The province has released the first phase of their privately contracted feasibility study into the further twinning of highways in Nova Scotia. The gist: twinning is enormously expensive, and way out of our financial reach unless we change the way we fund roads, probably by introducing more tolls.

Just have a look at this infographic from the province’s presentation on the study:

Comparing the NS government's current highway spending plan with the perceived "need and demand" for highway twinning. Part of the provincial presentation 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. Part of the provincial presentation 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. Part of the provincial presentation at the release of the highway twinning feasibility study.

Twinning these highways will cost 12 times more than we currently plan to spend on building new highways (about half the $400 million per year), putting it way out of whack with the realities of the Nova Scotia economy.

Strangely enough, unlike other feasibility studies on major infrastructure projects, this highway twinning study did not undertake an economic cost-benefit analysis.

Remember the last commuter rail study for Halifax? The report authors and many of the media reports pronounced commuter rail infeasible, not based on whether Halifax wanted it or could figure out a way to afford it, but based on an economic cost-benefit analysis. There’s no such analysis applied in this provincially commissioned report, even though roughly 50-80 times more public money is at stake.

Instead of investigating economic feasibility, the premise seems to be that twinning is feasible, and the report simply lays out how much it might cost and the possible ways we might pay for it.

But what if we shifted the discussion from how we can pay for twinning over to should we pay for twinning?

“Nova Scotia already has far more asphalt than can reasonably be justified in a province our size,” says Ashley Morton, vice-president of Transport Action Atlantic (TAA), a group that’s been active in regional transportation issues since the 70s.

Morton points out that even with the focus on tolls, the financial projections in the report actually assume the federal and provincial governments will pay for half of the construction. “We would be taxed for 50 per cent of the project costs, and then pay tolls to use the finished product,” says Morton.

Instead, he says, “let’s improve safety by using the infrastructure we already have better, not by paving more of our land and thinning all of our pocketbooks to do it.”

TAA have long been advocates of keeping and improving what little rail service Atlantic Canada has left. Morton suggests that by upgrading our Cape Breton railway, we could divert Newfoundland-bound truck traffic off the 104, thereby reducing risks and improving safety. The necessary upgrades would cost in the neighbourhood of $30 million, says Morton, 38 times less than the $1.2 billion that CBCL estimates it would cost twin/improve the 4 sections of the 104 mentioned in the report.

A cable barrier on a three lane road (with alternating passing lane) in Sweden. Photo: Wikipedia.
A cable barrier on a three lane road (with alternating passing lane, called a 2+1) in Sweden. Photo: Wikipedia.

Morton also took note of the mention of cable barriers in the report, as an alternative to twinning. Cable barriers mounted along highway medians are designed to redirect errant traffic back into the right lane. “They’re relatively low cost, and have many of the same significant safety advantages (in separating multi-tonne vehicles travelling in opposing directions from each other) as twinning does,” says Morton.

Another way to get more vehicles off the road, says Morton, would be a “reliable, large-capacity bus service” for the South Shore. “You could offer one bus to each of Lunenburg and Bridgewater every 90 minutes, every day, 24 hours a day, for the next 30 years for the price tag that is mentioned for twinning the 103 between exits 5 & 12,” says Morton.

Nobody knows the gaps in Nova Scotia’s regional bus service better than Wayne Groszko, the project coordinator for Go Maritimes, a project aiming to provide better access to information about regional public transit options available in Nova Scotia, from privately run shuttles to regional bus services. He thinks the entire province could be serviced by regional bus service for a fraction of the cost of twinning.

“If we’re talking about infrastructure, what we really need is a dedicated network of small and medium sized, long distance transit buses that serve the main routes around the whole province,” says Groszko.

He points to the Saskatchewan Transportation Company, a provincial crown corporation that provides passenger and parcel bus service across Saskatchewan, all with an annual subsidy in the neighbourhood of $13 million, about half of what it would cost annually just to maintain the roads listed in the twinning report.

Route map of the Saskatchewan Transportation Company for 2016, from their annual report.
Route map of the Saskatchewan Transportation Company for 2016, from their annual report.

“To me that’s an affordable way to have a huge improvement in social, financial, and health-related sustainability,” says Groszko.

Such a bus service, coupled with increased service on the rail lines we have left, could mean enormous benefits, says Groszko.

Of course, based on past experience, any potential future studies into a provincially supported bus service will likely face a more arduous test of feasibility than did the twinning concept in this recent provincial report.

