Govt seeking legal advice before talks with BBCI – Patterson
Public Infrastructure Minister David Patterson is currently awaiting legal advice from Attorney the General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Basil Williams, before engaging the Berbice Bridge Company Incorporated (BBCI).BBCI Chairman Dr. Surendra Persaud disclosed two weeks ago that the company is facing bankruptcy, and as such had made proposals to increase its tolls by as much 300 per cent in some cases, to keep the Berbice Bridge afloat.Toll increases have been strongly opposed by Government, but Minister Patterson has said due consideration may be given to this matter. He said last week that Government would continue to engage the BBCI for alternative solutions that do not include passing on increases to consumers.“No at the moment… the Attorney General is providing some legal advice, and at the end of that, I will engage them and move forward from there,” the Public Infrastructure Minister told the Guyana Times on Tuesday, adding that he has indicated this to the BBCI chairman.In his objection to the toll increase proposal, Patterson last week pointed out that Government was already subsidising the Bridge, and giving it more financial support might be a major task.However, he added that the Coalition Government has an obligation to the people of Region Six (East Berbice-Corentyne) to ensure that there were no increases.“We have a commitment to the people of Berbice. The Berbice Act that was passed stopped any other means of transporting cars across the Berbice River. So, therefore, obviously it is the Bridge, and obviously, we can’t leave persons stranded. And we have to do whatever we have to do to ensure that it is sustainable,” Minister Patterson said.That therefore leaves the Government with no option but to subsidise the BBCI.Despite rejecting the proposed 300 per cent toll increase, Government has said it would continue to work with the BBCI to ensure that the Bridge was sufficiently maintained and is safe for vehicular and marine use.Based on the announcement made by the BBCI with regard to the proposed increase in tolls, Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo has announced his disagreement with the proposal, but has since encouraged the coalition Government to buy more equity in the Company.Jagdeo reasoned that Berbicians could not afford the steep increases that the company has proposed at this time. He said this was mainly so because the BBCI was contractually obligated to maintain the Bridge. Instead, he thinks that Government could buy out other shareholders, so the Bridge becomes publicly-owned.“Secondly, subsidise the increase that should take place in the toll, so they give an injection into the company so the rate remains flat.” This formula, according to Jagdeo, would entail taking over the debt of the Bridge and securing greater equity in return.But Patterson has said that while a fare increase is something Government is totally against, it has caused some delays in the past. He recalled that when the Government approached a shareholder (Demerara Distillers Limited) to buy its shares, it took some time before a decision was made as to whether they should sell.“It took a year before the shareholder voted and gave us permission to buy the shares. I think one of the problems at that time is that DDL bought shares at $40 million and they sold it for $45 million. The 24 per cent persons didn’t want to have a precedent yet, whereby they make a minor profit on it,” he added.The Minister explained that Government was made an offer by another shareholder who was interested in selling his shares, but under the condition that he got all the profits he would have been entitled to for the entire period of over 20 years.Patterson said the proposal was not feasible, and therefore Government could not give it due consideration, as it would have cost an exceptional amount.In the July 9th application to Government, the BCCI requested that the toll increases take effect from August 1. The new tolls proposed by the BBCI would see cars and minibuses paying $8040 to cross the Bridge; pickups, small trucks and four-wheel-drive vehicles $14,600; medium trucks $27,720; large trucks $49,600; articulated trucks $116,800; and boats $401,040.