred to as an administrative anomaly, as it is understood that the Minister of Transport again has the primary responsibility.
There are currently 24 international highway crossings between Canada and the United States. The Minister of Transport is directly involved in three that are federally controlled: the seaway, Thousand Islands and Blue Water bridges. Furthermore, some of these international crossings combine rail functions which are also the responsibility of the Minister of Transport.
It should be pointed out that Transport Canada assumes certain responsibilities associated with all 24 international crossings, such as policy directives, system planning, granting of construction and operating permits, environmental assessments and as previously mentioned, ownership in certain cases.
These activities are being co-ordinated and more often than not are being carried out jointly with our U.S. counterpart, the federal Secretary of Transportation, who shares similar responsibilities. In fact, in the United States all international crossing matters are dealt with through the International Bridge Act of 1972. It authorizes the United States president, secretary of state and secretary of transportation to negotiate, co-ordinate and sign international agreements in order to allow these crossings to be built, operated and maintained.
Therefore, transferring responsibility to the Minister of Transport will result in streamlining the relationship between the minister and the various bridge operators, whether private or public, dedicated public authority or provincial government. It will also facilitate the process of dealing with our U.S. counterparts. As well it will indicate to Canadians that this government is committed to efficiencies in public administration.
Henceforth, both the New York state and U.S. federal governments will be able to deal more effectively through the Minister of Transport. The minister and his U.S. counterpart meet regularly, particularly as a result of the North American free trade agreement, in order to facilitate the transborder movement of people and goods. International crossings are often a priority topic at these meetings.
The transfer of responsibility to the Minister of Transport will indicate to the various bridge operators that the current Transport Canada policy of promoting and supporting decentralized commercialized operations will be maintained and enhanced.
I will not say that these initiatives have been without their opponents who legitimately questioned debt servicing concerns and the environmental impact on adjacent neighbourhoods, especially as it relates to noise and pollution. In particular, the residents whose homes will border on the commercial vehicle processing centre had some very real concerns. I am satisfied that these concerns have been met.
I urge the authority notwithstanding to take its role as a community partner very seriously and to be mindful of its responsibilities to these community concerns. To date it has met these responsibilities and I am confident it will continue to do so.
There is no doubt in my mind that these upgrades and new facilities are urgently required. The planned improvements of the gateway project will speed the movement of traffic, particularly trucks, across the bridge. Streamlining the flow of bona fide cross border traffic is in keeping with the more liberalized international trade environment under the NAFTA. The importance of cross border trade in our community is enormous. The benefits of these improvements will be felt throughout the region, throughout the province and throughout our country.