HALIFAX, TUESDAY, APRIL 13, 2021
COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON SUPPLY
THE CHAIR: Order, please. The Committee of the Whole on Supply will come to order.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. GEOFF MACLELLAN: Madam Chair, we will continue the Estimates of the Department of Finance and Treasury Board.
THE CHAIR: The honourable member for Cumberland North.
ELIZABETH SMITH-MCCROSSIN: Thank you to the minister for being willing to answer a few questions. I wonder if you’d be willing to talk to me a little bit about the Cobequid Pass, or formerly the Highway 104 Western Alignment Corporation. As you know, I’ve spoken about this in Question Period and in the House previously. The reason I have done so is because it’s important to the people I represent. People here, like the rest of Nova Scotians, pay gas tax, they pay personal income tax, corporate tax, their business, but those businesses that are exporting goods to both the Port of Halifax or to the Halifax Stanfield International Airport are paying an additional tax if their businesses just happen to be north of the Pass.
They have always felt like it’s an unfair tax to them here. As you know, it has been almost 25 years now that they’ve been paying that additional tax, and they still would like to see it removed. I’ve never been able to convince anyone in government since I’ve been elected why it’s important and why it’s an unfair tax on the people whom I represent in Cumberland North.
Looking specifically at the finances, you probably know all the history of the Highway 104 Western Alignment Corporation, so I won’t go over it all, but I did want to just bring up a couple of highlights. When you look at the yearly financial statements for the Western Alignment Corporation, back in the financial statements for the year ended March 31, 2015, it clearly stated in those financial statements - on Page 5, it says “The forecasted repayment date of all costs and liabilities related to the facilities in 2019.” That was the expectation.
The history with Cobequid Pass tolls is that more money was being brought in than initially forecasted. It’s a good thing. It was bringing in excess cash, and when John Hamm was Premier, he and his government took that extra revenue and they started paying down the debt early, which a lot of good business people would do. That’s how they would handle the books. You have extra revenue and you have debt, you take that extra revenue and you pay down your debt early if you’re able to do so.
That was the plan. Then, unfortunately, plans were changed. I have documents from back in 2016 when there was a change in the debt repayment schedule, which changed the debt repayments. Instead of being paid off as projected in those financial statements, it changed the debt repayment to 2026. It kind of took the air out of the hopes for the people in this area. They were looking forward to no longer having to pay that extra tax after 2019, and now we’re back to 2026, and even then still there has been no promise. There have been some comments about possibly removing the toll for residents of Nova Scotia but keeping it on for commercial vehicles, and again, I believe representing the businesses and people here in Cumberland North, that still unfairly taxes all the businesses, whether it’s people shipping their lobster to market, lumber, salt.
We have manufacturing. We have a lot of goods processed here. We have a lot of commodities coming out of Cumberland North that have to go through that Cobequid Pass. They’re legally not allowed to go through the Wentworth Valley, so they’re forced to pay that toll. They have no other option.
When you look at the most recent financials for 2020 that were posted March 31st - I had lots of discussions with people in the Department of Transportation and Active Transit. They’re all good people. I know that they love to get the cash that comes from the Cobequid Pass, but you have to remember, in the spirit of fairness, it is not fair for the people whom I represent.
When you look at the most recent financials that have been tabled for the Western Alignment Corporation, you’re looking at over $84 million sitting in restricted assets, and if you read under Note 6 what those restricted assets are for, it’s basically savings. They’re set aside for maintenance, for other costs pertaining, but basically cash sitting there. Eighty-four million dollars sitting there in addition to the current assets of cash and pre-paids and receivables. When you look at the long-term debt that’s left owing, it’s $24 million, so $84 million minus $24 million, you’re looking at a surplus of $60 million, and I know all the arguments around making sure that the cost to maintain the road until 2026, that that money is there for the province.
I know there are people who are hired to work at the Cobequid Pass. People are concerned about their jobs and I share that concern. I know there is more than enough money sitting in the corporation to retire that debt. I know there is a fine for paying off the debt early. No one wants to pay any fine, so if you want to just keep the payments until 2026, take the amount of cash that’s needed for those repayments but remove the tolls, that’s what I would like to see. I really believe it’s taking advantage of the people I represent, both residential citizens of Cumberland North as well as businesses.
I just wanted to share some of those numbers and some of the history on the Highway 104 Western Alignment Corporation and just ask the Minister of Finance and Treasury Board to show some compassion. I’m telling you right now the people in my area could use it. They are pretty devastated today to get the news that once again the border restrictions are put in place. They just feel pretty beaten down right now. They can’t go north and they feel separated from the rest of the province to the south due to that Cobequid Pass toll.
I am interested to see if the minister has any comments regarding Cobequid Pass.
THE CHAIR: Before I recognize the minister, I’ll just remind everyone to please direct your comments through the Chair and refrain from referring or talking to the minister as “you” or in the first person but stay in the third person.
The honourable Minister of Inclusive Economic Growth.
HON. LABI KOUSOULIS: Thank you for bringing up a really important issue during Estimates - anytime, really. As the member would know, I lived in Amherst in 1997 and that was right about when the toll came into place. There was a lot of excitement around it because it meant that we had the ability to not go through the Wentworth Valley, which at the time was called the Valley of Death.
I think we all agree that having that safe highway has just made a lot of benefits. Lives were saved. It has been a much easier transport of goods and services and it just shows the importance of having a really excellent, solid piece of infrastructure. I believe that section, in my opinion, is the best piece of highway we have in the province and a large part of that is the level at which it is maintained.
Now having lived there as well, I paid the toll on a weekly basis a few times a week, as I had to travel around quite a bit. I agree with the member 100 per cent that it felt like we were at a disadvantage. I do understand where the people from Cumberland and Colchester, as they use that, would feel that.
What I will say to the member is that I’ve always advocated, ever since I’ve been in government, for the full removal or reduction of that toll and I’ll continue to do so. We do have legislation in place. We have to pay off the debt, which at current rates runs to - I’m not sure of the exact year but it’s a couple of years in order to pay off the entire debt where the tolls would come off. I will speak with the Minister of Transportation and Active Transit. The highway is under their purview. I would bring it up, if I get a chance, during his Estimates as well, in terms of what we can do.
I agree with you in terms of fairness and equity that it would be great to have no tolls on not only our highways but even, if possible, on our ferries and that, but we know that it’s difficult to provide services and sometimes you have to pay for a service. I think the member has an ally in me and I’m more than happy to work with her and try to move this forward.
I have first-hand experience, which she would have using that as well, and I do have complete understanding of where she’s coming from.
ELIZABETH SMITH-MCCROSSIN: Thank you to the minister for his response. I certainly will be willing to bring it up with the Minister of Transportation and Active Transit. I have done so in the past and haven’t been met with the response that I was looking for on behalf of the people whom I represent.
I know that the minister has a finance background and understands financials and when you look at the financials for this corporation, the money is there. There’s ample money to retire that debt early and as I referenced, the financials from 2015 clearly stated that the liabilities were going to be retired, were on track to be retired by 2019, which legislatively would have required the government to remove the tolls.
Instead of doing that, the government in 2016 made a decision to reamortize the debt and change it back to 2026. When you look at how much money was actually borrowed to build the highway, $66.4 million, and you look at how much money has actually been brought in, gross revenue, I realize you have to look at net, but gross revenue since that toll was put in place has been over $350 million, which has been brought into this province, gross revenues, from the Cobequid Pass tolls. Amazing. And only $66.4 million was actually borrowed to build it. It’s about $5 million a year for operational expenses. It’s definitely something that I appreciate the minister being willing to take a closer look at and advocate on behalf of the people whom I represent.
I did have one other question. It is probably more directed to the minister with regard to the Inclusive Business Department rather than the Finance and Treasury Board Department. Does that matter, minister?
LABI KOUSOULIS: No, that would be fine. I’ve no problem at all.
ELIZABETH SMITH-MCCROSSIN: I would like to reference a letter that I believe the minister and his department would have received. It was sent on March 29th from the Cumberland Business Connector and if the minister doesn’t have it, I can make sure he is sent another copy of it.
As I referenced earlier in talking about Cobequid Pass, I mentioned just how difficult it’s been here in our border community since the state of emergency was declared on March 22nd of last year. It has been especially difficult for many reasons, but it’s been especially difficult on our business community. You know Amherst well, and you know that first exit coming into the province from New Brunswick and P.E.I., Exit 1, has been closed since March 23rd of last year.
In the letter that was sent to you by the Cumberland Business Connector, it actually shares some of the data that we were able to collect. In the year before the emergency was declared, 550,000 vehicles took Exit 1. Those vehicles would have gone to the Visitor Information Centre, LaPlanche Street businesses and also to the downtown business community. In the last year, we’ve had zero. So Exit 1 and our Laplanche Street businesses and downtown have gone from 550,000 vehicles per year to zero. The hardship on our business community has been devastating. Some businesses have lost between 20 per cent up to as high as 80 per cent of their customer base due to the border closures, the restrictions.
I know this government has given some financing and support to Halifax as well as Hants County for restaurants, small business impact grants, but the businesses in our border community that continue to be impacted by border restrictions have not received any financial support from the government. This letter sent from the Cumberland Business Connector is on behalf of our business community. I’m wondering if they would consider the request to provide some financial support to our border businesses.
LABI KOUSOULIS: Just for the member, I am more than happy to work with those businesses. All the programs that were brought out from the former Department of Business, currently Department of Inclusive Economic Growth, were province-wide.
There was just one program that was done in November which was geared towards the businesses that were forced to close down in the HRM region, but every other program, our reopening grants, and our tax measures that were taken, are all province‑wide. All those businesses in Amherst are eligible for all those programs as well.
I would be more than happy to connect those businesses in through the department to make sure that they get the funding that is available to them because it’s there. We want them to access it because we want them to get through this period and be viable and be operating for years to come.
ELIZABETH SMITH-MCCROSSIN: I know that our chamber of commerce and Business Connector did share all the provincial programs with our business community. I do think our business community has been hit much harder than other areas of the province due to the fact we have a functional economic…
THE CHAIR: Order, please. The time for the Progressive Conservative caucus has elapsed. I now move to the New Democratic Party caucus for one hour.
The honourable member for Dartmouth South.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I was just sending my nine‑year‑old a note. She told me she had just got home from school, and I said, well, you can watch Mama on TV, but it’s going to be pretty boring.
So I want to go back to Finance. I’m not sure if that’s the staff that the minister has at the moment.
THE CHAIR: Minister, what is the story with your staff right now? I can’t hear you for some reason. You are not on mute, but we can’t hear you.
LABI KOUSOULIS: Can you hear me?
THE CHAIR: Yes, now we can.
LABI KOUSOULIS: Finance is perfect.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Great. Thank you. In the December 2020 Report of the Auditor General, he suggested that Nova Scotians should ask the government when they can expect to see a plan for longer-term economic recovery, and so I am asking the government: When can we expect to see a plan for longer-term economic recovery?
LABI KOUSOULIS: In terms of a full economic plan or putting a board together, all our government ministers and deputy ministers right through the department have been working towards getting through this pandemic. If you take a look at every move we have made, it’s been supporting businesses that are mostly affected by it, but it has also been ensuring that we have good public health, which allows us to keep our economy open and moving forward.
Only two provinces across Canada have actually put in a long‑term economic recovery and they were Alberta and British Columbia. B.C. put one in primarily around their election, and Alberta put theirs in because of the adverse effects they face with oil.
Our plan moving forward is to ensure that we come out of the pandemic, and a large part of that is having the vaccine roll out as smoothly and as quickly as possible and having our economy move forward, which we’ve seen great positive signs of. Today we have more employment than we did a year ago, when the pandemic came onto our shores and we had a lot of businesses close down.
Moving forward, if we have good public health, if we roll out the vaccine, and get the herd immunity, we will be opening our economy, we will be back at full strength, and then we will be back to one of the strongest economies in Canada. So far, what we are seeing is supporting that, because out of every province in Canada, we have the second-highest employment gains. We’re back to where we were in terms of full employment last year. All our indicators are quite positive.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I’ll clarify my question. Interestingly, I would note, in response, the minister’s answer that we also have seen our oil and gas revenues - though much smaller - dry up and also seem to be on the cusp of an election. If those are the metrics by which we should find ourselves with a longer-term economic plan, it sounds like we’ve ticked those boxes.
I’m not asking for the plan. I’m just asking when we can expect to see one.
LABI KOUSOULIS: Again, good public health is the key to our success. We’ve seen, because of how well Nova Scotia has handled the pandemic, that we do not have the adverse effects on our economy that other provinces across the country had.
This morning, I had a conversation with one of my finance counterparts in another province and they were stating how envious they were of our budget and how our deficit was so much smaller than theirs. As long as we follow doctors’ orders and we have good public health, we’re moving out of the pandemic in great strength.
My mandate letter states that my duty moving forward is inclusive economic growth. I have the department concentrated on areas where we have inequity and areas where there’s higher unemployment. We’re looking at rural areas in Nova Scotia. We’re looking at minorities. We’re looking at under-represented groups within industries.
We’re making sure that we can all feel that we can all be part of the economy and we can all live to our greatest potential in terms of our careers.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Well, I won’t belabour the point other than to say that I hope that the minister’s answer doesn’t mean that he doesn’t intend to comply with the Auditor General and provide us with a longer-term economic forecast, notwithstanding our good standing in regard to other provinces.
