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A toll highway that the province of Ontario sold less than three years ago is worth four times as much as the sale price, documents show.

It's not clear whether Highway 407 suddenly quadrupled in value or whether the province sold it too cheaply. Either way, critics said, the government missed out on billions of dollars in revenue and handed fat profits to private companies.

An Australian investment bank, Macquarie Infrastructure Group, produced an analysis of the highway in September after it bought part of the Spanish company that owns a majority stake in the road. The bank estimated that if it were on the market today, Highway 407 would be worth almost four times the $3.1-billion paid by a group of companies in May, 1999.

Another of the road's owners, SNC-Lavalin, boasted about the deal in its third-quarter financial statements on Oct. 25.

"Based on the transaction value disclosed by MIG, SNC-Lavalin's investment in Highway 407 corresponds to nearly four times our initial amount of $175-million," president Jacques Lamarre said. A spokesman for Macquarie confirmed that Mr. Lamarre had correctly interpreted the bank's research.

That's good news for shareholders, opposition critics said, but it's bad news for taxpayers, who paid $1.5-billion for the highway's construction and could have received a better return.

"They shortchanged the public," said NDP deputy house leader Marilyn Churley. "It's reckless of the government to continue to sell off public assets at fire-sale prices. It's obscene, it's outrageous, it's totally unacceptable."

Liberal MPP Gerry Phillips said the government gave the highway managers important concessions -- such as failing to enforce its promised limit on tolls -- to make the property more valuable.

"It's very clear that taxpayers and the 407 users have been ripped off here," Mr. Phillips said.

Examining the mistakes made during the sale of the highway is particularly important now that the province's electricity-transmission system is being sold off, Mr. Phillips said. It's also important, he added, because the deal was orchestrated by former finance minister Ernie Eves, the front-runner to replace outgoing Premier Mike Harris.

The company that manages the highway explained the road's leap in value by noting that it has extended the highway, built four parking lots, hired customer-service agents and upgraded its telephone system.

"It's just the investment in our infrastructure and the fact that last year Ontario had an amazing economy, there was a lot of building growth and residential growth and there was a lot of trade in the GTA area," said Dale Albers, a spokesman for 407 International Inc.

But industry analysts said that they're skeptical the highway is four times better than before.

Anthony Zicha, an analyst with investment bank Scotia Capital, in Montreal, said it's difficult to determine whether the highway suddenly increased in value or whether it was sold too cheaply.

But, he said, most of the appreciation probably is caused by investors' perception of risk.

"There was construction risk and financing risk," Mr. Zicha said. "So now that the traffic levels are running pretty much according to plan, it's looking positive."

The companies that own the highway -- Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte, SNC-Lavalin, and Capital d'Amérique CDPQ, a subsidiary of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec -- have experienced surprising profits, Mr. Zicha said, and the highway's value will continue to grow.

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