MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Deputy Government House Leader.
MR. PATRICK DUNN: Mr. Chairman, would you call the estimates of the honourable Minister of Education.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Halifax Clayton Park, if she so wishes to continue.
MS. DIANA WHALEN: Mr. Chairman, I'm happy to resume the questioning that we had begun the other day about Education. It's a pleasure, again, to have the minister and her staff with us to answer some questions. Certainly the Department of Education is an enormous department. There's an awful lot of activity and so much to look at, everything from pre-Primary all the way through university, skills training and apprenticeship. So there's no shortage of questions to go on.
I wanted to pick up today on one of the functions of the school boards and the Department of Education, and that's the transportation of students. Particularly, I want to look at it from my local area, being an urban riding. The distance that's set out provincially for busing of students is 3.6 kilometres from school. So any student living further than 3.6 kilometres is entitled to be bused to that school. But often in the city, there are a lot of dangers along the way, and I'm sure it's the same in rural areas where they have highways and whatnot to traverse.
What I had asked about a year ago, I had sent a letter to the Department of Education, asking that that level be reviewed in light of a particular case that had come up in my riding, where students had been bused and because a new street had opened up, and this happens in an unfolding and developing area, the distance to school had shortened, and students were no longer allowed to be bused under the Halifax Regional School Board.
I should note that even then the Halifax Regional School Board - and perhaps the minister is not aware of this - actually had their own policy which lowers the distance for busing to 2.4 kilometres for elementary students. So if a student is in Primary to Grade 6, they only need to live 2.4 kilometres from home, but that is something the Halifax Regional School Board had, over the years, agreed to accept and to pay the difference for.
My question, in the letter that I sent to the previous minister, was asking whether this could be reviewed and the distances shortened in light of a lot of urban and traffic concerns across the province. I'm wondering, could the minister speak to the busing distance and any intention the department may have of reviewing that?
HON. KAREN CASEY: Mr. Chairman, education of students and the safety of those students is a priority for me as minister and for our department and, indeed, for all boards. There have been some guidelines put in place with respect to the distances - you're well aware of those, the 3.6 kilometres and the 2.4 kilometres. We recognize that boards do use those as guidelines when they are developing their transportation routes and their allocation of dollars for transportation. We also recognize that in many boards across Nova Scotia, in particular in rural areas, that buses do pick up students who are within those distances, not beyond, and we consider that to be courtesy busing.
We know that that happens. So that, again, helps to provide that safe transportation to students who may fall outside of that 3.6 kilometres or 2.4 kilometres. So courtesy busing does exist, and that of course is dependent on the bus passing that particular area where that child lives, and also the availability of space on that bus. It is good news that most boards are able to provide that transportation.
With respect to the 3.6 kilometres and the 2.4 kilometres - in our election campaign, in the platform that our Premier put forward there was a commitment to do
the review, to look at that to see if in fact we needed to make any recommendations for changes in that, but that was a commitment and I indicated yesterday in my introduction that we will be honouring the commitments that were made by the Premier during that campaign. So the short answer is yes, we will be doing that review, but I think it's important to note that safety is of utmost importance to all of us.
MS. WHALEN: Mr. Chairman, I wonder if I could just clarify what the minister refers to as the guidelines. The 2.4 kilometres, I know that's being used by HRSB, but I'm wondering, is that something that's also written into the department's guidelines - I thought it was a question of the Halifax Regional School Board actually taking their own initiative to bring the distance down below the 3.6 kilometres that's mandated by the province - so I'd like to know, has the province a position on the 2.4 kilometres from home?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member. You're correct, the 2.4 kilometres is something with HRM; however, we know that boards do have some leeway in the guidelines that they set within their own board. In most of rural Nova Scotia, I think you'll find that the boards have looked at 2.4 kilometres considering narrow roads, no sidewalks, and those kinds of things. It is at the board's discretion, that 2.4 kilometres, with the exception of HRM, where it is written.
MS. WHALEN: I thank the minister for that clarification, Mr. Chairman. What I'd like to ask as well on this subject is a bit about the guidelines again. Will the government come in with a hard and fast rule rather than just guidelines? I saw the rule actually in HRM, they do apply it in a very hard and fast way. They offer very little in the way of courtesy busing - maybe a very few exceptions. Generally speaking, particularly in an area like mine where the schools are very crowded and full, there is no courtesy busing provided and there's very little attention to parents' needs. I'd really like to see leadership from the provincial government to set some rules that will be a lot more responsive to the needs of families.
You're very well aware that often the schools start at unusual times in the day, sometimes very early or later and it's difficult for parents to work around that with their own work schedules - and it puts an awful lot of stress and strain on parents trying to arrange a safe arrival to school for their children. This became very clear to me when busing, which had been in place, was removed - just the kind of turmoil that it creates for families trying to find safe ways and still be able to go to work and earn a living and care for their families that way.
I wonder, could the minister indicate whether or not the intent is to lower the limits, and whether they will be hard and fast rules and not just guidelines for the individual school boards?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member. The commitment that was made at the time of the election was to review the bus transportation criteria. The practice in the past has been that the department sets an upper limit, and boards work within that, but they cannot exceed that. Students, for example, cannot be walking more than 3.6 kilometres. Whether that 3.6 kilometres will change or not as a result of the review, I can't comment on that right now, but I do know that it is something that has to be considered. I also know that responsibility at the board level and concerns for safety have to be a priority. I would also suggest that parents work with their local boards, transportation officers, and officials at the local board level, and if there are unsafe conditions that can be identified and brought to the board's attention, school advisory councils are just one way of making that happen.
MS. WHALEN: Mr. Chairman, I'd like to ask the minister a little bit about the department's position and role in the provision of lunch supervision for students at school. This is another issue that comes up frequently in every community, at least in this urban area where, again, the busing regulations are tied to the provision of lunch monitoring and the privilege of staying at school over the lunch hour. Again, going back to the quality of life for people in our communities, it certainly harms people who suddenly find themselves in a position where the lunch program is not available to them.
My own personal opinion is that lunch supervision should be available to families regardless of distance from school, simply because we live in a community where individual activities, like the provision of education and the need to support our families going to work, are not isolated, they're not two separate silos - we really need to listen to families as they struggle to work out their workday around school and school hours.
I mention, again, the unusual school hours. In my riding, one of the schools is dismissed at 2:20 in the afternoon - they're all finished for the afternoon. That certainly doesn't tie into a full day of education it would seem, but they have a shorter lunch hour and they start earlier in the morning. But it's very difficult to work all that around a schedule of employment, and I'm wondering, is there a department policy on the provision of supervision at lunch, or any move to review that?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member. The supervision that's provided at schools for lunches comes in a variety of ways and means. It is a board responsibility. In some areas it's community groups that go in and volunteer to do the supervision; in other cases it's paid supervisors, paid by the board; and in some cases it's teachers who give their time to do that, and the money that would normally be paid to lunch hour supervisors goes into some kind of fund that those teachers identify. So it comes in a variety of ways, but it is the responsibility of boards, and it is the responsibility of boards
to provide that supervision for students who are bused to their schools. Those are the guidelines that they would be using.
We recognize that sometimes school hours are not convenient for parents, but issues with respect to school hours are certainly done in connection with all of the school hours within a particular board, and how that works best in their busing operation. The short answer is lunch hour supervision is the responsibility of the boards and it is provided for any students who are bused.
MS. WHALEN: Just in closing on that subject, I'd simply say that there are an awful lot of students who fall between the cracks in that system, and that we need a little bit more direction, I think, to the school boards on how that's handled. It sounds like there's a lot of room for flexibility, but it also sounds like a mishmash of different programs are in place.
I'd like to move on to the question of special education and, specifically, tuition agreements. Not long ago, at the Public Accounts Committee, we had a discussion on special education. I am very interested in the department's response to the need to extend tuition agreements beyond two years for the students who qualify - those are students who have been approved for essentially a subsidy from the Province of Nova Scotia - the money that would otherwise be spent on their per-student allocation in a school board is now being given to the parents to redirect to one of just several schools that have been named as proper places for training of students who have certain learning disabilities, and the parents I'm speaking to, who have now completed their second year of the tuition agreements, I believe, are very concerned that the program in place was only to go for two years.