Yesterday, I asked the minister about one of the federal funding streams made available during COVID-19. As we discussed, Nova Scotia has not accessed the full federal amount that the province was entitled to in supporting low wage workers. Our understanding is that there’s still $6 million left.
When it was announced that the Prime Minister said, “If you’re risking your health to keep this country moving and you’re making minimum wage, you deserve a raise,” not all minimum wage essential workers in all provinces received the top-up. The minister explained that the $6 million in remaining funds was due to the way this government defined essential workers.
I’d like to ask the minister if he can table the analysis that was used to decide which workers were eligible and which ones weren’t.
LABI KOUSOULIS: Just for clarification on the Auditor General Report, having a COVID-19 plan or a COVID-19 recovery plan was not a recommendation of the Auditor General - it was a notation. We’ve already responded to the Auditor General on that notation.
As for the analysis that was done, a certain amount of funding was put in place for Nova Scotia. The analysis was done from the Health Authority, so they could provide that information.
We went through all of the positions that we wanted the extra pay to go through and the role of Finance was to receive that funding from the federal government and distribute it through to our health authorities.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Newfoundland and Labrador use Public Safety Canada’s Guidance on Essential Services and Functions in Canada During the COVID-19 Pandemic to determine which professions would be eligible. They included health care, energy and utilities, information and communication technologies, food service such as employees in grocery stores, transportation such as taxi drivers, and a variety of others. Why was Nova Scotia’s definition so comparatively narrow?
LABI KOUSOULIS: The approach the Health Authority took on this was - and every province had a different approach in how they moved forward. Ours was based on risk of contraction of COVID-19. What it was was frontline workers, and we drove the top-up bonuses towards those individuals who were working directly with individuals or could contract the disease.
This process was laid out by the Department of Health and Wellness and they would have the analysis that was done for it: what it was, who was being impacted or who was on the front lines protecting Nova Scotians.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: With respect, I think there are a lot of workers who would argue that they fit that definition but were left out, which is why we are asking, but we will also direct that question to the Minister of Health and Wellness.
One example of that, though, is two workers at the Freedom Foundation of Nova Scotia in Dartmouth who moved into the house - it’s a transition house for men with addictions - isolated from their families, and worked 12-hour shifts for 67 days in a row, in order to keep the house open, which was of vital importance to the community and to the people they serve.
These frontline essential workers did not receive overtime pay and were not eligible for the essential workers benefit.
Is it possible now, given that there is still money in the fund, for government to expand the eligibility criteria to allow folks like this to qualify in order to make use of those remaining funds?
LABI KOUSOULIS: I’m not sure if those workers are government employees or not but if they are not receiving top-up wage, I would ask the member to please pass the information on. I’m surprised that any government employee who’s working overtime is not getting that pay.
From my understanding, that program closed quite a while ago - I believe back in the Summer. It was one of the earliest programs that was put out by the federal government. That program was one of the first ones. We’ve had multiple programs that we’ve been able to access since then and provide COVID-19 funding coming into the province. Most recently, we’re very pleased with one around extra funding for our health care.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Yesterday, I also asked the minister about the Nova Scotia COVID-19 Response Council at Dalhousie University. The minister said that the council was just a transactionary body and it wasn’t part of decision-making.
Then the minister went on to say that the council worked closely with the Council of Deputy Ministers and had the ability to make representations and recommendations to those folks. Can the minister provide a list of the people who were on this council?
LABI KOUSOULIS: The council includes the Dalhousie President, the Vice-President of Finance and Administration, Provost and Vice-President Academic.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: A couple of last questions on that. I want to go back again to one of my questions from yesterday and ask the minister to explain what reporting requirements government had in place with the council. Was there a mandate letter provided?
I believe maybe something was read yesterday. Were there roles and responsibilities in administering it? Was there after-the-fact reporting? I think I mentioned yesterday that we submitted a FOIPOP but couldn’t find any agenda or minutes for the meeting - anything that would suggest to us what the oversight and transparency of the administration of this fund was.
LABI KOUSOULIS: We did have an agreement in place and that agreement did state the role and objectives of the council. As well, when all the funds were disbursed out of each fund, a report was to be provided to government after the final disbursement.
What we’ve done with all of the disbursements we’ve received is we’ve listed them on the open data portal, so that is there for all Nova Scotians to be able to download and to take a look at all of the transactions that were done.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Is the minister able to table that agreement and/or the reports that were submitted by the council?
LABI KOUSOULIS: We’ve reviewed that agreement with Dalhousie. As with everything that goes out the door, there’s a protection of privacy and that lens has to be put on it. It’s a legislative requirement on our part.
In terms of the transactions, they are on the open data portal. There actually would be all data sets put there. If there were hundreds of transactions or thousands of transactions, they’d all be listed, so there would be a lot more information there that you could slice and dice on your computer as opposed to putting something in paper format.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I think those are our finance questions for this time, if the minister wanted to switch staff.
According to the most recent Canadian income survey data from Statistics Canada, 13.7 per cent of the population aged 18 to 64 in Nova Scotia has income below the poverty line. This was the second-highest in the country after Saskatchewan. The minister mentioned in our discussions yesterday that overall, incomes were higher in Nova Scotia last year due to impact of federal relief money, I think is the reasoning offered by the minister.
I would argue that we should be striving to do better than an economy where many people are engaged in low-paying, precarious work, and of course that’s what our caucus has been advocating for for a long time. Is the department doing any tracking or evaluation of the quality of jobs created in this province? This would be consistent with looking at the quality of life, as the new Premier has put forward. For example, how many are part time or casual, how many are in the minimum wage band, how many are above? Do statistics like that exist that the province is keeping track of?
LABI KOUSOULIS: We have a slew of information on that, and that actually is handled under the Department of Finance and Treasury Board with our economist, but with Statistics Canada we track age groups. There are just thousands and thousands of data sets. The member mentioned unemployment amongst youth, and that’s an area that has been a focus of our government for the last seven years. It’s one that had a concerted effort, and one that we’ve seen had great improvements.
Youth unemployment prior to COVID had dropped significantly, 30, 40 per cent approximately, and as well, we saw our youth for the first time in the last three years not leaving the province, and the last time that had happened was 1989. For the last three years, we were having a net influx of youth into the province, and it started with one year of just a couple of hundred, and the following year it was a few hundred more, and then by the third year it was up around 2,000 people.
At the height of our out-migration of youth, we were losing 7,000 youth a year, and that was around 2005, 2006. In order to keep our youth here, they’re not going to stay unless we have employment, and focusing on youth employment and making sure that there are jobs here, making sure that programs such as Graduate to Opportunity, innovation are there for new graduates. A big part as well was change in government’s hiring practices, where prior to 2013, every single job posted required two years’ experience, and that meant we were sending a loud and clear message to our youth: you’re not welcome in the government of Nova Scotia - go elsewhere, get some experience, come back when you have a couple of years experience.
That requirement was taken out and within three short years, over 2,000 youth were hired into the Public Service, and I can say that it re-energized the Public Service. Our results were much greater than before, and the feedback I got from our human resources professionals was that there was better job performance, because when you have an entry-level position, putting someone with great experience into that position does not yield the results, because they’re overqualified. Entry-level positions being filled by individuals who are new graduates - that individual grows with the position, gets the experience they need, and we had tremendous uplifting within our Public Service from that change. As well, with the diversity changes we had, it has just been a real rejuvenation across all departments that I’ve seen.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I thank the minister for that information. I didn’t actually reference youth unemployment in my question. The reference I made was to people aged 18 to 64, but I do appreciate that information. My question is: What is the department’s strategy for ensuring that jobs in Nova Scotia enable people to be above the poverty line? Again, 18 to 64, 13.7 per cent are living below the poverty line. How do we fix that? How do we ensure that people are not living below the poverty line and that the jobs being created and the jobs reflected on our statistics are genuinely available to all segments of the population as described in the Inclusive Economic Growth mandate letter?
LABI KOUSOULIS: Thank you for the clarification. I misunderstood previously.
This is a question more for Labour and Advanced Education, but I’m more than happy to discuss it after my few years there. A big part of how this is addressed is through skills and development. Labour and Advanced Education has many programs to increase an individual’s skills - more training, and with more training comes higher pay and moving up.
The other factor that influences income is lower unemployment. The lower unemployment rates get, individuals who historically pay lower wages will no longer find workers and we had, pre-COVID, seen for the few years prior to COVID coming into Nova Scotia, we saw that happening, where many employers were significantly increasing the compensation. I spoke yesterday about one employer who actually was providing daycare services to attract workers into their plant.
As we increase employment, this is something that we also had tracked and saw happening in Alberta. In Alberta, the unemployment rate was so low that to get a job at Tim Hortons you were being paid over $20 an hour, because if they weren’t paying the higher wages, no one was going to apply. So as we are recovering from the pandemic, as our unemployment rate continues to fall, one way that we can really help individuals is have a red hot labour market and with that labour market, it means employers are forced to pay more because they’re not going to find the labour. That is something that was happening. I look forward to it happening again.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Last week, the government announced the composition of the new Economic Growth Council. As the minister may know, our caucus has been calling for an economic recovery task force for quite some time now. In our version, this would have representatives from business and industry but also from environmental organizations, labour unions, African Nova Scotians, organizations, Mi’kmaw communities, colleges and universities, experts and MLAs from all Parties.
Given the narrow focus of this council on business - and certainly it’s an impressive council - but the focus is business and the name is Economic Growth. How is this council going to deliver on inclusive economic growth without participation from all of these core sectors of society whose input we would argue is essential for increased economic growth?
LABI KOUSOULIS: I completely agree with the member that boards and councils should be representative of the broader society. I have the individuals on it. We have males, we have females, a Mi’kmaq leader, and we have an individual from the African Nova Scotia community who is the Chief Operating Officer of the Nova Scotia Black Business Initiative.
One of the other aspects ‑ you know, it’s great to have representation of everyone we can. The council will be able to draw in individuals from other sectors, and this council will be providing advice to government. One glaring omission I did see is that there is no one Greek on it. So it is something that I think we should be able to add into it and I will be having a chat with the Premier about that, because having a council without a Greek on it, to me, is unheard of, but I’ll leave that for another day.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I am sure the minister can attend the meetings and fill that quota if he chooses.
I guess, just to follow up, I would like to ask the minister: Can the minister speak to how the members of that council were chosen, and can he provide the terms of reference for the council or a mandate letter?
LABI KOUSOULIS: This council was brought together with the Premier and with the Office of Strategy Management. Neither I nor the Department of Inclusive Economic Growth were part of choosing who is on the council.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: In terms of the terms of reference, did I ‑ I’m sorry, I may have missed that, or a mandate letter?
LABI KOUSOULIS: The news release talks about what the very high level objective is. I am not sure if the council has had an opportunity to meet yet or not, but as the council starts meeting, they will also be looking at how they are going to move forward, but in the newsletter, it talks about long‑term economic growth in the province.
The council, if anyone has a chance to look at the individuals list, there is a lot of experience there and a lot of diverse backgrounds. We’ll let the council do its work and provide the government with recommendations and advice in terms of a path for Nova Scotia in order for us and our children to succeed in the future.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Well, hopefully more details will be forthcoming.
Last Spring, there were significant shortages of PPE across the country and the federal and provincial governments encouraged Canadian companies to retool and, indeed, this happened all over to increase domestic production capacity. Stanfield’s here in Nova Scotia provided PPE to the federal government through a contract that ended in October. When the Nova Scotia company bid on the second round of contracts, they were unsuccessful. In fact, none of the nine PPE contracts that were awarded by the federal government in this round went to companies in Atlantic Canada.
Has the department had any conversations with the federal government about Atlantic Canadian suppliers being shut out of this round?
LABI KOUSOULIS: At the start of the pandemic, the government looked towards Deputy Fred Crooks to oversee our PPE supply to ensure that Nova Scotia was adequately prepared for the pandemic to make sure that we were going to be able to protect our frontline health workers and workers out in the field.
I’ve had conversations with Deputy Crooks and I know that he was talking to individual organizations all around the world on making sure we had the proper procurement of masks, gowns, shields, and visors. I know there were organizations in the early days that stepped up under a federal procurement to bid on it and that was one that Stanfield’s did as well.
The federal government opened up their procurement and I know that they have had other rounds of purchasing PPE. In the early days, the demand was very high because the entire world was looking at buying equipment and stockpiling it. I know in one conversation I’ve had with the Health Authority, we had over 4 million masks, which was almost a six-month supply. That meant that the anxiousness we had in purchasing masks at the start of the pandemic, where prices were sometimes triple, quadruple, fivefold over where they are today and where they were pre-pandemic, we don’t experience any more. So pricing did drop significantly and in terms of our organizations here on procuring matters with the federal government.
