These highways will be twinned within the next 7 years, according to a recent announcement from the NS government.

After a few years of telling Nova Scotians what they can’t afford, the Liberal government appears to be breaking the bank to promise them exactly that.

The province has announced an additional $390 million over seven years to twin 70 kilometres of 100 series highways and build a new four-lane divided expressway connecting Burnside and Bedford. (Twinning projects included in the announcement are the 103 from Tantallon to Hubbards, the 104 from Sutherland’s River to Antigonish, and the 101 from Three Mile Plains to Falmouth.) They will also remove the tolls from the Cobequid Pass, as planned, in 2018.

“We want to give Nova Scotia motorists a break,” said Transportation minister Geoff McLellan in a government media release.

That break will cost an extra $56 million a year (split evenly over seven years). That’s the equivalent of an 80 per cent bump in planned spending on new roads and bridges in the last fiscal year, according to numbers released by the province as part of their now-concluded tolling consultations.

Remember the tolling consultations? Dubbed a “Highway Twinning Feasibility Study” by the province, it was actually an exercise in determining whether Nova Scotians would be willing to pay user fees in order to twin highways, presumably without taking to the streets in protest.

From Nova Scotia’s “Twinning Feasibility Fact Sheet”
From Nova Scotia’s “Twinning Feasibility Fact Sheet”

In the reports and presentations for the consultations, the government presented the dismal reality of highway infrastructure in Nova Scotia: We were already spending more than our gas taxes and vehicle fees could cover on highways, almost $100 million a year more for each of the past three years.

The current “demand” for new or twinned roads (which included some projects that were not really “in demand”) clocked in at $2 billion over and above the $400 million we had currently planned to spend on highway construction.

Comparing the NS government’s current highway spending plan with the perceived “need and demand” for highway twinning, presented at the release of the highway twinning feasibility study.
Comparing the NS government’s current highway spending plan with the perceived “need and demand” for highway twinning, presented at the release of the highway twinning feasibility study.

The message was clear: Nova Scotia is simply too poor to build what Nova Scotians were “demanding,” and if we wanted to build these highways within our lifetimes, we would have to consider tolls.

Except now that the consultations are over, we are finding out that the picture presented in the tolling consultation was a sort of bluff. It turns out, we can afford a heck of a lot more than the government was letting on.

After not hearing a resounding “hurrah!” from Nova Scotians lining up to pay tolls on their highways, the government has suddenly displayed a willingness to pull an additional $390 million out of our collective coffers (or added to our collective debt, as the case may be) to twin sooner rather than later.

And so with one announcement, they effectively doubled our planned highway construction investment, without building a single toll booth.

This about-face drives home the essential problem with the province’s over-simplified public consultation: they were asking what we wanted, and not what we were willing to give up. Considering the expenditures in a vacuum, without any understanding of the alternatives, is a crap way to conduct public consultations and an even worse way to make decisions.

Say, for example, we gave people an understanding of what the alternatives were (or still are) for this money.

For example, what if more than the currently allotted seven per cent of this new money were to be spent enhancing safety on our current 100 series highways, without expanding their capacity and further inducing demand (i.e. encouraging more people to drive)?

There are currently four safety studies sitting on shelves with Nova Scotia transportation and infrastructure renewal. What if we budgeted more than $30 million of this $390 million to fully implement the recommendations in these studies?

Or, what if we used some of this new money to provide alternatives for people currently stuck relying exclusively on private vehicles along our 100 series highways?

It’s frankly a travesty that in a substantially rural province like Nova Scotia there is no publicly organized and supported rural bus system. Saskatchewan’s regional bus service covers a large number of towns in the province’s southern half with just $13 million a year in operating subsidy. With this extra $390 million promised for new highway construction over the next seven years, we could run the equivalent of Saskatchewan’s regional bus system for 30 years.

Or consider another neglected alternative: our rail system. For about one-fifth of this extra $390 million in promised funds, we could establish commuter rail passenger service between Halifax and Cobequid (estimated at about $50 million), and refurbish the rail lines from Halifax to Sydney (estimated at $30 million). And then there’s the potential continuation of commuter rail to include Dartmouth, Beaver Bank, and Windsor. Heck, we could run passenger trains to Enfield, if only we could get our federal government to legislate access to the our publicly-built, but privately-owned tracks.

The alternatives abound, and not just in the arena of transportation infrastructure.

With $390 million, we could build a version of the Halifax Central Library somewhere in Nova Scotia every year for the next seven years.