I'd like to think that that was a pilot project and that in fact you may revisit it and extend that service, because students are thriving now in these schools where otherwise they were floundering and lost and just simply falling between the cracks. Parents recognize that they simply weren't getting the education they need in the regular system. So I'd like to know the minister's response to tuition agreements and where they're headed.
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member. Special needs students do make up a small percentage of our population, and it's our intent to provide the best possible program we can for them. There are times when it's deemed that that cannot be delivered at the school level. In consultation with the parents, we do look at providing support for those students to attend another institution. Hopefully that intense training and one-on-one instruction that students get in those other schools will close the gap, and that student can be re-entered into the public school system.
The tuition at this point, prior to this year, was for two years. We did extend that in this budget - pending approval of this budget - for a third year. We also recognize that the amount of time that any student requires with this intervention does vary on an individual basis. The goals that have been set for those students and the time for intervention varies. In consultation with parents and with those providing the service, and with our staff at the department, we would look at when it's time to have that student re-enter the public schools. It may be six months, it may be one year, two years, and for some students it's three years - and that's why we're extending that to the third year.
If, in fact, there's a student in that third year, when that review takes place, through consultation it will be determined then whether the readiness level for that student to re-enter has been achieved. If it has not, we would be looking at continuing support for that student. But that's done on an individual basis, and it's done on an ongoing basis to move towards that re-enter date as the student is ready.
MS. WHALEN: One thing I would say is there's quite a significant percentage of students in our school system that have special needs. I'm unable to provide the figure, but the minister suggested it's only a small percentage of students with special needs, and we have a fairly significant percentage in our schools - I would hazard a guess of perhaps 15 per cent or more who have special needs.
Now only a small number of those are going into the tuition agreement programs and, again, remember, when a parent chooses that, even with the support that comes from the Department of Education, under this program they still have to find about an equal amount of money to pay the tuition at one of these private schools that are designed specifically for people with learning disabilities. The tuition is over $10,000 a year at all of those schools - and quite a bit more at Landmark East in the Valley - so it's still a very big contribution by the parents.
The other thing I'd like to mention is that the students who are taken from the public system and diverted to the other schools, where they are thriving, are also saving money for the Department of Education because you no longer need the intense one-on-one or the extra resources in the school system to help that student. So it's really a win-win situation. I want to say I'm thankful to hear that a third year is included in the budget. I wasn't aware of that, and I think that's good news for all those families that have been concerned about this.
What I would like to clarify from the minister's response, and maybe I just missed it, I just want to clarify, after the third year, is that when it becomes a case by case? Is that the new policy, that students will be evaluated and, when they are ready to return, they'll be reintegrated into the school system? So how are we proceeding beyond the third year - that really is my question.
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite. Just to clarify an earlier point that I made with respect to the number of students who will receive support, I think we have to be cautious and make sure that we're speaking with the right language and we're all believing the same definition of that language. We look at about 20 per cent of our students who receive some kind of support in our schools, we would not identify those as special- needs students, but we have about 20 per cent of our population that gets some support through resource, Reading Recovery and so on - we have about 4 per cent of our population. So I think your numbers are pretty consistent with ours, but just to clarify, it's 20 per cent that receive support, but only about 4 per cent of our students are on individual programs - so to clarify that.
Then the second part of the question. The consultation as to the re-entry is done on an individual basis and it's ongoing. I think I mentioned earlier that it may be determined that at the end of six months that student is able to re-enter, it may be at the end of two years, it may be at the end of three years. So the individual consultation on the re-entry of a student is ongoing.
With respect to the third year, when the student is into their third year, and we know that with this budget that would be the end of the tuition agreement, we would be in consultation with the educators and with the parents to see if more than three years is required, it would be done at that point when we do the consultation. So we're not saying no to anything beyond three years, but we are saying it will be part of a decision made during the consultation.
MS. WHALEN: I'm sure we'll have the opportunity to talk more about that at another occasion, but I appreciate the direction that the department is going. I would like to ask a little bit again around - you mentioned reading resource and so on, Reading Recovery - I would like to ask the minister whether the department is looking at one of the programs known as Spell Read, which is a program, a method of teaching children to read more proficiently. A lot of parents, including parents in my neighbourhood and my community, have come to me and they've looked for help in order to get their children into the Spell Read Program which, at present, is a private tutoring facility. It costs, I think, about $5,000 to have your children go through that program, but the results have been very, very promising, and any family I know who has gone there has been very, very pleased.
There's certainly an opportunity, and in the United States they've been looking at Spell Read as part of their initiative in the school system. I'm wondering, is there any way or at any time that the government might be looking at Spell Read as a pilot project somewhere within our own public system so that we can find out if, in fact, it's working so well, maybe it can help a lot of our own students who are struggling with literacy?
MS. CASEY: Mr Chairman, to the member. Spell Read, or any other kind of intervention support program that can help students in our public school system is something that we need to take a look at. Spell Read is one example, and staff are telling me that approximately six months ago some discussions, conversations began with respect to that program. Our language arts consultants are looking at it. If it is deemed to be something that we can work with, and that they can work within our school system, we would certainly be having some recommendations, and report from that. I'm pleased to say that those discussions have already started and, again, if this will provide the supports that are needed for our students, and our consultants are on line with that, we would be pleased to further that discussion and perhaps implementation.
MS. WHALEN: Thank you very much. I'm glad to see that that is at least being reviewed, because I can say that from the parents I have spoken to they have been very, very pleased with the results, and I don't think it should be limited to those who have the resources to afford that on a private basis - so a pilot project of some sort might be an ideal way to test it in the school system.
I wanted to move quickly to the area of post-secondary education and just look at the memorandum of understanding that's in place between the province and the universities. In that MOU, one of the things that the universities had asked for was that the amount of money being given each year to them at the end of the year in appropriations - which is kind of parallel to what we talked about yesterday around public libraries where you have a budget for public libraries and then there seems to be a pattern that at the end of the year an additional $1 million, or $1.2 million in the case of the libraries, is made available to the library system, but they can't count on it early in the year and they can't budget for it because they're never exactly sure, and the same thing was an issue around the university funding, where they had a strict amount in the budget and then were sort of led to believe each year that more would be available at the end of the year.
One year - I think it was two years ago - there was $190 million in the budget and then a $10 million appropriation was given at the end of the year to bring them up to about $200 million. The universities had asked that this practice stop and that the amount that is budgeted for annually be fixed, and that way they can plan better and use the funds in a more efficient manner, use it in the best way possible, rather than scrambling at the end of the year, which is something that throughout government, I must say - and this is perhaps my accountant's hat coming on - it's a very bad practice to have a lot of mad spending at the end of a fiscal year when you haven't had a chance to properly plan and program that spending. We see it in every department, and we see it in a lot of big organizations, where at the end of the year trying to spend your budget or extra surpluses being distributed means really poor spending patterns.
So the universities asked that to stop and it was supposed to be enshrined in the MOU that that would be the case. I wonder if the minister could refer to that practice. Thank you.
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, the memorandum of understanding with the universities is a signed agreement, and the amounts of money that are to be allocated are identified and each year we have made a commitment to that. The practice you're talking about should not interfere with their planning because they are well aware of the allocation they're going to receive. What happens is that it's almost like an advance on their next year's funding that they get, so it doesn't take away from the allocation that they would be expecting and it doesn't take away from their ability to plan and budget within that - it simply means that they get that advance from their next year's at that time.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time for the member has expired.
The honourable member for Pictou East.
MR. CLARRIE MACKINNON: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. A very good friend, Robert Chisholm, who is well known to this House, was in the antechamber and wanted to speak to me for a moment, so I do apologize.
I have a series of questions, Mr. Chairman, and I understand I have to share the time with a number of others, so I hope the minister will, in fact, give me an ear on a few of these questions outside of this Chamber.
First, I would like to compliment the department and compliment the minister for some of the pilot projects that are, in fact, taking place in Nova Scotia at this time. One in particular, I understand, is the first east of the Eastern Townships, and that is a computer per student in the classroom. This has been done in my constituency of Pictou East; it has been done at a Grade 4 level.
