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Mohawk, Canadian governments disagree over toll booth placement

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CORNWALL ISLAND, Ont. - The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne is disagreeing with a decision to permanently keep toll booths at the Seaway International Bridge crossing in the city of Cornwall, Ont.

Construction of a $75 million replacement bridge connecting Cornwall Island and the city of Cornwall is underway and may be complete by the fall of 2013, according to Andre Girard, vice president of communications for the Canadian Federal Bridge Corp.

The Seaway International Bridge Corporation, the bridge’s operator, announced in May that the toll booth for the replacement span would remain in Cornwall.

The Cornwall tolls help maintain the international crossing which connects Massena, Cornwall Island and Southern Ontario. Until 2009, the Canadian customs and toll booths were on Cornwall Island, which is part of the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation.

When the Canadian Border Services Agency made a move to arm its customs officers, Mohawk protests caused the CBSA to close the bridge for six weeks. The customs and toll booths were then temporarily moved to Cornwall, where they have remained since.

But Mohawk Council Grand Chief Mike K. Mitchell would like the booths back on the island, where the CBSA customs used to be.

Keeping the toll collection in Cornwall permanently could cut into the island’s Canadian visitors, he said. By moving the tolls to the former CBSA station, which is near the island’s southern end, Canadians could travel there without having to pay.

“SIBC’s proposal to permanently locate the toll booth plaza on canal lands in Cornwall will cause great economic harm to businesses and recreational facilities located in Akwesasne along the Seaway International Bridge corridor and will hurt the economic relationship between the city of Cornwall and the Akwesasne community,” Mr. Mitchell said in a statement released Tuesday.

The Canadian government could save construction money by using the former CBSA complex. And moving the toll booths back to the island could ease traffic tie-ups caused in part by the 2009 move, Mohawk officials said.

Mr. Mitchell also criticized the Canadian government for a lack of consultation with the Mohawk council over the toll booth decision.

“The SIBC decision runs counter to the good will we are trying to achieve and a more equitable and fair decision needs to be found,” Mr. Mitchell said.

But Mr. Girard said the SIBC chose Cornwall over the island to maximize its toll revenue and for safety purposes. The 2009 protests factored into the decision to keep the toll booth off of Cornwall Island.

“We’ve had some safety concerns, pretty major, actually,” Mr. Girard said. “There’s no use for us to be on the island.”

The former toll booth used to be near the northern end of the island, close to Cornwall, so Canadians traveling there prior to 2009 still had to pay, Mr. Girard said. He also disputed the Mohawk government’s criticism of lack of consultation.

“I think it’s politics, and I don’t get into politics,” he said.

Mohawk Council spokesman Brendan F. White could not be reached for further comment on Tuesday. The toll booth discussion is separate from the ongoing talks to create a shared Canadian/American customs station in Massena.

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