New Brunswick

Highway transforms into 'a poisoned chalice'

Many drivers speeding across the four-lane Trans-Canada Highway between Fredericton and Moncton these days may be unaware that the smooth stretch of 195 kilometres ignited one of the bumpiest political debates in the last two decades.

Many drivers speeding across the four-lane Trans-Canada Highway between Fredericton and Moncton these days may be unaware that the smooth stretch of 195 kilometres ignited one of the bumpiest political debates in the last two decades.

The Fredericton-Moncton Highway project, billed at the time as the largest highway construction project in the province’s history, sought to twin the dangerous stretch of highway that claimed many lives every year. On Oct. 23, the highway will have been open for 10 years.

The project’s scope was so large that former premier Frank McKenna decided that a private consortium would be used to build the massive project to speed up the construction and impose tolls to help pay for the $910-million pricetag.

While the safety of the highway has gone largely unquestioned, the rest of the project has been a constant source of controversy since the concept of tolling roads was floated in 1993.

After McKenna's departure from politics, former Liberal premier Camille Theriault pushed forward with the toll highway concept in 1998 despite the growing unrest over the idea, particularly in the communities near the first toll booth in River Glade.

The Liberal electoral machine stalled in the 1999 election when Progressive Conservative leader Bernard Lord promised to scrap the highway tolls. Lord won a landslide victory and within a year his government followed through on the campaign promise and scrapped the tolls.

In order to remove the tolls, Lord transferred the financial responsibility directly onto the taxpayers.

The provincial government is now required to pay an annual fee to the Maritime Road Development Corp., the operator of the highway, to replace the tolls that were removed.

Don Desserud, the dean of arts at the University of Prince Edward Island and a veteran New Brunswick political observer, said the controversy over the highway reshaped the province’s politics.

"It is a hugely significant event for New Brunswick politics because it is the first example of organized protest politics that was sustained and consistent," Desserud said.

The political scientist said he sees traces of that grassroots movement in recent protests over hydro-fracking, the plan to sell NB Power or the plan to overhaul the post-secondary education system.

Poisoned chalice

A decade after the highway fully opened to vehicle traffic, the legacy of the highway is mixed. There are few who will criticize the highway’s safety record as the number of fatal accidents has dropped drastically.

There are communities that feared the economic impact on their communities when the highway bypassed them. Now, places like Sussex have managed to survive through the entrepreneurial spirit of some people who have actively recruited people to take the trip off of the four-lane highway and into some of those smaller communities.

But it is the financial legacy of the highway that is still a burning topic. The highway added roughly $1 billion of debt to the province, which is already struggling to pay its nearly $10-billion debt.

And when the tolls were removed, the provincial government lost one way to generate revenue.

Donald Savoie, a political scientist at the University of Moncton, said the highway is a critical piece of infrastructure but the decision to scrap the tolls has handcuffed successive premiers as they tried to come to grips with the financial situation.

"It is a poisoned chalice. We have to make some very difficult choices," Savoie said.

"Had we left the tolls on, there would be less of those difficult choices that we have to make today."

The decision to eliminate the tolls, which were supposed to start at $7 for cars and $27.50 for commercial trucks, has led to a financial "triple-whammy."

Savoie said there are costs to build the new highways, maintain the old roads that are not phased out and a lack of revenue coming into the provincial coffers to pay for the infrastructure projects.

"I think New Brunswickers live in some kind of dream world where we say no to economic development, we say no to foreign involvement and we say no to tolls," he said.

"We think through black magic or voodoo economics that these things will get paid."

When Finance Minister Blaine Higgs held his pre-budget consultation meetings in January and February, many citizens raised the idea of revisiting the idea of tolls.

Private partnership

In an effort to speed up the construction of the project, the McKenna government launched a search for a private company to build the highway.

Georgio Gaudet, a former advisor to McKenna, told Philip Lee in Frank: The Life and Politics of Frank McKenna, that the premier did not think he could wait to twin the highway through the traditional method of paving small amounts each year.

"He didn’t feel that we should wait for 20 years to build the Trans-Canada Highway," Gaudet said in the book.

"And he was right. That was the option. No one liked tolls, but do you prefer to slaughter people on the highway by the hundreds."

The McKenna government issued a request for qualifications in December 1996, seeking to find a company that could build the highway. It received five submissions and in March 1997 the McKenna government asked for formal submissions.

Private sector timeline

December 1996: Request for Qualifications issued

Five responses were received

March 1997: Request for Proposals issued

Three responses were filed

September 1997: Maritime Road Development Corp. selected as winning bid

January 1998: Agreement finished with the provincial government

June 1999: Bernard Lord's PCs win a majority government and promise to remove the highway tolls.

December 1999: Bernard Lord announces a deal in principle to remove the highway tolls.

Three companies ended up bidding on the massive infrastructure project. It was announced in March 1997 that the Maritime Road Development Corp. was the successful bidder.

The decision immediately created a new controversy as former Liberal leader Doug Young was a financial partner in the company.

Despite the latest controversy, the provincial government and MRDC hammered out an agreement in January 1998.

UPEI’s Desserud said that private partnership agreement is what proved to be the most toxic to many citizens.

"There is still a belief in New Brunswick that it is the government’s responsibility to pay for services. It is the privatization part [of the highway deal] that people found difficult," he said.

Under the terms of the private contract, MRDC built the 195-kilometre four-lane highway.

The new route cut 35 minutes off the Fredericton-Moncton trek and it had a total of 20 interchanges, 28 overpasses and crosses the St. John, Jemseg, Canaan and North rivers and Swan Creek Lake.

The old stretch of highway was responsible for an average of nine fatalities and 128 severe accidents each year.

MRDC statistics show that between 1998 and 2009 there have been 25 fatalities.

The accident rate per million vehicle kilometres on the Fredericton-Moncton Highway is 0.245, which is significantly lower than New Brunswick’s other major highways, which is 0.551.

Future of communities

It was feared that the highway, which was intended to keep drivers along one of the province’s most heavily-used corridors safe, would also push some communities to the brink of financial ruin.

Communities and many small businesses that had cropped up along the side of the Trans-Canada Highway over the decades and profited off the non-stop stream of traffic from transport trucks, tourists and commuters.

Sussex was one of the communities that feared the worst when the highway debate was raging in the 1990s.

Emily Palmer, a former mayor of Sussex, said in a 1996 interview that the number of visitors in places like Sussex, Coles Island, Youngs Cove and Cambridge Narrows would be slashed.

Palmer said in a recent interview that her predictions have become reality and that minimal traffic is making it off the highway and into these smaller communities.

"Everything is bypassing us," Palmer said.

"So we’ve seen a lot of small businesses that have closed, a few have opened but a number of them haven’t stayed."

Sussex is now 35 kilometres south of the highway.

Several businesses and towns chipped in to build a tourist centre just off the highway in 2003. The idea is to direct tourists who make a quick trip off the highway to take a longer detour to some of the communities and attractions that are along the old highway.

While some communities have seen a decrease in traffic, MRDC’s volume counts show the highway is very busy in many sections.

The highway is the busiest around Fredericton, where an average of 19,100 vehicles pass by each day. The River Glade section, which is near Moncton, has an annual daily traffic count of 13,846.