Nova Scotia

Province refusing to release cost estimate for new Halifax hospital buildings

Senior bureaucrats involved in the project to replace two aging hospital buildings in Halifax spent two hours Wednesday answering questions from members of a legislature committee, but key questions remain unanswered.

Government departments reviewing detailed draft plan before seeking cabinet approval this spring

The province hasn't disclosed the cost or timeline of the project to replace two Halifax hospital buildings, including the Centennial building at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre. (Robert Short/CBC)

Senior bureaucrats involved in the project to replace two aging hospital buildings in downtown Halifax spent two hours Wednesday answering questions from members of a legislature committee, but key questions remain unanswered —including what the project will cost and whether the province will pay for it or partner with a private company.

The nine-member public accounts committee was outnumbered by witnesses during the hearing, designed to shed light on what a deputy minister called "the biggest public project of our time."

The plan to replace the Victoria and Centennial buildings at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre still isn't ready for cabinet approval.

Paul LaFleche, deputy minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, said until cabinet signs off, details of the plan and the potential cost of the project will remain secret.

Paul LaFleche is the deputy minister of the Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal Department. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

That's despite the fact that John O'Connor, the bureaucrat in charge of the project for the department, told committee members he has been keeping a running total of those costs and the design work is complete.

The department is examining an 800-page report by Kasian Architecture, which outlines in detail what services will be provided and where. The province paid the Ontario-based company $1.9 million for its work.

LaFleche said there were still options associated with the plan, as well as practical reasons for keeping the figures under wraps.

"We don't want to tip our hand to any potential construction bidders as to what we might be looking for," he told reporters following the two-hour meeting.

'It's frustrating for Nova Scotians'

Progressive Conservative committee member Tim Houston was unimpressed with the lack of transparency.

"Two hours of committee discussion and a commitment at the end that the project would be on budget and on time, but nobody can say the budget, nobody could say the timeline. So, it's frustrating for Nova Scotians," said the MLA for Pictou East. "This is a project we started talking about seven years ago."

Gary Porter, executive director of corporate initiatives for the Transportation Department, told the committee the accounting firm Deloitte was almost ready to deliver its $500,000 report into whether the project should be done by the province alone or in partnership with a private company. 

The Victoria building at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre is one of the buildings that will be replaced by the new project. (QEII Health Sciences Centre)

"Their recommendation will be based on what's in the best interests of the taxpayer in the province," he told reporters after the meeting.

That evaluation should be ready by May, according to Porter.

Former NDP health minister Dave Wilson said the province should reject any proposal that includes partnering with a private company.

"We've seen time and time again that the overhead costs, cost overruns on projects like this have gone through the roof and we're hoping that that won't happen here," Wilson told reporters.