The Gallant government won't rule out an eventual full twinning of Route 11 from Shediac to Miramichi, despite years of government reports showing sections of the road don't need four lanes.
Last week, the provincial government announced $19.2 million to start work on a three-year upgrade of a 6.8-kilometre section of the road, which includes twinning it to the south side of the Shediac River.
Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Roger Melanson says there's been no decision on twinning the entire 120-kilometre highway to Miramichi, but he won't say no to the idea.
"No final decision has been made on if it's going to be twinned all the way, if it's going to be passing lanes, if it's going to be improvements," he told CBC News.
"Certainly we're discussing it."
Melanson's comments revive an idea that has been studied by four different governments — two PC and two Liberal — over the past decade.
"We certainly want to make this Route 11 safer," he said.
"And we certainly want to use all the evidence, all the data, to make an educated, informed decision. So no decision's been made."
Reports suggest twinning isn't needed
But documents obtained by CBC News under the Right to Information Act suggest the data are already clear.
A series of reports don't support full twinning, a project that would likely cost around $1 billion.
Traffic on a two-lane arterial road must reach 8,000 vehicles a day to trigger a look at twinning, the documents say.
Levels around the Route 11 interchange with Route 15 at Shediac, which will be upgraded as part of last week's announcement, are 19,000, well above that level.
But the department counted only 6,600 daily vehicles on Route 11 near Bouctouche in 2009, a figure that rose to 7,130 in 2012, still below the twinning trigger.
Even so, Melanson says the provincial government is interested in twinning at least as far as Bouctouche if the federal government would agree to help fund the project.
Melanson says the traffic threshold is only one consideration. Another, he says, is safety.
"There have been collisions, there have been accidents," he said.
But on accident rates, the documents also suggest twinning isn't urgent.
A January 2012 report on Route 11 says the collision rate is "fairly low" — 0.403 compared to 0.731 on other two-lane arterial roads.
"Accidents are not a significant issue in this area," another report concluded in November, 2012.
Another report says collision rates on Route 11 do not "stand out as a significant concern relative to the rest of the province."
"There are some," Melanson said when he was asked about those comments.
"One collision is too many."
'Roads are big politics'
Kevin Lacey of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a group that scrutinizes government spending, says the refusal to rule out full twinning reflects political calculations.
The Liberals "want to keep voters hooked on the possibility that this could be built," Lacey said.
"Roads are big politics in New Brunswick, and the government doesn't want to say `no' when they know voters want pavement."
Melanson says the government also has to consider commuters and tourists who use the road, though that traffic would be captured in the daily averages.
"We also consider potential economic activity and economic growth," he said.
Despite the low traffic and collision counts, the idea of twinning Route 11 between Shediac and Miramichi has been a recurring theme for four different governments.
Bernard Lord's PC government promised to twin it in 2006. Lord's Liberal successor, Shawn Graham, first postponed the plan, then revived it in 2009, pegging the cost at $942 million.
But the PC government of David Alward said late in 2012 it would not go ahead with full twinning because of the cost.
Scaled back project
The Tories scaled back the plan to twin only 74 kilometres from Shediac to Kouchibouguac, even though some traffic levels in that stretch were below the threshold.
Even then, the PCs didn't completely kill the idea, especially after Brian Gallant ran for the Liberal leadership saying Route 11 "has to be addressed."
One summary of "key messages" for PC cabinet ministers in December 2012 suggests the 74 kilometres of twinning was just the beginning, "with a view of being able to twin or 4-lane the highway in the future."
And three days after the start of a byelection campaign in the area in which Gallant was the Liberal candidate, another "key messages" briefing note for Transportation Minister Claude Williams suggested the province could twin "the rest of the route in phases as funding becomes available."
The PCs settled on a plan to twin 52 kilometres from Shediac to Saint-Gregoire near Bouctouche and build a two-lane bypass where Route 11 enters Miramichi.
The rest of Route 11, says a June 2013 document, would merely be upgraded because it "does not warrant twinning."
That would keep the cost below $500 million, says the Route 11 page on the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure website.
A department spokesperson says that web page will soon be updated.
Lacey says the Liberals should heed the data on traffic and low collision rates and rule out twinning the full length of the road between Shediac and Miramichi.
"There's only so much money to go around, so money spent on this road means money that cannot be spent on roads that have higher traffic value and higher economic value," he said.