NOVA SCOTIA HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal
Printed and Published by Nova Scotia Hansard Reporting Services
Public Accounts Committee
Mr. Allan MacMaster, Chairman
Mr. Iain Rankin, Vice-Chairman
Mr. Bill Horne
Ms. Suzanne Lohnes-Croft
Mr. Brendan Maguire
Mr. Joachim Stroink
Mr. Chuck Porter
Hon. Maureen MacDonald
Hon. David Wilson
[Mr. Bill Horne was replaced by Ms. Margaret Miller]
[Ms. Suzanne Lohnes-Croft was replaced by Ms. Joyce Treen]
[Mr. Brendan Maguire was replaced by Ms. Pam Eyking]
[Mr. Chuck Porter was replaced by Hon. Christopher d’Entremont]
Mrs. Darlene Henry
Legislative Committee Clerk
Ms. Annette Boucher
Mr. Alan Horgan
Acting Auditor General
Mr. Terry Spicer
Assistant Auditor General
Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal
Mr. Paul LaFleche, Deputy Minister
Mr. Bruce Fitzner, Chief Engineer, Highway Programs
Mr. Peter Hackett, Executive Director, Engineering and Construction
Mr. Will Crocker, Bridge Maintenance Engineer
HALIFAX, WEDNESDAY, JUNE 11, 2014
STANDING COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC ACCOUNTS
Mr. Allan MacMaster
Mr. Iain Rankin
MR. CHAIRMAN: Good morning, everyone. I call this meeting to order. Before we begin, I’d like to remind everybody to put their phones on silent. Before I introduce our witnesses, could the members of the committee please introduce themselves, beginning with Ms. Eyking.
[The committee members and witnesses introduced themselves.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: Today we have the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal here to speak to us about bridge infrastructure. I know we have a lot of bridges in the province, and they are a very important part of our infrastructure in the province.
Mr. LaFleche, please begin with your opening comments.
MR. PAUL LAFLECHE: Unfortunately, you took away the first paragraph where I introduce everybody, but that’s okay. We’ll move on. We’re glad to be here today to discuss our provincial bridge infrastructure program. Of course, a little later on, after I finish the lengthy speech, we’ll talk about any questions you may have.
First, I want to give you a little introduction about our bridge construction and maintenance program. Along with road maintenance and construction, building and maintaining bridges is one of the major things that we do. We have nine bridge engineers - Will here is one of the senior ones - 10 bridge inspectors, and 80 other supporting staff whose job is to ensure that our 4,300 bridges and structures that we have province-wide are safe and maintained. Those are bridges and structures that are provincially maintained, not including any that may be owned by a municipality or a town.
In that count are bridges that range greatly with respect to size and traffic volumes. Some of the larger examples could include the Indian Sluice Bridge in Yarmouth County. Chris d’Entremont knows a lot about that one - it’s in his riding, it’s a major replacement of a very old bridge, and it’s quite a significant structure; the Sydney River Bridge, which is being worked on right now in Cape Breton; and the Shubenacadie Bridge on Highway No. 102, which I am sure almost everybody in this room has driven over. It’s quite a large job, and we’ve got a temporary bridge to keep the twinned highway twinned during the two-year construction period. Those are some of our very big jobs.
Also within that count of 4,300 are much smaller bridges, on roads that are no longer used or on abandoned roads, but we are responsible for those as well. In many cases snowmobilers, ATVers, BMXers, hikers, and joggers will be using those bridges and it’s always a challenge to keep them maintained.
Before I move on I want to clearly say to you, those in the gallery, and those watching on TV that our provincial bridges are safe, there’s no doubt about that. If for any reason our engineers feel that a bridge is unsafe, we close the bridge to traffic or adjust the posted load weights. The necessary repairs or solutions are implemented as soon as possible. You’ve seen that in recent times when we have had a problem.
We have 19 bridge engineers and inspectors who are designated bridge specialists. We also have a research and sponsorship partnership with Dalhousie University to conduct research in how we can better repair our existing structures or build structures that last longer, and that’s a really important thing. If we can ensure that our structures last longer or require less maintenance, we save a lot of money that can be put to other places in government or in the highway system.
We are very proud of our highway and bridge maintenance staff, and the rigour and high standards that we use to guide our bridge maintenance program. We have a very strong partnership with the staff in the structures area of Dalhousie University - indeed, well studied under Dr. John Newhook, the associate vice-president, who is one of the major specialists worldwide in structures.
Inherent in maintaining more than 4,300 bridges and structures is both a challenge and an opportunity. Like every other provincial jurisdiction across Canada, we are faced with the problem of aging infrastructure, changing needs, and of course the challenge of funding is further exacerbated by Nova Scotia’s climate, which is very harsh from a bridge maintenance perspective. We have a lot of use of road salt, and the many freeze/thaw cycles that we experience here each winter compared to other provinces are problematic.
Generally, like for instance this winter, even though it was a harsh winter across most of northern North America, the problem that we experienced was that we had many freeze/thaw cycles, which are much harder on a bridge in terms of working the structure and wearing it than a constant, say, minus 25-degree temperature for several months. So we have a very difficult climate for bridges.
We also in the province have a lot of bridges compared to other jurisdictions. We maintain, as I’ve said, 4,300 bridges and structures. The Province of Ontario maintains 2,100. That is mainly because municipalities are responsible much more in those other provinces for roads and bridges than the province. Nova Scotia has not devolved most of its roads and bridges to municipalities and towns, so therefore the province has a much greater role than even in the larger provinces and it’s a much greater budgetary impact.
Approximately half of our bridges are 50 years old or older. As the One Nova Scotia report has clearly outlined, we are somewhat at a crossroads in how we need to think about our future here in the province. We have already begun to consider what this will mean with respect to our approach to provincial infrastructure, including highways and bridges. For example, is it necessary to keep all the bridges we have? Many of our bridges were established in an era just after Confederation and again after the Second World War, which were both periods of significant economic stimulus spending. That’s one reason we have so many bridges for a province of our size and why so many are coming due for significant repair or replacement at this time.
With that, we are finding ourselves in a situation where in some cases we have a number of bridges crossing the same body of water only a short distance apart. While this may have been necessary when these bridges were built in the early 20th Century, when horse and buggies were still in use or motor cars were capable of much less reduced safe speeds, they may not be as critical today when to drive a few kilometres around is not as big a challenge as it was 80 years ago.
It seems now is the time to start having conversations with communities and local elected officials around how we can continue to provide a high level of service overall while at the same time ensuring that we have sufficient infrastructure funding to support our most critical priorities.
Road safety will always be our first priority. It’s at the heart and soul of what we do in the department on behalf of Nova Scotians. Again, I want to express our strong commitment to ensuring bridges are safe for the public. With that, we are very happy to answer any of your questions.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Mr. LaFleche. We will begin with Mr. d’Entremont from the PC caucus for 20 minutes.
HON. CHRISTOPHER D’ENTREMONT: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. It’s a pleasure to have the department before us today and talk about a very interesting topic, one that I think especially rural MLAs - I know that maybe the Halifax MLAs don’t have as many bridges, but those of us in the rural areas have far too many of them, so it’s a constant discussion on what’s going on.
In your opening remarks you did talk about the one that probably was the most work, in my job as MLA, to convince government to redo. It is the Indian Sluice Bridge, connecting the communities of Sluice Point and the islands - Surettes Island and Morris Island - a beautiful part of the constituency, a beautiful part of Nova Scotia. It was a bridge that was a three-span green bridge, one-lane, constructed 105 years ago. It served that community very well, yet the concerns of that community were such that it’s 105 years old, how can you possibly maintain a bridge that long?
I know that’s not the exception to the rule. There are a number of bridges from one end of the province to the other that are of that same vintage, even though the Indian Sluice is probably the longer one of those kinds of carriage bridges, or green bridges, as we call them.
Of course the construction of the new bridge is ongoing. I think we’re just waiting for the paving plant to show up so we can get the surface put on that. Hopefully by June 28th we can have a grand opening celebration as the transfer from Dexter Construction can transfer off to the province.
Maybe you can talk a little bit about the genesis of that project and what that replacement means to that community. It’s hard to fathom how we’d be spending close to $15 million on a bridge for those small communities, but it is the only access to it - an open little discussion on such a large piece of infrastructure for small communities.
MR. LAFLECHE: I’ll start off, and then I’m going to pass it over to Bruce Fitzner, because he was there when that was put in the five-year plan.
You cited the important thing there. That is a bridge to one island; it’s the only bridge to that island. Then there’s a second bridge from the first island to the second island . . .
MR. D’ENTREMONT: Which needs help, too.
MR. LAFLECHE: Well, I’ll let Mr. Crocker comment on that later. There’s no other access. It’s not like we have two bridges. Previously I spoke about where we have bridges very close together, or redundant bridges. People still want them replaced, and we get into a lot of discussions with them on whether or not they really need two bridges.
In your case there is only one bridge. It does serve a small population. It’s an historic community and an important community, so we do have to spend a lot of money to ensure access for that community. That’s part of being in Nova Scotia.
As for the genesis of the project and how it got on the five-year plan, that was more than two years ago, so it was before my time. I will let Mr. Fitzner talk about how that bridge would have gotten on the list, so to speak.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Fitzner.
MR. BRUCE FITZNER: That project, I think, is a good example of where we work closely with the community. Probably seven or eight years ago a bridge group got organized down in that neck of the woods because they started to become concerned about the condition of the bridge. We were there quite a bit, working on repairing the steel on the old bridge. Every time we were down there it was a major tie-up, because it’s a single-lane bridge and we’d go out there with our equipment and the bridge would get blocked off. It became more of an issue all the time.
We had a number of studies done, and we were struggling with the fact that we had a $14 million or $15 million project. Where were we going to get the funds to build such a big bridge? I guess one of the differences with that bridge and others is that there was no detour, so if something happened to the bridge, then the people were basically stuck on the island and that raised the urgency of it. We worked with the community, and met regularly. We tried to find ways to keep the bridge safe in the meantime.
At some point we had a final analysis done by a consulting agency to look at it, and they were starting to tell us that the bridge wasn’t going to be safe for school buses soon. Then we knew the gig was up, so to speak. We had to do something if the buses couldn’t get over there - it was going to become more of a community problem. So we made the decision, probably sometime in 2009-10 as part of the 5-year Highway Improvement Plan, that we would put this in the plan for several years out. I think it was out quite far and in the meantime we were going to try to find a way to clear the funding for it.
Because of some ongoing work and some more troubles with the bridge, we actually moved the bridge ahead a year. At that point we got busy with the design of the bridge and that type of thing. I want to say that the community was very supportive. They had a lot of questions, but they were very supportive and worked very closely with us, to the point we are today where we’re very pleased that we’re going to be able to open that new bridge and, knock on wood, have another hundred years of safe passage there for the folks down in Morris Island and Surettes Island.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: I think the success of this bridge - it had been a discussion that had been going on for quite some time. Even in my time as MLA, I think I went through three different ministers and was able to finally convince Bill Estabrooks in the previous government to get that done, so kudos to that minister and that government for putting that one forward. It’s not going to happen often, but there you go.
