Public feedback 'divisive' on using tolls to pay for twinned highways

If the province wanted strong public support before going ahead with tolls to help pay for twinning highways, it's unlikely shovels will enter the ground anytime soon.

On Friday the Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal Department released the feedback from a series of public consultations and written submissions on the matter.

The information includes almost 5,400 responses from public meetings and written and online submissions about:

- The safety of current 100-series highways.

- Whether tolling is the only option to improve safety.

- Willingness to pay for twinning to make the project happen sooner.

The majority of people responding were not in favour of the tolls, with the report calling it a "divisive" issue. 

Less expensive solutions

Throughout the process, Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan has said twinning would happen at a much slower pace if the province couldn't rely on tolls to help cover the costs. 

The report said the province heard from many who felt twinning is not the only solution to addressing highway safety. Alternative ideas included wider lanes, concrete partitions, driver education and more police enforcement.

Support stronger in one area

However people at the meeting in the New Glasgow and Antigonish, N.S., area were "the most vocal and committed" to the idea that twinning was the only option to improve the highway, according to the report.

That shouldn't come as a surprise, given that residents for years have called for upgraded highways as the number of traffic fatalities has mounted along that stretch of Highway 104.

But even with that support, a quarter of written respondents in the area were against twinning with the help of tolls.

Cost-of-living concerns

Overall, the report notes many were concerned tolls would increase their cost-of-living, with businesses passing along the increase in transport costs to consumers. There were also concerns that rural areas are asked to pay for tolls on highways when more populated, urban areas already have twinned highways.

Based on the consultations, the report notes the corridors that would have the most support for the use of tolls to twin would be on Highway 104 between Sutherlands River and Antigonish, as well as other sections to Port Hawkesbury. That's where the majority of participants saw twinning as the best and only option.

"Given the degree of commitment to this, there was therefore an acceptance (perhaps a reluctant one) and willingness to pay tolls in order for twinning to happen."

Decision next week

With MacLellan promising a decision next week on what happens next, the report touches on one other consideration, particularly with election speculation running on overdrive right now. It notes that the issue of tolls can become a "lightning rod for many other topics."

The topic of tolls "creates negativity toward the provincial government in terms of level of taxes, budget allocations, inequitable treatment of rural residents and financial management," the report said.