It's my understanding that in jurisdictions where this has been done for a considerable period of time, like in Chicago, there has been a tremendous increase in literacy and numeracy. I'm asking the minister whether there are intentions of expanding this one laptop, it's one laptop per student, and I believe the results on the initial trial have been great.
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite. One of my responsibilities prior to my retirement was in the area of technology. So I have a keen interest in that, and I recognize the value that that adds to instruction and learning. We have embarked, as a department, on a pilot, and as with all pilots, there is a monitoring and an evaluation
component, and that is underway for that particular pilot. We are into the second year of that pilot, so the monitoring and outcomes and comments from parents, teachers and students will form a part of that assessment of that pilot. So it's a beginning, but in an age of technology in which we all live, and our students are more familiar with calculators and computers at age five than most of us are now, I don't think we can do anything but continue to move forward in that.
MR. MACKINNON: On that particular question, I should also congratulate the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board for being the willing recipient of that new technology as well.
The role of teacher assistants is vital to our education system, and where there are multiple students in a classroom needing teacher assistants, is the department developing some kind of a ratio or formula in respect to this matter? There are a number of classrooms that do, in fact, have multiple needs with only one teacher assistant.
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite. Teacher assistants are just another example of supports that we provide for our students and, indeed, for our teachers in the classroom. At the school level and at the board level, there is an ongoing assessment of student needs and what we need to do as a board or as a department to provide supports. One of the ways of doing that is through teacher assistants, and we do provide the funding to boards to provide that service. You're very correct, there may be more than one student within a classroom who does need the supports. If those supports can be provided by one additional body in the room, then that would be done, but if they cannot be, then we have no objection to - and we know we do have classrooms where there's more than one TA in the classroom at all times.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, to the minister. I would like to ask the minister what is being done to encourage, sort of the vo-tech ,or the Options and Opportunities - O2, as it's called - what is being done to expand this very important aspect of education? It's an area where some students get hands-on experience in important mechanical and technical life functions. This doesn't infringe in any way on the Nova Scotia Community College system. In fact, it assists, rather than crossing over into the NSCC roles. So I'm wondering, is there anything being done to more fully recognize this? I don't think it's fully recognized in some jurisdictions. I'm getting concerns about this and certainly I have a responsibility to bring the concerns of Pictou East to this House and that is one of them.
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite, we recognize there are many students who are not university bound and should not be university bound. They have an interest, an aptitude and a desire to work in the trades. We have a responsibility to make sure we provide some kind of support and training for them as they go through our public school system.
To that end, the O2 - Options and Opportunities - initiative that is in our budget this year does begin to address that need. We are doing it by a phase-in program. We are looking at 27 schools in the 2006-07 school year and that will continue to grow. To begin with there will be schools in each board and we will be working with the parents, students and teachers to get feedback on those so we can take some direction as to what needs to be added or modified with respect to that program. It's a good news program, it does address a need, it does provide support, direction and training for a population that otherwise we may not serve well. I'm very pleased with that program but we will be monitoring it very closely, and there are, as I said, 27 schools that have been selected across the province to give us a fair representation.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, to the minister, is there a breakdown of the numbers to the Chignecto-Central board?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member, yes there is, and I would be pleased to share that not only with respect to Chignecto-Central, but perhaps I could share it with all boards because I'm sure all members are interested in what's happening in their particular board. Please remember that this is the beginning, these are the first 27, next year we'll be adding more.
In Annapolis Valley Regional School Board we have Horton High School, Central Kings Rural High School, Northeast Kings Education Centre and Middleton Regional High School. In Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board we have Breton Education Centre and Cabot High School. In Chignecto-Central Regional School Board we have Oxford Regional High School, Hants North Rural High School and South Colchester Academy. In CSAP we have École secondaire de Par-en-Bas, and École secondaire de Clare.
In Halifax Regional School Board we have Sir John A. Macdonald High School, Sackville High School, Queen Elizabeth High School, St. Patrick's High School, J.L. Ilsley High School, Charles P. Allen High School, Lockview High School and Auburn Drive High School. In South Shore Regional School Board we have New Germany Rural High School, Forest Heights Community School and Liverpool Regional High School. In Strait Regional School Board we have St. Mary's Academy, Cape Breton Highlands Academy-Education Centre and Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional School. And in Tri-County Regional School Board we have Digby Regional High School and Barrington Municipal High School.
That is the beginning, but it's not the end.
MR. MACKINNON: I want to commend the minister for the expansion of this program and I hope it is even expanded beyond the 27. I'm pleased with some of the positive responses that I've gotten from this minister, unlike some responses I've gotten
in some other areas. One last question if I could, and I have many more of them, as everyone knows there is such a massive number of teachers that have retired because of the indexing and those retirees have every right, they have every right to substitute. However, I want to make a statement, and this is nothing reflected at those retirees whatsoever. We have a serious out-migration in Pictou County. It is the second highest out-migration of 18- to 24-year olds, and many other age categories.
My question is, is there any way of coming up with a blend of substitution that certainly includes the retirees, but also the recent graduates and those who are living away in other provinces and would really like to get home? The question is - and this is not stepping on retirees whatsoever, I want to make that 100 per cent clear - is the department able to do anything to ensure that the ratio of substitution reflects a fair balance between retirees and others? In saying that, the retirees in many cases, in most cases, they're still relatively young and all of them are very, very capable and certainly will make excellent substitutes. However, my question is, is there some way of reflecting a fair balance between the retirees and others?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite. As a retired teacher, the opportunity to substitute certainly didn't fit into my plan; however, there are many teachers who have many, many years of experience and who are willing and able to contribute back to the public school system, and in many cases principals are encouraged and pleased to have substitute teachers return and do work in their schools - they are familiar with the school, they are familiar with the curriculum, and they are just a great asset. So we will find that many teachers do come back and do substituting within the guidelines for their employment.
However, we also recognize that our goal is to attract the young graduates, and to employ the young graduates. We want our young people who are trained here as teachers to stay here and contribute to our public education system. One of the things that we do is the job fair and the early hire, which allows us to get out, allows boards to get out and have young graduates, who will be graduating in that Spring, come to a job fair and boards do what they call "an early hire" particularly in areas where there is some concern for qualified teachers - that would be your high school math, sciences and your French immersion kind of teachers. So boards can do early hires with these graduates, and we're finding that many of them do take advantage of that because they do want to stay here.
So our goal is to encourage those young people to stay and, if we have vacancies available, boards advertise those. They're on the Internet, so they're across the country, and that is intended to invite and encourage those who have gone away to come back home.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Halifax Needham.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, 10 minutes really isn't enough time to deal with all of the problems and the issues and the concerns that I have, as a member of this House, drawn to my attention in education. I have a very limited period of time, so I'm going to focus on an issue that I'm hoping I can get some clarity on, from the minister and the department, that might help me deal with all of those other concerns that I have.
I want to start by telling the minister - she's a new member - that prior to the amalgamation of school boards here in metro, the Halifax School Board had designated a number of small elementary schools, within their board, as inner-city schools. There were four inner-city schools and, of those four schools, three of them are in the constituency of Halifax Needham, and they're wonderful small schools. Joseph Howe in particular, called after a former premier, is a very interesting small school, and it has had some graduates of distinction come out of that school, including George Elliott Clarke.
Kids who go to the inner-city schools - and the reason these schools were designated as inner-city schools was because, quite often, the kids came from single, female-led households, very modest and low incomes, maybe low educational attainment on the part of the parents, African Nova Scotian learners, who, many themselves, had come through maybe a segregated school system. So these children start off with many disadvantages, in many respects, and they will continue to be disadvantaged unless school boards and the Department of Education take the necessary steps to provide the additional supports and resources to help these kids succeed; and they can succeed, and they must succeed. If they don't, we all fail.
Over the years I have done my utmost to get from the board, the now amalgamated board, information on measurements on outcomes for these schools. I've attempted to engage in a conversation around suspensions. I've attempted to find out more about the turnover among staff, principals and teaching staff, the placing of staff in those schools who come from African Nova Scotian backgrounds, so that the children have good role models and people who will understand many of the challenges that people face who have had to live in a society that has racism.
I have to tell you, I and many people in my community are really concerned about the lack of information we get and the accountability that goes with the provision of information. As recently as two weeks ago I attended a graduation at one of these schools where there's also a junior high. There were five kids on the stage, there were 11 kids in the Grade 9 class, and we tried to make that event a positive event for those five children, but it was a challenge. I go to all of the junior high graduations in my riding. I see such a quantitative and qualitative difference.
