Nova Scotia

Tolls on Cobequid Pass to remain at least another year

Nova Scotians tired of paying to use the province's only toll highway are going to have wait a while longer to get a free ride. Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines wants the tolls to pay for highway improvements.

Transportation minister wants money for highway improvements before paying off debt to private investors

Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines said Thursday he's in favour of using Cobequid Pass toll money for highway improvements. (Robert Short/CBC)

Nova Scotia's only toll highway will continue to be tolled, at least for another year.

That's because instead of immediately paying off the last remaining portion of debt incurred to build the twinned roadway, Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines wants some of the toll money used for highway improvements.

Hines told reporters Thursday the plan is to build a pull-off for motorists who need a break and a "satellite maintenance area" to station road crews and plows about midway along the 45-kilometre stretch of Highway 104.

He said that decision was spurred by a snowstorm last November that forced a temporary shutdown of the highway.

"The challenge in the most recent issue up there was we couldn't get our maintenance and our plows and our salt into the interior because of the blockages that were there," Hines said.

Having a place to store plows and other road equipment at roughly the halfway point on the highway would give crews another option to try to clear the way for motorists in trouble.

That stretch of the Trans-Canada highway has experienced similar problems in the past, including one in 2008 that involved as many as 1,500 vehicles. People were trapped in their vehicles overnight when a sudden storm made the section of the Trans-Canada Highway from the toll booths to Glenholme impassable.

'Luxury of toll revenue'

The Cobequid Pass was designed as a private-public partnership. Since it opened in 1997, users have contributed a total of $308 million in tolls, money that has been used to maintain and clear the road, help with repair costs, and pay down the initial construction and financing bills.

In 2018, deputy transportation minister Paul Lafleche told a legislature committee the province might be able to lift the tolls by the end of last year by paying off the debt early.

But his political boss, Hines, said making road improvements first was a better use for some of the more than $20 million a year raised by highway tolls.

"While we have the luxury of toll revenue we want to leave ourselves in a situation where we have a good solid asset that longer term will prevail, because once the tolls come off then the maintenance costs and the upkeep falls to the general revenue of the government," said Hines.

The minister would not say how much the improvements could cost, but he estimated tenders might be issued for the work by the end of the year.

$41M still owed

The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal said the province owes approximately $41 million in current debt, long-term debt, and interest payments to 2026. The money is owed to those who financed the project back in 1995.

The highway was twinned as a way to cut down the number of accidents and fatalities through the Wentworth Valley. The Liberal government of the day chose to build it in partnership with private interests as a way to get the project done faster.

Tolls were a way to pay for the $113-million project. The Nova Scotia and federal governments each contributed $27.5 million toward construction.

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