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.
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.
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?