What I would say to Stanfield’s is reach out to any of the federal MPs if they can talk to their procurement people there. I know within the province, having been the minister for procurement at one point, it would be inappropriate for myself or a provincial individual to be questioning another level of government, whether it be federal or municipal, in terms of how they were procuring and putting force and pressure on them. I know in all my years of procurement, no federal or municipal level of government had ever questioned the Province of Nova Scotia in terms of its procurement as well.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I guess I will take the minister at his word but I have to confess that that’s a bit surprising to me. Procurement is a bit of a loaded process, so to hear that there has never been a comment on procurement processes from one order of government to another - I guess that’s the case but I would suggest that when you have a process that’s national and nine companies are chosen and none of them are from Atlantic Canada - in particular when we have such a venerable producer in Atlantic Canada, Stanfield’s - it doesn’t really have anything to do with the amount of supply we have or the pricing or any of that. We’re just talking about the fact that we have a local company that we would hope that the Department of Inclusive Economic Growth, as our champion for business, and our economic ecosystem, would be able to advocate, obviously in acceptable ways, for a local company to be able to supply local organizations and health care facilities and others with PPE.
To me, that is at the heart of inclusive economic growth, that we can all grow together and we can also make sure no one is left out but also start to be more self-sufficient in terms of what we need, so we have a factory here that redesigned its entire function to provide PPE that was overlooked by the federal government. I would hope that our Minister of Inclusive Economic Growth would at least be asking questions of his federal counterparts about that.
John Stanfield has about 300,000 medical gowns sitting unused in his Nova Scotia factory after the federal government decided to stop buying personal protective equipment from his company. Has the province reached out to them, not about procurement but about finding a buyer or purchasing them for use within our health care system? We may have a six-month supply but that will eventually run out. Has the province considered purchasing those for our own use?
LABI KOUSOULIS: I know the province during the pandemic was buying PPE equipment from Stanfield’s. I don’t have the specifics as to what equipment we were buying, but in terms of, as I said earlier, for me to push the federal government in terms of purchasing from a local company or from any company to do with that would not be appropriate. But in terms of Stanfield’s, during the pandemic and prior to them not being successful on an RFP with the federal government, we have been a customer of theirs and I’m pretty sure we would continue to be in the future. I had, at the time when this came out, initially expressed that I hoped Stanfield’s, through its contacts with the Health Authority, reaches out to them and is able to strike a price so that we are able to purchase those gowns as well.
I will point out that with all our procurement, there is what we call the fairness side of it where if we’re procuring equipment or if we’re procuring goods and services, that it has to be done in a fair and transparent manner where we put what the specs are and at that point we put what the quantity is and then we ask for bids and then we go with the price that is the lowest price meeting the specs.
At the end of the day, we have to be accountable to taxpayers and we have to be accountable to make sure that we are being prudent with their dollars and making sure that we’re driving that savings so that we can provide as much to stretch our dollars as far as we can.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I appreciate that answer, but with respect, I think it falls a little bit short. Absolutely we need to stretch our dollars and be responsible to taxpayers, but I would suggest that an inclusive economic strategy would also take into account local jobs and local producers and all of the external economic indicators that go into determining how and where you’re going to buy something. This is something our caucus has pushed for for a long time in the procurement realm.
I’m glad to hear the minister say that he’ll inquire with the Department of Health and Wellness about purchasing those gowns. I think that makes a lot of sense. I would also suggest that the department could support local companies at the front end, so not at the federal table or with another order of government. Here in Nova Scotia, are there things that the department is doing to help local companies be more competitive in a procurement environment, either provincially or federally?
LABI KOUSOULIS: Absolutely. The procurement department in the Province of Nova Scotia has something called Flextrack which is for smaller contracts, smaller consulting opportunities where you don’t go through the full procurement process. What I urge to every company in Nova Scotia is register your company on the procurement website, because any procurement will be pushed to you. You actually can tick the boxes of what your industry is and make sure that you’re broad, because every procurement that we do will be pushed out to you.
The one thing with procurement is it follows strict guidelines, so you have to fill everything in fully and you have to make sure you meet the deadline. If you’re one minute late, your envelope will not even be opened. This is all done with fairness in mind to make sure that we have a level playing field for all Nova Scotia companies.
THE CHAIR: Order, please. We will now take our 15-minute break. It is 4:03 and we will return at 4:18.
[4:03 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[4:19 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
THE CHAIR: Order, please. We will continue our questioning with the NDP caucus.
The honourable member for Dartmouth South.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: We know - and this again may be a question more suited to the Department of Labour and Advanced Education, but I think it’s worth asking here just for the purposes of understanding the Department of Inclusive Economic Growth strategy. We know that the fallout from the climate crisis will have wide and far-reaching impacts on both our environment and on our economy if the opportunity is not seized to get ahead of the crisis.
For example, we know that the agricultural industry, the fishery, the wine industry together represent over $1 billion of economic activity. They’re all threatened by droughts, floods, changing weather patterns, warming ocean temperatures, and extreme weather events, and we’ve been talking about that a fair amount this past year in the Chamber.
I’d like to ask the minister what analysis the department has done on the number of jobs and the sectors of the economy that are at risk due to climate change.
LABI KOUSOULIS: In terms of risks of climate change, that one could be done under our Department of Environment and Climate Change. One area that the Department of Inclusive Economic Growth has focused on is driving employment, especially opportunities that are out there in terms of addressing climate change and very much a large part of - if you look at strategic investments made in the new type of tomorrow’s jobs being around the IT sector, the Volta Labs, COVE, ocean technology, which is why government over the last few years has invested heavily in investments in and infrastructure around COVE and Sandbox at all our universities but has also provided funding in our Research Nova Scotia Trust which, when you look at the type of funding that goes to, it’s generally around jobs that are clean in nature or addressing climate change.
We’ve had many success stories here in Nova Scotia and if you look at our CarbonCure and other companies like that, we have many companies that have spawned from this. There are lots of opportunities in addressing climate change, but in terms of any significant impacts, that would be more geared towards the Department of Environment and Climate Change.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Before I ask a few more questions about the budget, I just wanted to ask a question about - there was a pretty robust discussion last day between the minister and my colleague in the Official Opposition around venture capital and the minister was saying he was a big fan of venture capital and the Finance Critic for the Official Opposition was agreeing and they were talking about how great venture capital was and the investment specifically in Sandpiper Ventures, which has been discussed in this Chamber and elsewhere.
I’ve also met with the principals at Sandpiper and I’m sure the minister is very aware of it and I want to express my hope that that particular fund, which is addressing the lack of women in the VC space, is successful. I also really want to ask, because I differ from my colleagues in one aspect, which is that I still fail to understand the proper role of provincial dollars in venture capital. VC is a part of our economic ecosystem and that’s great, but VCs don’t rank very high on things like well-being indexes, because when we talk about the big exits which the minister was referring to yesterday, those tend to quite definitively enrich a very small group of people, and often those exits are genuinely exits, so they’re exits into an entirely different location or economic centre.
I guess my question is: Given that this government has decided that it is a good use of our dollars to invest in venture capital funds, how are we leveraging those dollars? I did try to ask this question of Innovacorp when they were in committee. I didn’t get an answer that I understood, so I wonder if the minister can take a shot.
If we’re going to spend our money as seed money for venture capital, what do we get out of it? I’m not sure that the big exit has a big payoff for all Nova Scotians.
LABI KOUSOULIS: Within our ecosystem, there would be two types of investments. If we look at Innovacorp, they would actually do direct investments themselves directly into an organization or a start-up. What they would do is take an equity within that start-up. Then they would also work hand in hand, have a seat on the board, and work with management to ensure that that start-up has a greater chance of success. With a greater chance of success, we have a return on our investment there.
What we also do, and we have been doing this - our investments in venture capital for government are nothing new. They go all the way back to the 1990s, I believe. That was the first time that we made a specific investment into the IT sector through venture capital. It was a fund called, if memory serves me correctly, ECF. That fund was a $30 million fund that was investing in very high-risk start-ups.
The reason government does invest in those, especially in their infancy, is without government leading the way, the investments wouldn’t happen. That means we’d have no IT sector. We don’t have the maturity here that you’d see in Boston around venture capital, or you’d see in Silicon Valley, where government doesn’t have a role to play because there’s enough money that comes in from individuals and institutional money as well, where they are funding that area to get the return.
In the early infancy here, that money wasn’t going to be put in by individuals or institutions because they knew that the return could be zero but with no return, we don’t have our start-ups. With our start-ups, then we start gaining intellectual capital that is in the region. We’ve seen this happen over the last two decades here in Nova Scotia.
I wanted to add yesterday, and I thought of it afterwards, I think even as much as we celebrate the success of the businesses that succeed and have an exit, we should also be celebrating the ones that don’t. The amount of information an individual learns within those organizations is absolutely staggering.
The role with Innovacorp - they make direct investments in organizations. We have an investment in Sandpiper which is in this budget, so yes, that is going through. We also have locally an investment in Build Ventures whereby government putting a small investment in Build Ventures, the principals put their own money in and also leverage that money and bring in other investors.
In the early days, it was primarily government putting up almost all the money, but as time has gone on, we’ve been attracting more money in venture capital funding from others. A close friend of mine, Travis McDonough, had an exit with Kinduct. Prior to his exit, he was attracting most of his funding from Silicon Valley.
As we grow our ecosystem, we’re going to have an attraction to venture capital coming from outside the region which, over time, means that government has a smaller role to play. That’s great news because it shows that we’re maturing in the IT sector.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I had interaction with Kinduct in a former professional life. They’re certainly a success story.
I guess I’ll take from the minister’s comments that the leverage that the government is providing is the existence of a start-up ecosystem. If there’s more to it than that, that’s great. Obviously, as much as that investment - if the government’s decided that that’s the right place to spend our money, we’d love to see more ensuring that that investment stays here and benefits all Nova Scotians. We know VC is high-risk, so yes, the exits maybe will make money where we have an equity stake, but what else? That’s sort of what we’re looking for.
I have to say that I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I wish that there was some consistency in this approach. As I heard the minister saying if government doesn’t lead the way, we don’t have a start-up ecosystem. I think there are lots of other places, like housing, where if government doesn’t lead the way, we have a housing crisis, yet in those environments, to get government to invest $5 million is extremely difficult, whereas in a private sector environment, it seems to be much easier. So that’s a constant source of frustration, especially when the risk-reward, the ROI potential, is not proven, is not clear, is not automatic. We have no problem with the idea that we want to nurture a start-up ecosystem here, we’re just seeing some internal inconsistencies.
I want to move on to some questions about the budget specifically. In the book of Estimates and Supplementary Detail, as it is called, with this colourful cover, on Page 13.2, there is an increase of one FTE under the Funded Staff line. I’m wondering, is that a new position or a vacancy that has been filled?
LABI KOUSOULIS: Just to wrap up our conversation on Innovacorp. When it makes investments, they’re only investments in Nova Scotia companies. That’s its mandate. Currently, Innovacorp’s return on investment is 2.7 times, so for every dollar we’re putting in, government gets back $2.70. What they’ve seen - because they’re not the only investor in these local organizations, there are other venture capitalists investing from even outside the region and even outside the country - but what we’ve seen is that more than 70 per cent of the benefit stays in Nova Scotia. The fact that we’re getting 2.7 times return on our investment is huge.
The member mentioned about government leading the way in terms of not only venture capital in the tech industry but mimicking the same with affordable housing. I will point out that in HRM the province of Nova Scotia owns 10,000 apartments, which are rented out as affordable housing units as a percentage of income for seniors so that they can live within their means and ensure that they have a place to live that’s affordable for them. On top of them, there are many rent supplements. Those are all in this budget as well.
The last question was around the increase of one FTE. That’s an FTE that came over from the Department of Municipal Affairs for the RENs, and the RENs are the economic districts across the province. That individual was at Municipal Affairs and it’s a transfer of an FTE from that department into the Department of Inclusive Economic Growth.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: I wish we could go back and forth on that forever. I mean, this government hasn’t invested in the built environment of affordable housing in, I think, a couple of decades, maybe? Yes, the provincial government has a mandate for housing and therefore operates the affordable housing we do have, but the wait-list for those, I can tell you from my constituency office, is years and years long.
The ROI that the minister describes for venture capital is really similar to the ROI on investing in a universal child care program, so I say all of that just to point out that we have choices. We have choices.
I want to move to Page 13.5 of the budget. There’s a significant variation between the 2020-21 estimate, the 2020-21 forecast, and the 2021-22 estimate for Develop Nova Scotia, and I think this was a conversation a little bit last day, again, with my colleague in the Official Opposition. Can you explain the variations in those numbers?
LABI KOUSOULIS: What that amount is, last year there was an acceleration of infrastructure projects done under the COVE during the pandemic to keep our economy moving as best we could. Those projects were, to name a few of them: the Acadia wharf, the Zwicker building in Lunenburg and, as well, an expansion to COVE in Dartmouth.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thank you, and I will never criticize a project in Dartmouth South, so thank you for the investment in COVE. I’m sure we will see lots of wonderful things to come from that.
With a minute and 28 seconds left, I will just thank the minister for those answers around these few questions. I guess I would ask in particular with Develop Nova Scotia whether there are any other extraordinary projects coming up in the next few years as we look out, or will that line stay the same going forward?
LABI KOUSOULIS: Yes, a great question. Where Develop Nova Scotia has so many of our waterfront properties, including the Halifax Waterfront, a lot of their budget does tend to have larger fluctuations, depending on what infrastructure projects are coming up, so it’s not unusual to see their budget rising and falling in the few-million-dollar range year to year.