That’s because public transit is largely not regarded as public infrastructure in the same way that roads are. While we constantly question the economic feasibility of public rail and bus systems, we just don’t apply the same scrutiny to the dollars we spend on building streets and highways. Grozsko thinks that attitude could be costing us.

“If you add up what it costs to not have public transit, I’m quite confident you would find it costs far more than having public transit,” says Groszko.

Perhaps instead of spending $900,000 to look at how we should pay to twin our highways, the Nova Scotia government should take a page from Halifax’s current city management and look into creating a mobility plan for the province. There’s only so many dollars to spend, and in the end we need to find a way to get everyone from a to b that is safe and affordable.

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  1. Let’s be honest about what twinning a highway really means. It is not about facilitating transportation, neither is it about encouraging more people to look at other options for transportation. It is only about giving into people who feel they are so important that they need to drive 20 or 30 kph over the posted limit and pass anything and everything on the road ahead. It would be far better to encourage those who can’t or won’t drive at the posted limit to move out of the way of those who do. In Europe it is convention that if you see a car flashing headlights behind you to move out of they way.
    Twinning is an expensive way to deal with a simple issue.

  2. Also as usual there has been a great deal of excitement again about Halifax commuter rail after Via made a submission. Why is this always apparently promoted over harbor ferry options? We own a fine ice-free harbor, we don’t have to rent it from CN and commuters would not get sidelined as they do on Via every time CN freight needs that section of line.

    Wouldn’t fast ferries reach as many if not more commuters than rail, be able to service Burnside, Mount Saint Vincent University, the fast growing Eastern Passage communities and put passengers right at the foot of downtown instead of at the south end? Would it be any more difficult to re-route bus services to feed ferries as it would trains?

    1. Expanding ferry service could be great, but it’s not an either-or. Ferries wouldn’t readily service people in Fall River, Sackville, Clayton Park, etc (i.e., the majority of the city’s suburban population).

      1. You reorient bus services to feed passengers from Clayton Park, Sackville, Beaverbank and Bedford to synchronize with fast cat ferries that stop at a few points around the Bedford Basin. In the process you are pulling cars and buses off of the Bedford highway (saving widening costs) and the 102.

        Rail makes more sense to relatively small numbers of folks living near Windsor Junction and Fall River or even Wellington, but it still dumps those heading to the downtown on the southern edge of it rather than the centre and does nothing for those commuting to and from Burnside (our major industrial park) or Eastern Passage (one of our fastest growing areas, with Shearwater yet to really open up).

        I’m not against a small commuter rail service but I’d like to see harbor services explored first. Maybe rail can mop up some of what’s left.

  3. Are we looking at expensive twinning of highways simply because there are high numbers of accidents including to fatalities due to overtaking dangerously?

    Could that not be eased by intelligently adding more overtaking lanes? Blocking drivers from doing this using cable barriers might be a cheaper idea, but is the root cause not people’s frustration with slow traffic leading to excessive overtaking risk taking?

    Don’t we have more important things on which to spend our limited cash?

    I hope this isn’t some kind of patronage sop to Liberal road construction crews…

  4. So WHY do you think the report is written with these assumptions… That we only need to figure out how to pay… Don’t you think it’s possible that a deal is in the works for a P3 highway and the private partner has already been chosen? The government is waiting to hear the public outcry about tolls and then go ahead with the P3 model, perhaps?
    Nah, that stuff only happens in Quebec. I must be a conspiracy theorist to even suggest this.

  5. Whenever I see these mass transit proposals I think about how the people don’t easily give up the car. Driving in from the south shore to go to a doctor’s appointment or visit to the hospital means that these proposals require people to use another bus or a taxi. An additional cost. Guaranteed resistance. While on one level this is logical it isn’t very practical. The bus system in the city is not geared for convenience. It is locked into old thinking of office workers and students. Travel to other cities soon shows how antiquated our system in Halifax is, never mind Dartmouth, Bedford, Sackville or outlying areas. We should be using shuttles for all shopping areas and downtown. Parking areas should be in abundance on the fringes of the city. Buses should all be disabled friendly. Lots of work to do.

  6. Given that electric heavy trucks are a fantasy with present or proven future technology, maybe we should be building rail infrastructure province-wide instead of laying down more asphalt. Trains can be electrified in the future, transport trucks probably can’t.