Nova Scotia·Opinion

Highway to the danger zone? Public opinion on tolls tricky to discern: Graham Steele

CBC political analyst Graham Steele says Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan is gauging public opinion of highway tolls very carefully. But can the information at his disposal paint the whole picture?

Transportation minister weighs research and public opinion on tolls, but may have to go with his gut

There are eight possible highway twinning projects, covering 304.1 kilometres and with a price tag of $2.2 billion. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

How does a politician ever know what the public wants?

They have three sources of information: opinion research, public consultation and their gut instinct.

All three are on display in the current debate on tolled highways in Nova Scotia.

8 projects

Last Monday, the provincial government released a Phase 2 report on highway twinning.

Twinning highways is really expensive. A mere seven kilometres from Port Hastings to Port Hawkesbury will set us back $87.1 million.

Foghorn Joe comes in with his usual bull, One-Note Sally comes in with her usual hobby horse and the Vested Interests pretend they're speaking for the public.- Graham Steele, on public consultations

There are eight possible projects in all, covering 304.1 kilometres and with a price tag of $2.2 billion.

That's far beyond the usual highway-building budget.

From a political point of view, the key question is whether citizens are willing to pay a toll, and if so how much, to get those highways built faster.

Political liability

Every discussion of Nova Scotia toll-road politics has to start with the Cobequid Pass.

Nova Scotia's only toll highway — not counting the two Halifax harbour bridges — opened in 1997. It's the best-built highway in Nova Scotia and much safer than the Wentworth Valley, but for years it was a political liability for local Liberals.

The good people of Cumberland County did not take kindly to being the only Nova Scotians who had to pay for the privilege of hosting a highway. The Liberals swept Cumberland in 1993, then didn't elect another Liberal until 2013.

Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan doesn't want to preside over a repeat of the Cobequid Pass controversy. That's why he's gauging public opinion very carefully indeed.

But how good are MacLellan's public-opinion tools?

Accurate picture

The first tool is opinion research. The engineering report includes results of a phone survey of 1,027 Nova Scotians.

Apparently we Nova Scotians — at least those of us who aren't opposed to any toll at all — are willing to pay roughly six cents per kilometre.

Here's the problem: For any one of the eight candidate highways, the number of citizens surveyed hovers around 100, which would produce a margin of error much higher than the 4.4 per cent margin of error cited for the whole sample.

So if MacLellan is assessing public opinion on, say, the highway from Tantallon to Bridgewater, is he really getting an accurate picture of public sentiment? He can't know.

Besides, public opinion is fluid. This particular survey was done during a two-week stretch in the spring of 2016. Is it still valid, even today? He can't know.

Public meetings

So MacLellan turns to his second tool: public meetings.

A month-long series of open forums is underway, starting this week in New Glasgow, Kentville and Windsor.

The good thing about public consultations is that everyone (in theory) has a chance to turn out and be heard by decision-makers.

The bad thing is that attendees are a self-selecting sample. It's hardly scientific. Foghorn Joe comes in with his usual bull, One-Note Sally comes in with her usual hobby horse and the Vested Interests pretend they're speaking for the public.

Public opinion is there, though sometimes sitting quietly in a corner. It takes skill and experience to cut through the noise of a public meeting to find the nuggets.

And sometimes the only consensus is that there's no consensus.

Danger zone

So MacLellan may be left with the third tool, and the one most politicians value above all: their gut instinct.

It's evident that MacLellan's gut has told him that he's in a danger zone.

Nova Scotia Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan has been moving very slowly. (CBC)

For one thing, he's moving very slowly. The tolling study was first announced in April 2015.

Here we are almost two years later, and public meetings are just starting.

At this pace, there will be no decision until an election is safely in the rearview mirror.

MacLellan has also been quoted as saying there will be no tolls without "overwhelming support."

As far as I could ever tell, there isn't overwhelming support in this province for anything, much less a tax-like toll. If that's the standard, then the whole tolling project may have been doomed from the start.

Magical thinking

There's another factor that may trump public opinion.

When talk turns to tolls, it is positively guaranteed that opposition politicians will promise the same highways with no toll.

It's magical thinking at best, and nonsense at worst, but that's how opposition politicians roll.

So no matter how well MacLellan believes he understands public opinion on tolls — with his surveys, meetings, and instincts — it is political competition that may, in the end, cause him to spike the whole idea.


Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.


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