Rankin promises to nix Cobequid tolls, gets cool reception in Amherst

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Liberal Leader Iain Rankin speaks in Amherst, N.S., on Tuesday, July 20, 2021, with protesters standing behind him. (Rob Short/CBC - image credit)
Liberal Leader Iain Rankin speaks in Amherst, N.S., on Tuesday, July 20, 2021, with protesters standing behind him. (Rob Short/CBC - image credit)

The welcome mat wasn't exactly rolled out for Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Iain Rankin as he arrived Tuesday in Amherst, N.S., for a campaign stop.

Rankin was in town to announce plans to remove tolls from the Cobequid Pass for passenger vehicles with Nova Scotia plates by Oct. 1, if his party is re-elected.

But a group of about 15 protesters angry over public health restrictions made it challenging for Rankin to announce his plan.

The protesters say restrictions put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic have cut them off from the rest of the province and neighbouring communities in New Brunswick.

Some of them waved signs in support of Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, the Independent candidate for Cumberland North. She was kicked out of the Tory caucus for her part in protests that shut down Highway 104 last month.

Rob Short/CBC
Rob Short/CBC

Thomas Everett, an Amherst resident who attended the protest, said removing the tolls now won't be enough to sway voters.

"Cumberland County only matters when it comes to votes," he said.

"When all the [COVID] cases were going on in Halifax and there were no cases in Amherst, we were locked down just the same way Halifax was, to appease Halifax residents."

Locals already avoid the tolls

Everett said locals who don't want to pay the tolls already drive through the Wentworth Valley on the old highway to avoid them.

While the tolls will come off for passenger vehicles with Nova Scotia plates, they'll remain in place for commercial vehicles and cars from out of province.

Rankin said that's to help pay for continued maintenance of the highway and to construct new rest stops and maintenance sheds along the Cobequid Pass.

The Liberals also promised to remove the tolls during the 2017 election. Rankin said the promise was to do so once the bonds were paid off, something he said would happen this September. Previously, the Liberals suggested the tolls would be gone by as soon as 2019, but that did not happen.

The Liberal leader, who moved indoors to take questions from reporters, said he wasn't surprised by his reception outside a local hotel next to Highway 104, where people hollered and waved signs behind him as he made his announcement.

"Lives were disrupted in the pandemic and I think in Cumberland more so than any other region of the province," he said.

"So I appreciate the frustration. At the same time, I hope that they can recognize that we were really trying to look out for the safety of all Nova Scotians, including themselves, and we had to make tough decisions. That's what managing a crisis like a pandemic is all about."

Rankin campaigned Tuesday with local candidate Bill Casey, a longtime member of Parliament who came out of retirement to run in this election.

Rob Short/CBC
Rob Short/CBC

Casey said there are people in Cumberland County who are frustrated and feel like a political afterthought, but he wasn't sure some of the protesters who greeted him and Rankin were representative of the region.

"I understand them but I don't think they're well founded in some ways and in some ways I do," he told reporters.

"Cumberland County was affected by the closures of the border more than any other county. We're the only county in Nova Scotia that borders on another province and every day we're affected by New Brunswick regulations and Nova Scotia regulations. We're the only county that has to deal with that."

Casey said it shouldn't be forgotten that Nova Scotia's response to the COVID-19 pandemic was among the best in the world.

Tories, NDP respond

The leaders of the Tories and NDP, meanwhile, criticized the Liberals for trying to make the same promise two elections in a row.

Tory Leader Tim Houston, whose party is still searching for a candidate to run against Casey, said his party would remove all tolls from the Cobequid Pass right away if they form government.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said his party would remove all tolls from the highway as soon as the debt is paid off.

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