Let’s Not Upset Anyone

The review of possible highway twinning projects adds to a growing list of choices designed to be inoffensive.

Twinning major highways can reduce the number of accidents, shorten travel times, and make driving quicker and less stressful. The CBCL report on twinning Nova Scotian highways begins with two sound premises.

First, it recognizes that the $2+ billion cost of twinning all eight sections being studied is prohibitively large for financing by taxpayers. The province’s capital budget for roads is about $200 million per year, of which only $50-$70 million is available for new developments. Nevertheless, with the prospect of some supportive federal money and the judicious use of tolls, perhaps some projects could be considered.

Secondly, it seeks to objectively rank the viability of the eight identified projects based on considerations of construction cost, traffic volumes and prospective toll revenue, average savings in travel time, accident reduction, and environmental impact.

The toll rate needed per kilometre is calculated for each route based on construction costs and expected traffic—these range from a low of 5 cents to a high of 27 cents and serve as a prime determinant of project rankings.

The highest ranking candidate is the 68 kilometre stretch from Tantallon to Bridgewater on Highway 103. At 6 cents per kilometre, a trip to Halifax would cost about $1.25 from Hubbards, $2.00 from Chester, $3.25 from Mahone Bay, and $4.00 from Bridgewater (or beyond).

The cost of longer trips might be acceptable for occasional travellers, but would be punitive for commuters—it might be necessary to sell a year round pass for high volume travellers. Going on the secondary road is an option but, if tolls drive too much traffic that way, they will hurt both the economics and the hoped-for safety improvements.

Each of the other projects is similarly analyzed, with the business case becoming pretty hopeless once the necessary toll gets above 10 cents per kilometre.

In the most optimistic scenario, provincial and federal financing might be available to launch two or three projects over the next five years. Hence, the plan was to reduce the candidate list to four projects for further study.

But to do so was to acknowledge that the weakest four were unworthy of further consideration. That well-supported conclusion did not sit well with Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal Minister Geoff MacLellan, who ordered that all eight candidates must be included in the more detailed study.

As poor decisions go, it is not very expensive. The added cost of detailed studies on the bottom four is probably less than $1 million. But it is representative of a growing pattern of choices that seemed more designed to avoid upset than to advance the public interest.

So, for example, the unsuccessful effort to conceal low attendance numbers on the Yarmouth ferry, lest a growing number of people begin to understand how uneconomic the $14 million annual expenditure is.

Or the abandonment of ceilings on per project ($4 million) or per year ($10 million) subsidy to the film industry, with a $5.9 million for an American production of a Stephen King series, which will not come out of the budget available to other productions.

When limits to film industry subsidies were introduced, they were described as part of the “tough choices that will return government to sustainable finances.” Now, Business Minister Furey tells us that “as we have said all along, there is no cap for the fund.”

Meanwhile, the Trailer Park Boys will get another $1.5 million handout to subsidize a third of their paycheques and those of their supporting cast. Perhaps this will postpone their next theatrical protest at the inadequacy of taxpayer support.

Or the continued failure to enable growth in marine-based salmon aquaculture, which is by far the highest economic opportunity in the sector. The moratorium—begun under the NDP in 2012—will soon enter its fifth year. The excellent Doelle-Lahey report described a viable way forward but one of Nova Scotia’s high opportunity economic areas, as cited by the Ivany report, continues to languish.

The theme of the day seems to be to avoid upsetting anyone, especially those known to make noisy protests. This is not uncommon for governments approaching an election date.

There is no compelling argument for having an election this year rather than in the fall of 2017, four years after the last. The Liberals are miles ahead in the polls. If voting this year allows them to go back to making the necessary but tough decisions that marked their early years (even if somewhat clumsily implemented), then so be it.


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