I'm basically at the end of my rope now, this is why I'm taking this here to you. I spoke with one of the senior administrators for the board requesting an opportunity to sit down and talk about some of these concerns. I was told that there is no protocol for a member of the Legislature to meet with people who work in the school boards to have these discussions. Moreover, I was questioned about whether these concerns were my personal concerns, or were they the concerns of families and people who reside in my constituency.
I'm raising this issue because if that's the treatment I get from senior administration, bureaucrats, public servants, then can you imagine the response that parents without power and voice get? I have these concerns brought to me regularly, and I've had enough. I want to know, what is the accountability mechanism from the government and the Department of Education for senior administration in school boards? I believe the public has had enough.
I've been a member of this Chamber now for eight years, and there are three things that consistently are brought up with me around education. They are supplementary funding, the big fight between HRM and the board every year, they are about board accountability, and not the elected members - I have an elected school board member, Miss Kim Berkers , who is delightful to work with. She has as much difficulty getting information as I do, and she's an elected member on that board. Go figure. So I want to know, what is the Department of Education's position with respect to board accountability, and what are these protocols that I have never heard about in terms of being able to sit down and have a conversation about concerns that an elected person has on behalf of their constituents and kids who live in their constituencies? Can you clarify that for me, please, Madam Minister?
MS. CASEY: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite. I have to confess, I don't know what protocols you are talking about either. I will commit to you that if there is a concern that you have and you have been denied access, we want to know about that. We believe in accountability. Parents should feel comfortable and, in most cases, do feel comfortable going in and speaking with their teachers or with the administration at the school. I'm not sure of the particulars of the situation, but I certainly would welcome an opportunity to sit down with you and get the particulars.
If there is an issue that you have, as the representative in that particular area, or those schools in that particular board, your first line of communication, as you know, would be at the school level. If there is no satisfaction at that point, then you go up to the next level. If you're telling me that you have gone through those levels and with no satisfaction, then my door is open. I would welcome an opportunity to sit down with you.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Thank you very much. I very much appreciate this because sometimes I can't even get a response at any level, even a phone call, or a
letter responded to. I have now hit the boiling point. When you really see problems that are not being addressed in a school and you just want to have a conversation about that, it's unfortunate that it comes here - I think in some ways one of my concerns is that sooner or later the high schools here in metro are going to be amalgamated. With a new school, a much larger school, there is a fear in parts of my constituency that young people coming out of a couple of our schools are going to be lost and sidelined and that the foundational work isn't being laid to really look at what their needs are going to be and how they're going to be addressed in this new sort of super high school, big high school.
Which brings me to the point I think that my colleague, the member for Waverley-Fall River-Beaver Bank was trying to make with respect to Black learners when he was speaking about Vice-Principal Wade Smith's public comments earlier in this year when he was talking about the need to explore any kind of alternative for Black learners, including an Afrocentric school.
I want to say, I know Mr. Smith. He is so respected, and he is so supported in the community that I represent, as an individual and as an educator. He is somebody who cares deeply about all of his students. I think he teaches English, and he teaches African-Canadian-North American writers, and a Black studies kind of English course. I know students, it doesn't make any difference what their background or their ethnicity, who take that course, they absolutely adore him and respect him. I have been in the school system, so when he raises the flag that there is a problem, I pay attention, because so many people respect and know his work and know how dedicated he is.
I'm really concerned that we're able to get the attention of the department and of the Halifax Regional School Board to take seriously the concerns that come out of the inner-city school community, the parents, the staff, and people like Vice-Principal Smith, and actually address that.
I want to ask the minister, because I found her responses quite general, I would not go so far as to say evasive, but they were very general in response to my colleague, the member for Waverley-Fall River-Beaver Bank. The concerns that Mr. Smith raised, I think should have sent a flag up for the department that it can't be business as usual with respect to the provision of services.
So following the concerns that he raised, I want to know, what initiative did the department take to sit down with Mr. Smith, and with other people who have the expertise and the front-line contact and the knowledge of what the frustrations are, to really move forward with trying to address these things? What concrete steps are being planned to deal with the frustrations of Black educators and Black learners and their families and their communities? What's being done to prepare for this new high school and the large numbers of students, where the kids from the inner city are going to be a
very small population? We don't want them to be marginalized and sidelined in their education, they deserve far better than that.
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite. I detect a number of questions in that. I'll try to answer some of them, and I'll try not to be evasive or non-committal.
With respect to the amalgamation of schools. Whenever schools are consolidated from two or three smaller schools into a larger one, there is really an important step that has to take place long before the school students ever move to that new building. I would anticipate, I would hope that that process has already started with respect to those schools that are going to amalgamate. That process includes the school advisory councils, it includes the administration, it includes the teachers, it includes the parents, and very often activities for the students from both school bodies, if it's two or three, where they can come together.
I know from experience in the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board that in Pictou County we did take high school students from five schools and consolidated them into two. There were fears in those communities, just like there are in yours, and there were diverse populations there that had to be accommodated. The leadership on that particular initiative, in that particular board, was taken by the administrations in the schools that were being consolidated, but it was a very thought-out and well-planned series of events that would take place so that that coming together of both the parent community and the school community and the teacher staff was as smooth and as easy as possible.
I don't know if that has happened in this particular community, but I certainly can find out. If it hasn't, we would be encouraging the board to make sure that they and their staff started that process, because opening the door in September and having kids come together is not the way for them to be introduced, one to another. So that particular concern is something I think we can work toward.
And before I leave that - that would include representation from any diverse group of learners who was there. I would expect, I would hope that that group is represented on the student council and on the school advisory council, because they are important players. Students on the student council can often give excellent advice to teachers as to how that integration can take place. So I would hope that that population is represented on both of those bodies.
With respect to the initiatives in some of the inner-city schools - within our budget we have looked at some specifics, literacy projects in five of those schools. I
believe it would include, and I'm not sure of the names, but I believe it would include the schools that you're referring to. That's in our budget for this year. We're also looking - it wouldn't be at that particular level, but it would be for that population - identifying some skills and apprentice-kind of opportunities for them as they get older, and also expanding the bursaries for students as they go through their university.
So those are some of the things that are just in our budget this year which, we believe, will begin to address some of the concerns that exist. We're not dismissing the fact, we know the concerns are there and we know we have a responsibility to try to address them. So those are some of the initial steps we are taking.
With respect to a comment that you made in an earlier question, but I think it applies here as well, the assessments, the scores, the data that comes from assessments that are done, if it's elementary it would be at the Grade 3 and the Grade 6 levels, and that data is available at the school level, it's available at the board level, it's available at our department level, and it's public information. The comparisons of that data gives you a pretty good picture of whether what's happening in the school is working or not. So I would, again, welcome the opportunity to review that data. That's probably the best way we have of determining do we continue what we're doing or do we try something else. So the data's there to show the picture. Once we know what the picture is, we can look toward resources and services that will help those students.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Queens.
MS. VICKI CONRAD: I have two questions. I will begin with the first question and then I'll wait for the response and then move on to my second question. I understand from the minister's comments, yesterday, that consultants will be available in the schools to promote and raise awareness for students around healthy lifestyles. I think this is a very good thing. Certainly our young people are constantly being barraged with mixed messages about what healthy lifestyles actually look like. That being said, I'm hoping that the consultants who will be in the school system will be looking at the whole healthy lifestyle of individuals. You know, sometimes we tend to think of healthy lifestyles as being physical education and making healthy food choices when our students are in school and out of school when they're making choices for their food at lunch time.
One of my concerns around the whole healthy lifestyle for students, many of our schools have a real serious problem with youth, especially in the junior high age group where students are making bad healthy choices. We have some schools that are over-riddled with drug use, and also risky sexual behaviour which sometimes happens on the school grounds. I'm not suggesting that this is an issue for the Department of Education; however, risky lifestyle choices that students are making while they're in the education system certainly does affect their ability to learn in a safe and healthy environment.