I don’t have at my fingertips what projects are there for this year, with the acceleration, that’s why we have seen a slight decrease. But that’s generally as they up investment infrastructure they do so. Thank you for the questions. Thanks, Madam Chair.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thank you, Madam Chair. I thank the minister for that answer and I look forward to asking a few more questions after my colleagues have had their opportunity.
THE CHAIR: Order, please. The time for the NDP caucus has elapsed. We will now move on to the Progressive Conservative caucus.
The honourable member for Dartmouth East.
TIM HALMAN: Thank you, Madam Chair. Through you, Madam Chair, good afternoon minister and staff. Just a few questions related to the hospitality industry, restaurants, and the price of lumber, the impact of that on residents of Nova Scotia.
I’d like to start my line of questioning to the minister on the restaurant sector, a sector that the minister is very familiar with. I’m certainly aware of the minister’s background. I know this is a sector he knows a lot about.
Madam Chair, the restaurants in Nova Scotia, restaurants in metro, have had significant struggles during the pandemic. Just in casual conversation with a restaurant owner you know that a lot of folks are concerned about their future.
Madam Chair, in the last five years we’ve seen exponential growth in the partnership between food businesses and delivery services like SkipTheDishes, Uber Eats, DoorDash, et cetera, and obviously we have situations, sometimes, where folks are saying to themselves that instead of ordering from restaurant X I’m just going to order from SkipTheDishes. We know that the pandemic has created more situations like that.
The use of those delivery services, they can be very costly to businesses, especially when they were going through a period when they didn’t have typical dine-in and walk-in customers because of the protocols. My question is this: What discussions have taken place with the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia to address these concerns, especially on third-party delivery fees?
LABI KOUSOULIS: I have had a few inquiries from restaurants in terms of the fees charged by SkipTheDishes and others. From what I have gathered, those fees, in some instances are as high as 30 per cent to 35 per cent. Different restaurants have dealt with them in different ways. I have had inquiries from various restaurants to look at them. It is on our radar here in the department, but I have also received some feedback from restaurants, how they have dealt with it. What some of them have done is create ghost kitchens, where they create a second or even sometimes a third or fourth concept out of their own kitchen. Because of that, they’re able to adjust their menu pricing because many times, the restaurants can offer a higher price on Skip than they can inside their restaurants. By creating a ghost kitchen and not having that menu available for dining in, they’re able to recoup as much as that 30 per cent cost or pass it on to the customer.
Myself, personally, I try to rarely use Skip. One thing that I try to do to support our restaurants is I’ll call them directly if I’m able to and order food and go and pick it up. That way I know they’re getting 100 per cent of the bill. They’re not having to lose 30 per cent or 35 per cent, which is a huge amount, to Skip. At the same time, they don’t have a choice because if they’re not on Skip, if they’re not on Uber Eats, they’re just going to lag behind their competitors, as the member pointed out, especially during COVID‑19 because a lot of times that was the only way they could get some revenue to keep the doors open.
It is an area where we will continue to have discussions with the industry and move forward as well. My hope is that in a short period of time, because we have seen other apps coming through, all it takes is an app to come through and disrupt the sector by offering lower fees. As restaurants move to it, others have to react. Where we do have two large competitors competing against each other, I’m hoping that we don’t require government intervention, which is the last thing we want, that the market and the demand works itself out, that we start seeing lower rates that are more in line with the restaurants.
I did also get some other feedback, which was that that 35 per cent is far cheaper than if I had to hire a driver, pay for the driver, pay for the overhead, pay for the mileage. The restaurants with lower volume wouldn’t have the ability to provide any delivery without having that service from Skip or from Uber.
TIM HALMAN: I certainly appreciate the minister’s analysis. It’s reassuring to hear that those conversations are transpiring and taking place with our restaurant sector. Certainly, 25 per cent to 35 per cent of the sale going to delivery, I think we’re agreed that that is unreasonably high. I think we can agree that certain restaurant owners are pushing back a little bit. Some are asking the government to intervene with a cap. In my research, most recently, the province of Quebec, the Quebec government, on March 11th introduced a bill to cap fees on third-party delivery apps. It has been capped at 15 per cent. In those ongoing discussions with the sector, is that on the table, to implement a cap, a reduction in third-party delivery fees, or does the minister hope that the market will correct this?
LABI KOUSOULIS: I have not closed the door on a legislated cap, but the industry is still very much in its infancy. I’m just waiting to see, to get more information behind. If Quebec does pass that and enacts that bill, we’ll also have some great feedback to see if there were any unintended consequences in their province by having a 15 per cent fee. If it’s a fee that drives that service out, then we will see how they respond to it, or see if the service remains and if it is still viable, as well.
Having other jurisdictions be first out of the gate is sometimes very much to our advantage. I do look forward to any jurisdictions that are looking at making changes. I have an open mind but at this point I don’t have enough data to know if I would want to bring forward and have a discussion on legislation or not.
TIM HALMAN: Certainly, it is good to hear, again, that those conversations are taking place, obviously, with an open mind on various policies. Certainly, the minister highlighting the fact that these ghost kitchens have emerged, it makes you realize to never underestimate how that entrepreneurial spirit can just create innovation out of necessity. You know, those kitchens emerged as a necessity for the economic well‑being and viability of the businesses.
Definitely, I encourage the department to keep an eye on that. I am certainly hearing from many residents in our community ‑ many entrepreneurs and restaurant owners - regarding that. I want to thank the minister for looking at that.
With respect to the hospitality sector: obviously, this is a sector, given the area which the minister represents. I know, as he knows, that this is one of the largest drivers for downtown Halifax, one of the largest economic drivers, specifically the mid to upper end full‑service hotels. No doubt the department is aware that they have been hit hard by the pandemic.
I would like to ask the minister: Can the minister clarify what the plans are to assist this sector to ensure they are able to bring back, especially, their furloughed work forces?
LABI KOUSOULIS: Just before I get to the hotel and accommodations sector, the member was talking about our entrepreneurs and how they have been adapting to COVID-19 and I completely agree. I’ve had many organizations that have actually been performing better during COVID-19 than they were pre‑COVID.
When I’ve been visiting various restaurants that I go to, I always tell them about programs that are available from the government and I urge them to apply. From a few of them I have actually had the response: My sales are higher this year than last year, which has been a great surprise. I have noticed it is primarily around our fast food industries and fast food sectors such as pizzerias and that. I also, at the same time, have come across more of our in‑dining restaurants that have experienced significant revenue drops.
You know, the entrepreneurial spirit has helped many, and others, with their entrepreneurial spirits, are getting through the pandemic. I look forward to seeing them get to the other end and return to full profitability.
With that, that’s what is going to help our accommodations sector get through this. They are one of the hardest hit sectors, along with our restaurants. It is why we’ve had two funding programs that provide cash flow directly into those hotels and motels and accommodations operators, a way to get money into their pockets based on their most recent tax bill.
What we did is we put together a 50 per cent grant based on their most recent tax bill, and there was no cap on that. Many hotels have very large tax bills, especially in the downtown core, and they would have received a significant injection of a grant into their businesses and hopefully that helps them. That was done on two occasions, recognizing that they were very adversely affected during COVID-19. The best way we can help them is to get to herd immunity, get the vaccine rolled out, and get our province reopened again and get tourists coming and staying in those establishments. As much as we’re giving this funding, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the revenues that they’re down.
Although they’re accessing programs such as the wage top-up from the federal government, many of them are still adversely affected. I understand the stress that they’re feeling, of needing to get to the end of the tunnel. It feels as though we’re almost there and I look forward for all of us to get there together.
TIM HALMAN: Exactly to the minister’s point, especially once we meet that herd immunity and the epidemiology allows for it, as the minister is fully aware, these conference businesses that are hosted by our hotels - wow, they’re a huge, huge force that drives the downtown economy. Just putting my entrepreneurial hat on, you can just anticipate other jurisdictions in the Maritimes - New Brunswick and P.E.I. - they’re going to be, if the epidemiology allows it and we have that herd immunity, there’s going to be a desire to get these conferences to the various hotels.
To that end, are there incentives? What innovation is being worked on to try to assist to track that to the downtown core? I expect they’re going to have other provinces perhaps offering incentives to this sector. Are we going to be able to be competitive, that’s the question.
LABI KOUSOULIS: Our tourism operators - Events East, TIANS, Discover Halifax - they are working together and they’re looking at events that they can attract here that would be able to follow Public Health. This has been ongoing, this collaboration. We have a major event coming here, and that’s the benefit in Atlantic Canada of being the largest urban centre. We have the Women’s World Hockey Championship coming in May, which is going to be a major event that should be a boost to our hotels in all of HRM. I look forward to that event. It will be some world-class hockey and I know Nova Scotians will be excited and stampeding to get there as fast as they can to watch it and, hopefully, at the same time, filling our hotel rooms up downtown.
TIM HALMAN: My final question to the minister. In the last few weeks I’ve received a number of correspondences from my residents with respect to lumber prices. The area of Dartmouth East that I represent is very suburban and obviously people are looking into doing renovations, maybe putting on a front deck, a back deck. I’ve seen an increase in this correspondence and when it comes to repairs around the house, like a deck or a shed, the cost, as the minister knows, is substantially higher. I couldn’t imagine building a house now just given the nature of these prices. I have people in my community telling me that they may want to repair something, but they are seriously giving it second thought. You think of the ramifications of that as an obstacle to those repairs, which is a major form of economic growth.
Lumber prices are very high. In 2015, a two-by-four-by-eight was $5.50. Now it is $14 a piece and a sheet of plywood has nearly doubled since then. It is affecting people’s bottom lines, as everyone has to eventually get repairs done on their properties. This stops beautification and upgrade projects, which, in essence affects taxation dollars coming in, et cetera. Assessments don’t go up, sometimes, as a result. Fewer building permits are issued, et cetera.
The question I’m hearing from residents is, is this something the government is looking into, or is this something that we just need to wait for the market to correct itself?
LABI KOUSOULIS: Yes, it’s a huge concern because it’s driving our costs up not only for doing a small renovation but any of our new builds are going up as well, which is going to exacerbate the problem we have around affordable housing, so it’s very concerning. I can actually remember back in 2002 when the two-by-four-by-eight was 99 cents. They called them econo studs, so being at $15 is just - and to build a house with those costs would drive your costs through the roof - no pun intended.
Currently, we’re not a major producer of lumber in the province but I think what it is is an opportunity, through the Department of Lands and Forestry, to look at our lumberyards. I know we used to have some small producers that produced two-by-fours and other sizes, two-by-six pieces of lumber. I think it’s an opportunity for the entrepreneurs in our province in that industry to look at the machinery they have or have access to that they can start producing this because it is a way for that industry to have a larger margin. Before, if producing that product was not cost-effective, with the way the prices have doubled and tripled in the last year, I think many of them would find that they would find profitability.
It’s a great question. I think it’s one that we need our experts at Forestry, who know what the organizations are and the players in that field, to have a look and engage. I am going to reach out to the minister and tell him that we’re here as well. We have many programs, especially large capital investments, that will provide tax credits if someone is making an investment. If we can produce our own wood, enough to provide lumber for what Nova Scotians need, I think that would be great. With what is happening in the world, though, I don’t think it would reduce the prices, because the demand is high everywhere and that company would have the choice of selling it locally or shipping it elsewhere. This price increase is not only in our area, it is across all of North America.
With that, until the demand drops, the price will remain high, but I think with the pent-up demand we’re seeing, we’re going to have some pretty good demand going into the foreseeable future.
TIM HALMAN: Madam Chair, and through you, thank you, minister, for your time. I yield the remainder of my time to my colleague in the NDP caucus, the MLA for Dartmouth South.
THE CHAIR: The honourable member for Dartmouth South.
CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thank you, Madam Chair, and I, in turn, will yield my time to the member for Cape Breton-Richmond, until about 5:14 p.m., so the minister will have time to read his resolution.
THE CHAIR: The honourable member for Cape Breton-Richmond, with about 14 minutes, please.
ALANA PAON: Thank you, Madam Chair. I always like to make certain that my microphone is working correctly, yes?
THE CHAIR: Yes, it is.
ALANA PAON: Thank you, Madam Chair, and I thank the member for ceding some of her time to me so that I can ask questions to the minister.
Minister, I’m going to bring us back a little ways here, and make reference to a matter that happened in 2010, which was the Nova Scotia parliamentary expense scandal. I’m sure many of us remember at the time, whether we were sitting in our chairs then or not, it caused, basically, a lot of things to be changed within government in the way that some of the caucus offices, or all the caucus offices, were to be able to take care of their expenses and make certain that their expenses were, from that point forward, placed online so that the general public would be able to review the expenses in order for government to be more accountable and transparent to the people of Nova Scotia.
At that time, as well, as I understand, the MLAs moved to having to purchase many products for their constituency offices in advance. I mean, when you have a constituency office budget of almost $70,000, purchasing many things in advance can be a bit burdensome for those newly elected MLAs or MLAs who, perhaps, were not expecting that. I’m going to tell you, I was one of the ones who were not told in advance that I had better have access to a hefty line of credit before I came into this role.
I know we’ve discussed this within the women’s caucus. This was quite a few years ago and there has been really no discussion of it since then.
One question would be: Does the minister feel that it is equitable for new MLAs, who sometimes have to completely kit out their offices, as I did - I was left, basically, from the previous MLA, with a box of broken technology and a space heater. That was an incomplete office that I had to find and furnish with both computers, obviously, and furniture.