HON. MAUREEN MACDONALD: We’ll take it whenever we can.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: Yes, exactly. It was important to the community and I think part of the success of it was the community group itself. We had Earl Muise, we had Guy Surette, and a whole bunch of other individuals who were interested in their community and making sure that access was maintained.
You talked about the school buses and of course school buses continue to cross that bridge at this point, but it was the oil trucks. If you think of the weight of an oil truck, or just bringing an excavator on the island or a dump truck of gravel - those things that we would all take for granted - all of those were a concern for that community. Of course it had been impacted - I think it was 1996 or 1995, I believe - when the structure on the island side actually collapsed, and that community went for a month or maybe two months without full access across that bridge.
It shows you how the community could get together where people who had cars on one side would leave them at the bridge with the keys in it. If you were going to town, you just called a buddy if you knew his car was on the other side and you’d walk across the bridge - they would allow walking across, there was a little plankway that you could send kids across, which was a whole other concern. People would actually leave their cars on either side of that bridge with keys in it and people would take a buddy’s car - your neighbour’s car - and you would either run to Yarmouth to pick up your groceries or you would go to work or you would go to your doctor’s appointment. When you got home, there was always an opportunity to get you to your house, regardless if you lived at the end of the point or whether you lived down the Tittle Road or whether you lived just nearby the bridge.
It shows that community was very in tune with itself and understood the importance of that bridge and worked very hard to convince many people to go forward with this one. I do thank the department for the work they did in the identification of it, the planning and the execution of it because there have been very few complaints during this process. There had been some challenges. The decking of the old bridge had to be replaced about halfway through because when the trucks were going over it to drop off the gravel or the fill that was needed on the island approach side - it was jiggling the bridge far too much, so they ended up having to smooth off the bridge and put a new deck on, which, again, interrupts that community when they don’t have access to either side.
Through the whole thing, it was done phenomenally and we hope we get 100 years’ use out of the bridge. Maybe that’s my next question - how do we maintain that bridge over the longer term? There was money put aside for the construction of the bridge, how does that work in the future of maintaining that bridge and making sure that we get 100 years out of it? It is a far different structure than the green iron bridge that was there before.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Crocker.
MR. WILL CROCKER: Whenever we design new bridges today we have a number of special materials - construction details and whatnot - that ensure that previous maintenance problems that were inherent in these older structures, such as the green truss bridges or even our older highway structures, there are construction details and materials that are improved and all these things combine to make an extended, longer service life for these bridges. By the Canadian Highway Bridge Design Code any new structure that’s designed must have a design life of 75 years, that’s the intended service life. Beyond that, with regular maintenance and looking after the bridge over time, you could expect to readily achieve that.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: When it comes to the new bridge construction, this one evolved over time of what we were thinking we were getting and what we ended up getting. I think it’s a phenomenal looking structure there. I’ve seen the same kind of materials and things show up in other bridges around the province. I’m just wondering, is it 75 years before you have to really do anything on it or is it every 10 years you’re going to have to do something, or do you have to replace the asphalt on it? What kinds of things should that community expect or what kinds of timelines are they going to be expecting on work on a new bridge like that?
MR. CROCKER: I think with any structure - any building, structure, or bridge - it has to be regularly maintained, you have to look after it. So regular day-to-day, so to speak, maintenance could include simply washing bearings, or ensuring deck drains are cleaned. That sort of stuff means that there’s less water and debris collecting on the bridge and reduces how fast the bridge will deteriorate.
It’s likely that a bridge will last, I’m going to say, 15 to 20 years without any major issues. After that time you might expect maybe some asphalt replacement, maybe a little concrete repair. That being said, we’re using high-performance concrete these days, we’re using galvanized reinforcement. In this particular structure we used precast deck panels which have an inherent higher construction quality. Then there are a number of other details, such as integral abutments that all combine to prolong the life of these new structures.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: And I would think that because of the double wide or two lanes of space to work on, it probably saves the community a whole bunch of things. I remember crossing over the Seal Island Bridge a number of years ago and I’m pretty sure that when I looked down I could see right down to the water. So there are lots of things you can do to a bridge now and still have it in service. I think it’s a good thing and the new constructions seem very sturdy.
Changing gears just a little bit, there are still a number of green truss bridges. There’s one specifically that crosses between my constituency and the constituency of Yarmouth and the community of Gavelton. I know we’ve had a discussion about that one as well. Can you give me an update on what’s going on there? It’s the challenge of the Canaan road and traffic volume - it probably could almost have a two-laner but probably is a little on the low side. Are there options for lanes and a half or something a little bigger than a one? The issue with that is that it’s a choke point for the Tusket River system so it floods around that area. Do you have any thoughts or are we going to be looking at that one pretty soon?
MR. CROCKER: Whenever we look at a bridge replacement, such as Gavelton in this case, we always look at all those sorts of factors - the hydraulic capacity underneath the structure, traffic volumes, or whether or not in this case a replacement bridge warrants a single-lane versus a two-lane bridge. I’m not exactly sure where the status is on the replacement. It is currently on the five-year plan for replacement but I think we’re in the evaluation stages as to what the bridge configuration is exactly going to look like.
Beyond the traffic volumes, other factors can come into play, such as adjacent properties, adjacent roadways, all those sorts of things come into play. For example, if we do put in a single lane as a replacement, it’s not going to be a narrow single lane, which is existing now. There will be a wide single lane and likely a shoulder width on either side. So even as a single-lane bridge, that inherently provides a level of safety acceptable to location.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: I know I’ve had discussions with your district people about that bridge and we’ve also been talking to the Minister of Natural Resources who I share that border with. I’m trying to find that replacement so hopefully we’ll come up with something on that one as well.
Moving from those bridges to highway bridges for a little bit, more specially overpasses along the 100-Series Highways. I imagine Highway No. 103 has an awful lot of flat intersections or level crossings, I guess is what we would call them. A lot of concern - lots of volume going in through those.
What is the plan of the department over the next number of years to maybe rectify some of those problems? I know there are probably five intersections that are required along Highway No. 103 from Yarmouth to Halifax, so is there a plan to look at some of those or not?
MR. LAFLECHE: Well as you know, we’ve spoken with you and some of the other MLAs down there who have those types of intersections. In fact in the Spring, Mr. Fitzner and I got to drive Highway No. 103 a couple of times, and examined them in detail. It is a situation which at some point we would like to move on, so I’ll allow Bruce Fitzner to maybe discuss some of the thoughts he has and what we can do.
MR. FITZNER: What we decided to do - I know when the new government came in that Highway No. 103 was among their priorities and mentioned in the Throne Speech. So we decided that what we should do is have a look at that whole corridor, all the way from Halifax down to Yarmouth. We’re doing a study on capacity and safety and hopefully we’ll have that done over the summer into the Fall.
That will give us a good idea, I guess, of what the actual needs are going to be for that highway; it’s different in the different parts. We’re going to examine those types of things and sort of come up with what would be our long-term plan for addressing the issues on Highway No. 103 and then what would be the relative order and urgency of addressing them. Then we’ll use that as we build our future five-year plans.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: I think that’s important, especially if I look at the Pubnico exit - probably the best example of a high volume intersection that is not an overpass. We have a lot of trucks going in and out of there on a regular basis. It does have probably the largest fishing port in Nova Scotia, with the landed value of that port. So there are trucks in and out of there straight time.
A number of years ago, I lost a friend there who was coming across the intersection and somebody wasn’t in their correct lane and when they ended up in their correct lane they ended up t-boning him, so it’s a dangerous intersection. Looking at the Argyle Head one, looking at the Glenwood one, those are all flat intersections that have weird approaches to them.
I understand it was a cost issue when they built the highway, but I’m hoping that over time we can look at some of those. As I said, it’s not just in my constituency but going all the way up to Halifax there’s a number of flat intersections that probably need to be addressed over time.
Is there an issue with the federal government that we can take up on that one, or is there a partnership on that one? I mean it is Highway No. 103, it is one of the national highway systems so is there some approach to the federal government that can be done on this one as well?
MR. LAFLECHE: Well Highway No. 103 is an eligible feeder for the national highway system so it is eligible. Of course we’ve not yet prioritized what will be in the next round of Building Canada funding but technically, these types of things may be eligible.
I should point out that besides the intersections you are referring to, there are also level crossings which you are not allowed to turn into but people can cross the road. Those are also of some concern, too. There’s quite a few of them, maybe not in your area but on Highway No. 103. Bruce, do you have anything to add to that?
MR. FITZNER: No, just that I know we’re looking at a number of the projects on Highway No. 103 that we’re considering putting forward for the Building Canada plan. I guess we’re just working with the Treasury Board now to determine which ones are going to be going forward.
MR. LAFLECHE: I should emphasize - because there has been some discussion - I know he wants to get a question in quickly. We are not late on the Building Canada plan, nor is the federal government late. We’re proceeding according to schedule. These things take time, to get the projects up and going.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: Even to the point that I live on a flat intersection - the Belleville intersection - as you come off there, and it would be a tremendous concern to lose that, but hopefully there will be some better access if that is looked at sometime.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Ms. MacDonald, it is now your opportunity for 20 minutes.
HON. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Thank you. There aren’t very many bridges in Halifax Needham, I’m afraid, as Mr. LaFleche well knows, but I have a number of questions. First off, I’m puzzled in terms of the definition of a bridge and the difference between a bridge and, let’s say, an overpass. Is there a difference?
When you tell us about the number of bridges, are we talking about bridges over a body of water or other than that? Do we look at all of those structures that go over other than water? Are they included in that or not? Just to get some clarity around that.
MR. LAFLECHE: I was hoping you were going to ask about some of the structures and bridges in your riding, which is also where I live, but I guess we don’t have any, do we?
MS. MACDONALD: Well, actually, we have two of the largest bridges in the province, but they don’t come under your purview. Both the Macdonald and the MacKay bridges land in Halifax Needham, but you’re lucky - you don’t have to worry about those right now.
MR. LAFLECHE: Will Crocker will probably get into the definition. It is a tricky little definition, because I kept saying “bridges and structures,” and there was a reason for that.
MR. CROCKER: The 4,300 structures that we have include culvert structures, bridges and overpasses, and overhead sign structures. By definition, according to the bridge code, as well as the province, which has adopted that definition, a bridge is a structure which has a span of three metres or greater. When we talk about bridges, it could in fact be what most people would consider a culvert, but it is still a bridge structure. If it’s less than three metres, it’s no longer a bridge, and it falls under different responsibilities within the department. Overpasses and underpasses are both bridges, and are included in that number of structures.
MS. MACDONALD: That’s very helpful. I’m wondering if we could get a breakout, then, from that big number into the various categories. If you can’t provide that today, then maybe subsequent to being here you could provide that to the committee.
MR. CROCKER: We certainly can provide that breakout. It’s actually in the submissions that we have. There are different types of bridges, as well as different materials that they’re made out of. For example, within our inventory, about half of our bridges - 52 per cent - are timber bridges. Those are short-span or multiple short-span bridges made out of timber girders and usually a timber deck.
Roughly a quarter of our structures are concrete structures, and that would be concrete girders, concrete deck - and you’d likely see those more on trunks, routes, and highways. Then you have steel structures, which could encompass culvert structures, steel trusses, steel girder trusses - anything where the primary load-carrying members are made out of steel. If you want a more detailed breakout, we can certainly provide that.