I guess my question is, the consultants going into the schools, what type of healthy lifestyle messages are they going to be delivering to our students? Will it be messages for the whole healthy awareness for students? Also, I'd like to know what the process is for contracting out these consultants. Will they be contracted through the Department of Education or will these consultants come from consulting with the Department of Health? Once these consultants are in place, I'm asking just what types of time frames they will be giving to the school system. Will they be part-time consultants coming in once a week, once a month? Will they be offering class time instruction for healthy lifestyles, or will there be sessions that will be available to students if they so wish to participate? Also, with that process too, what type of system is going to be in place to measure the outcomes of having consultants in the school system raising awareness around healthy lifestyle issues?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite, I want to clarify in the beginning that the introduction of the consultants at each board - it's not a pilot, it's something that we have recognized a need and so we are beginning the process. Pilots could have a short life, but this one we're not expecting will have a short life. We recognize the need.
I spoke yesterday about putting guidance people into schools at the elementary Grades 3 to 6, and boards will have flexibility and we will direct to boards the flexibility that they have so if the need is at a junior high level, there will be some flexibility. They can take some of those resources and some of those staff and put them in junior high.
We believe we have a good system in place for guidance at the high school. We recognize that we needed something at the elementary and we recognize that we need something at the junior high, so we're trying to close that gap between elementary and secondary. Junior high is a critical age for students and they are making some decisions and choices, and unfortunately some of them are not always the best choices. So we recognize that.
With respect to the structure, there will be a provincial coordinator and they will be working with the consultants which we have allocated funds to each board to hire that consultant. The model we're looking at is the consultant would be working with the teachers at the board level. It would be perhaps not direct consultation between the consultant and the student, but rather the consultant working with teachers to give them strategies they can use, because most of the learning in elementary and junior high, in particular, takes place on a daily basis between the student and the teacher. You go into a class for healthy lifestyles and then you go on to something else. It's integrated into the delivery of all of the subjects.
So what does it include? It does include additional physical activity. It will be a focus on human sexuality, also on healthy foods and healthy lifestyles. Those are just three of the components of that, but it is to develop the whole child.
MS. CONRAD: In my community, we have a small rural school, Mill Village Consolidated School. It's a P-6 school environment. Mill Village Consolidated has been on the chopping block for closure for the last 10 years or so. We have had several elementary schools in the riding of Queens close out over the last several years.
The first time the school was on the chopping block was when I still had young children in the school system. I was one of the many parents who rallied around with the rest of the community and the teachers to advocate for our school to remain open. There is a strong community and a strong parent support group that still exists today and we have been fighting consistently over the last several years to ensure our school remains open.
Like all schools, our school is the heart of our community. It is the first environment for our young children, our young learners. They experience for the first time away from home that welcoming environment. Certainly we look at our community school as being that welcoming environment. It's really comforting to know that our young students are so close to home. They get very much one-on-one instruction from teachers. Parents are very committed to raising funds for the school throughout the year to maintain some of the luxuries the school and the children enjoy over the years.
I'm asking the minister, what assurances can you give to small community schools such as Mill Village Consolidated that you will support us in our endeavours to see this school does remain open and does remain the heart of our community?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member, the whole passion of small schools exists across the province. What we need to do is recognize what's in the best interests of students as far as their education and what's in the best interests of the communities, when that whole issue is reviewed. As you know, there is a review that will begin in the Fall. I would encourage you and others in your community to take advantage of the opportunity to present before that review committee, and as you will know, the whole business of school closures and studies that have been taking place in three of our boards have been put on hold until that review is completed. I'm expecting a report from that committee early in 2007.
It will be a short study, but it will be across the province and it will provide opportunity for consultation and input and I would encourage you. We want to hear from small communities during that process so that all of that input can be considered, before any recommendations or changes to legislation might be considered.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage.
MR. KEVIN DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, I wanted to take the time that I have to talk about a couple of issues, one of which I think the deputy minister can guess. I'll start with a question with regard to the new capital project construction schedule. It was in 2005 that the government had sent a letter to the Halifax Regional School Board, I assume all the school boards, asking for a list of school priorities, and I know there has been some betwixt and between. I was just wondering, can I get on the record when the minister expects Cabinet to review and she will be announcing the next level of capital school projects, particularly for the Halifax Regional School Board?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite, I've just been advised by my deputy that that list will be going to Cabinet in the Fall.
MR. DEVEAUX: Thank you. So I understand it's going to Cabinet in the Fall. When would we be expecting some form of announcement, in November, January? I understand these are fluid numbers, but if I can get some sense of it, it would be appreciated.
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member, the timeline for any kind of an announcement will depend on how much debate there is at Cabinet. (Laughter)
MR. DEVEAUX: You know, the Minister of Education learns quickly. I suspect that the person next to her, who has experience probably answering these questions in the past in one form or another, has been very good at giving her advice.
I do want to, for the record, make a point about the fact - and it's funny, because you hear questions from other members about school closures and so on, I guess my community faces the alternative to that. It's 13,000 people. Larger than Truro, larger than Amherst, larger than Glace Bay. In a couple of years, there will be 15,000 people in Eastern Passage. We have 600 students who are going, or are currently bused out of the community. It will be 750 students in a matter of two years, and yet we don't have a high school. (Applause)
This is an issue that particularly grates on the nerves of the people of Eastern Passage/Cow Bay and Shearwater. It is the largest community by far in Nova Scotia that does not have its own high school. We bus those students out, in fact, I would argue that with the cost of busing that there would actually be money saved if you built a high school over the long period.
So I do want to make the point before I sit down that I know there's a project the Halifax Regional School Board has presented to you, revised, has made that clear that they have presented, I think, a business plan that does result in a reasonable approach to that by 2011, there would be a high school for the people of Eastern Passage. I think it's important that that be put on the record.
Now, I want to turn to a separate issue, Mr. Chairman, which is the issue of supplementary funding, which is the other issue that grates on the nerves of the people of Eastern Passage. I know the minister coming from outside of Halifax may be new to the issue, but this is a very important issue because back in 1995, when we passed the Education Act, the Province of Nova Scotia said it was okay for the former City of Dartmouth and the former City of Halifax to continue to impose the supplementary funding, but the former county can't do that. So what we've resulted in, I've seen in the school system - let me step back a second.
The fact that 10 years after amalgamation of the school board, we still talk about former county, former Dartmouth, former Halifax, is a shame. What we have as a result is a two-tier, if not a three-tier education system. We have a system in Halifax where they get sort of the Cadillac, with the extra funding they collect. In Dartmouth, we have what I would consider probably the Buick or the Oldsmobile, if they still make them, and then in the county we've got the jalopy.
Frankly, of all the places in Nova Scotia that are getting underfunded, it's the former County of Halifax in the Halifax Regional School Board. I think the largest percentage of students in the Halifax Regional School Board live in the former county and the Town of Bedford, and yet they are legally not allowed to provide supplementary funding because the Province of Nova Scotia refuses to amend the legislation to reflect that challenge.
The problem, Mr. Chairman, is that in the Halifax Regional School Board, former county, we get nothing. We get very few services. While if I drive across what is a fictitious border from the county into Dartmouth or into Halifax, they are getting a lot of services. I would be remiss if I didn't stand in this House and put on the record that as residents of Halifax Regional Municipality and students who attend Halifax Regional School Board schools, the former county students are being neglected.
I guess my question to the minister is, when is the province going to admit that the concept of supplementary funding for the former City of Halifax and the former City of Dartmouth, but not allowing it for the former Halifax County and the Town of Bedford, is causing a schism in our education system that has resulted in the students in the former county and the Town of Bedford not getting the same quality education as the students in the two cities?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite. My answer will probably be shorter than the question, partly because the supplementary funding is something I'm being brought up to speed on, but I do recognize that it is an arrangement, an agreement between the municipality and the school board. We would welcome any kind of a proposal that would look at a more equitable distribution of supplementary funding across those three previous boards that have now become amalgamated.
MR. DEVEAUX: Can the minister say for the record, can she admit for the record that the whole system was created - you can admit it was the former government, that's fine, I have no problem putting that on the record - but can you at least admit that this whole problem has been created and is still in place because there's a clause in the Municipal Government Act that results in this two-tier system?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member. Again, another short answer. I recognize that there is a joint committee that's reviewing this and I'm not prepared to make any statement about why or why not that decision was made at the time of amalgamation, but I will make a statement that I'm not prepared to see an equitable distribution of funds to our students.
