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Nova Scotia debates tolling to pay for twinned highways

Highway 104, seen in 2016, was partly twinned and tolled in 1995 due to the high rate of accidents that occured in a 45-kilometre stretch.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Sandra Carver watched silently as others argued over whether Nova Scotia should impose tolls in exchange for twinned highways.

"I went to support Joe," said Ms. Carver of her attendance at the Jan. 30 meeting.

Joe MacDonald – who has been calling for safer highways in the province – is chief of the Barneys River Volunteer Fire Department, which found the body of Ms. Carver's husband, Benjamin, in what remained of his pickup after colliding head-on with a tractor trailer on Oct. 17, 2014.

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At that public meeting in New Glasgow, as at others across the province that have followed, a packed house weighed the cost to commuters of saving lives.

Nova Scotia is proposing to toll 304 kilometres of the Trans-Canada Highway to cover the cost of twinning 213 km of highway in six sections and converting 91 km of highway in Cape Breton to limited access.

On average, there are 302 crashes a year of varying severity on the targeted roads.

"It would be the largest highway-building project we've ever done in the province," said Bruce Fitzner, executive director of infrastructure for Nova Scotia's Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal.

"If we put it all together as one package, we're thinking we could get it done in 10 years."

Half the construction cost would be split between the federal and provincial governments while the other half, along with maintenance, would be paid off over 30 years by the tolls.

A feasibility study recently released by the province found that the corridors considered for twinning would pay dividends over three decades if tolls were set at 6 cents for each kilometre.

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"Usually politicians run away from tolls," said Harry Kitchen, a professor emeritus at Ontario's Trent University who has studied public infrastructure and tolled highways extensively.

"No other provinces are looking at this, at least not publicly."

While a debate over tolling two Toronto expressways has played out at the political level, with Mayor John Tory criticizing Premier Kathleen Wynne for denying the city an income stream for infrastructure investment, in Nova Scotia the discussion at public consultations has been characterized by personal testimonials from both drivers and first responders.

"As I'm walking back to prepare a landing spot for the [LifeFlight] helicopter, I look at my firefighters," New Glasgow fire chief Doug Dort told the approximately 200 people at the Jan. 30 public consultation, recalling one traffic accident.

"One of my guys, a volunteer, is lying on the road beside an injured seven- or eight-year-old boy. And he's rubbing the boy's head and singing nursery rhymes to him while not 20 feet away the child's mother is trapped in the vehicle, and she is deceased."

Such tragic stories have dominated headlines in the province, but there is also a vocal opposition to tolls that considers them another tax in a province which has the second-lowest median family income in the country.

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The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal puts the average cost of a kilometre of four-lane highway at $5-million. Meanwhile, Nova Scotia is struggling to maintain a razor-thin projected surplus of $18-million for the coming budget year.

And like Ms. Wynne, who has been blasted by commentators for cancelling tolls to garner suburban support in the run-up to a provincial election, Premier Stephen McNeil's Liberal government is also obligated to head to the polls by 2018.

Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan said politics won't play into the government's decisions when it gets the results from public consultations later this year.

"Where we're fortunate is that this is not a question about fiscal capacity, this is strictly to build new highways," said Mr. MacLellan. "If the answer from Nova Scotians is 'no,' then we will maintain the status quo."

If the answer is "yes," and the province begins the necessary planning and land acquisition, Mr. MacLellan said the government would likely seek to replicate the model used on Nova Scotia's only existing tolled highway.

A Crown corporation was created in 1995 to twin and toll an accident-prone 45-kilometre section of Highway 104, where it passes through the Cobequid Mountains.

The land was purchased and the highway was designed and built in two years.

That's compared to the 20 years it took the province to build the 16 kilometres of toll-less highway around Antigonish. Sandra Carver's husband Benjamin was employed at an asphalt plant on that project when he was killed a few kilometres away on a two-lane stretch of highway.

"I'm aware of the irony that he worked for a company that paved roads," said Ms. Carver, who is now raising the couple's two boys, 11 and 10, alone.

"We'll never know, if the highway was twinned, would Benjamin still be here?"

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