MS. MACDONALD: Thank you. It sounds very complicated. The reality is that - I mean, you’ve indicated that the standard to which some bridges - I guess bridges generally - are being constructed today gives us a 75-year kind of lifespan and that’s predicated on the assumption that there would be good maintenance, I guess, going on.
What amount of money in our budget do we spend on maintaining and how has that been growing or not growing? At what rate has the maintenance of our infrastructure been conducted over the last little while, can you tell me that?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. LaFleche.
MR. LAFLECHE: We’re just getting the figures. Obviously it goes up and down according to need but we’ll get you the exact figures. If a bridge is in need of replacement we have to budget for it to be replaced, to ensure public safety.
We’re getting the figures - we have both a capital and an operating side to it. This year in the capital plan we announced - do you have it there? Okay, here’s the five-year capital forecast for bridges, and I’m going to round them off: in 2014-15 it was $37 million; in 2015-16, in the five-year plan we’re estimating $38 million; in 2016-17, $21 million; 2017-18, $23 million; 2018-19, $25 million; and 2019-20, which is an extra year out there, $25 million. Those are the capital program expenditures. They go up and down according to what’s in the five-year plan. So if there was an emergency, and for some reason we had a problem with a bridge and it was taken out of service and we needed desperately to replace it and it was a large structure, we would have to add it to the capital plan and adjust the capital plan as necessary.
Now in terms of maintenance, we spent $11 million basically in 2011-12 and $11 million in 2012-13, and that’s the operating cost. I don’t know if that’s sufficient detail for you.
MS. MACDONALD: It gives me some basic information but I guess one of the things that, as I read the various materials we were given, it occurs to me that what I’m being told is that quite often bridges require work due to unforeseen circumstances, weather being the primary one. With the concerns around climate change it seems to me that this will be an ongoing issue. Is that correct? Would it be correct to assume that the things that are happening in our climate have been having an impact and will continue to have an impact?
MR. LAFLECHE: I had an opportunity to hear Cindy Day speak at our annual conference a couple of weeks ago but I’m not an expert on meteorology so I can’t predict that. But maybe I can ask Will to tell you - has there been any difference in the climate issues?
MR. CROCKER: For any of our - well, I’ll back up a second. There are often unforeseen flooding circumstances, such as we saw in Meat Cove a few years ago where such a large event is unforeseen and bridges that were designed 50, 60, 70 years ago were not designed and built to the standard they are today. They were designed to the standard of the day but they didn’t foresee for these large flood events. I expect they will continue to occur and the department will respond accordingly, whenever they arise.
New construction for whenever we build a new bridge takes into account effects of scour; hydraulic opening, as was mentioned previously; and various other impacts that could partially be attributed at least to climate change. We’re moving forward on determining how we want to proceed with climate change, whether we’re going to increase what we’re doing today to better improve and ensure these bridges are around for the 75-year design life, but the whole aspect around climate change is somewhat unknown still.
MR. LAFLECHE: The Department of Environment leads the provincial climate change accommodation initiative, and we’re working very closely with them - as are other departments - to ensure that any effects of climate change are incorporated into our design and maintenance of highways, bridges and buildings in Nova Scotia.
As you know, there has been a series of programs put out - I think under your government - to help municipalities deal with the planning for the effects of climate change. Those results of any studies are incorporated into our thinking when we do planning for structures - one of the initial pilot areas was the Colchester-Truro area where we have had flooding issues - so we look at it very carefully.
The other side of the equation though is - as Mr. Crocker mentioned earlier - thanks to the research, we’re probably designing and building better bridges than we were 75 years ago or even 20 years ago, which are better able to withstand changes in climatic conditions and other events. That helps lower our maintenance costs, so it works both ways.
MS. MACDONALD: That’s very helpful. It does seem to me that this may be an ongoing problem where we have so many structures and so many of them are kind of culvert in their orientation.
How many bridges are being replaced this year and how many are being repaired that need to be repaired?
MR. LAFLECHE: We’re looking that up.
MR. CROCKER: We’re currently gathering the numbers that are actually on the replacement program, but each district identifies priorities for maintenance and rehabilitation. That could involve anything from replacement of a guardrail, re-decking a bridge, repairing girders, putting scour protection on structures. The number of those bridges ranges partially by the district in which they’re located, and work is involved and identified by the district engineer per year. That total number per year is going to vary, but there are over 100 bridges that get work every year and I’d hazard it’s closer to 150, but that’s not an exact number.
MR. LAFLECHE: We have bridge maintenance crews in each of our four districts. They’re out constantly maintaining and repairing bridges, which is - we still haven’t answered your question about how many new bridges.
MR. FITZNER: We’re just looking in the current edition of the five-year plan. We have 20 bridges this year that are under replacement or major capital rehabilitation.
MR. LAFLECHE: So Page 13 in the five-year plan. Every time we look at a bridge for replacement we decide - what are we going to do? Are we going to put the same thing in? Are we going to put in something different? Are we going to do something innovative? We recently replaced a bridge at Dr. Bernie MacDonald Drive in Bible Hill, and I think that was a fairly innovative replacement. Do you want to talk about that one?
MR. CROCKER: The bridge which he just mentioned - we’re actually using a new material that has been developed within Canada, and it’s actually being supplied by a local manufacturer. It’s a wood product, which is encompassed in essentially a type of fiberglass wrap, and the complete structure from the abutment walls to the girders to the deck are all fabricated out of this material. We’re going to evaluate this to see how well it performs, but in the long term, maybe that’s going to be another option for replacement on our new structure, short spans and whatnot.
MS. MACDONALD: Can you explain how a bridge gets prioritized to be on the list? I know there are parts of the province where residents have been waiting their turn for years and years, so I think it would be helpful to know what the process is or just what the criteria are for that to occur.
MR. FITZNER: We have a fairly robust inspection system, so one of the first things that we look at each year is the condition of the bridge, to determine which ones actually need something done sooner than later. Unfortunately, that generates quite a large list. We can’t manage it all in one year, so then we start to look at different things as far as what other access would be. If the bridge had to be downgraded or the loads changed, is there a reasonable detour involved that somebody could use in the short term? In the case of Indian Sluice, I mentioned earlier that there was no way on or off the island, so that wasn’t an option in that case.
We look at the classification of the road, so what’s the use of the bridge? Is it a bridge on a main artery, on a trunk or a route, is it on a local road, or is it on a semi-abandoned road? In those cases, even if the condition was very poor, we may defer the work on it and just post it or even close it. We look at the impact on the community and to local traffic.
Just to give an example of work we’re doing on the Stewiacke River bridges, we started to note that we were seeing some deterioration of what we call the superstructure. The top part of the bridge was getting progressively worse. We knew that we couldn’t afford to have a failure out on a main highway like that - that’s the main artery in and out of the capital of the province - so we had to get out ahead of that. Basically we had to put plans in place to replace both superstructures on those bridges. Because of the importance of that highway, the bridge work went much higher as a priority.
There are a number of factors. It’s not just one quick sort of assessment that you can make. It’s not just condition.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. LaFleche, do you have a comment?
MR. LAFLECHE: Yes, I do. I don’t want to ignore the members opposite. As you know, we sit down with every MLA every year. We go over all of their needs for both the roads and bridges, and they usually articulate on behalf of the community any of the concerns or issues that the community has or that we may have overlooked. There is input at that level also that goes into the process with the minister.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Ms. MacDonald.
MS. MACDONALD: How do you advise the community if a project that has been approved and planned is delayed? I’m thinking specifically about the Milton Bridge in Queens County. I think it was a bridge that was in the five-year plan to be replaced this year, but it has now being pushed forward another year, even after some safety concerns were highlighted by the department. Can you tell me a bit about that decision and how the community has been notified, and how you do that with communities that have expectations based on a plan?
MR. LAFLECHE: We don’t know about any delay, but maybe we’re not in the news. I’m looking up - I know I’m not allowed to do that, but I’m looking up there - does anybody up there know about this delay? There are no heads nodding. Will, could you tell us?
MR. CROCKER: From my understanding it has been delayed by a year. I’m not exactly sure of all the details of why the delay is for a year, but rest assured that engineering is underway, including hydraulic studies, geotechnical, and design work. I’m not sure what, if any, specific notifications have gone out publicly. That is something I’d have to look into again.
MR. LAFLECHE: I think I saw it. The engineer in charge seems to be somewhere here. We’ll get an answer to you on that separately, because we’d have to consult with that engineer.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Ms. MacDonald, you have about one minute left.
MS. MACDONALD: Okay, thanks very much. The last question I’ll take before our time is up for this round is, if you could tell me the status of the Sydney River Bridge and the estimated time to complete it and whether or not it’s on budget.
MR. PETER HACKETT: The Sydney River Bridge is well underway. We’re probably about, I would say, close to half if not two-thirds through that project. The schedule is looking like it will be completed on time, which is in December this year.
At the moment, we haven’t had any claims or change orders that would change the budget, so the project appears to be on budget at this time. Right now the status is - the abutments and the centre pier are all poured and I believe they’re getting ready to launch the girders some time later at the end of this month. That’s pretty much on schedule where they’d like to be. They may be a bit off a day here or a week there, but for the most part it’s supposed to be ready by December.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time has expired. We will now move to the Liberal caucus and Mr. Rankin.
MR. IAIN RANKIN: I think it’s helpful to understand, specifically for the HRM representatives on the committee, do you have the breakdown for the 4,300 bridges - do you know, give or take, how many of those bridges would be within HRM and outside?
MR. CROCKER: I do have the numbers, I just don’t have them with me. One thing to keep in mind is that the province within HRM looks after the highway structures that are on the provincial highways, and Halifax Regional Municipality would be responsible for their own municipal bridges that are on their streets and roads, but I can get those numbers for you.
MR. RANKIN: The reason I ask is because of the disparity between what Ontario does and what we do. I’m just wondering, if that’s not best practices, it’s certainly a precedent that we should be looking at.
Has there been any review of those shared services since 1995 with the original agreement with HRM? I ask that because in my riding, specifically, and I know in other ridings, I have a community that’s serviced by HRM for plowing and other issues. It’s basically right in the middle and then on each adjacent side it’s serviced by the province. So oftentimes we have provincial employees that go from one end to the other.
I’m just wondering from a logistical planning perspective if there’s any opportunity to devolve any of these to the municipalities - recognizing that municipalities have the same fiscal constraints we do. I’m actually looking at, is there an opportunity to use - you mentioned $11 million as an op ex figure that you used to maintain. I’m not saying that we would be stripped away of those responsibilities, but maybe there’s a better way to manage those funds and allow municipalities, if they’re better equipped to handle some of the bridges within their own communities, certainly from a plowing perspective, the communities within HRM that were serviced by HRM were serviced quickly - probably because they have a greater propensity, more staffing within the city to address these issues.
My question is specifically, do you see any ability for us to use HRM or other municipalities and provide them funding? Are they able to address bridges within their communities in a more efficient way?
MR. HACKETT: I think it was in 1995 or 1996, Agreement HRM-08, which is the agreement between the province and HRM, referring to bridge structures and cost sharing on bridge structures. There are several bridges within HRM that belong to HRM, and there are several bridges in HRM which belong to HRM and yet are cost shared by us or vice versa.