MR. DEVEAUX: Will the minister admit that it's that clause in the Municipal Government Act that is part of the problem?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member. If the clause in the Municipal Government Act to which you reference does restrict the use of supplementary funding, then it does contribute to an inequitable distribution.
MR. DEVEAUX: Mr. Chairman, I appreciate that answer, for the record, and I will pass my time over to the member for Halifax Atlantic.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Halifax Atlantic.
MS. MICHELE RAYMOND: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate the opportunity to ask the minister a couple of questions. I guess I would like to preface it by saying that throughout this we keep on hearing about school communities and so on. There's a great deal of fondness for small schools, local schools, to the degree that a community represents common ground that's often geography, but we also find a series of other things that need to be regarded in reference to that.
There is a series of communities in a school. One of those that I found myself involved with, somewhat inadvertently, was the day as a parent I had my own MSN moment - I'm sure people can imagine what's involved with that - and I began realizing as I spoke to other parents, as I queried whether or not it was true that everybody does in fact decide to go out at 11:00 p.m. and meet on a street corner, sort of just by some
magic that happens in the air, but all members of a certain school community that they all decide to meet on a given playground, as I began querying other parents and realizing they weren't part of that "everybody", they weren't informed, I realized that a couple of the communities that exist in the school are, in fact, virtual communities. I'm wondering, what has the province to say and intend to say at a broad policy level about the existence of what is sometimes referred to as electronic bullying?
I have heard numerous, numerous stories of children who are being harassed, even from school computers, in their homes or in their schools. There's no denying there is a connection between the community and the school. What does the province see as the solution?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite. I spoke earlier about the advantages to having technology in our schools, recognizing that that potential exists for the misuse of that technology, if we can call it that. The boards have been asked to put in place and enforce very closely and very rigidly an Internet use policy, and all boards do have that in place. It's monitored to the best of the boards' and staffs' ability.
Is that good enough? Obviously it's not catching all of the misuse of the Internet. We would be concerned about a misuse in our schools, and what happens with respect to communication on the Internet outside of our schools is very difficult and practically impossible for school boards to monitor - but activity that takes place in the school is what we have our policy structured and designed to address and to protect students from the misuse of that.
MS. RAYMOND: Thank you, and I do appreciate that it's a very difficult situation to monitor. I guess having had the experience of individual boards, and individual schools in boards, being asked to develop their own policies around issues which are sometimes quite uniform - I'm really wondering whether the province does not see that it has a role in designing a framework for acceptable Internet use. I'd also like to comment that although these things may be taking place partly outside the school, they often have their root in the school.
MS. CASEY: I would repeat that boards do have their own policy. They are cognizant of the fact that there is misuse. They are implementing that policy, as I said, as best they can under sometimes very difficult circumstances, because access to the technology can be under the desk or around the corner and it's very difficult to monitor all of that. But there are certainly some outcomes and some repercussions for the misuse of the equipment or the violation of that policy; in fact it can lead to, and has led to, suspension and charges with law enforcement.
So it is an issue, it's something we're aware of, and we're aware that it is increasing. It may cause us to look at something more stringent within our school boards
- allowing the technology to be used as it was intended, but stopping the misuse, and that's the dilemma.
MS. RAYMOND: I certainly do appreciate that. I'm not sure that necessarily more stringent needs to be the case, perhaps more structured, because I would suggest that probably the department is in a better position to offer at least a framework for acceptable use of technology, given that it is constantly changing and doesn't really vary from board to board.
Moving from that, however, to another issue sort of surrounding communities. There has been a great deal of concern about the future of French immersion programming and given that the federal government has in the past established that it has a goal of doubling the number of French-speaking graduates by the year 2013 - that's only seven years from now - I'm just wondering, what is the province doing in terms of funding to ensure that the graduates leaving schools deemed competent in French are, in fact, doubled in number?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member, the assessment for students who are going through the French Immersion Program and the competency of graduates is, I believe, the question. We are developing - have not yet, but are in the process of developing - an assessment that will be administered at the Grade 9 level. That will be the beginning of our attempt to look at the outcomes and the success of our students at certain stages along the development, and along their educational program. I've just been advised that the development of that assessment is underway. I can't give you a date for implementation of that, but it is a beginning and it will be the beginning of a number of assessments by the time students reach graduation.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth East.
MS. JOAN MASSEY: I probably only have a couple of minutes and my honourable colleague from the Liberal Party is going to allow me to take a few minutes of his time, but I just want to get this one question out.
Over the weekend I had the opportunity to attend a community event in my community at my high school. In talking to some of the people at the event at Prince Andrew High School, and with talking to some people who were organizing this event, they told me that they thought they had - and they were going to check on this and get back to me on Monday but they haven't yet so I want to ask this question - they thought that they had perhaps paid around $4,700 to rent that facility to put this event on which would have been two nights and two days.
My understanding was in one of the previous sessions there was a report that came out from your department that said that our schools were to be used as community schools and that they could only charge for the heat, the lights, the janitors and this sort of thing. Maybe I'm wrong, but that sounds to me like an exorbitant amount of money and if we're going to keep our schools as schools that operate and allow community functions to go on, then this is not a good thing. I was just wondering, could you comment on that?
I realize this is short notice and if you can get back to me on what really was charged for this event, I would really appreciate it. If I'm wrong I will apologize to you and also to the people who gave me the information by thought. This is as good a time as any to find out sort of what would be the average cost even of something like this occurring.
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite. Perhaps we both need a little more detail on this one, but I know that our position is that there would be no charge for school-related activities for youth under the age of 19. Boards do have a fee structure that they use and that they charge for the use of their facilities and you're right, it does cover things like janitors and so on. But I would need more detail on that one and perhaps if you can provide that, it would provide the clarification that we both need.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Annapolis.
MR. STEPHEN MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, I want to thank the minister again for the opportunity to question her. Listening to the debate over the last few days, I know the issue around school fees has come up and I'm looking for a bit of clarification on your department's criteria around the school fees and particularly around band programs, and whether or not there actually will be a fee for a high school credit band program, for example, in Nova Scotia this coming September.
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member, we did discuss school fees and indicated that curriculum-related activities should not be subject to a fee. You're speaking in particular about a band program, a high school credit band program, and that would be an elective, not a mandatory, not a compulsory program. So I believe I'm correct on that. If a student wishes to enroll in that program and take that as a credit, and they do not have an instrument of their own and they need to have one in order to participate, the option to rent that would be made available. If they have their own instrument, there would be no charge, but if they don't have, there would be a rental fee and that would be determined by the band auxiliary or the school, or the board, or an outside supplier.
MR. MCNEIL: One of the problems in the constituency that I represent is that much or all of the equipment that is used by band programs, quite frankly, the money is
raised to buy and purchase that from band associations. As I'm sure you're well aware, once that equipment arrives into the school, it no longer belongs to the band association, it belongs to the school board. Is the school board going to have the ability to lease and rent that equipment back to those students, or is there going to be some way, through your department, a direction in your department that the band associations will actually have ownership of that equipment?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member, I'm not aware of the agreement that you're speaking of that exists between your band auxiliary or your band association and the board. I'd certainly appreciate more information on that, but it sounds to me like what you're saying is the band auxiliary or the band association raises money, buys the equipment and it becomes the property of the school board?
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, to the minister, just for clarification, I don't believe that is unique to my constituency. That's a policy that is, to my understanding, province-wide. The band association cannot own that equipment inside that school. Once it becomes part of the program in the school, it's owned by the school board or the department. The issue is, will the board have the ability to be able to rent that equipment back, or will the board have the ability to actually offload that and leave it in the proper hands which would be the band parents association?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member, I need to get more familiar with that policy because frankly, I'm not sure I like what I hear, thank you.
MR. MCNEIL: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I thank the minister. I look forward to hearing about that, as I do about the rollout of the charter letter surrounding the high school.
Another issue that has come up in my consistency is around a couple of the high schools: Bridgetown Regional High School and AWEC, Annapolis West Education Centre. Student enrolment is declining and because of that, when you plug in the formula that the Department of Education has for the teacher allocation, it's becoming virtually impossible for those schools to begin to offer the credits that you require for them to graduate.