For those people who are wanting to get involved in politics, who don’t have deep pockets, we should have the accessibility for anyone to be able to run for politics and not feel as though they’re being put in a financial pinch when they get into their seat.
Does the minister feel that it’s equitable for new members to have to - well, are not being told, basically, that they’d better have these resources available to them, and does he think that something should change there to be able to make it more equitable for those people who are coming into this position, so that they don’t have to be taking money out of their own lines of credit or have a savings account that they need to use to be able to buy things for a provincial constituency office?
LABI KOUSOULIS: I’ll answer based on my personal belief, but this would be a question that would be under the purview of the Speaker. Anything to do around compensation - or, not compensation - but anything to do around our expenses is under the House management account committee. That is all done under the Speaker’s Office.
Me, personally speaking, great question. I think any time we can work together to reduce barriers to allow individuals to run for office, I believe that we should be looking at any ways we can do that. If one barrier is funding for initial start-up on our offices and someone has a hardship, I think the government should have a - well, the Speaker’s Office - should have some flexibility that they’d be able to purchase on behalf of the member.
I know that - I’m thinking back to when I was elected. I was elected after that expense scandal. I was elected in 2013.
I know we have the ability to purchase our technology, our computers, our cellphones through government so we don’t have to outlay our own money. As the member had stated, as MLAs, we have to buy our own paper, buy our own other office supplies, pay for our advertising, and then we put in for our expense reports and are reimbursed.
Yes, I would agree if there’s a different way of doing it - I know in my expenses, I’ve done as many as I could where I sign off on them, send them to the Speaker’s Office, and they get paid directly, like some of my utilities and parking, where I have an office in downtown Halifax and I have a parking spot. There is some flexibility for us to keep as much expense paid by the Speaker’s Office. My rent is another example. My photocopier, which I also procured through government, is another example where, before, I’d have to buy ink, toner, and pay for service contracts. Now I just sign off on my usage every month and that gets expensed.
Hopefully, I was able to answer that enough with my experience as an MLA, but if we had changes, that would be through the Speaker’s Office, that we’d make collectively.
ALANA PAON: As much as I can appreciate that, the constituency budget for each MLA is administered through the Speaker’s administration. Ultimately, the monies that are being given towards the constituency offices come through the Department of Finance and Treasury Board, so this is why I was putting the question forward to the minister.
My second question - and I know the minister will likely say, again, it’s under the purview of the Speaker’s Office to administer these funds, but these are important questions and they really have to do with transparency and accountability.
I think if I had not been removed from caucus and put in this position as an Independent MLA, I likely would never have actually checked the rules around how caucus expenses are dealt with on a monthly basis. I find myself in this unique position of being an Independent and having a Halifax office, which I guess would be my equivalent of a caucus office, but not having my own budget for that caucus office.
There is nothing within the regulations that state that an Independent member has a certain proportional percentage of the base amount that’s given to the political Parties, and there’s no supplementary amount which - each MLA that’s elected into the Legislature has access to $43,405.98 per year, to be exact. That is paid directly to the caucus offices.
I also don’t have access to that, because I don’t have a budget per se for my office in Halifax, and yet I still need an office in Halifax. I’m an outside member. When I come and work here during the legislative sitting and when I’m coming in during the week for meetings and so forth, it’s nice not to have to work on your lap. I appreciate having an office. I would really appreciate having a budget that I would know what I can buy and not buy.
What really concerns me is the lack of transparency around caucus office expenses. The reason why I’m asking the minister is because the money is coming directly from Finance and Treasury Board. Each caucus office is given $440,648.06, to be exact, because we’re rounding that up five cents nowadays. That’s base, each political Party gets that. Then for each MLA that is within that caucus, they get $43,405.98.
When I’m looking - and I did all the calculations here - we’re looking at almost $3.5 million that are going towards political Party offices on a yearly basis. Since I’ve been elected in 2017, it would be almost $14 million over the last four years. I’m asking the minister because I’m being told that the information is not available anywhere to be seen. How do we know exactly what this money, this almost $3.5 million a year that’s being given to political Party caucuses, how does the public know where that money is being spent?
LABI KOUSOULIS: Just for clarification, Finance actually does not approve or send the money to caucuses or to political Parties. What happens is, now we’re doing it through the budget process. That funding comes from an appropriation of the Legislature, so all of us in the Legislature approve that amount. I will also pass to the member - my understanding, and I could be wrong on this. I’m going back to reading the manual back in 2013, but my understanding was, as you had mentioned, there was about a $43,000 amount that political Parties got for every MLA they have after base funding. I think to be a political Party, base funding was five members and above. I know, in terms of government, if you’re a minister, then the political Party does not get that amount because they just wouldn’t have access to it.
I was under the belief that for an Independent member that you had access to, I believe it was around $50,000 over and above what other MLAs would have who are in political Parties, so that you can have an office and to be able to cover your extra expenses. I can reach out to the Speaker’s Office, or I’m not sure if you would have any information on it, but I was under the impression that Independent members had extra funding allocated to them than a member who’s in a political Party. I thought the amount was the same as the top-up to $43,000. I thought it was somewhere closer to $50,000 or so.
ALANA PAON: In fact, there is nothing within the House of Assembly Management Commission regulations that states that there is any budget whatsoever, and I can assure the member, after being in this position for almost two years now, it has been a nightmare to try and purchase anything within the Halifax office. It clearly states what an Independent member has access to, in HAMC, so perhaps the minister may want to take a review of that.
Again, from a purely transparency and accountability standpoint, does it concern the minister, being that I know his background is as an accountant. These are provincial monies. This is taxpayers’ money that we’re talking about. Does it concern the minister at all that we have almost $3.5 million every single year going to caucus offices that the general public, unlike our constituency expenses for each MLA, that our caucuses do not have to have the same transparency of having their expenses placed online for the public to review?
LABI KOUSOULIS: Just again, as stated previously, decisions around expenses to do with MLAs are from the Speaker. Decisions around government expenses do come through the Department of Finance and Treasury Board. That is done - actually, not even by the Department of Finance and Treasury Board, it’s done at the Treasury Board table. If you look at the Department of Finance and Treasury Board, we are a department that performs tracking of the financial aspects of the province. Internal audit is actually in Internal Services. The Auditor General would be another audit function of government. We don’t have audit and oversight function. What we do is ensure that all the tracking of our financials happens. We also are involved in our bond issues.
Madam Chair, it’s 5:15. I’m not sure if the member had any follow-up questions. I could read my resolution. I want to thank everyone for your questions. It was great to have a discussion about the Department of Finance and Treasury Board, and Inclusive Economic Growth, and Trade. We had great discussions and I have gotten some information back for members, which I will pass on to you, questions where we didn’t have all the information at our fingertips. I have approximately a dozen resolutions on Estimates. I will start with E7.
MADAM CHAIR: Shall Resolution E7 stand?
The resolution stands.
Resolution E8 - Resolved that a sum not exceeding $710,886,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of Debt Servicing Costs, Department of Finance and Treasury Board, pursuant to the Estimate.
Resolution E11 - Resolved that a sum not exceeding $125,594,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Inclusive Economic Growth, pursuant to the Estimate.
Resolution E22 - Resolved that a sum not exceeding $8,653,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of Government Contributions to Benefit Plans, pursuant to the Estimate.
Resolution E27 - Resolved that a sum not exceeding $2,985,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Nova Scotia Securities Commission, pursuant to the Estimate.
Resolution E28 - Resolved that a sum not exceeding $2,123,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board, pursuant to the Estimate.
Resolution E40 - Resolved that a sum not exceeding $321,642,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of Restructuring Costs, pursuant to the Estimate.
Resolution E41 - Resolved that a sum not exceeding $144,698,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of Refundable Tax Credits, pursuant to the Estimate.
Resolution E42 - Resolved that a sum not exceeding $107,833,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of Pension Valuation Adjustment, pursuant to the Estimate.
Resolution E43 - Resolved that a sum not exceeding $1,015,793,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of Capital Purchase Requirements, pursuant to the Estimate.
Resolution E44 - Resolved that a sum not exceeding $17,599,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of Sinking Fund Instalments and Serial Retirements, pursuant to the Estimate.
MADAM CHAIR: Shall the resolutions carry?
The resolutions are carried.
With that I thank the honourable Minister of Finance and Treasury Board and Inclusive Economic Growth for your time and for all the questions. We will take a 15-minute break and we will be back with the Minister of Transportation and Active Transit.
[5:20 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[5:35 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
THE CHAIR: Order, please.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. GEOFF MACLELLAN: Madam Chair, would you please call the Estimates for the Department of Transportation and Active Transit.
Resolution E39 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $554,192,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Transportation and Active Transit, pursuant to the Estimate.
THE CHAIR: I will now invite the Minister of Transportation and Active Transit to make some opening comments, if he wishes, and to introduce his staff to members of the committee.
HON. LLOYD HINES: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the work we do at Transportation and Active Transit on behalf of all Nova Scotians.
Today I have the following staff with me: Mr. Peter Hackett, Chief Engineer for the department; and Diane Saurette, Executive Director of Finance and Strategic Capital Planning.
As you know, the Rankin government renamed several departments to reflect the government’s focus on population growth, climate change, and infrastructure. We are one of those departments.
THE CHAIR: Order, please. I am so sorry to interrupt, but I want to remind the minister that we are not allowed to refer to the Premier or ministers or any other MLAs by their names.
LLOYD HINES: My apologies. Our department has been renamed the Department of Transportation and Active Transit. Infrastructure is now with the new Department of Infrastructure and Housing. Active Transit is teamed with Transportation to reflect its equal importance and the need to ensure that active transit options are as accessible as other forms of mobility.
The new mandate of the Department of Transportation and Active Transit is to ensure we deliver safe, quality roadways and sustainable, efficient movement of people and goods. Active transportation, or transit, includes walking, cycling, and other modes of self-propelled transport. It is one of the best ways to increase physical activity, and it contributes to the overall health of our citizens. It reduces carbon emissions and makes neighbourhoods more attractive and enjoyable for families and businesses.
That’s why we are working with communities to encourage investment in active transportation infrastructure that provides clean alternatives that promote a good quality of life and contribute to our climate change goals.
Since 2012, we have invested over $8.9 million in 247 projects across the province to support and advance community-based clean energy and transportation initiatives through the Low Carbon Communities and Connect2 program. These investments continue to create green jobs across the province, while improving the environment and our communities.
We are also investing almost $7 million to develop, support, and grow community transportation across the province, especially in our rural areas. We will be providing the 19 community transportation services that provide door-to-door service in rural Nova Scotia with $1.8 million in operating funding through the Community Transportation Assistance Program. These operators, along with the municipally owned accessible transit services, will be eligible to receive funding through the Accessible Transportation Assistance Program to purchase accessible vehicles. This is an $840,000 program.
Staff will work with our partners in the sector, along with our First Nations communities, municipalities, and not-for-profit groups to identify areas of investment to help build a sustainable, integrated, and connected network throughout the province. These investments will help ensure Nova Scotians have access to reliable and affordable transportation options so that they are able to attend essential services like jobs, medical appointments, food shopping, training opportunities, or events in their communities.
We will work with fellow departments and stakeholders to promote and encourage active and community transportation to transform how we move both people and goods throughout the province, with the ultimate goal of improving the quality of our lives. Our department - coined TAAT - carries out the mandate to ensure that we deliver safe, quality roads and highways for Nova Scotians.
Anyone travelling the highways and the roads - like I do, going back and forth to Guysborough - knows just how critical good roads are to the people and the businesses of Nova Scotia. I travel back and forth frequently and have had the opportunity to see the services provided by TAAT’s employees.
From plowing and salting in the Winter to filling potholes in the Spring, I can see the results of their hard work. The more than 2,000 employees of TAAT are committed to the delivery of safe roads that help keep people connected and the economy moving. I thank them very much for that, Madam Chair.
We’ll do all this with an overall operating budget of almost $555 million in 2021-22. The operating portion of our budget is used for the day-to-day operations of the department such as snow and ice control, highway and bridge maintenance, field operations, fleet amortization, ferry operations, vehicle compliance, engineering and construction services, administration, professional services, employee benefits, road improvement maintenance work, and smaller highway and building projects.
In January, we released the province’s five-year highway improvement plan for 2021-22. It’s the 12th year our department has unveiled our five-year plan for building, repairing, and maintaining our roads, highways, and bridges. Sharing this plan lets Nova Scotians know about the improvements being made in their communities and when they can expect the work to be done. It also helps give Nova Scotia companies a better opportunity to prepare for the more than 150 highway improvement projects planned for the coming year.
Our department continues an ambitious spending program this coming road-building season. Combined with last year, the investment tops $1 billion over two construction seasons. That means families and communities across Nova Scotia will have improved access to health care, schools, highways, and public infrastructure.
This investment will build and maintain 23,000 kilometres of roads that span four regional districts from Yarmouth to Amherst to the northern shores of Cape Breton. Our network also includes more than 4,200 bridges and nine subsidized provincial ferries. This level of investment has never been seen before in Nova Scotia. The boost to public safety and our economy is priceless.
You can count on us to continue building quality roads and highways even through these difficult pandemic times. Last year was record-breaking, with more than 600 kilometres of roads and highways being paved. An impressive 1 million tons of asphalt was laid. Tenders were issued for 216 highways and road work projects.
