Traffic data murky as Liberals try to justify twinning Route 11

The Brian Gallant government says it can’t release precise traffic statistics that would justify the $180 million it will spend twinning two sections of Route 11 in southeast New Brunswick.

Next phase of project in southeast New Brunswick to cost taxpayers $180 million

Work has started on twinning 20 kilometres of Route 11 from Shediac River to south of Bouctouche.

The Brian Gallant government says it can't release precise traffic statistics that would justify the $180 million it will spend twinning two sections of Route 11 in southeast New Brunswick.

The premier announced earlier this month that work will begin this year and argued the huge expense is warranted because of heavy traffic.

"Due to growth in the southeastern region of New Brunswick, the southern section of Route 11 has experienced rising traffic levels in recent years," he said April 4.

Premier Brian Gallant said growth in the region in recent years has increased traffic levels on Route 11. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

The two new sections to be twinned are 6.8 kilometres between the Shediac River and the Cocagne River and 13.8 kilometres between the Cocagne River and the Little Bouctouche River.

Traffic threshold

The province said two traffic counters on the two sections of road recorded a daily average of 8,090 vehicles in 2016.

That's just a shade higher than the 8,000-vehicle-per-day count required to trigger a twinning project.

But it's an average of two counters, and the province would not say whether one of the counters was below the 8,000-vehicle threshold.

Construction is underway on twinning Route 11. (CBC)

Department of Transportation and Infrastructure spokesperson Jeremy Trevors said the department could not provide a breakdown.

"These are the most up to date traffic numbers that are available," he said.

And he said other criteria are used to make decisions on twinning, including that traffic can spike far higher during the summer tourist season.

"Other factors can come into play when considering four-lane development, including future projections, safety, economic development, tourism and travel time, amongst others," he said.

Supposed to create jobs

The project is the next phase of a $272-million federal-provincial initiative for Route 11 announced in January 2017. The first phase, an overhaul of the interchange with Route 15 near Shediac, officially opened in December.

At the April 4 announcement, Gallant and federal MP and cabinet minister Dominic LeBlanc also justified the expense by arguing companies that use the road will save time and money and that the project will create jobs.

"We're also going to help businesses in the southeast of New Brunswick, in Kent County, the Miramichi and much of the north be able to get their goods and services to markets across the globe," Gallant said.

Federal MP Dominic LeBlanc said he's seen a huge uptick in traffic along Route 11. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Building new roads, LeBlanc said, "is critical for the short-term economic impact it can have on job creation and economic stimulus."

But the most measurable justification for twinning is traffic volume. It took the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure 16 days to provide the 8,090-vehicle annual average for the two traffic counters.

In 2015, CBC News revealed government reports showing traffic numbers for some sections of Route 11 were below the provincial threshold for twinning.

Near Bouctouche, there were 7,130 daily vehicles in 2012, below the 8,000 threshold.

'I've seen a huge amount of traffic'

Asked at the April 4 news conference whether the province now has new figures showing a greater need for twinning, Gallant said he wasn't familiar with the specifics of the 2015 report.

"I don't know what exactly the arguments were and what numbers were used, but what I can say is that when we look at the numbers, there's no doubt there's a lot of traffic on Route 11," he said.

He also would not rule out even more twinning on less-travelled sections of the highway.

"We've very open to continue investments beyond this phase," he said, and once the current project is finished in 2021, "we'll continue to work with people to continue to invest in Route 11."

If it is a problem in some areas, then let's fix that. But let's not open the whole landscape into a four-lane highway.- PC leader Blaine Higgs, in 2015

LeBlanc told reporters about his own anecdotal observations based on his near-daily use of Route 11.

"I've seen a huge amount of traffic myself, especially in summer in tourist season," he said. "That's when industries such as the fish sector want to ship their product to foreign markets."
He said the increases were "to me, fairly dangerous."

Several documents released to CBC News in 2015 showed provincial staff did not consider the number of collisions to be high at the time. One called the rate "fairly low" compared to other two-lane arterial roads.

Another said accidents on Route 11 were "not a significant issue" and a third said the numbers did not "stand out as a significant concern relative to the rest of the province."

PC leader struggled to justify twinning

The re-announcement earlier this month, ahead of a provincial election in September, also prompted the Progressive Conservative party to commit that "when we form government, the project would be completed," according to MLA Bill Oliver.

PC leader Blaine Higgs was part of the Alward government that committed to twinning some sections of the road, but after the 2015 election he acknowledged that as finance minister, he "always struggled" with how to justify it.

Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs said that in 2015 he struggled with justifying twinning the highway. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

He said he did not support a full twinning of the road from Shediac to Miramichi.

"We should look at passing lanes," he said in 2015. "We should look at the safety issue. If it is a problem in some areas, then let's fix that. But let's not open the whole landscape into a four-lane highway."

Oliver said Monday the Liberal refusal to release precise traffic numbers is part of a pattern with the Gallant government. "Makes one wonder," he said, promising a PC government would release all the information needed to justify its decisions.