For those bridges, according to HRM-08, we basically cost share 100 per cent of the structure except for the riding surface, which is 50 per cent shared by HRM. I can’t go through the list and I don’t remember how many bridges that would be within HRM, but there are a fair number of those. That was sort of the document that was prepared in 1996 and that’s the document that we’ve run with.
We’ve tried on several occasions to move some bridges back to HRM, but because that’s the way the system was set up - and I’m not saying that we shouldn’t move forward in doing that with HRM or other municipalities, but because that’s the system that’s set up, HRM doesn’t have the staff or the inspection program that TIR has with regard to inspection and maintaining bridges. That’s basically why it is the way it is today and that’s the way the cost sharing basically runs out.
For all our bridges we have an inspection program. We have a fairly good-sized structural engineering division where HRM has never evolved much into that, they relied a lot on the province or consultants for a lot of their own work.
Many municipalities around the province do the same thing; we have cost-sharing agreements with them. We’ve had a few outliers, bridges that were undecided where they would sit so we’re trying to work with HRM to cost share or have them take those over. Pedestrian overpasses, for instance, that we own, we’re trying to get HRM to take some of those. As far as changing the model, we haven’t pursued that for that reason because to date, we’ve sort of embedded ourselves with a much more robust structural engineering program that HRM has or some of the municipalities have. Today that’s where it basically stays.
Now to get involved with the money transfer and that sort of thing, that would have to go back to Deputy Minister LaFleche.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Fitzner.
MR. FITZNER: I just wanted to mention that outside of HRM and the other municipalities, in 1994 during the municipal service exchange, it was originally anticipated that the local communities would have to take over the bridges that were what we called former cost-shared routes. That was proposed as something that would happen under the exchange but the municipalities in many cases, especially some of the rural ones, don’t have engineers on staff and they just felt that the logistics of managing and inspecting these bridges was too much. In many cases, then, we decided to keep inspecting those bridges on their behalf.
We have cost-sharing arrangements with them when work gets done; simply just based on the economies of scale we have staff in all areas of the province and are able to do that. In places like CBRM or HRM, they have their own staff. If they felt that there are certain bridges that would be better maintained by them or whatever, we certainly are open to those kinds of discussions.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Rankin, I think Mr. LaFleche has a comment.
MR. LAFLECHE: I want
to move to the broader question of the whole service exchange. It was really
implemented in the mid-1990s and you asked whether things had been looked at.
Well things have been grumbled about over the years but I’m not sure they have
been looked at. In the past 18 months, though, they have started to be looked
Mayor Dave Corkum, the mayor of Kentville, is chairing a task force between the government, the province, different departments and the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities. They are looking at all sorts of fiscal arrangements between towns, municipalities and the province, basically updating the original agreements from the mid-1990s. Part of that is a subgroup on roads and therefore structures and bridges. That group is working very diligently to see if there can be different arrangements, if the arrangements could be done more efficiently, and the question is exactly what you posed: who should be doing it from an efficiency point of view, et cetera? Mr. Fitzner talked about some of the concerns about expertise at the local level, so that’s one of the things we factor in, but also the whole issue of what you raised about the snowplow stopping or different levels of service. All of that is being looked at.
That subcommittee and committee of the whole are not quite ready to report. I had best leave that to the Minister of Municipal Affairs to deal with.
Just to answer your question, there is a lot of work ongoing at reviewing that original, now 20-year-old arrangement.
MR. RANKIN: I’m satisfied with that. It’s good that you’re looking at it. I think that’s exactly the purview of this committee, to look at those types of issues for efficiency within departments.
When you say that you’re already looking to consider what else to do with changing your approach to provincial infrastructure and you say, for example, is it necessary to keep all bridges that you currently have, are there any other examples? I just used shared services as one but is there any other example you can give as a change of your approach for PM practices or anything else?
MR. FITZNER: One of the things I think we’re looking at and we’re going to have to look at in the future, and the deputy alluded to it in his opening remarks, is our current inventory level of bridges and how many bridges could be considered redundant now. If we can reduce the amount that we have to maintain, then we can take that money and maintain those ones much better.
An example of that might be up in the chairman’s riding of Inverness on the Crowdis Bridge. We have the Margaree River; there are four different crossings of that Margaree River. The Crowdis Bridge got to a point where we had to close it. It has been closed now for a couple of years, but we consulted with the community and determined if there was one central bridge that we were going to have there that was going to be kept for the long term, the best location would be the Crowdis Bridge with the understanding being that when some of the other bridges upstream reach the end of their lives, our intention would be to close those bridges and the people use the Crowdis Bridge.
We’re starting to have those kinds of discussions with the community and I think when the time comes to close those other bridges, I’m sure there will be another discussion, but that’s sort of the intent. I think we have to start thinking that way; 4,300 is just too many and beyond the resources. We’ll have to downgrade, close some bridges and people will have to use other detours, which are considered - depending on the number of people - more of an inconvenience than a necessity.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Stroink.
MR. JOACHIM STROINK: Also being a Halifax member, there are very few bridges, but there is one I think that kind of falls under - maybe if you can walk me through the one on Quinpool Road. Who owns that bridge? You’ve got a big smile coming over there.
MR. CROCKER: I can’t really speak specifically to that situation. It doesn’t belong to the province - I’m sure of that. The question is whether it belongs to the railroad or HRM, I guess. Without getting into the specific situation in general, whoever was there first, it’s kind of the second person who crossed over who owns the bridge, but this specific situation I’m not specifically aware.
MR. STROINK: So just to be clear, the province doesn’t own it, but do we regulate the weight restrictions and all that kind of stuff and fine the people who maybe abuse the bridge with overweighting and stuff like that?
MR. CROCKER: The posting of the bridge and maintenance and operations - and in this case posting of the bridge - it all falls under the municipality. They were the ones responsible for posting the bridge and there are no provincial guidelines directing municipalities on how they manage their infrastructure for that type of situation.
MR. LAFLECHE: You raised a very important subject, which we could have talked about earlier, which is the whole thing of overweighting. When we get to how long a bridge will last and maintaining it, overweighting is one of the serious issues - or abusing, basically, the structure.
This Spring I had the opportunity to see a brand new chip-sealed road, and standing there, someone drove by with an overweight truck during Spring weight restrictions on a brand new chip seal and I knew right away that this was not a winning situation because the community had worked for years to get the road to the top of the list and get it chip-sealed and now someone’s ruining it with driving huge dump trucks down it.
The posted weight restrictions on a structure, and surveying those and making sure that they are abided by - that’s very important to the overall life of a structure and the use of it. I just wanted to bring that back to an earlier comment. I think this is probably the situation you’re alluding to here, but unfortunately it’s not ours.
MR. STROINK: I guess for me that was the definition of whose bridge it is because in the community there is a sense that it’s a provincially owned bridge with a dispute with CN, but by clarifying it here today, that helps me a lot. So thank you very much.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Ms. Miller.
MS. MARGARET MILLER: Thank you for your presentation. I also want to commend the department. As you said, you met with all the MLAs or a lot of the MLAs right away and identified problems in their areas. That was very helpful, I know, to myself.
Living in a rural area in Hants East we get calls every day and sometimes it’s all day about roads or bridges. It just doesn’t stop in our office, and where that goes is back to your department. It’s RCAs calling you and asking for clarification or information on roads or whatever. I just have to commend your staff because they’re doing an amazing job.
I couldn’t believe some of the snowstorms, some of the things going on in the winter, and it was handled so well. We weren’t even getting calls about snowstorms, which was wonderful, so I really want to commend you on that.
That said, with the bridges, I grew up over the Shubenacadie River, so we watched the construction of that bridge in the 1970s - I think it was late 1970s or early 1980s. We were farming then, so we were busy. I was really shocked at how fast the reconstruction has to be done now. Was this not well made at the time? Was it poor construction, or does it have something to do with the tidal river and what’s going on there, or the volume and the weight of the traffic on that road?
MR. CROCKER: I believe the bridge was constructed in 1978 or 1979 - late 1970s. So yes, the design life at the time would have been about 50 years, and we’re not really at that point yet. You bring up a good point. This particular structure had some inherent original design issues that contributed to the problems it is seeing today. Then that, combined with regular deterioration over years from the salt water, salt spray, and whatnot, contributed to a more urgent replacement, rather than letting it live out its original design life.
MS. MILLER: Another one that is in my area, that’s another large one, is the Gosse Bridge. I can remember when that was built, because the people of Hants East, if you were living in northern Hants East through Noel or Kennetcook or anywhere else, you had to travel to Shubenacadie to cross a bridge. It probably took an extra hour and 15 minutes to be able to cross the bridge there, versus having the bridge. So it was a huge addition to that.
Now, do you think there’s going to be any problem with the Gosse Bridge? Is that fairly maintenance-free? I haven’t seen a lot of work being done there. Has it been an issue?
MR. CROCKER: The Gosse Bridge is a very large, impressive bridge, a concrete box structure. I believe it’s identified on the capital program for some regular or additional maintenance of joints and riding surface and some other maintenance issues that need to be addressed, but it’s definitely a safe structure. There are no concerns with the load-carrying members or anything like that.
MS. MILLER: As you were saying earlier, the department has to start thinking about which bridges to continue to maintain. In a rural area where there’s a lot of ATV traffic - a lot of ATVs, snowmobiles, everything like that - the small bridges on a lot of those trails, are those part of your department? Do you include them in the conversations?
MR. FITZNER: A lot of the bridges that are on the trails aren’t really the responsibility of our department. That being said, we do work closely with some of those ATV groups. If they had concerns about the safety of a bridge, we would send an inspector to have a look at it. If we do anything, I think we’re going to have an impact on those groups. We try to consult with them so that they are aware of what is going to happen.
In some cases we’re able to accommodate ATV groups as part of the work we do. I guess the thing is that we try to work closely with them so they understand their issues, and then we can help where we can.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. LaFleche, do you have a comment?
MR. LAFLECHE: Yes, even though many of these are not our direct responsibility, we understand that it’s important for Nova Scotians to have recreational opportunities. We have been working very closely to not only provide them some technical assistance but also provide them used materials, as needed, so that they can, on their own, through volunteers - they do a very good job of upgrading and maintaining many of these structures.
Many of these structures are on old railroad lands or old abandoned roads, so they’re out of our purview. But we still want to ensure that they are safe, so we will help them in any way we can to keep them upgraded.
MS. MILLER: Thank you for that. Also, I’d just like to say that with the ATV trails and the snowmobiles, it’s a tourism opportunity as well for Nova Scotia. When you have that infrastructure there, you can have people come in and do some massive tours around the province. It’s really important, and thank you for your involvement with that.
With that, I’ll pass that to my colleague.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Ms. Treen, you have about one minute.
MS. JOYCE TREEN: Thank you for your presentation. I am in a riding that doesn’t have any provincial bridges or provincial roads, so all my questions get referred to the municipality, but I do have a question concerning the inspection of the bridges. How often are these bridges inspected, and do you feel you have enough inspectors to carry out this job?
MR. CROCKER: We have an inspection program which does a Level 1 inspection every year on all structures. That’s essentially a walk-around, making sure everything looks okay. Then on a regular basis, as identified in the submission documents, there is what’s called Level 2 inspection, which is a very detailed hands-on inspection done by our trained inspectors to look at any deterioration of the bridge structure and do a complete report for the structure. It’s based upon the MBI rating system as used in the United States.
