The Liberals have promised to remove tolls as soon as Nova Scotia's only toll highway is paid off next year, but provincial transportation officials said Wednesday that Premier Stephen McNeil's cabinet will have plenty to consider before it stops charging to drive through the Cobequid Pass.

Deputy Minister Paul LaFleche told members of the legislature's public accounts committee that the Transportation Department will need to gather a lot of information before recommending a course of action.

He also suggested there's some ambiguity to the promise made by former transportation minister Geoff MacLellan last April.

"It was that tolls would be relieved when the debt is paid off for Nova Scotia motorists," LaFleche said. "At this point we haven't defined that.

"We're putting together (information) to allow us to make presentations to executive council within the next year, maybe a little earlier."

Deputy Minister of Transportation Paul Lafleche

Deputy Minister of Transportation Paul LaFleche (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Since the Cobequid Pass opened in 1997, users of the twinned highway have contributed a total of $308 million in tolls. The money has been used to maintain and clear the road, help with repair costs, and to pay down the initial construction and financing bills.

The Cobequid Pass was designed as a private-public partnership to try to reduce the death toll along the existing road through the Wentworth Valley, which at the time was notoriously dubbed "death valley."

The bureaucrat now in charge of overseeing the toll highway, Peter Hachett, told committee members it has achieved that key goal. He said the number of fatal collisions on Highway 104 through the Wentworth Valley dropped from an average of about three a year between 1987 and 1997 down to less than one a year since the Cobequid Pass opened.

The Liberal government of the day agreed to toll a 45-kilometre stretch of Highway 104 as a way to fund the $112-million project. Tolls currently range from $2 to $24, depending on the type of vehicle and whether it is paid electronically or in cash at the booth.

$19M in tolls last year

According to the province, there is still $38 million owing to bondholders who helped finance the construction. Those bonds are expected to be paid off next fiscal year.

Diane Saurette, the Transportation Department's executive director of finance, said it would also be up to cabinet to decide if out-of-province motorists and trucks will still be charged a toll to use the Cobequid Pass.

"Commitment has been made to remove for Nova Scotia motorists," she said. "All other motorists, so trucks, out-of-province, no decision has been made on that."

Last year, the province raked in $19 million in tolls and racked up $12 million in expenses to run the highway and keep it maintained.

Saurette estimated the cost of taking over the maintenance and upkeep of the section that's currently tolled would be in the $5-million to $8-million range if the province were paying and not drivers.

Liberal MLA Brendan Maguire

Liberal MLA Brendan Maguire. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Liberal backbencher Brendan Maguire questioned Wednesday the impact of removing the tolls on the amount of money the province would have available for the remaining highway network.

Officials told him if the province assumed the maintenance costs associated with that stretch of Highway 104, it would further increase the gap between what the province collects in gas taxes and what it pays to repair and clear roads.

According to the province, it now spends about $30 million more than it collects.

Opposition politicians want the government to remove the tolls for everyone, not just Nova Scotian motorists. Following the committee meeting, PC finance critic Tim Houston called on the McNeil government to honour its promise.

"I think that's the deal. They should stick to the deal. When the debt is paid the tolls come off," he told reporters.

New Democrat MLA Dave Wilson echoed that sentiment.

"I don't think Nova Scotians want tolls on highways around the province," he said outside the legislative chamber.