The Annapolis Valley Regional School Board, to their credit, has provided two extra teachers for this coming year to Bridgetown and Annapolis West Education Centre. What I'm wondering is, from your department, is there any initiative to bring forward to ensure that the rural high schools that are suffering declining enrolment will be able to continue to operate and provide the course level that your department is requiring?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member. I know that one step we have taken with respect to additional financial support to small rural high schools is targeted for
schools that are under 100 students, and we have some of those around our province, and that is the first step.
We also recognize that in some of our high schools we are able to provide on-line courses which allow students to pick up on that course without having to have the qualified teacher delivering that program to them. Are we prepared to look at other ways to support small high schools? We would be prepared to look at that, but at this point our funding allocation is for schools that are rural schools of 100 students or less.
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, it is my understanding and, I believe, it is the mandate of your department to ensure that all Nova Scotia children get the same access to quality education. By using the cut-off of under 100 students, it really doesn't take into account the very fact that the pressure on schools of 300 to 350 to 400 students because of trying to meet the credit load that your department is putting on them - that is, saying that students who graduate need x number of credits - they have the inability to provide those credits right now under the teacher/student ratio formula that your department is putting out.
To say to students that you can take a course on-line is, in my view, an admission of failure and is an admission showing the problem with that particular formula. I have students in my constituency who are actually leaving those schools and going to other schools, because they are providing them with the options that you're telling them they need and they feel they need in order to move forward as they leave high school and go on to university.
I want you to be able to say to the people of Annapolis County that their children are getting the same quality of education as they are in Kings, as they are in Truro and anywhere else in this province. Under the present formula, if you continue to allow the teacher/student ratio to fund the staffing issue, you cannot say that. To use the cut-off of 100 is unfair, unfair, unfair to many of those schools, and in particular it's unfair to those students.
So I want to know, when can we expect that number to be moved up from 100 to be more sensible?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite. It is my understanding that when the boards did meet with the department to look at how the best support could be provided to those small rural schools, that there was an agreement between and among the participants that the first step would be to look at schools with 100 students or less. That was an agreement on the part of the boards, together with the department, and I said that was a first step.
We would certainly be interested in hearing from your board if there are challenges that they face as far as delivery of our curriculum to their schools and look at possible solutions for that, and we would welcome an opportunity to hear from them in that regard.
MR. MCNEIL: Was it an agreement with the boards or was it flat out to the boards, here it is, take it or leave it? If you want to know how your teacher/student ratio is impacting on the real people it is affecting, that would be the students, you should be reaching out and asking those high school students who are being denied credits because of the staffing situation and the staffing formula you're putting out that does not allow their high school to offer them that credit.
I say to you again, you are forcing kids to leave Annapolis County, quite frankly, to go to other counties to get an education because the schools do not offer that. Saying to them that you can do it on-line is a complete admission to the failure of that formula. I want to be able to leave here to say to those students, what is their option, without having to leave home.
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member, the first part of your question had to do with how that agreement or decision was made. I understand there was a period of consultation in response to the recommendations from the Hogg report. It was that part of the consultation that took place, and boards did agree that that would be a starting point for the supplementary additional funding for small high schools.
With respect to the question about delivery of courses, it only stands to reason that when you have a critical mass, you do have more opportunity to provide more options for your students. The numbers of students in a school certainly help determine the courses that can be offered and the staff that can be provided to deliver them.
We give our funding to school boards based on student population and, as I said, would welcome an opportunity to talk with your board in particular, if that funding appears to be inadequate for some of your schools.
MR. MCNEIL: I just want to do a follow-up on the response that the minister just said. I believe what you said was, in larger high schools you can offer them a better curriculum than you can in other high schools. So in other words, you're saying from the large high schools, students who are going to those are getting the better quality education, better variety than they are in other parts of Nova Scotia. Is that fair? Is that what the intent of the Department of Education is, to provide an equal access to education, provide a quality of education across the province, to say that larger high schools are going to have a better quality than a smaller one?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member, I don't believe I said anything about the quality of education. I did talk about the number of courses, the number of options that could be provided. That is absolutely no reflection on the quality of education. We recognize that some of our smaller schools, some of our smaller high schools, do and will continue to deliver quality education.
MR. MCNEIL: I would say to you that students in smaller high schools are not getting the access to the actual courses that your department is telling them they need, that would not be quality. That's how they would judge it, when they leave high school they have the same options as any other student in Nova Scotia when they go on to university, that their ability will allow them to go.
Your department, by saying that if you're going to go to a small high school you will not have access to the same advantages as someone going to a larger high school, is, quite frankly, an admission to that. I don't see how you can separate the two.
Mr. Chairman, I don't expect a response to that, but I would like to allow the member for Dartmouth South-Portland Valley on an introduction and then I will continue with the remainder of my questions.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth South-Portland Valley.
MS. MARILYN MORE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. It gives me great pleasure to introduce Peter Stoffer, Member of Parliament for Sackville-Eastern Shore in our west gallery and to thank him on behalf of the Legislature for bringing along the Canada Remember pins. Each MLA will have one at their desk. So welcome very much and I ask everyone to join me in thanking Mr. Stoffer. (Applause)
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, to the minister, the school board we're talking about is actually the lowest funded school board in the Province of Nova Scotia. One of the things in my constituency that we are quite proud of is the Annapolis East Elementary School. It was one of those schools that developed a program particularly around autism, which is known not only around this province but around the country. When many people move in, as people are transferred in to CFB Greenwood who move into the Valley, they try to live in the location of that school because their children need that extra support. They want them to have access to that quality program that is at Annapolis East Elementary School.
Part of that is one of the reasons why our board also has a high level of children with special needs. The issue, though, is funding and the funding that follows that to provide that course level. I'm wondering, could you address that issue with me today?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, my understanding, based on the information from staff, is that the board in question operated with a surplus last year. That would suggest to me that at the discretion of the board there were areas that they could have targeted those funds.
MR. MCNEIL: They may be operating at a surplus under the direction of your department, under the guidelines of your department, and under the rules set forward by your department. Quite frankly, that may solve the teacher/student ratio in Bridgetown Regional High School, if that's what you're suggesting. It may also allow them to deal with the special needs. Is it your department, quite frankly, that sets out the student/teacher ratio, or do you send money to the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board and allow them to divvy it up as they wish?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member. It's my understanding that the funds are allocated to the board and the board uses those funds to provide the staffing to deliver the programs in question.
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, I may be wrong on this issue, but I believe the minister knows there's a formula that comes out of their department around staffing issues. Now, unless every other school in my district is completely wrong, there's a formula, which could be.
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member. It's my understanding that it is a funding formula that determines the amount of money that goes to the board, it is not a staffing formula.
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, so my question then is, in the end - once you allocate x number of dollars, the board can do with it as they wish?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member. The boards have flexibility within their budget to cover the costs related to delivering the curriculum and operating their schools -yes, they do.
MR. MCNEIL: Could you explain to me what you mean by "flexibility"?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member. My definition of flexibility there would be recognizing that there are certain needs, and special needs, in some areas of their board, some schools in particular - and it may be a small school - that the flexibility
they have is to direct some additional funding, and that could be in the form of staffing, to some of those schools.
MR. MCNEIL: If the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board operated in a surplus, is that surplus returned to you?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, the surplus is not returned to the department.
MR. MCNEIL: So in the ensuing fiscal year, is the budget set by the funding that was used the previous year or set by the budget of the previous year?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member. The surplus is not returned to the department and it is not deducted from their next year's budget.
MR. MCNEIL: I appreciate that, but is the next year's budget based on the previous year's budget or is it on the previous year's expenditures?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member. Their having a surplus does not affect the application of the funding formula for the next year.
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, I will be sharing the rest of my time with the member for Kings West.
I look forward to my next meeting with the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board to just perhaps see their side of the story, and I want to thank the minister for the opportunity over the last few days to ask questions around education concerning the people of Annapolis.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Kings West.
MR. LEO GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, I'm pleased to finish out the remaining time, unless a colleague comes along with a pressing question, and I would like to just start off today in what I would call a leisurely fashion.