We have district bridge engineers who review all those inspections to ensure that there are no public safety concerns and to identify any maintenance issues that may be . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. We will now move to the Progressive Conservative caucus for 14 minutes. Mr. d’Entremont.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: I was trying to figure out how I was going to transition from the nicey-nicey questions that I had earlier to the inspection issue that was brought up in an article by Michael Tutton of the Canadian Press. I want to thank Ms. Treen for transferring us over to inspections, because that’s exactly what that article is about.
In that article from Michael Tutton - just basically to quote a paragraph in here, “Partial results released for last year show that 3,950 bridge inspection reports were done, but 527 of those are incomplete, . . . Of those that are complete, 344 were ranked poor or worse.”
I know that you opened up this discussion talking about our bridges being safe, yet the inspection reports may be saying something different. Maybe I’ll give you an opportunity to talk about those ones.
MR. FITZNER: As I mentioned earlier, the condition of the bridge is one factor. So you can have a certain piece of a bridge in poor condition without the structural integrity of the bridge being compromised. The first thing is, where is the deterioration happening? If we do a report we say there may be a severe deterioration on the parapet wall or something along the side of the bridge. That in itself is not an inherent safety issue for someone passing over the bridge. It does mean that at some point we may have to do the guardrail a little bit better or something like that.
Each inspection report - you almost have to look at the bridge and the report together to have a full story of what the issues are. It’s hard to summarize it and say that because so many are in a poor condition, that in turn means that there are that many unsafe bridges. A number of the bridges that were referenced in that report were bridges that were basically on K-class abandoned roads and weren’t really being used by anybody anymore but ATVs and that type of thing. For that type of use, it was probably fine. It wouldn’t hold a tractor trailer, for sure, but it would be fine for what’s going on.
I think that the main point there is that you have to look at each bridge independently to make an assessment. If there is a concern about the safety of it, the department is very open. If somebody brings a request forward - he went through the FOIPOP process to get that information; that wouldn’t have been necessary. We would have turned that information over. We want the public to know the conditions of the bridge, and we’d gladly give a report out as soon as it’s asked. If somebody wants to see the report, I feel the public has a right to know that, and we’d be pleased to discuss any particular bridge and the condition of that bridge at any time.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: In that report it also says that 527 of those are incomplete. So that goes to the issue of how many inspectors do you have out there? What kind of work are they doing? Are they not able to do some of the report, or are they just not getting to the bridge in time? What does the “incomplete” piece mean?
MR. FITZNER: I’m not sure exactly what he referred to by saying that bridge inspections were incomplete. We have different levels of inspection, depending on the condition of the bridge. So a brand new bridge, once it has passed its original construction and been properly commissioned and we’re satisfied that it is built accordingly, at that point you wouldn’t expect to have any detailed inspections done on it for a few years, whereas one that we’ve had posted or we feel there’s a problem with, we re-inspect it more often. We’re trying to make sure that the resources are looking at the more critical structures.
I’m just looking at the records for 2013-14. We did 638 Level 2 inspections - we did 178 Level 2Vs and 1,904 Level 1 inspections. When they say an inspection isn’t finalized, I’m not sure what he means by “incomplete.”
MR. CROCKER: The numbers that Bruce just referred to are records which are currently in our SIS, which is Structure Information System. This is a computerized system that we’ve most recently implemented to record our inventory data, as well as record and manage our inspections. So when we’re talking about inspections that are not finalized, part of that is possibly faulty - there are a number of potential reasons for not finalizing inspections. It could be as easy as the inspector didn’t finalize them; it could be that the inspector wasn’t finished their inspection, and therefore within the system it wasn’t finalized; or it may have been that there are other technical issues, that it may have been implemented twice and they don’t want to finalize one because it would end up being a faulty record.
We’re working toward eliminating these non-finalized inspections in the future, to make sure that we have proper data and records within the SIS.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: Thank you for that. I think it does help explain that. Also in the report, and I think you alluded to it in either your opening remarks or in an answer to the questions, some of these bridges - and they can be anywhere, in those 344 that were listed here - or not necessarily listed, but 344 that were identified - that could be poor or worse, is there an opportunity to have a look at that list? You said you want to stay open and transparent with this, but is there such a list that would show us a listing of 344 bridges, whether they be highway bridges, major thoroughfares, or back-road bridges? Is there a list available to us?
MR. FITZNER: Yes, we would have that list available. We are able to produce a report from our system that would show you how many bridges in each type of category. That wouldn’t be a problem. Again, I would caution that, before people drew conclusions from those, if there was an individual bridge of concern, we should discuss it in a little more detail, just so it’s clear what the issues are.
The rating itself is not sufficient, I think, to assess the condition of the bridge. It’s one factor that we look at.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: You also alluded that sometimes the answer to some of these bridges is to close them. How many would you be - I guess “planning” is the wrong word - how many are out there that probably could take closing rather than fixing? Is there a listing of that?
MR. FITZNER: I think we have a little bit of information here. What we did - first of all, there’s no big plan right now to go out and close a lot of bridges. In view of the Ivany report and some of the challenges that the province faces, we’re starting to have a look at that as far as the size of our inventory and if there are ways that we can reduce it. Currently we’ve made a list. We have 67 bridges on abandoned roads, we have 74 bridges that would have less than a five-kilometre detour if they were closed, we have about 2,000 bridges on local roads, and we have approximately 57 bridges that have multiple water crossings within a short distance. So just looking at that list, you could make an assumption that there would be several hundred bridges that we would consider for closing at such time as the cost to maintain them became prohibitive. That decision would be looked at.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: If there is anything you can provide to the committee on some of those answers, it would be appreciated.
On a final issue, when we look at the total bridge construction budget, or bridge and structure budget, you could probably use a lot more money in order to maintain these things. How short are you in the need versus how much money you’re getting? Is it $100 million? Are you $150 million short? What real money could you be using to maintain the safety of these bridges?
MR. FITZNER: Basically this year we have about $35 million that’s going into bridge maintenance, replacement, and rehabilitation. We did a needs assessment several years ago, and we felt at that time that if we could spend $72 million a year for the next 25 years, that would put all of our bridges in fair to good condition.
We’re probably spending approximately half of what we need to be spending in that regard, but that’s not unique to bridge infrastructure. We have huge infrastructure requirements in the province. We’ve been building it for hundreds and hundreds of years, and a lot of it needs to be replaced and repaired.
What will likely happen is that we’ll have to increase the funding for bridges out of our overall envelope at some point, and we did that this year, in fact. We added an additional $10 million to address the bridges because they’re becoming more urgent.
MR. LAFLECHE: That does assume that we’re going to keep all the structures, as opposed to maybe devolving some of them away. It’s really a discussion of priorities. How much do Nova Scotians want to put into roads and bridges? How much do they want to put into bridges versus roads, and how many bridges do they need?
At some point, as Bruce Fitzner pointed out earlier, in the chairman’s riding we’ll come to a debate, and there will be a discussion on whether we need those three other bridges in addition to the Crowdis one. There will be a debate of priorities and where we’re spending our money, and a result will occur. A lot of that drives what is done. That’s a long way away.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: Just to finish up, the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal also has a number of other infrastructure issues that it needs to be looking at. We know the province probably maintains somewhere close to a $3 billion infrastructure deficit, when you add everything else into it - hospitals, schools, roads, other buildings. I think there’s a tremendous hill to climb on this one - pardon the pun - and I think how to address it is trying to eat a little bit of it at a time. Yet I think we’re quite short, and we’ll have to continue to push on the safety of many of these pieces of infrastructure. I want to thank them for being here today.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Is that the end of your questions? You have about one minute left.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: I’ll let Paul answer that question.
MR. LAFLECHE: I was just going to say that that’s a very astute comment by the member opposite. When he and I first joined Cabinet - and I think I joined as secretary and clerk around the same time that he joined as a minister; we were both slimmer, and we both had more hair - I think that year the provincial spending on tangible capital assets at the time, the total envelope, was $80 million, and now it’s $535 million. It has been over $500 million the last couple of years, and that’s only 10 years later, which is a lot more than inflation. So a lot of money by three different governments has gone into the capital side of the program and still there’s a challenge there. That’s a challenge that all of North America faces, it’s just part of where we are. Opportunities like the Building Canada Fund, which we have, help us because they add federal or other resource money to that challenge and that’s a good thing.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Mr. LaFleche. We’ll now move to the NDP caucus and Ms. MacDonald.
MS. MACDONALD: What I’m getting from what has been said here this morning is that we have more infrastructure than we can reasonably be expected to maintain and that you are, in fact, looking at devolving. When you say “devolving away” some of the bridges and the structures, I have two questions around that. In your opening comments you talked about how other provinces have devolved infrastructure responsibility to municipalities, so when you talk about what you’re looking at now and the need to have conversations with communities and local elected officials, should we literally take that as an idea to devolve responsibility for maintenance of some of these bridges to municipal government and local government and communities? Is that a policy conversation that you’re engaged in at the moment with the minister, for example?
MR. LAFLECHE: Well, that’s not really within our purview here. The Minister of Municipal Affairs is holding discussions with the municipalities, with the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities on all sorts of issues, basically looking at their fiscal situation. We’ve seen that some of them, particularly the towns, are challenged. We’ve seen some changes there coming.
Those discussions are always ongoing but in response to Mr. Rankin’s earlier question, I indicated that at this point in time we’ve had about an 18-month conversation on fiscal review with the municipalities. Part of that is road and structures. We also have conversations with the trails groups, the snowmobilers and the ATVers. They’ve done a great job of taking over not only ours but railroads and other infrastructure, and volunteers have ensured that some of those roads which we’ve really abandoned and the structures on them have been maintained for other groups, so that’s devolution.
I want to be careful because not everything is about not replacing, sometimes it’s devolution. But you can’t devolve to a group that has no fiscal capacity to maintain the structure, if you will, so we’re very careful in what we do and we’re very slow with it and we make recommendations to the elected members. The elected members then make some choices based on their discussions with communities.
MS. MACDONALD: Mr. Fitzner, you said there’s no big plan right now to go out or get out of some of the bridges but you’re clearly starting to have a look at this. You clearly have information that you’ve shared, the types of bridges on roads that have been abandoned, the types of bridges that are on local roads, the numbers, all of that kind of stuff. By the way, I’d ask if you would table a copy of that information that was read here.
If there’s no big plan right now, where are we in the process? How far along are we in the process to having that plan? Everything that has been said clearly alludes that we’re at a point where decisions will have to be made soon about the infrastructure we have that we can’t afford to maintain, the safety, the utility, and that kind of stuff.
I’m wondering, has this list of information gone to the minister? Is it at the Cabinet level? Is it at P and P? Where are we in the planning process?
MR. FITZNER: Basically, I guess where we are right now is that in the past, if a bridge that was being used by people got to the point that it had to be replaced, we had made a couple of attempts over the years to not replace it if we thought we had a compelling case for that, and I don’t think we’ve been successful in any case yet to do that and we ended up replacing the bridge.
