Nova Scotia·Opinion

Toll highways tricky business for N.S. politicians, says Graham Steele

If you wanted to sum up Nova Scotia political history in one word, the top choice might be "roads."

Graham Steele says options for reviewing toll highways in Nova Scotia not politically palatable

Graham Steele calls Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan "brave" for announcing a consultation on the possible tolling of eight stretches of Nova Scotia highway. (CBC)

If you wanted to sum up Nova Scotia political history in one word, the top choice might be "roads."

Asphalt courses through the veins of the body politic.

Political careers have been made and broken over pavement.

Here's a story: In the run-up to the 1984 election, the Buchanan government parked road-building equipment at major intersections in the constituency of Guysborough, where Liberal leader Sandy Cameron was running. "Vote for us, and that equipment goes to work the next day," said the Conservatives. Cameron was defeated.

I don't know if that actually happened, but the linking of roads and political defeat has the ring of truth.

Now Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan has announced public consultation on the possible tolling of eight stretches of twinned highway. We'll know the results by the end of April 2016.

He's a brave man, that Geoff MacLellan.

Four options

Nova Scotia has 23,000 kilometres of provincial roads. That's a ridiculous amount of pavement for a small province.

That's St. John's to Victoria and back again, then back to Victoria. Nova Scotia politicians justly earned their reputation of paving anything that didn't move.

Here's the fundamental problem: There is not enough money in all of Nova Scotia to maintain all the existing roads and bridges, never mind build new ones.

Twinning a highway costs over $3 million per kilometre. The eight projects named by the minister would cost $1.5 billion. That money isn't just sitting around. It has to be found somewhere.

But where? If we want highways twinned faster than the current snail's pace, there are three options:

  • Everybody pays for it, through an increase in general taxation.
  • Users of the new highways pay for it, through tolls on the new highways only.
  • All highway users pay for it, through tolls on all highways.

As Geoff MacLellan is about to find out, none of these options is politically palatable. That's why his predecessors have mostly settled for the fourth option: do nothing.

Except once…

Cobequid Pass hurt Liberals

Once upon a time, there was a brave Nova Scotia government that decided to toll a highway.

The Cobequid Pass between Masstown and Wentworth Station opened in 1997, finally putting an end to the so-called "Valley of Death" route through the Wentworth Valley.

The project was privately financed. The bondholders are repaid with toll revenue. The guaranteed revenue meant the highway could be built quickly.

It also happens to be the best-built highway in Nova Scotia, thanks to the late John "Nova" Chisholm. The builder's warranties gave him the incentive to build to a very high standard.

The building of the Cobequid Pass should have been a triumph for John Savage's Liberal government.

Instead, the people of Cumberland County didn't forgive the Liberals for a long time. They felt unfairly singled out for a special tax. The lingering resentment is palpable. It took six elections before another Liberal was elected in Cumberland.

The lesson that a generation of Nova Scotia politicians learned was "don't talk about tolls."

Impossible politics

Besides the experience of the Cobequid Pass, the minister will run smack into the myth of the gas tax. Lots of people believe the gas tax goes into general revenue. The cry goes up: "No toll highways until every penny of the gas tax is spent on roads!"

The truth is that we spend far, far more on roads than we receive in gas tax. This year's budget pegs gas tax revenue at $262.3 million. Spending by the transportation department is $419.3 million. That's not all for roads, but the vast majority of it is.

Regardless of the facts, the gas tax myth is unshakeable.

Then, sure as potholes in spring, one or both of the opposition parties will come out against tolls. Already one NDP leadership candidate is positioning highway tolls as an attack on rural Nova Scotia. Bernard Lord sailed to power in New Brunswick in 1999 on the promise to remove tolls on the new Fredericton–Moncton highway.

As if all that's not enough, safety advocates will ask the emotionally-charged question, "How much is a life worth?"

Politicians intensely dislike that question, because every answer is wrong.

MacLellan was quoted as saying there would be no tolls without "overwhelming support."  He has set the hurdle too high. When it comes to tolls, he won't find anything close to overwhelming support.

And that will leave him, and us, with the same old status quo.


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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