No getting around provincial issues in Miramichi's federal election race
O’Toole promise makes roads the focus for two former N.B. ministers going head-to-head
Outside his pizza restaurant on the King George Highway in Miramichi, David Hale casts a rueful eye at the heavy traffic zipping by.
"During the summer months especially, but pretty much year round, she could be bumper to bumper traffic," says Hale.
The road, part of provincial Route 8, links the Newcastle and Douglastown areas of Miramichi. It's one of only two corridors for trucks and travellers moving between southern New Brunswick and the northeast corner of the province.
It's been congested for a long time, and next year it's going to get even worse.
Starting next summer, the other route will be shut down when a major refurbishment of the Centennial Bridge begins. That will force even more cars and trucks into the King George bottleneck for two or possibly three years.
"It's not going to be very good for our business community," Hale said. "A lot of people will hesitate to get in and out of traffic, so a lot of people will just kind of hammer down and head to home or to their destination and they won't bother stopping at places along the way."
Road construction is the province's responsibility, but the looming congestion crunch has injected the issue into the federal election campaign in Miramichi.
The race here already had a decidedly provincial tinge with former provincial cabinet ministers running — Jake Stewart for the Conservatives and Lisa Harris for the Liberals.
"Even more than usual, the lines are a bit blurred in this campaign, with two former provincial MLAs now offering for the respective federal parties," Mayor Adam Lordon said.
Miramichi — Grand Lake was one of the closest electoral districts in the country in the 2019 election, with just 370 votes separating the Liberal winner, Pat Finnigan, from the Conservative runner-up, Peggy McLean.
Both Liberals and Conservatives enjoy pockets of reliable support in different parts of the constituency, which covers a huge area, including Doaktown, Blackville, Neguac, Rogersville and Baie-Sainte-Anne.
That leaves the city as the place that could determine the winner. And that means its infrastructure issues are front and centre, regardless of provincial jurisdiction.
Stewart is running hard on a commitment from his federal leader, Erin O'Toole, to help fund the so-called northern bypass, which would route provincial through traffic away from the King George Highway.
Meanwhile, Liberal Lisa Harris is taking aim at New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs and his looming health-reform plan that she said could hurt the Miramichi Regional Hospital.
The northern bypass idea has been around for decades. It would connect an existing roundabout at the western edge of the city to a new interchange near the northern end of the Centennial Bridge
At one time, business owners were reluctant to see provincial traffic routed away from them.
But with worsening congestion and the Centennial Bridge shutting down for two and possibly three construction seasons, "the bypass has been put back on the table," Hale said.
Lordon said with new housing and commercial development planned along Route 8, some kind of alternative corridor has to happen.
"The King George Highway is at once a busy community road … and also a highway. So it's not sustainable to be both in the long term."
Last month, the Conservatives jolted the local campaign when leader Erin O'Toole included the bypass among three New Brunswick projects he promised to help pay for.
Stewart has posted O'Toole's news release on his Facebook page and raises it with voters on their doorsteps, where he says it's clearly a top priority.
The promise "was really good for me as a candidate, but it's also very good, more importantly, for the citizens here, if they're going to be heard at the national level," Stewart said.
But Miramichi People's Alliance MLA Michelle Conroy said she's not convinced the project makes sense, given the bypass would not be finished by the time the bridge closes.
"My concern would be the amount of money it would cost to build this highway from an ever-decreasing budget, that would potentially take from maintenance of existing roads and not change the situation we have now."
The problem for Stewart is that Higgs's Progressive Conservative government has taken a similar position.
Last year, then-Transportation Minister Bill Oliver told a legislative committee that the $90 million bypass would be a pricey solution for what he said would be a temporary congestion problem.
That is still the province's position, spokesperson Jennifer Boudreau said last week.
"The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure currently has no plans for a Miramichi Northern Bypass, and as a result no funding has been allocated," she said.
Harris, Stewart's Liberal opponent, pointed out that the Conservative candidate was part of that government until last month and wasn't able to change its mind.
Stewart counters that with O'Toole's promise and an endorsement from city council, "I think that makes it an easy decision for the provincial government long term."
But Harris said Higgs's lack of interest in the bypass is part of a larger problem: the province's refusal to take full advantage of federal infrastructure dollars offered by the Trudeau government.
"When you have a premier that's not willing to use the money that the federal government is trying to invest, it's unfair to the people here and in Miramichi — Grand Lake and in New Brunswick," she said.
That's Harris's version of the federal-provincial Miramichi mashup: she's running not so much on national issues as she is against Higgs and his policies.
She brought up the upcoming provincial health reform plan and what it might mean for services at the local hospital— , such as roads, another area of provincial responsibility.
Harris seems to argue that her job in Ottawa would be to ensure Higgs's provincial government spent federal transfers to Miramichi's benefit.
"I'm going to be outspoken and I'm going to fight for this area with the federal dollars that we have, to find a way to get it to the people because they deserve it."
Harris has not, however, obtained a promise from her leader to share the cost of the northern bypass.
"I need to get elected and then I need to get to work, and anybody that knows me knows that's exactly how this is going to go down. And I'm ready to go and fight for that, and then we'll see where it goes."
Harris said one reason she decided to run federally is because she was frustrated "sitting back in opposition and watching the area be absolutely neglected."
Stewart has a similar argument, but he said it's the Trudeau Liberals who have ignored Miramichi.
Lordon, who ran for the Liberal nomination but said he's now back to advocating for his city as a neutral mayor, has some advice for both candidates.
"I think from the perspective of the average citizen, they're not interested necessarily in the fine details, but they can understand when something is getting done and when something isn't getting done," he said.
"I'm not sure they necessarily care which level is going to come to the table, but they know that all of the levels need to come to the table and needs to be actively working together to get these projects done."