I think in the spirit of the Ivany report, our thinking now is starting to come around that we need to have those conversations with people. So it won’t be like here’s a - you know we could look at the bridges and say here’s a 10-year plan of bridges that we’re going to close, it will be one of the factors that we look at now when a bridge gets to the point where normally we would start looking at replacing it, we’re going to ask that question, should we replace it. It will be more of a slow type of thing where as it happens, or it could be even a logging truck hits a bridge and takes it out of service. You know we used to automatically go back in and replace those bridges. We question now whether we should have replaced some of those bridges so that’s where it is.
I think it will be just a dialogue so we just did a little bit of number crunching just to see how many bridges we are talking about that we would even consider that and it’s several hundred. A bridge can cost anywhere from $300 million, in the case of Indian Sluice Bridge, $13 million or $14 million. Several hundred bridges is a significant amount of money if we had to replace them, so even that amount would be something that we’ll have to look at.
There’s nothing, no proposal has been put forward to anybody to say we’d like to not do anything more on these bridges.
MS. MACDONALD: So what you’re saying is that every one of these bridges, it will be a consideration whether or not this is a bridge that will be maintained, rebuilt or decommissioned, on a case-by-case basis, every one of them that’s on that list.
MR. LAFLECHE: I don’t want to give the idea that there’s no plan. The plan is, in fact, as Mr. Fitzner alluded to, for both bridges and roads to ensure that every time we do something there is that discussion, there is that consideration and there is a recommendation at the staff level.
For instance, on the road side - which is not the subject today but I’ll raise it as an example - every time we have a low-volume rural road for which there has been maybe some depopulation, it was paved maybe 35 years ago and maybe it shouldn’t have been paved, we automatically trigger the discussion, should the road be returned to gravel? Some of the members opposite have had that discussion with me and I felt the wrath at public meetings.
You have to have that discussion so there’s no great plan to take away everybody’s bridges or gravel their roads that used to be paved, but there is a discussion every time about priorities and what’s appropriate for Nova Scotians. I think that’s incumbent on us at the staff level to provide that basic information to the elected officials.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Hackett.
MR. HACKETT: Just one part to that, adding to what Bruce was saying, is that for all the money we put out this year in the capital program, the money is just not for replacement of structures, that’s new structures as well. So we’re adding new structures to our inventory so if we’re around 4,300 structures right now, we’re going to 4,300-plus.
Internally we were just looking at that option to say, well, we’re adding new twinned highways and new interchanges, or adding more inventory, adding more pressures to our operational costs and our maintenance costs, so this is one alternative. If we can find structures that would no longer suit our inventory or are no longer required, then that’s the option that we’re looking at. Those are discussions internally.
MS. MACDONALD: I think that for people around the province, especially in rural areas that call their MLA regularly about their concerns, there is a need for information transparency around this. I know that our responsibility and your responsibility, which we all take seriously, first is the safety question but I think there’s also the utility question. As a former Health Minister I think about EHS and all of the work that goes into making sure we have good coverage for our ambulance services for sure. In rural communities, that’s one of the things that people think about a lot - as someone whose mother lives in a rural community and as an elderly person, getting the ambulance services quickly into a community is important.
It seems now is the time to have conversations with communities and local officials. I’m confused by the different messages you’re giving because on the one hand you’re saying there is no plan, there are no bridges and what have you that have been identified, but at the same time you’re telling us that now is the time to do this - we have to do this.
What is it? Give us some clarity here on where the department is going around this basic problem, which is we have more infrastructure than we can financially maintain, and something has to give around that sooner or later. You’re the folks who have the responsibility to advise the minister on what that is. So what is the plan, to have a plan or to address this issue? I guess that’s what I need to know.
MR. FITZNER: I think the best way to put that is that anything that we are going to put forward now on the five-year plan, the first question that we’re going to ask before we put it forward is, do we still need this piece of infrastructure? Is it still a critical piece of infrastructure? If we didn’t have it anymore, what impact would it be? Would it be a minor impact or a major impact?
I think that is more the plan. It’s going to be part of the process now as opposed to us scoping out 4,300 bridges and saying in 20 years we’re not going to replace that. The plan is to put that analysis into our development of the program and so when we see cases where we think that we can reduce the inventory of bridges without significant impact to a community, we will be recommending to the minister that we not do that project and that we go out and consult with the community about why we’re not going to do it.
We would have to go through that process because, as you say, emergency care, fire department - where’s the fire department in relation to this? What kinds of impacts would that have? That’s the plan, to use that as part of our analysis and our process.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Ms. MacDonald, you have about one minute left.
MS. MACDONALD: I will give my time to the other caucus. I think that I’m still somewhat confused about how this is all going to work.
MR. CHAIRMAN: We’ll now move to the Liberal caucus and Ms. Eyking.
MS. PAM EYKING: Yes. There’s quite a bit of concern around the rail bridge in Iona-Grand Narrows of late. I’m just wondering how much of that infrastructure is incorporated into the car bridge - if you could speak to the status and the safety of the car bridge in Iona.
MR. CROCKER: I’m not specifically aware of the car bridge.
MS. EYKING: There is a rail bridge and it runs alongside of the car bridge. It’s a swinging bridge.
MR. CROCKER: The new bridge that was built in the early 1990s, I believe?
MS. EYKING: I think so, yes. I don’t know how much of the infrastructure is incorporated into the rail line. Is the deteriorating infrastructure affecting the swing bridge, the car bridge?
MR. CROCKER: The rail bridge is a truss bridge constructed, I believe, over 100 years ago. The automobile bridge is a steel girder bridge with a span to allow ship passage - completely different construction details, completely different materials. Even the strength of the steel would have been increased from that other bridge; improved concrete quality; improved foundations. There’s very little comparison that you can really make between the two structures other than they’re both bridges.
MS. EYKING: Also in regard to the Seal Island Bridge, every few years we get rumours swirling about its safety and as Mr. d’Entremont indicated earlier, you can drive over sometimes and see the ocean because the concrete is gone. I believe it is not put over the joints or it just crumbles away from the joints. Maybe that’s where the rumours start to swirl.
I understand you have two levels of inspection. I’m curious about getting down into the water where the first footings go - how often are they inspected?
MR. CROCKER: As you said, there are two levels of regular inspections, level one and level two. If our bridge inspectors are able, from the shore, to visually identify that there may be scour issues - that’s what you are referring to - on a particular bridge, then we’ll sometimes do a more in-depth investigation that could involve just simply wading out into the water, if it’s a small water course. With a larger water course, deeper ones, the bridge inspector would maybe engage a dive team to go under, visually inspect the pier or abutments to see if there are any concerns around scour, the condition of the channel underneath.
Then there’s also new technology which has been recently trialed in the province - a sonar inspection essentially doing the same process but from above, from a boat. You can actually get an image of what’s underneath the water. We’ve recently done a trial on that type of technology and we’re seeing what sort of results we can get from it.
MS. EYKING: I can only imagine that with this particular bridge, there’d be a great challenge to try and get down under it because of the current, it is extremely strong there. I guess my concern is, are the inspections being done regularly enough and thoroughly enough?
MR. CROCKER: For the Seal Island Bridge? They are done on a regular basis. There is no set interval. I’m not sure when the last one was done specifically on that structure. In general, if historically there had been one done that identified potential issues, those issues are either addressed or monitored. So if it is only being monitored, maybe we’ll return in a particular interval within a couple of years and do it again. That will ensure public safety until the specific issue can be addressed.
That specific bridge has a type of foundation which is founded on piled and concrete piers which are very robust against scour.
MS. EYKING: One other question in regard to the Seal Island Bridge and the speed limit. I find that it’s a very narrow bridge - you can’t walk over it and if two large trucks go by they have to be very careful with their timing when they pass. The westbound traffic comes flying down onto that bridge and it’s quite a turn there. I’m just wondering, who is in charge of the speed limits? Is it something that maybe should be reassessed? If you have an accident on that bridge it’s going to put it out for quite a while and it’s a very busy bridge.
MR. FITZNER: Probably approximately 10 years ago, we did a major deck replacement on the Seal Island Bridge because of the issues that you raised. There were chunks of old concrete that were starting to fall in the water. At that time on the Sydney approach to the bridge we knew that there was a bit of a sight distance issue there, it was hard to see coming around the corner who was coming. We peeled back the bank quite a bit there, just up where the highway shed is. We took the bank back quite a piece there so you could get a better visual around the corner.
Now I haven’t heard any issues recently but with respect to the speed limits and that, those would be controlled by our department, so if there was concern about the speed limits there we certainly can carry out a speed review at that area, just to determine what the issue might be.
MS. EYKING: Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Ms. Eyking. Are there any further questions from the Liberal caucus? Mr. Rankin.
MR. RANKIN: Just as a note - because I brought up the shared services part of the discussion - I do believe that the conversations are long overdue and I think it’s fair to say that it’s basically an iterative process from the department that has been going on for years now.
I think at the end of the day no one is advocating cost pressures going to the municipalities. It’s about efficiency, and at the end of the day it’s all the same taxpayer paying these things so it’s about trying to find the best way to go forward. Certainly I think there’s urgency when we have such a large deficit, as noted before by another member, of $3 billion. That’s certainly not sustainable in my eyes.
On the same vein as the fiscal and funding constraints that the department faces, I do like to see that you have the sponsorship partnership with Dalhousie University. I think all departments can learn from that as a best practice to conduct research. I’m just wondering - because we have so many universities and I appreciate that you’re doing that - is there any way that we can expand on that to ease some of the human capital cost pressures from the department? Is there any way that we can further utilize research from the universities - maybe further than Dalhousie or expand at Dalhousie University itself?
MR. LAFLECHE: Yes, the graduate work in structures engineering is all focused at Dalhousie or the University of New Brunswick in our neighbouring province. The other universities all have the two-year pre-engineering diploma where they then after year two would go for year three at Dalhousie in engineering to finish their bachelor degree. But all the graduate work and most of the research would be at Dalhousie.
In terms of the other universities, maybe some of the research work that they can do that can be helpful to us in general is more on the climate change side as they do have some expertise in that area.
Our partnership with Dalhousie is very critical and I was going to say in my closing statement - which I think I get somewhere soon, so I’ll say it now - is that if you can encourage your children and anyone you know to go to engineering school and not drop out of math and pursue a career in engineering, like I think all of us here have, that would be a great thing. We need to have a strong engineering school. I’ve worked for many years with Dean Leon since he came here to try to create a partnership, not only in the structures area, but in civil engineering and electrical engineering and computer engineering - all of the different areas that could benefit this province.
You’ve raised a very important point. We also work with the Transportation Association of Canada. I would be on the board of directors; Mr. Fitzner would be part of the chief engineers group. They do relevant engineering research work for Canada. They set a lot of the guidelines and standards that allow us to ensure that roads, bridges and structures are safe for Nova Scotians.
We’re always looking at that, but we always need more engineers, so anything any of you can do to encourage your own children to go to engineering school, I’ll be pleased to have a conversation with you. Mr. d’Entremont has some young children that I think are coming to the right age.
MR. RANKIN: I would just encourage you to further utilize and leverage the many universities we have because, as everyone knows, we have about 10 universities so we have more per capita than probably anywhere else in Canada. The large public sector we have, we need to try to utilize that resource. You can comment, and then I’ll go on to the next member in the caucus.