This year, the progress continues with 150 projects scheduled. We are also investing $170 million in design work, road improvement, and rehabilitation. That number includes equipment purchases and ferries, $100 million in asphalt work, almost $30 million to replace and rehabilitate bridges, and $20 million for renewed gravel roads.
With additional funds added for major construction such as twinning of our 100‑Series Highways and work on Highway No. 104, the total anticipated spending for 2021‑22 is approximately $500 million; half a billion, Madam Chair.
The 100‑Series Highways are the backbone of our transportation system, carrying people and goods from one end of the province to the other. That is why our department continues to be committed to ongoing highway twinning projects including Highway No. 101, Highway No. 103, Highway No. 104, and Highway No. 107, the Sackville‑Bedford‑Burnside connector. Here is a quick update on these projects.
Highway No. 104: The twinning from Sutherlands River to Antigonish continues to be a priority, as it will improve safety and efficiency along that stretch of highway. Last Summer we officially broke ground on the Highway No. 104 twinning project from Sutherlands River to Antigonish. Our P3 partner, Dexter Nova Alliance, will continue that work this year. The Alliance will deliver a safer and more efficient highway years earlier than a traditional build.
The project includes 28 kilometres of new, two‑lane, twinned highway and 10 kilometres of new, four‑lane, twinned highway. There are two new interchanges and approximately 24 new bridges. Dexter Nova Alliance will also upgrade the existing section of the highway. The total cost of the project is $718 million, and it is expected to be completed by 2023.
Dexter Nova Alliance will also operate and maintain the highway for 20 years following substantial completion of the project, and to the standards that we, the province, set.
Highway No. 103: Last December the Highway No. 103 twinning project reached a milestone. We opened a newly‑twinned section of Highway No. 103 from Tantallon to Ingramport. That was the first piece of twinned highway in our program that has opened. This 11-kilometre section of twinned highway will keep the motoring public safe and will improve capacity for goods travelling to and from communities along the South Shore.
The $121 million project was split into two sections. With the first 11‑kilometre section now complete, the second section will see twinning from Ingramport to Hubbards. Construction is under way and it is anticipated to be completed by the Fall of 2022. The federal government is contributing $65 million toward these two Highway No. 103 twinning projects under the new Building Canada Fund.
Highway No. 103 Bridgewater interchange: Planning and preliminary design work on the new Bridgewater interchange on Highway No. 103 is complete. Construction will get under way this year and be completed in 2022. This project will provide improved access to the highway and support future growth of the Bridgewater Business Park.
Highway No. 102 Aerotech Connector: Construction will begin this Summer on the Highway No. 102 Aerotech Connector project. The project includes a new connector road between Trunk No. 2 and Highway No. 102 at Exit 5A, roundabouts, and two other structures. This project will allow direct access to Highway No. 102 from Wellington and surrounding areas, providing improved connectivity of the provincial highway network. This project is expected to be completed in the Fall of 2022.
Highway No. 101: The Highway No. 101 twinning project through the Windsor area from Three Mile Plains at Exit 5 to west of Falmouth at Exit 7 is also well under way. The 9.5‑kilometre twinning project includes the Windsor causeway. The project is expected to be completed by the Fall of 2023.
Highway No. 107 Sackville‑Burnside Connector: Construction of the Highway No. 107 Sackville‑Burnside Connector project also continues this year and is also on track to be completed in 2023. This new, four‑lane highway will more directly connect Burnside Park and surrounding communities with our major provincial highway network, including Highway Nos. 102, No. 107, and No. 118.
Roundabouts: Roundabouts have become very popular in the last decade. Along with our investment in the 100-Series Highways, we are also investing in safe roundabouts to keep our roads safe for the public. This includes improvements for the Port Hastings rotary, where Highways No. 105 and No. 104 meet, that are planned for 2021-22, upgrading the rotary to a roundabout.
Construction of the new roundabout at the intersection of Highway Nos. 105 and No. 252 at Whycocomagh was completed in the Fall of 2020. A roundabout was also built and opened at Beech Hill Road and Trunk 4 in Antigonish.
One of three more roundabouts is complete as part of the Kings Road upgrade in Sydney River. Work on the second roundabout is under way and construction is expected to begin later this year.
Turning our attention to our gravel roads: well-maintained, good quality gravel roads are essential for rural communities. That is why investing in our gravel roads continues to be a government priority. Since the Gravel Road Capital Program started in 2017, along with last year’s stimulus funding, we have invested about $90 million towards gravel roads. We repaired and reconstructed 221 gravel roads throughout the province. That translates to more than 740 kilometres of gravel roads.
We are once again investing $20 million towards our gravel road program. We have approximately 40 new gravel road projects planned for this year. That’s almost 170 kilometres of gravel roads. This program is a proactive approach that will rebuild roads to improve the structure and drainage. This will result in a longer-lasting driving surface and make regular road maintenance easier.
Bridges: Along with our investments in highway projects we are also investing almost $30 million to replace or rehabilitate our bridges. We’re looking at about 20 bridges throughout the province this year. One of the bridges that I’m happy to report on is the replacement of the Mira Gut Bridge. A tender for this project is going out this Spring; completion is expected this fiscal year.
Provincial ferries: This year, the Little Narrows ferry in Victoria County and the Country Harbour ferry in Guysborough County are both being replaced by brand new, 15-car cable ferries, increasing passenger capacity and improving overall operational efficiency. The new ferries will make daily travel more reliable and comfortable for area residents and visitors, allowing them to travel to and from the region’s top destinations and attractions safely and efficiently.
The Country Harbour ferry and the Little Narrows ferry are $6 million each; however, our federal partners are contributing 50 per cent towards these ferries, for a total of $6 million. I’m happy to report that the Country Harbour ferry is almost complete, as the first one coming off the construction.
As we speak, the students of St. Mary’s Education Centre/Academy are participating in the Country Harbour Ferry Campaign. I really have to take a moment and tell you about the amazing staff at St. Mary’s Education Centre/Academy. The teachers made the Country Harbour ferry more than just a ferry naming contest; the teachers embraced it as an educational opportunity. From building models of ferries, to discussing careers linked to working on the ferry and marine jobs, to the history of the ferry in the community, the teachers incorporated this initiative into their classroom. We are so fortunate to have teachers like these that look for new and creative ways to teach our children. At the end of this month, we’ll pick a winner and they’ll be invited to the christening of the new ferry. We look forward to seeing their suggested names for the new ferry. A special thanks to the staff at St. Mary’s Education Centre/Academy for making the naming of the Country Harbour ferry so special.
Construction of the Little Narrows ferry is well under way. We’re looking at late December-early January for completion of this new ferry. Both the Country Harbour and Little Narrows ferries will have improved mechanical systems and engines, ensuring that ferry services remain in operation for years to come.
Residents of Little and Big Tancook Islands will also benefit from a new car ferry. The new vessel will provide shorter, more frequent trips and allow transport trucks and emergency response vehicles to access the islands.
The provincial and federal governments are each investing $4.9 million for a new, 18-car ferry. This new vessel will replace the existing 38-year-old foot passenger ferry. The Tancook Island ferry departure route is also changing to accommodate a car ferry. The landing will move to Blandford, Lunenburg County, from Chester. Travel time on the new route will drop from 50 minutes to 30 minutes. The number of daily crossings will increase from four to approximately 10.
Construction of the new Tancook ferry is also under way, with an estimated completion date of the Fall of 2022.
Turning to our public infrastructure side, our department continues to be responsible for more than 2,400 government structures and their associated properties. Buildings include provincial museums, justice centres, and government offices. Our department is responsible for their daily operation and maintenance to ensure a safe, secure, and efficient work environment for the buildings’ tenants. The operational budget is more than $30 million, plus an additional $13.5 million for capital and over $22 million for tangible capital assets. Some of our projects include the replacement of the Highland Village Museum, the Kentville Justice Centre replacement, and repairs at the Museum of Industry.
The Cobequid Pass: Our government has committed to taking tolls off the Cobequid Pass for Nova Scotia motorists, once the debts and liabilities are paid. At this time, no decision has been made on the removal of tolls for truckers or other non-Nova Scotia residents. Transportation and Active Transit officials are reviewing the Highway 104 Western Alignment Act and the agreement with the bondholders, as well as maintenance and other costs for the Cobequid Pass. We do anticipate additional capital spending over the next year or so. Staff will provide government with the best option on next steps going forward.
Madam Chair, we introduced and passed a new Traffic Safety Act almost 18 months ago and it is in the regulation stage, and I want to give you an update on where that’s at. The Traffic Safety Act has seen a busy year, with public consultations, with the draft regulations of the Traffic Safety Act. The TSA was passed unanimously in the Fall of 2018. It will replace the outdated Motor Vehicle Act, which was written in the early 1920s.
The TSA is designed as a framework, setting broad policy and regulatory authority to quickly address changing technologies and future road safety needs. Since the last major revision in 1989, the Motor Vehicle Act has been amended more than 62 times. We have been taking a phased approach for public feedback on proposed regulations.
The legislation, once in effect, will be more concise than the outdated current Motor Vehicle Act. It will enable government to quickly address more technical and day-to-day issues that arise in the evolving environment of transportation and road safety, moving technical detail to regulation and allowing more flexibility and responsiveness to emerging issues.
To date, we have received feedback on the following phases of the province’s draft regulations under the new TSA: driver regulations that address standards, licensing, training, and suspension; vehicle regulations that include updating vehicle definitions, such as three-wheel vehicles, tricycles, motorcycles, and farm machines; use of the road regulations that include clarifying the use of hand-held devices while driving, increasing the parking distances from curb to car, and a variety of safety measures to better protect cyclists, including prohibiting the opening of car doors in traffic without due care, rules for business and people who are licensed to sell and inspect vehicles, as well as for those who train drivers of passenger and commercial vehicles.
We have one more phase for public feedback - that is the draft regulations on roles and responsibilities and penalty. We will be releasing this final phase very soon. The response we received to our draft TSA regulations to date is incredible. We are so pleased. To date, we have received more than 1,000 comments on our draft regulations. A very special thanks to all Nova Scotians who took the time to provide feedback and be interested in safety on Nova Scotia highways. Staff are reviewing all the responses, and hope to complete the review in late Spring/early Summer.
Turning to Boat Harbour - we are committed to returning Boat Harbour to its original state as a tidal estuary. It is a commitment to the people of Pictou Landing First Nation, Pictou County, to all Nova Scotians, and we intend to keep it. We are partnering and consulting with Pictou Landing First Nation, other levels of government, industry, regulators, and academic researchers to make sure human health and the environment will be protected at all stages of this project.
In addition to the more than $292 million set aside for the Boat Harbour Remediation Project, we recently announced $19 million toward the Boat Harbour cleanup. This investment is toward removal of all sludge material from the Boat Harbour effluent treatment facility aeration stabilization basin. This will ensure the job is completed in a timely way and provide clarity and closure to Pictou Landing First Nation, residents of Pictou County, and all Nova Scotia.
We cannot continue to wait. Taking one management approach makes good sense to ensure it is managed in a responsible way, and timeliness to stay on track. Government is not accepting any legal liability associated with the additional work, however. The cleanup will begin once the federal environmental assessment process is complete and approved. We expect an approval decision in 2021, and our goal is to begin the cleanup in 2022. We will continue to work closely with Pictou Landing First Nation, local residents, federal and provincial regulators, technical advisors, and scientists to effectively address the needs of the site.
The Nova Scotia to Maine ferry service. The Nova Scotia to Maine ferry is a vital part of our transportation system, like the Trans-Canada Highway, and important to our tourism industry throughout the province, but more particularly in southwestern Nova Scotia. Our decision to suspend the ferry service for this season is based solely on keeping Nova Scotians safe. It is a disappointing decision to have had to make but given the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic and the border closures, it was the only choice we had. We must keep Nova Scotians safe. The province is committed to this service for the long term, but now in the middle of a pandemic is not the time to be operating an international service. It will resume when circumstances allow and Nova Scotians are ready to welcome visitors. We will be relying on Public Health officials in Nova Scotia, federally, and in Maine to let us know when it is safe to resume service. This ferry is good for our entire province and southwestern Nova Scotia. It is good for our rural economy, and it is good for Nova Scotia tourism.
With that, I am ready to take questions.
THE CHAIR: We will begin with the PC caucus for one hour.
The honourable member for Pictou Centre.
HON. PAT DUNN: Good evening, minister. And a big hello to your staff there, Peter and Diane. Again, a big thank you to all of your staff for the great work they do from one year to the next. Kudos to all of them.
Minister, I am going to start off by asking you some questions on certain roads across the province, emails and phone calls that I have received asking me to in some form or manner either personal, Estimates, Question Period or whatever to try to get some information. The first number of questions will be dealing with certain roads.
The first one, Minister, concerns a bridge. It is the Port Royal Road Bridge on Isle Madame. I have been told it has been closed since 2017. The residents, tourists, delivery trucks, and emergency vehicles have to use the detour on MacEachern Road, which apparently in itself is not in the best of condition. Is there a timeline for repair or replacement of this bridge?
LLOYD HINES: That particular bridge has been out of service for several years. At this point, we have no plans to replace it. I am informed that the detour is quite short in that particular instance.
