05/14/2013 04:13 EDT | Updated 07/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Conservatives freeze canal fees for another three years, back down on hikes

OTTAWA - The Conservative government is backing down on proposed fee hikes for two historic canal systems that were part of last year's budget cuts.

Environment Minister Peter Kent says fees for recreational boaters on the Rideau Canal and the Trent-Severn Waterway, both in eastern Ontario, will remain frozen for another three years.

Several Conservative MPs whose ridings are along the canal systems had complained bitterly that tourism would be affected after the government announced fee hikes and service cuts over the past year — fallout from the $29-million cut to Parks Canada in the 2012 federal budget.

Canal lockage and mooring fees haven't changed since 2008 and Parks Canada was proposing increases that would have more than doubled mooring costs in some instances.

Plans to reduce operating hours and cut canal staff will still go ahead.

Kent says the government is now looking at all aspects of the canal operations — a possible nod to Conservative backbench proposals to take the canal system out of Parks Canada in favour of an independent agency.

"During this time, Parks Canada and I will work with local members of Parliament, community leaders and the tourism industry to develop and implement an improved operating model to ensure the long-term financial sustainability of the canals' operations," Kent says in the release.

The Trent-Severn runs almost 400 kilometres from Port Severn on Georgian Bay through Peterborough, Ont., to Trenton on Lake Ontario's Bay of Quinte.

The Rideau Canal, declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2007, runs from the Ottawa River in the capital and travels 202 kilometres to Kingston on Lake Ontario. Opened in 1832, it is the longest continuously serving canal system in North America.

"In order to support the government in its deficit reducing efforts, the hours of operation throughout the navigation season will be reduced, offering between seven and nine hours of service per day, aligned with demand," Parks Canada said in response to a media inquiry Tuesday.

The government will now provide "upon arrival services" at locks, meaning a reduced canal staff will drive from lock to lock in an effort to keep up with boating traffic moving through the system.

The higher fees that had been proposed by the government took "into account operational costs, economic considerations, usage patterns, revenues generated and comparative market research," Parks Canada said on its website in February.

"The proposed national mooring fee structure is necessary to better balance the private benefit derived by users with the public good provided for all Canadians."

The government spends $18.5 million a year running the locks on the two canals, and gets back less than 10 per cent of the cost in fees, according to Parks Canada. It says fees cover more than a third of the operational costs at all other Parks Canada facilities.