MR. LAFLECHE: I was going to say that we’re always looking for other sources of money that aren’t from the Nova Scotia taxpayer. One of those sources is federal. One of the areas that we can get federal money that is not divided up on a population basis, but is competitive, is in the research area - whether they’re research chairs or money from the granting councils or infrastructure money.
On a competitive basis, if our researchers are well supported and they’re competitive and they’re publishing well, they can get money from the federal government that would not otherwise come to us in Nova Scotia. That money could be on projects of great interest to us in the roads and bridges area, so we are always encouraging that.
MS. MILLER: Probably one of the final questions here - you were talking about the weight restrictions and you were talking about a chip-seal road with a gravel truck on it right away, you know and the weight restrictions on bridges. I wonder what the policy is. We had something happen in our community a couple of years ago where a huge boom truck hit a one-lane bridge and the abutments - it just ripped it apart and shut down the bridge. It was very necessary for that community.
Does the province automatically fix this or should this be part of the responsibility of that person or that business that has taken out the bridge?
MR. FITZNER: Any time that we have an accident like where, normally, a truck hits the structure, we try to recover the full costs of replacing that bridge from the insurance companies. Now as you can imagine, we have quite a fight on our hands and they argue that this was an old bridge, it wasn’t worth that much anymore. We argue that we can’t replace it with an old one, we have to replace it with a new one and this type of thing. We’re fairly successful in recovering money for those types of repairs, but it’s getting more challenging - the insurance companies are pushing back a lot harder now - so we’ll continue to do that, yes, and recover.
MS. MILLER: I would think that it would be certainly a message sent to these trucking companies that if they’re using the province’s infrastructure and being overweight and causing damage, then they’re going to be held liable for it, it’s certainly going to make sure that they follow the regulations.
MR. LAFLECHE: We have a whole operation that runs the scale houses and does the enforcement of weight restrictions and safety on vehicles, so we’re fairly vigilant in getting out there when we know about these things. In fact when I found out about this one, I immediately sent the inspectors down to find out what was happening.
We do go after them but again, we don’t know about them all because some of them are on rural roads and we may not be there and the local citizens may see something that we don’t.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Ms. Miller. Are there any further questions from the Liberal caucus? Ms. Treen.
MS. TREEN: How do you decide which road gets priority when it needs maintenance? Is there a formula?
MR. FITZNER: You are talking about the roads now instead of the bridge?
MS. TREEN: Sorry, I meant the bridge.
MR. FITZNER: Okay, which one gets priority? Our department is divided up into four districts and each district has a district bridge engineer and they have staff - inspectors and maintenance workers. What they do as they are carrying out their inspections each year, they would develop a list of two things; one is just maintenance repairs that they do themselves out in the district, or in some cases larger-scale capital repairs that are required. They would send in their prioritized list of what they feel are the most pressing capital needs. That comes in to us and we work with our structures group to look at what are the overall provincial priorities for that work. Then, depending on funding we have available in the capital program, we assign the projects to the extent that the funding allows. So that’s the process.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Time has expired, thank you. Mr. LaFleche, would you like to provide closing comments?
MR. LAFLECHE: I already provided half of them, the other half are that I’d like to thank - really on behalf of Nova Scotians - the staff we have, the bridge engineering crews that we have, our inspectors, they do a great job, it’s hard work. In many cases the maintenance is backbreaking but they’re out there every day all across Nova Scotia. You’ll see them at the side of the road and they do a good job. Also our design engineers, like Will, are working hard to ensure that our bridges are safe.
I will note that many times citizens of Nova Scotia will whiz by at one of our bridge crews working and the safety of those work people is of great importance to us, so if you could slow down and ensure that you respect their working environment, that would be good. In some cases we’ve had situations which have been a little dangerous for our work people but they’re trying to make sure that you are safe when you are going over a bridge. So slowing down when you see a work crew, particularly on the 100-Series Highways where people are going 110 and 115 kilometres an hour and maybe even more, it’s important to slow down when you see those work crews.
Thank you, members opposite. We’ll be available to follow up on some of the questions you provided here. Any further questions you would have, feel free to meet with any of us. We could also, if you have particular concerns - you or any members of the caucus - if you want to bring them to our attention and you need us to go out and look at something, just let us know. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you. Our committee clerk will be following up with you on some information that has been requested. Just briefly, there was a request for a breakdown of the 4,300 structures and a request for Milford Bridge delay. Also, there are 344 bridges identified in the report - can we have an opportunity to look at that list? There was a request for that. Finally, there was a request for the document that the department read from today - regarding the types of bridges, i.e. abandoned bridges - for that to be tabled. Again, our committee clerk will follow up with you on that.
MR. LAFLECHE: She’s 20 feet from my office now and she’s quite vicious about following up with me. (Laughter) I will want to point out that I had some advanced training sessions on not touching the button this time from the committee clerk and it seems to have worked out well. I went to Buttons Anonymous.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. LaFleche, I noticed a marked improvement today and I congratulate you. (Laughter) Thank you very much for coming here. It is certainly a topic that everyone is interested in. We do have some other committee business that we will continue with now.
I’d like to start, members, if you could look at the list of committee business. I think we’ll start with No. 8, the last one, then we’ll come back to No. 1. Item No. 8 was a discussion of the Auditor General’s recommendations from February 2014. There were two items in the past that we had come to an agreement on as a committee - the aim being to improve the implementation rate of recommendations actually accepted by the departments. Sometimes there are recommendations that are not accepted. Again, we just want to focus on those that are accepted.
There are two items here. One, Mr. Rankin, I believe you were going to introduce a motion on, and I would give you the opportunity to do that now.
MR. RANKIN: I move that the Public Accounts Committee formally accept and endorse recommendations contained in the May 2014 Auditor General’s Report, and ask that departments and agencies commit to and take responsibility for full and timely implementation of those recommendations they have accepted.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Would all those in favour of the motion please say Aye. Contrary minded, Nay.
The motion is carried.
As chairman, I certainly aim to be impartial, but I think we could all agree that improving the implementation rate is something that will be positive for everyone - certainly everybody who is working in government. I know in 2011 the rate of implementation of recommendations accepted by the departments was only 45 per cent. I think that’s something we can improve on and certainly that motion that we’ve just passed will help to formalize our intent as a committee of this Legislature to ensure that the departments recognize that we as a committee support this.
There is a second item as part of No. 8, and that is that our committee “. . . request that the Deputy Ministers Audit Committee assume responsibility for on-going monitoring and oversight of the implementation of auditor general recommendations, and take a proactive role in promoting full and timely implementation.” That is something that I will direct a letter as chairman to that committee to indicate, as it is something we have agreed to previously at this committee.
Dispensing with No. 8, we’ll move back to No. 1. This is simply to state - you all have a copy of the Auditor General’s Business Plan for 2014-15, so that’s something you can review.
The second item on the agenda - we have received requested information from the Department of Health and Wellness with regard to the meeting on April 9th about health administration costs. That information was provided to members. If you have any questions on that let us know, but you have that information now.
Item No. 3 - there was correspondence from the Office of the Auditor General with regard to the meeting on May 29th, public drinking water supply program. That information is tabled. That is dated June 4th and it is a letter stating that Mr. Porter had requested that the Auditor General’s Office provide the number of boil orders that were issued. That information is not available from the Auditor General but it can be obtained directly from the Department of Environment. That is something that should we choose - I think I remember that we discussed it that day as well. If that’s information that is requested from the department, that’s something we can address. I’ll speak to Mr. Porter on that directly and certainly share the information with all members of the committee.
The next item is more information that is tabled, this time from the Department of Labour and Advanced Education, regarding the meeting on April 23rd re Occupational Health and Safety - something for you to look at.
No. 5, I know we do have the Bluenose II restoration project coming before the committee next week for our final meeting before the summer break. It was a topic put forward by Ms. Lohnes-Croft to be discussed, to have them here as a witness. There was a recent announcement regarding the change of responsibility, it now rests with Deputy Minister David Darrow. If somebody wishes, they could amend the - Mr. d’Entremont.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: I think No. 6 sort of goes along the same run. There was a letter from Ms. MacFarlane, our MLA for Pictou West, stating that very thing, that it has now been transferred from Communities, Culture and Heritage, of course, to the Premier’s deputy minister, David Darrow.
I would like to move that Premier McNeil appear before the Public Accounts Committee on June 18th in the place of the officials from Communities, Culture and Heritage. I so move.
MR. RANKIN: I just want to comment on that because I think it’s important to say that it now rests with Deputy Minister David Darrow. We’re not opposed to having that particular deputy minister come in but certainly he just got that file and I’m sure you could appreciate that he doesn’t have the complex understanding of what has transpired over the course of the last number of months that we can get from Ms. Dean, which is exactly why we put forward the motion to have Ms. Dean come before the committee. That way we can get a full understanding of the file now and we’re going to get more information from her, so I’m going to be against that amendment to our initial motion.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Are there any other comments? Ms. MacDonald.
MS. MACDONALD: I wonder if we could amend the motion so that we bring in both of the deputies - the deputy who is currently on the file and the former deputy. In that way we will have the benefit of both of their work on this file.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. d’Entremont.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: I like the discussion here. Absolutely, I mean I was going to move to have the Premier here because he’s the guy who should be responding to it completely but in the absence of that, I did have a second motion ready asking for Mr. Darrow to come. But in light of that suggestion, I think that’s a good suggestion, as well, to have both deputies come in to have a discussion around this file.
I will change my motion to have Deputy Minister Darrow and Deputy Minister Dean to come in and talk about that restoration project.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Rankin.
MR. RANKIN: Again, I’d just like to say we’re not against having that deputy minister come in but I think we owe it to him to have at least a number of weeks to look at the file and get himself apprised of it. It has been given to him, not specifically to the Premier, so the Premier is giving Mr. Darrow the responsibility over this file and we do want to hear from him. At this time I think it’s appropriate that we have the person who was in charge of this file over the last number of months. I think that’s where we’re going to get the most pertinent details of what went wrong, and then we can go forward from there and seek solutions.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Rankin, to clarify your request, we have almost three motions going here. I want to be careful and make sure we treat everybody fairly. Mr. d’Entremont, you have a recommendation.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: I think my recommendation is that the first motion is to have Premier McNeil here, so let’s have a vote on that one. Then I’ll run the motion again and then they can vote against it if they want, once again. There are two motions.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Rankin, would that be acceptable, that we first have a motion on whether or not we would bring the Premier in as a witness?
MR. RANKIN: We can have that vote, yes.
MR. CHAIRMAN: So the motion on the floor is that Mr. d’Entremont has moved that the Premier attend as a witness for the Bluenose II meeting next week. Would all those in favour of the motion please say Aye. Contrary minded, Nay.
The motion is defeated.
The next motion that was put forth, Mr. d’Entremont, would you like to clarify?
MR. D’ENTREMONT: I move that Deputy Minister David Darrow, along with Deputy Minister Dean appear before the Public Accounts Committee on June 18th in place of the officials from the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The motion on the floor is that both Deputy Ministers Darrow and Dean appear next week as witnesses for the Bluenose II. Would all those in favour of the motion please say Aye. Contrary minded, Nay.
The motion is defeated.
Mr. Rankin, would you like to perhaps - just so we have it formally - propose either an amendment to the original motion put forward by Ms. Lohnes-Croft, or I think a new motion would accomplish the same thing, to clarify who we would like to appear as a witness for the Bluenose II next week?