Madam Chair, when we look at our road system in Nova Scotia and our bridges, I think we have to look at ourselves in a bit of a historical context. Nova Scotia is one of the oldest earliest settled provinces in the country. The roads evolved, of course, through that period of time. When you think about prior to 1900 and the advent of the Model T and the invention of the internal combustion engine, the mode of transportation was, of course, another form of internal combustion vehicle called a horse.
The distances travelled were extremely relevant in that particular situation. We evolved as a province with a lot of bridges that were there since the horse and buggy days when detours of even a kilometre, which is the instance in this particular bridge, were significant to the people. Today, with our modern transportation system and modes of transportation, it is much easier to accommodate a short increase in the distance than it might be to have to replace every bridge that exists across the province. That is kind of where this one fits.
PAT DUNN: I guess then, minister, the answer is that it probably won’t be replaced, with the supposedly short detour.
Minister, the second question is dealing with the St. Peters Fourchin Road, which is part of the Fleur de Lis Trail from Grand River to Fourchin. I have been told it is in terrible shape, it is in desperate need of repair.
My question is: Is there any consideration of looking after that particular area this current year?
LLOYD HINES: Fourchu, I think. Is that the one?
PAT DUNN: Fourchu, yes.
LLOYD HINES: I have a little bit better news on that particular question in that section of road. We are very aware of it. There has been a dedicated group of people who have been advocating the reconstruction of that particular piece of road as sort of a back door to Louisbourg, and it is a beautiful area of the province. There is no doubt about that.
We do have 7.5 kilometres scheduled for paving in 2022, and that is the beginning of the rebuild of that road. So it would be the department’s intention to continue getting a piece of that each year in the maintenance budget and eventually get to work on it. That I can tell is you is on for the 2022 season, at 7.5 kilometres.
PAT DUNN: A third road is the West Bay Road on the St. Georges Channel in Inverness County. It is my understanding that that road also is deteriorating and in pretty bad shape. Parts of the road apparently have been repaired but, again, the residents in that area feel - they are certainly looking for further repairs in this section of road, this West Bay Road.
Is there anything in your budget that is going to take care of that road in the coming construction year?
LLOYD HINES: We have approximately five kilometres scheduled for this year, and it is also scheduled for additional paving the following year.
PAT DUNN: Another road - this road connects Falmouth to Hantsport. It is called the Bog Road. I have been told that this particular road is - they describe it as in deplorable condition. Vehicles use both sides of the road when they are driving on it to avoid damage to their cars and so on.
Once again, this particular road that connects Falmouth to Hantsport - is there anything in your budget this current year where you will be trying to fix this road and repair it to the point where cars can safely drive across it?
LLOYD HINES: We are highly cognizant of the conditions of Bog Road and we have a commitment to manage our existing budget to get five kilometres of that particular road in the current fiscal year.
THE CHAIR: The honourable member for Pictou Centre.
May I just say before you begin, it is helpful for the Chair to see you go on mute to demonstrate that you are finished your question or answer. If that is possible, that would be great, thank you.
PAT DUNN: Minister, I am going to ask you a question, it is kind of a two- pronged question and the two questions are: Have you considered this in your department or, if you haven’t, will you consider it in the future?
The question is all around former towns. When I think of that - I am thinking of places like Springhill, I believe Parrsboro might be one, Bridgetown, before they were dissolved - and the reason why they were dissolved from their status is they couldn’t afford to sustain their roads and infrastructure. The plows would stop at the line, carry through and drop the blade on the other side.
Now that they actually belong to the municipality - they do not have the status of town now - should the province, since the trunk runs right straight through some of these communities, be looking after the maintenance of their road as far as plowing, salting, clearing the bush on the side of it, maintaining it?
LLOYD HINES: The situation that occurs when there is a dissolution of a municipality, a town we are talking about here, normally at that time a negotiation occurred between the Department of Municipal Affairs and the town and the receiving municipality with regard to many factors associated with the dissolution, because you know you are integrating two fiscal regimes together that are quite divergent when you look at the Municipal Government Act, the Towns Act, but the arrangement tends to be localized, at least in my experience, to each particular situation.
During the time that the negotiation was happening for the dissolution, the receiving municipality must have accepted the responsibility for the roads in that particular town, because the roads are the responsibility of the towns and actually physically owned by the towns, that I am familiar with so I am aware in some dissolutions that the roads were excluded from the exchange and were transferred to the province and you are telling me that in some other instances that did not happen, so the opportunity was missed, I guess, at the time to think about that cost.
Two possible solutions exist here for the receiving municipality. One would be to enter an exchange agreement with the department that would supply the service at a cost to service those roads. There is a class of roads called J-Class that municipalities are responsible for maintaining. They can either hire a private contractor to do the work on them, i.e., salt and plowing, or they can contract it from the department, which in many instances is what they do. So I don’t think these roads would be J-Class roads that you are talking about here. It is possible that a change agreement could be negotiated with the department, but it would be at the cost to the municipality.
The other item or thing for consideration is that we do have a Joint Roads Committee that has been established between Transportation and Active Transit, the Department of Municipal Affairs, and the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities - and that has been a very good platform for working on these roads, so I would suggest that it become part of that agenda.
The other thing to say is it is not necessarily the same in each of these areas. In some instances, the trunk runs through the town. It was maintained by the province. I know for a fact that that was the case in one of the dissolutions, so I don’t know if that is the same for Springhill, Parrsboro, Bridgetown or not, but it is the streets that I think are increased responsibility for the receiving municipality, but the time to have dealt with that is at the time of dissolution.
PAT DUNN: Minister, during the past several years, how many times have you, as the minister, diverted from the government’s five-year plan to repave roads that were not on the projected five-year plan? If so, what constituency would have received this attention?
LLOYD HINES: That kind of detail is not, obviously, at my fingertips, but I will tell you this - in my time here at the department, we have not really exceeded our budget during that period of time. We have a set budget for work.
Now last year, we had the additional influx of the stimulus spending, which changed the budget a bit. On a general basis, we spend what we have. Sometimes the project may be delayed for some unforeseen reason. As an example, the Aerotech Connector that I mentioned in my opening remarks was originally scheduled to be done a year earlier, but the requirements and the environmental assessment - we weren’t able to meet them because of the seasonality of the project and the work that had to be done according to Environment meant that we lost a year. That freed up some dollars that could conceivably be moved into another area. It could go from one end of the province to the other.
The five-year plan, which outlines what our intentions are for that period, especially the current year and the next following year, gives us good flexibility that if we get in a situation where we see we are underspent - because it is no easy feat to deploy $500 million. Hard to believe, but that is a lot of money to spend, so sometimes we end up pulling something ahead in the plan that was for, say,’23 - we moved it to ’21 - or to ’22 , we move to ’21 - that sort of thing happens, and that is where the five-year plan gives us that road map and that flexibility to be able to do that. On a general statement, we are not usually moving things around, and we are quite adept at staying within our spending levels.
PAT DUNN: That sort of leads to another question - I probably have a thousand questions here for you, minister. Maybe we will have to talk about it Saturday and Sunday, also. In your budget, what surplus money do you have in case of emergencies? For example, damage that was done here just recently in Cape Breton or bridges washed out or roads washed out. So, where does the funding come from in a case like that? How quickly can the department repair those types of things?
THE CHAIR: Order, please. I’m just going to remind the members to speak through the Chair when asking questions and answering questions and referring to the members present, or the minister present, in the third person.
The honourable Minister of Transportation and Active Transit.
LLOYD HINES: I guess the reserve fund technique that we employ is good management on behalf of our senior people because our job is to restore these facilities back as quickly as we can; we don’t worry about where the money is coming from at the time, we try and get the work done and restore the roads. I know in particular in Cape Breton over the last two or three weeks, we got hit pretty hard with washouts on some of the less-travelled gravel roads. But, if there’s one house in there that gets isolated, that becomes our problem, and we try and do our best to deal with it.
Essentially, we would do the repairs out of our existing resources, and in the instance of some big event, like Hurricane Dorian as an example, there is an avenue for recovery from other parties. It takes a while to do that, but we do do that. If we can’t essentially absorb it, then we would go to Treasury Board Office and look for relief in the form of an extra appropriation to cover the required maintenance.
PAT DUNN: Minister, the next couple of questions are dealing with Route 289. One part of Route 289, I think I know the answer to it, but I have another subsequent question with it, it’s Route 289 from the boundary of New Glasgow to Route 348 at Little Harbour. It’s scheduled for 2022-23. My question is: What are the chances of this particular road being resurfaced in 2022?
LLOYD HINES: Is that in your riding, member?
PAT DUNN: It’s not exactly in my constituency, no. It’s outside, but it’s a road I’m very familiar with, and there’s a lot of traffic on that road. It increases in the summertime, probably doubles or triples because of the camping and the beaches and everything. It looks like a crossword puzzle. Right at the present time, of course, it’s breaking up again; the potholes that have been there for the past 2,000 years. I actually, minister, I can’t remember - and I’ve lived in this area all my life - I can’t remember the last time it was resurfaced, that particular road, but for a road that has so much traffic on it, it’s not in good shape. It’s probably one of the roads in the province that should be looked at.
THE CHAIR: Order, please. I’m going to call our 15-minute break before the minister answers this, so hang on to your hat, minister, and we’ll come back in 15 minutes, so 6:50 p.m.
[6:35 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[6:50 The committee reconvened.]
THE CHAIR: Order, please. Just waiting a minute or two for the minister.
The honourable member for Pictou Centre, if he would like to refresh his question or remind the minister of his question, if that’s useful.
PAT DUNN: When we stopped for the break, we were talking about Route 289. Perhaps if it was in my constituency, you’d have paved it, is that what you’re trying to tell me? Anyway, I have the luxury of being in a constituency where I don’t have to worry about any road, but that’s kind of unique. This particular Route 289 is scheduled for 2022-23. It’s not in good shape, and I guess I’m wondering, when you’re projecting like that, do you know if that could possibly be completed in 2022?
LLOYD HINES: I recalled what your question was, and I must say that when you made a reference to the age of the potholes on that particular road, I must say that for somebody who is 2,000 years old, you don’t look a day over 50. You’re very well preserved, member.
In terms of the Route 289, we are aware of how important a link it is for the local community, and we would undertake to take a look at seeing if we have any slippage in the program. We might be able to look at tendering it in the Fall to get it going a little bit earlier than what we normally would be doing. It is an extensive contract, the estimate is $2.5 million, so it’s not easy for us to move around, but we will take a look and see if there’s any way that we can speed up the issuance of the contract.
PAT DUNN: Just a reply to the minister about being well preserved. It might be to do with my strong roots from Boylston in Guysborough County.
Another part of Route 289. I’m not exactly familiar with this road. It’s Stewiacke Road and it’s in the area of Middle Stewiacke near Cloverdale. There’s, I believe, an eight-kilometre stretch there that’s gravel road, and I guess the department doesn’t chip seal that type of road or whatever. I’ve had a number of calls concerning this road. Apparently, it’s to the point where they have to take an alternate route, which takes them an extra 30 to 40 minutes to get to places like drug store, hospital, groceries, restaurants, doctor appointment or whatever.
That takes them an extra 25 minutes, and again, I’ve been told that the road has basically been ignored for a long time. Is there anything in the works with regard to this particular part of the road, Route 289, it’s called the Stewiacke Road?
LLOYD HINES: I thank the member for referencing this particular road. It doesn’t appear on our Gravel Road Program, but it’s something we can certainly take a look at and see if we can address some of the issues, perhaps through the RIM program or flag it for the Gravel Road Program for next year.
One thing that I would mention to the member, is that in the Gravel Road Program I’ve found it useful to ask the receiving municipality for some suggestions about roads that they would like to see enter the Gravel Road Program. As I mentioned earlier, we’re doing 170 kilometres this year.
Because the councils tend to know, in rural areas, where most of the traffic is and where the biggest requirement might be, if the municipality recommends it through to the department, then that helps raise it in terms of its priority.
We will undertake to have a look at this road and perhaps it might be something you could discuss with the municipality there for them to recommend it.
PAT DUNN: Has the COVID-19 funding changed any of the department’s priorities?
LLOYD HINES: I would ask if the member could clarify whether he’s talking about the federal COVID-19 stimulus or the provincial COVID-19 stimulus that was a 100 per cent provincial initiative.
PAT DUNN: Federal funding.
LLOYD HINES: There really wasn’t any change in priority with the federal COVID-19 program which is approximately $82 million. Most of the priority was on education and health and long-term care, where that money went.
That is no longer under my jurisdiction as it were. Now that’s with the new Infrastructure and Housing Department, but it was under the ICIP agreement that we have with the federal government. That’s pretty well where it went. When it left us, there was no real change in the priorities that we had at the time.
In terms of the COVID-19 situation, the biggest impact we could have on COVID-19 was in those departments that I mentioned there: long-term care, health and education. There was no change in the priorities for those departments.
PAT DUNN: The next three or four questions are dealing with rural roads. Again, it just seems that a lot of the roads of the main series highways and so on, many of them are in relatively poor shape. I know we certainly have our share in Pictou County. It’s just some of the roads are narrow, lack guardrails, often you will see the shoulders damaged, substantial cracking, potholes and ruts, vegetation growth. As you can remember, our former friend, Junior Theriault talking about the alders, there’s a few of those around.