And, as I recall, the government did not magic up $390 million when the entire school system for the province was about to shut down.

The idea that, after the past several years of fiscal belt-tightening, we should accept as reasonable the doubling of our planned highway investment is absurd.

Now the reasons (election) for this $390 million announcement (election) may be obvious (election). And perhaps the cynics out there are guffawing and thinking, “What did you expect?”

But here’s the thing: It’s not about what we expect from elected officials and public servants. It’s about what we accept, and by extension, what we condone.

The Nova Scotia government needs to come clean in this case: either we had an additional $390 million to spend over the next seven years all along (and therefore should have been considering all of our options), or we still don’t have it. Which is it?

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  1. Finally got a subscription. Thanks for the good article Erica. I have commented elsewhere on how I feel about the twinning issue. 🙂

  2. When a local meeting was held to discuss the Sutherland’s River to Antigonish stretch, I did not bother attending. Here’s why-I knew that the crowd would be made up of those who wanted the stretch twinned- period. So, there would be no discussion on the merits, as twinning was going to be seen as meritorious. I learned later that, at that meeting, one person opposed tolling the twinned highway, but not twinning per se. The others wanted a twinned highway.

    The province spent $25,000.00 , I understand, on the OPUS Study of this roadway; that study has great suggestions for improving the roadway overall and thoughtful analysis of the crash history. However, the government , which had originally said that the highway here would not be twinned because there was no money, cont’d with these regional meetings and then, wham, the money is there! And, guess what- no tolls either!
    With an election underway, platform is everything and policy- NOTHING! Show us the revenue stream to pay for all these proposed projects; show us what we’ll have to do without because of this sudden shift in direction.

    NO, No, that won’t happen! We are viewed as marionettes- to be toyed with, manipulated, and, inevitably, to be duped! Elections should be about accountability and priorities, and when they aren’t, we get what we are hearing these days- spending proposals on projects that there is no clear revenue stream to support.

  3. Many good points here. Especially using some of this money to implement the recommended safety improvements.

    To that I would add: let’s fix the roads we have. Most of our secondary and tertiary roads are in terrible shape. McNeil has promised money for gravel roads, which is most welcome to those of us who live on them.

    I’d also like to see the province fund research on how to prevent the rapid deterioration of highways that seems to be unique to our climate. (Maine, a similarly poor jurisdiction, has a comparable network of rural roads, but they are no where near as badly deteriorated as our own.)

    New roads come with a huge financial commitment to future maintenance that is never figured in to their cost.

    All that said, I wish Butler’s writing about transportation were not suffused with an elite urban bias and ignorance of rural life and a pervasive hatred of automobiles. Like most Nova Scotia Journalists, Butler never seems to venture past the Armdale Rotary. NS has an incredibly dispersed population. It may or may not be a worthwhile expenditure to spend $13 million per year in perpetuity to subsidize a bus service that would connect a few NS towns to Halifax, but that would hardly solve the problem of how rural residents can move around the province. For most trips, there is no reasonable alternative to a car. Yes, rural residents have a huge carbon footprint. It comes with the territory, and there is no obvious, workable, cost-effective way to manage that problem.

    Nevertheless, I agree with her critique of the new highway spending program. It’s madness. Fix what we’ve got first, including secondary and tertiary roads.

  4. An important clarification here: the Saskatchewan Transportation Company was shuttered in the most recent provincial budget. Its last ride will be on May 31.

    1. Hmmn, yeah, that’s interesting. The news reports are giving numbers much higher than the $13 million annual subsidy I quoted. So… take that with a grain of salt until I can get some sort of confirmation of actual costs. I do note that Sask govt officials seem to be saying only 2 of 27 routes are “profitable” which leads me to believe they have classified it as infrastructure that should turn a profit. A common mistake for any infrastructure with built-in user fees.

      1. I’m all for requiring public infrastructure to turn a profit. Roads would be a great place to start.

  5. This is raises excellent points. At the consultation I attended several individuals suggested alternatives to twinning, but of course, we were just a bunch of rural Lunenburg County folk, so it was easy to dismiss the suggestions for better enforcement, or other modifications for safety. I was particularly struck by comments made by a truck driver/first responder who always knows in advance where the fire rescue calls along the 103 would be, because of bad sightlines and poor design. The crash I witnessed years ago while commuting, was at a location where an insurance adjuster and a DiTR official were already in the process of investigating a crash from earlier in the week – and ironically their cars were hit.

    I am pretty sure most of the people there did not know about any of the safety studies that had not been implemented, I suspect that would have changed the tone of our consultation.