By Richard Bell
Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Geoff MacLellan announced on April 26, 2017 that the province had accepted the public’s definitive rejection of TIR’s consideration of imposing tolls to pay for twinning the 107 highway (at an estimated cost of $331,600,000). Instead, MacLellan said that the province would build the already planned Burnside Connector, with no tolls, and conduct a safety study of the 107.
In a statement, MacLellan renounced the very notion of tolls for twinning anywhere in the province: "We did not hear overwhelming support from Nova Scotians about paying a toll for twinned highways, but they were clear we should act now to improve our roads. We will do that with an emphasis on safety and, at the same time, we will create economic opportunities for Nova Scotians."
The Public Consultation
MacLellan’s abandonment of tolls came after a two-year series of safety studies and a massive public consultation around the province. There were communities in Nova Scotia that have been pushing for years for twinning their local 100-highway to reduce the number of accidents.
Back in 2015, TIR did safety studies on three highways, the 101, 103, and 104, looking at measures to improve safety. All three studies included long lists of recommendations. As the authors of the 104 study put it, “Overall, there appear to be many opportunities for the Department make incremental improvements to road safety until such time that the study area is upgraded to a divided four lane facility.”
There was no sense of urgency to get on with twinning in these three reports. From the 103 report: “It is recommended that the following sections be considered for twinning by 2034.” And TIR’s projected budgets were so low that twinning multiple corridors would take decades to complete.
So to get more money to speed up the twinning process, TIR asked the engineering consulting firm CBCL Limited Consulting Engineers (CBCL) to look at not just the 101, 103, and 104, but at five other corridors as well, including the 107, and to “determine the feasibility of using tolls to twin sooner (8-10) years.” The estimated cost of completing all 8 corridors was $2,222,400,000.
The public relations consulting firm MQO conducted the public outreach campaign. The firm received a total of 5,387 submissions. 1,911 people attended 14 public consultations. 3,700 people completed an online survey, with the remaining submissions coming from an online comment box, mail, and email.
In a 37-page report issued on March 30, (What We Heard: A Report on the Nova Scotia Highway Twinning Consultations), MQO was unequivocal about the findings of the Eastern Shore consultation: “The response to the proposal of tolls during the Porter’s Lake consultation was overwhelmingly negative toward both twinning and tolling.” And Eastern Shore MLA Kevin Murphy was equally unequivocal in an interview: “Personally, I’m not in favour of tolls for our section.”
MQO did what it could to minimize the opposition to tolls. In more than one place in the report, MQO argues that, “it is evidently difficult for Nova Scotians to separate the issue of twinning from tolling to twin sooner.” The firm found faint signs of hope in “a discrepancy in tone between the feedback on tolling to twin sooner provided during the discussion portion of the public consultation and the feedback provided in the written responses left behind on the tables.”[Emphasis in the report].
In his presentation, MacLellan noted that calls for twinning came up after almost every serious accident or death on any 100-series highway. But the use of tolls has long been a contentious issue, and the government undertook the consultation to get a definitive answer about whether the public was willing to accept tolls in order to speed up the twinning process.
Opponents of “tolling to twin” insisted that what the government called “tolls” was nothing more than a new tax that would only worsen income inequalities between rural and urban residents. MQO quotes this unidentified rural resident: “I don't think it is fair to toll the forgotten/neglected areas of Nova Scotia. We have paid our taxes to provide all other twinned highways and we believe it is our turn to benefit. The Eastern Shore cannot afford the added expense….You will push low income residence on to unsafe back roads and toll the ones privileged enough to afford it.”
Instead of Tolls
MacLellan said that instead of using tolls to pay for its original $2.2 billion, 8-corridor proposal, the province was now committing $390 million in capital funding over the next 7 years to complete 4 projects, including the already planned construction of a new four-lane divided 8.7 km section of the 107 between Burnside and Bedford, the Burnside Connector. He also said that TIR would be conducting a safety study of the 107 from Burnside to Musquodoboit Harbour to provide guidance for additional safety improvements in the future. There was also $30 million for safety improvements on un-twinned sections of 100-series highways. MacLellan said the province had already submitted business cases for these 4 projects to the federal government and anticipated approval of federal cost-sharing funds.
Note: You can read a summary of the comments from the public consultation process, plus other related documents at http://novascotia.ca/twinning.
Note: This article is an expanded version of the article that appeared in the May print edition.