We continue to have companies that are looking to set a site up, to set a shop up, and they prefer a site or location that will maximize their profit; therefore, they require not only reasonable access to the 100-Series Highways but safe, reliable roads and bridges in rural areas to reach these 100-Series Highways. That’s not to mention all the traffic dealing with tourists going to ski hills, functions, beaches, et cetera. These roads are critical to the rural community from the economic perspective to many perspectives with regard to that safety travel.
One question is: What percentage of rural roads would you consider in relatively poor shape?
LLOYD HINES: First of all, let me say that there’s never enough money for all the roads that we have stewardship over in this province. Sometimes - and I’m sure if the member had lots of roads that he was responsible for and knowing that he’s representing, essentially, some towns who have their own road responsibility - as a rural MLA, when you pave a road and you might expect to get some accolades for it, what you get is complaints from the other 50 roads that you didn’t pave, who want their road paved. It’s difficult to win at this game.
A couple of things, though, that I’m very proud of, that we’ve been able to accomplish in the department over the last number of years are: we’ve been able to increase the RIM budget, which is spent in the rural areas of the province; we have the Gravel Road Program, which we’re funding again this year, which as I mentioned in my remarks, is now up to $90 million. That didn’t exist prior to 2017; in the provincial stimulus program of $230 million, about $97 million of that went to road improvements across the province; this year, we’re doing approximately 600 kilometres of road. Before we came in here, we were in the range of 400 kilometres a year, so that amount is increased by a full one-third. We also dedicated an additional $2 million, which is in the budget, and continued for brush cutting across the province completely. We have increased the spending on our roads in almost every category, which leads us to the point where we’re now spending over $1 billion in the last two construction seasons.
PAT DUNN: How often do area staff get involved in field-level condition assessments, which, of course, are essential to accurately addressing the infrastructure deficit?
LLOYD HINES: The way that the work is determined comes directly from the working face of the department, which are the people who are on the job right across the province and, more particularly, from the operating supervisors who are driving these roads and watching them every day. They make the recommendations to the system, back to the directors and then into our offices, and the work is based on information from the public. If we receive complaints, then we’ll do an investigation to see what the condition is like, the condition of the roads.
In the instances of the bridges, we do an annual bridge inspection of every bridge in the province. There’s a system for rating the bridges. The raw data that feeds into the decision to where we’re going to make the expenditure is driven completely by the people who are out in the field collecting this information and living these road conditions every day.
PAT DUNN: Minister, many people believe that the rural roads are often ignored by the department planners because major 100-Series Highways and trunks have to be looked after first, which leads into my next question. I’m not expecting you to have this information with you right at the moment and maybe you can get it to me later, but the question is: Can the minister provide an estimate of the dollars spent for the major series highways in the province compared to the rural roads around all of our communities?
LLOYD HINES: He anticipated my answer by saying that we don’t have that information readily available here this evening, but we’ll certainly undertake to do an analysis and provide that information to the member in due course.
PAT DUNN: The next question is: The minister’s mandate letter states that both transportation and active transit are of equal importance. Does the minister have any data around how many Nova Scotians use forms of active transit as their primary method of getting around versus more traditional forms?
LLOYD HINES: It’s a very timely question. It reflects some of the work that we’re doing with the new legislation that’s going to be replacing the Motor Vehicle Act and the consultation that we’re doing with Nova Scotians.
The transportation and transit process, mechanisms, and devices are changing. It’s quite revolutionary in terms of the way that people get around. The information that you’re looking for exists in many of our municipalities. If you look at the largest municipality in the province, then you can see the emphasis that is being placed on bicycles in HRM, and our Blue Route emphasis that we’re doing by widening shoulders out on roads that we’ve built out in the rural areas.
The whole active transportation situation is evolving. At this point, I don’t have the data from the active transit section. We’re just getting them integrated into our transportation department organization. If that information does exist in some way, I’ll undertake to try and track it down and get it back to the member later on.
THE CHAIR: The honourable member for Pictou Centre with about 50 seconds remaining.
PAT DUNN: A quick question, minister. How exactly do you budget for snow and ice control?
THE CHAIR: Order, please. The time has expired for the PC caucus.
The honourable member for Dartmouth North.
SUSAN LEBLANC: I’d like to thank the minister for his answers so far and thank everyone in the department for all their hard work. It’s been great communicating with folks from the department over the Traffic Safety Act over the last year and I just want to thank the folks that are centred in Dartmouth, as well, who are very responsive to my constituency questions.
I’m going to start tonight with asking some questions about active transit, since we have a whole new department, or a whole new title to the department. I’d like to ask about the details of the separation of the department, taking the transportation-active transit and then separating from infrastructure and housing.
Upon first hearing that this part of the department was being renamed to include the title Active Transit, I was very optimistic. Transportation accounts for 31 per cent of the province’s greenhouse gas emissions and is the only major emissions sector where emissions are not declining or expected to soon decline substantially. You know, I get it. We have a lot of rural areas in our province and folks need to drive or at least take the bus or maybe one day a cool electric train. But for now we’re driving.
Investment in active transit is good for the environment and is also a clear way forward in terms of green investment and job creation as we exit the current COVID-19 economic situation. It’s also good for regional economic development, it’s good for tourism, and it’s very good for our health. I have cited an older report before, but there was a report out of England that followed people who cycled to work, a couple of years ago, and, basically, for people who cycle to work in both directions each day, it substantially - almost by half - reduces heart disease and instances of cancer. That’s good.
But the thing about this is that it appears at first glance that the only investment in this budget explicitly for active transit is the Connect2 grant line of $400,000. So, I just want to clarify, first of all, with the minister, is my reading of that correct?
LLOYD HINES: We are very encouraged at the new federal infrastructure program for the Department of Transportation and Active Transit. We are anxiously awaiting the full details, which will give us an opportunity to partner with municipalities and with the federal government to enhance the active transportation expenditures.
The member may be familiar with the Blue Route. Last year we did 40 kilometres of Blue Route, which is essentially providing bike lanes on all our highway projects. Last year it was around $3 million that was spent on that, and in particular, the significant work we are doing on the Cabot Trail, which is a paradise for bicyclists. It is also seeing additional expenditures to widen the shoulders and make it attractive to bicycle enthusiasts.
Also, we partnered with HRM to the tune of a total project of $25 million to provide the bike lanes and the construction of the flyover off the Macdonald Bridge. So once we get going ‑ in this department we haven’t really had an opportunity to fully understand what the opportunities are, because obviously we just inherited the Active Transit route.
Some of the people are relocating to our offices as we speak, and of course, we are into the House and the budget, but rest assured that the folks in our group, the senior people, are anxious to receive these responsibilities that are coming our way. We feel that it is a fine fit for what we do, because we understand the transportation business very well.
SUSAN LEBLANC: I would consider myself a bicycling enthusiast, but I will tell you, the idea of cycling around the Cabot Trail fills me with fear. One day maybe I will take it as a personal challenge. No, I’m kidding, Mr. Chair. It would be an amazing experience and I know that it’s really a perfect place to cycle for many people - just not me yet. But I’ll get there.
I thank the minister for the answer. I just want to clarify, though, that in this budget there is only $400,000 of provincial money. I’d like a clarification on that. I guess what I would ask is about the federal infrastructure money.
Can the minister tell us what amount we received last year from federal funding for Active Transit, what are we expecting for this year, and when will it arrive?
LLOYD HINES: Actually, the current budget contains operational costs for Active Transit of approximately $7.4 million and the capital, approximately $5 million, the current year.
On the ICIP issue from the federal government, because some of this money came in from departments other than ours, from the federal government to other departments, we will undertake to get that number and get back to the member with an answer on that question. Prior years, we don’t have the history because we’re just receiving this department in the current year. Thank you.
SUSAN LEBLANC: Last year Bicycle Nova Scotia presented a comprehensive proposal for a complete active transportation network for Nova Scotia. It was fully costed. It identified multiple key, shovel-ready projects that had been asked for by communities and laid out a multi-year plan with the following project components:
(a) An expanded Bicycle Nova Scotia Blue Route division, similar to that of Vélo Quebec’s role during the creation of the Route Verte, including capacity in designing and implementing pedestrian-friendly infrastructure - that is, regional coordinators, design engineers, and that kind of thing;
(b) High-level project management and active transportation engineering expertise by the Province of Nova Scotia;
(c) A First Nations-led and -focused approach to identifying pedestrian and cycling infrastructure needs and solutions in these communities, including a specific approach to coordinators for First Nations communities;
(d) Provincial guidance and minimum thresholds for pedestrian-friendly road design for provincial and municipal roads in Nova Scotia communities;
(e) Governance structure that includes clear goals, timelines, and accountabilities among co-leads of Bicycle Nova Scotia with pedestrian expertise, the Province of Nova Scotia, the Government of Canada, and Nova Scotia municipalities.
I’m wondering if the minister can talk about whether or how much of this proposal has been adopted.
LLOYD HINES: Prior to the addition of Active Transit to our department, the former department had a very close working relationship with Bicycle Nova Scotia, who have done some great work in terms of understanding active transit in the province. The comprehensive review that you’re talking about is an example of that.
Once we can get our Active Transit folk who are coming across from Communities, Culture and Heritage onsite here in the department, we can really go to work on fully integrating Active Transit into our departmental objectives. We look forward to continuing that relationship with Bicycle Nova Scotia, especially when it comes to improvements along the line of the Blue Route, rolling that out across the province and making sure that the active transportation theme is included in all the work that we do and all the repaving and roadwork throughout the province.
SUSAN LEBLANC: I meant to say that I can table this report from Bicycle Nova Scotia, which I will do after I finish this question.
I totally understand that there’s that transition where the folks will be coming over. I hope that what the minister anticipates happens quickly, that the Active Transit people can get integrated quickly.
My next question was if the minister can talk about when the Blue Route will be completed. As a (b) part to that, I’m wondering, in terms of other road construction in the province, if the minister could talk about the process by which active transit is incorporated during repaving and shoulder work. It seems like a very good opportunity, when that work is being done already, to make sure that active transit opportunities are being built at the same time. I’m just wondering if the minister could comment on those two things.
LLOYD HINES: I almost want to say that this project will never be completed, that it’s endless. To qualify that, we’re looking at areas where we have - speaking of bicycles - folks in a couple of camps where some people like to bicycle on trails.
Some of the Blue Route would be from pavement to trail to pavement, depending on what opportunity might exist. Then there are people who are long-distance bikers who might do the entire Cabot Trail, do the entire province. In those instances, where we’re doing paving - let’s say we’re doing a 10-kilometre section - that is part of our vision, where we can create loops in the province, so we can have the Blue Route loop done piece by piece.
We obviously can’t do it all at once, but by keeping the idea of making the roadway compatible for other types of transportation - more particularly, bicycles - we will incorporate that into the contract. It adds a little bit to the cost because we’re putting another two metres of asphalt down, but it provides all kinds of additional room, not only for bicyclists but for hikers and walkers to feel safe walking the highway.
In our planning, we look at small victories, shall we say, where we can get work on a section that may create a complete route in southwest Nova Scotia - as an example - that would eventually be completely Blue Route through the process. It’s not something that we see, we go out, and do, because we have to pave every road in the province at one time, but as we keep it in mind and have that mindset that we want to do this - which is our mindset and is what’s being done in the rural areas where new paving is being applied.
I know there’s a section in the Sheet Harbour area that we paved to Blue Route standards recently. Eventually, we’ll be able to connect these areas and make the roadways compatible for different types of transportation, particularly hikers and bicyclists.
SUSAN LEBLANC: I get it. I understand that we could transform every road into a safe bicycle road, which would be great, but I guess it would be good to know that the department has a concrete vision for transforming the province into one where someone could cycle right around the province.
I guess I’ll just say that the beauty of the idea of the Blue Route is that it’s a network. As the minister was saying, you go from pavement to trail or whatever but the important part about it is that you can go a substantial distance or even around the entire province without having to be at risk of being hit by a car. Even then, there is still a risk on those roads if they’re not separated.
In any case, I’m going to move on right now to some questions about community transit. In the report called Picking up the Tab - this report, which I will table - the CCPA describes how and whether provincial governments access federal COVID-19 support.
The federal Safe Restart program for municipalities was designed to cover lost revenue in public transit systems. Nova Scotia did not match the program 50-50 despite that being a requirement under the funding stream. I’m wondering if the minister can comment on this.
LLOYD HINES: Unfortunately, the Safe Restart program is entirely under the auspices of the Department of Municipal Affairs and our department hasn’t had anything to do with that particular funding stream.
SUSAN LEBLANC: I’m about to run out of time and close up this meeting. I guess I will just ask the minister, while I’m moving over to the Chair, what his favourite part of Nova Scotia is to enjoy while cycling.
LLOYD HINES: In my cycling days, I loved Cape Smokey on the Cabot Trail. I spent a lot of time cycling around that area.
THE CHAIR: Order, please. The time for the Estimates for this evening has elapsed.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. GEOFF MACLELLAN: Madam Chair, I move that the committee do now rise and that you report progress and beg leave to sit again.
THE CHAIR: The motion is carried.
The committee will now rise and report its business to the House.
We will take a 15-minute break.
[The committee adjourned at 7:48 p.m.]