10/13/2011 04:51 EDT | Updated 12/13/2011 05:12 EST

Road Tolls For Infrastructure Projects Split Canadians: Poll

MONTREAL - Canadians are divided on whether tolls should be used to help pay for major infrastructure projects like new highways and bridges, a new survey suggests.

The Canadian Press/Harris Decima poll released Thursday indicates opinion is split right down the middle on the issue — with 48 per cent supporting tolls and 46 per cent opposing them.

The idea of tolls was most popular in the East, with 53 per cent support in both Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

The question is particularly timely.

With much of the country's infrastructure seriously underfunded, and governments running deficits, policy-makers are being increasingly tempted by tolls as a way to pay for roads and bridges.

The federal government recently announced plans to replace Montreal's Champlain Bridge over the next decade, with the $5-billion project using a toll system.

Nearly one in three respondents to the Harris Decima survey said they'd read or heard something about the Montreal bridge announcement last week.

Of those who do support tolls, eight per cent said they "strongly support" them. That was compared to 15 per cent who said they "strongly oppose" them.

But for most people, opinions on tolls are less extreme. Nearly three-quarters of respondents either opposed or supported tolls, without taking a strong stand either way.

That could make for unpredictable debates.

"The strength of the opinion for most people is not strong opinion — it's a weaker opinion," said Doug Anderson, senior vice-president of Harris Decima.

"I'd say a lengthy public debate would see opinions firm up and that could go either way."

The poll suggested older Canadians and those with higher household incomes would be most likely to support tolls.

Meanwhile, those under age 35 and from a lower-income bracket would be most opposed to tolls — as would a majority of NDP supporters.

With regard to the new Quebec bridge project, the NDP has expressed some concern that a privately controlled bridge, combined with user fees, could wind up gouging commuters.

West of Quebec, support for tolls ranged from a low of 42 per cent in Ontario to 51 per cent in British Columbia.

In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, support stood at 49 per cent, while Alberta came in at 45 per cent.

The Oct. 6-9 telephone poll of 1,000 Canadians has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The regional margins of error are higher.