MR. RANKIN: Yes, I think a new motion would be appropriate after we’ve heard from Ms. Dean and we can go forward from what the next steps are. Certainly there is going to be some correspondence from different departments over the course of time that it is given to Mr. Darrow. So I think after he has an opportunity to look at the file and take action on the file, we can have him sit before the committee and we can ask him any questions of what the next steps will be, and hopefully we can come to a good conclusion with this, that basically came from the prior government and we’re just trying to fix the situation that was given to our brand-new government.
The motion is to have Deputy Minister Darrow come before the Public Accounts Committee this Fall.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Ms. MacDonald, did you have a comment?
MS. MACDONALD: I have a question. I have no answer to this question and perhaps legal counsel can help us with this, but this is the question that I have. It’s about the appropriateness of this committee bringing in front of us a deputy minister in a department who is no longer responsible for a file. That has never happened. We routinely see changes in deputies, for example. In fact, on this file there would be deputies that precede Deputy Minister Dean that would have had this file, as well, for quite a significant period of time.
So the convention, as far as I know - not only for the Public Accounts Committee, but in our system - is to have the minister and the chief bureaucrat who is currently responsible assume all of the responsibility for a file. They don’t only assume responsibility for the bit from the day that they start; they, in fact, have the responsibility to account for, to understand, to explain what went on for the fullness of that file.
This is the concern - the question I have. I don’t really know that it’s appropriate to bring forward a previous deputy on a file. I think that in our system the current minister and the current deputy are the people who have the responsibility. I think that’s how our system works is my understanding of our system, but perhaps we can seek some clarity from our clerk or our legal counsel.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Ms. Boucher, is that something that you can provide a legal opinion on for the committee?
MS. ANNETTE BOUCHER: Mr. Chairman, what I can tell you at this point - and I don’t know how wholesome this will be but - Section 30 of the House of Assembly Act indicates that any committee of the House can compel the attendance of such persons as the “. . . committee deems necessary for any of its proceedings or deliberations.” It seems to me that it’s for the committee to decide as to whether a witness is necessary for the proceedings and deliberations that are ongoing before the committee. Having said that, it’s for the committee to decide and then to issue the requests for attendance.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you. Ms. MacDonald, I don’t know if you have any other comments - do you have another comment at this point?
MS. MACDONALD: So then the question, I think, becomes around the parameters of the Public Accounts Committee and the people we bring in as well, because saying that we have the legal authority under that section to bring anybody we want - I remember past members for example wanting OTANS, representatives from the offshore regulatory oil and gas group, to come in front of this committee. This isn’t what this committee does, we deal with public officials and government officials so I’m concerned about that section being so broad and being used in this regard to guide us in terms of what the conventions are. That’s all I would say.
I recognize the advice we’ve been given but I still have concerns about the convention of what it is we do and what this means for who has the responsibility to be accountable to the Legislature.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Ms. MacDonald. I know there are two people who would like to comment, just beginning in the order that they were received by the Chair: Mr. d’Entremont and then Mr. Rankin.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: Thank you very much. To be supportive of the member, I’ve been here for 11 years, I know the previous member has been here a little bit longer than that. We can go back and look at the precedents and the convention of many committees of this House and how things have worked. This is a bit of a stray off that convention, to have somebody who is no longer responsible for something come forward. I still would think that Deputy Minister Darrow, who now has that responsibility and in my mind that responsibility is all-encompassing, which means that he would be responsible to come here before the Public Accounts Committee to talk about it.
I know the governing Party is saying that they want him to get up to speed and all that. Well quite honestly, I think we’re all pretty much up to speed on what has been going on in the newspaper, I think we’re all up to speed with what we are hearing. It would be nice to have him fill in what the government is going to be doing about it. I think he is the only one who can actually provide us with that information.
Again, to be supportive of the precedents and the convention of this committee, to have the actual person who is responsible for it come here - I mean I’m not going to talk about a health issue and ask the Deputy Minister of Environment to come in and talk about it; that’s not how it works. If Deputy Minister Darrow is the responsible person, he should be the one who comes before this committee.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Mr. d’Entremont. Mr. Rankin.
MR. RANKIN: I appreciate those comments. I think it’s important when you’re talking about precedents - I’m certainly a new member but they are asking for a Premier to come before the committee and I don’t remember any Premier sitting over here, certainly when I’ve been here, and I don’t think Premier Dexter came to this committee and I don’t think the Premiers before that, so when you’re talking about convention I think okay, so you are talking about 15 years ago.
Again, you’re talking about this committee and the purview of this committee, it’s important that this committee analyzes what has happened and then goes forward with solutions. To pull someone in who just got a file a week ago and ask him questions about what happened, when he should be working on the file, I’d rather him on Wednesday look for a solution on this instead of having him here as an exercise in futility and start asking questions about something that he didn’t have any authority over.
I understand the Opposition’s point that they want to get this out there in the public view with this committee. But we want to make sure that we’re focused on the solutions, we want to make sure that we have the right deputy who was overseeing the file at the time that all this controversy was brought up. Then we can go forward, give the time to the new deputy minister to have a look at the file, find out what the next steps for this government are going to be. Then we’ll have him in here and have a more fruitful discussion in front of the public.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. d’Entremont.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: I do respect what the member is saying. As he knows, there was a second motion there to bring in the correct deputy, as much as it should be a Premier or a minister who comes in and answers these questions. Quite honestly, this is where the buck stops. This is the Public Accounts Committee that is to answer questions and provide detail to Nova Scotians. If we can’t bring the right deputy before this important committee, I’m questioning the decision making of this government. They should be bringing the correct deputy in.
What they’re saying is that deputy is too busy to come before the Nova Scotia public, which this committee represents. I think that is unacceptable from a governing Party to actually be saying something like that. It is no sweat off their brow to have that deputy come in and answer the questions as he is the member that is responsible for this file before this committee.
MS. MACDONALD: With all due respect to my colleague, the member for Timberlea-Prospect, I think it’s even worse than what Mr. d’Entremont has suggested. If what I’m hearing the member say is that the deputy minister who now has the file isn’t up to speed on that file yet - you know, decisions were made yesterday to rehire previous consultants at substantial public resources and surely the deputy oversaw that decision and was making it with the full knowledge of the file. So the idea that the most senior deputy - the deputy of deputies - needs more time to understand a file - if that’s the state we’re in, then we’re in big trouble.
I know Deputy Darrow, I have the greatest respect for him. He’s a very capable individual and there’s no doubt in my mind that he is very up to speed on this file. He doesn’t need more time to get up to speed. He would have great insight and information on this file and would be able to help us understand what has gone on because the deputies have been reporting to him all along on the big files, including this file, and where this file is going is up to him.
It seems to me that not only by convention is he the appropriate person to be bringing here, but in terms of just the reality of how things work and who he is and what his responsibilities are. I can’t imagine going out and telling the people of the province that we can’t have him because he’s not up to speed on the file. That would not be the message that I’m sure the Premier would want Nova Scotians to have. Maybe it is, but I wouldn’t be happy with that message.
MR. RANKIN: Just for clarification, no one is suggesting that he doesn’t know what’s happening with the project. What I’m suggesting is that he is going to have a whole lot more knowledge and information of the next steps because the file has just been officially placed over to him from the prior deputy minister. The prior government had this file before we did. The deputy minister that we want to call before the committee can give us a broad view of what went wrong. That’s what we really need to know, is what went wrong so we can move forward with the next steps.
To be 100 per cent clear, the government’s position on this is not to stop this deputy minister from coming forward to the Public Accounts Committee. We are going to do that. In fact, in the next subcommittee, I will suggest that will be the first item, the first witness that we call in September when we reconvene Public Accounts. I hope that the Opposition agrees with me that that would be beneficial to the committee. At that time we can go forward and I’d like to close the debate and put the motion on the floor.
MR. CHAIRMAN: There are three comments. I do respect your last point that this is something that should come and will need to come to a vote by the committee, so we will hear from the three members here and if you wish to comment one more time, Mr. Rankin, or somebody else, then I think we should bring it to a vote so that we’re not here all day. Mr. Wilson.
HON. DAVID WILSON: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Just brief and quick, I don’t think the argument that the government brings forward stands. As my colleague mentioned, Mr. Darrow oversees the deputies in the province and he has for a number of years and has been quite knowledgeable, I believe, in what has been going on with the file of the Bluenose II.
With respect to Deputy Minister Dean, who was just appointed herself to Communities, Culture and Heritage, she would not have had the exposure of this file that Mr. Darrow has had over the last four years. Ms. Dean recently was appointed to the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage, coming from the Public Service Commission, a very capable deputy but I believe if we want to get the most out of our next week’s meeting and not hold off and delay until September, it would be appropriate to have Deputy Minister Darrow attend.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Ms. MacDonald.
MS. MACDONALD: I defer, Mr. Wilson made my point.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. d’Entremont.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: The secondary point that I would make to Mr. Wilson’s comments is that sure, we have a meeting next week and I think that’s important with all the things that are transpiring with this file, to get answers to questions of the consultants and whether the rudder works and just going on and on. To wait until September, I think, is too far off to provide answers to Nova Scotians on this particular file.
Again, to support Deputy Minister Darrow, he would have been getting his updates all the way through. He still is, I think, amongst those two the most appropriate deputy to come before us. Short of that, bring both of them in, in order to provide us with the answers that we need and that Nova Scotians need. It’s not a difficult request here and I really don’t understand why the government members are holding this one up.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The motion put before the committee by Mr. Rankin is that Ms. Dean appear as the witness next week for the Bluenose II discussion. The second part of that motion is that Mr. Darrow appear in the Fall.
Typically the way we deal with future meetings is through the subcommittee. Mr. Rankin, would you be comfortable putting that portion of the motion forward in a few minutes, when we hold the subcommittee to set our agenda for September and onward?
MR. RANKIN: Yes, I’m comfortable with that. I just wanted to make it clear that we are willing to put that as the first item on the agenda and just that we appreciate that the Opposition recognizes that the decision is the right one to have him take over the file.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The motion before the floor is that Ms. Dean appear as a witness for the Bluenose II discussion next week.
Would all those in favour of the motion please say Aye. Contrary minded, Nay.
The motion is carried.
So Ms. Dean will appear next week as a witness and our committee clerk will ensure that she is made aware, so that she can be here to appear as a witness.
We have one final item for discussion, No. 7. You may have seen in the last couple of days a couple of letters that have been sent around by myself. The purpose of these letters was to follow up on a request of information by Ms. Lohnes-Croft at a May 7th meeting with the Department of Finance and Treasury Board. There was a piece of information that stated that it was not for the view of this committee and a legal opinion said otherwise, so a letter was directed to the Nova Scotia Pension Services Corporation to provide that information. The purpose of this is, of course, to provide information to the committee because one of our members asked for it and I think it’s important that if a member asks for information that they be provided with that information.
So unless there are any questions or any items for further discussion - seeing none, I will call close this meeting.
We will have a subcommittee in camera meeting to set agenda for the Fall. I believe we do have meetings set up for the entire month of September currently but the members on the subcommittee, if you will stay behind, we will commence that meeting immediately.
This meeting is adjourned. Thank you.
[The committee adjourned at 11:25 a.m.]