With the minister's background in education, just appointed to the ministry a short time ago, I'm wondering, what are a couple of areas that you in particular - let's put aside the background of the Department of Education and, in this case, an educator in the deputy role - what would be a couple of areas that you would hope to have an impact on changing or improving some of the directions? And I'll point to one area where we have a huge deficiency in our school system, and it may be one that you will actually identify, I'd just like to know a couple of areas that, over the next while, we can all sort of monitor, that there are some steps being taken in those directions.
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite. I would certainly want the outcome of my time in the minister's office to be one that I can be proud of. I've always been motivated by doing what I believe is best for kids - that's what has motivated me as a teacher and as a principal and in every other position that I've held. That will not change while I'm in this position; your beliefs do not change just simply because you take on a new responsibility. So I will be motivated by what's best for kids.
To me that translates into us being able to provide the supports we need to our teachers to deliver quality programs, and to our students to ensure that they are able to learn to the best of their ability in the environments that we provide. All of that, of course, has to be prefaced by resources that we have at our disposal to make that happen. But what we want, what I want, out of all of this is that we have a good educational program so that kids can be successful at whatever level, based on their ability, and that they can become good citizens who are able to leave this public education system that we have, and I personally, and the department, can be proud of the outcomes they're able to achieve.
MR. GLAVINE: Thank you, Madam Minister, for a fairly general, sort of motherhood type of statement about education, but I do appreciate it nevertheless.
I'm wondering, and I'm going to go to an area that I, certainly as a teacher, as a vice-principal, as an Education Critic, as one who got around the province a fair bit, would identify as a huge deficit in our school system - while some progress is being made, there's no question - special education. I would like you to give me your definition of special education, because as minister that is truly going to frame where the department could be going over the next two or three years.
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, when I talked about providing education to all students to the best of our ability and so that they could learn up to their potential, I'm referring to the broad range of learning abilities in our schools, and one of the areas that we quite often neglect are the students at the upper end of the scale - you can call them gifted, you can call them whatever you want, but they are students who are able to exceed above and beyond, and who need to be challenged in their programs. I would want to make sure that we don't lose sight of programs that are designed to provide those students with those enrichment and challenging opportunities. So they are all part, in my opinion, of a special education program.
I think the special education program, as I said, applies to all abilities across the board. I know that in our budget for this year that we have looked at providing supports, whether it's guidance, whether it's resource teachers, a number of initiatives that we believe will allow those students, whatever the ability, to perform and to excel.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, certainly that gives somewhat of a framework, I guess, for the gamut of special education. I'm thinking here, though, more in particular of children, around our students who have gone through the educational assessments and have been identified with a very specific learning disability. There are a whole number of them. You know, if we take dyslexia, or ADD, or ADHD, if we take those specific learning disabilities, there is no question today that in most of our schools we do not have a specialist who can take that child from A to Z in terms of the learning strategies, in terms of the kind of change that will need to go on.
There are some remnants of fully trained special education teachers in our system, there are a few remaining that are in our resource departments. Many of our resource teachers, they will tell you I can only give minimal support to this child. They have an identified learning disability and only a specialized program with that kind of expertise like we find at Landmark East, or at Bridgeway Academy, or at Churchill Academy, will help them actually overcome and achieve the level of success. I feel very strongly - again, just a few years from having been on the ground with students - we have a problem in Nova Scotia with our withdrawal rate, that's a nice term from the Department of Education, but kids who quit school because their identified learning problem, learning disability, is not able to be addressed.
I'm wondering, over the next number of years, whether we're prepared to put specialists back in our schools who can help those children, or at the very least my suggestion actually would be that in each of the boards across the province we would have something comparable to a Churchill Academy, or a Bridgeway Academy, so that the children in Cape Breton who now - you may get one or two a year who will come from Cape Breton to Landmark East, otherwise their dyslexia problem, their ADD, et cetera, will not be addressed, because it's not being addressed right now.
I would like for the minister to comment on some directional pieces as to where the department wants to make that kind of improvement. You know, if we lose 1,000 students at the Grade 10 level, and based on the last statistical yearbook that I got from the department - over 1,000 students, Grade 10; over 1,000, Grade 11; a little bit less in Grade 12 - those are unacceptable numbers. I think some of it is around the fact that we are not meeting needs. We're not meeting needs on the special education side and, to some extent, as well, on the program side.
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite. I mentioned earlier that we have about 20 per cent of our students in our schools who do receive supports in a variety of forms, and those supports are to help them achieve the outcomes that we have designed for that particular grade level.
We also have, in this budget, added some things that we believe will enhance that. We're looking at increasing the number of educational assistants. We're looking at increasing the number of supports in the guidance area, in particular at the elementary. We have a staff of itinerant teachers who do provide supports, be it speech language, school psychologists, and we take advantage of their expertise and allow them to work with teachers who don't have specific training in those areas but who do need to have some strategies at their disposal. Because of the inclusion policy, we have those students in our classes and our teachers need to be trained and well versed in strategies to deal with those students. So it's ongoing and it's evolving.
We've moved away from special schools for special education students and we've gone to the inclusion policy, but we recognize that there are times and there are students who cannot necessarily always be included, so we have provisions in our schools for those students to get direct service and support usually on a one-on-one, sometimes it's a pullout for a period of their instructional day, and other times it is perhaps in a separate learning environment.
So we're doing a lot of things. Is it enough? I guess the fact that we've included things in this budget to address that should suggest that, no, we're not happy with things the way they are now. We've identified some areas that need more support and we will continue to do that. I would see that evolving, based on input that we get from our teachers and from our parents as to, you know, are we meeting the needs of those students, and if we are not, what can we continue to do or what can we change to help do that?
MR. GLAVINE: Madam Minister, you know, I certainly think that it's a huge problem for our education system and it's one that I'll continue to drill down on, and one that I will continue to raise in this House, because I'm a pretty strong proponent of the inclusionary model for our system, but certainly it seems that more and more of our students don't get that specialized help, especially in certain parts of the province where there are no such programs available.
A very, very good program that this government brought in under the former minister was the tuition agreements. There's no question that the tuition agreements have allowed some children from families who would never have been able to go to Bridgeway Academy, or Churchill Academy - Landmark East is still pretty distant for some of our children, even for a day student, we're into the $20,000 range. So the tuition agreement doesn't quite make it for some children.
So it's still an area that does need, I think, a considerable amount of work and I feel that something at the regional level that each board can offer. Like right now in AVRSB, we have two alternate schools, and there's no question, the alternate school is proving to be a very, very successful model. I'm just wondering, is this now across the
province, and is it one that we're likely to see more resources directed toward in the coming years?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite. One of the supports that I didn't mention this time, but I had earlier, was the tuition support, and recognizing that the environment in those particular schools is one that we cannot create in our public school system, but we recognize that it is an environment where some students do learn best. So we are prepared, as I said earlier, to extend that two-year to three and during that third year, for students who need that third year, the consultation to see what other supports we can best provide, but at this point in our budget and in our program plan, those schools are beyond our means fiscally.
MR. GLAVINE: Around this theme and area of having programs that do meet student needs, certainly the Memorial Composite High School concept is one that the new Premier has touted as a model that perhaps we should see an expansion of, and I'm wondering, during this government's mandate, will we see the announcement of such a school, or the conversion of an existing high school, and at least maybe one of these in each of the boards across the province?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member. Your reference to Memorial Composite High School and also to the Premier's comments and commitment, I think we have recognized that we will be beginning the extension of that by looking at one site in each board - that is a beginning. We are also looking at the O2 opportunities, and I think those are 27 sites across the province. So we do recognize that there is a need to take some of that programming and extend it beyond, to make it more accessible to more of our students in more of our boards. So those are a couple of, what we believe are, positive steps towards that goal.
MR. GLAVINE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and Madam Minister. It sounds to me like you endorse the idea, but the plans are not quite on the paper yet, so we will have to watch that one and see where it goes in the next bit.
Along the area of our dropout rate and the withdrawal rate, I'm wondering if you ever take a close look at a particular board or area as to why there may be that anomaly or that significant percentage of students, in a board, who will drop out. For example, in AVRSB at the Grade 9 level we see a withdrawal or a dropout rate of between 4 and 5 per cent, and I'm wondering if the department actually ever takes a look to see whether or not that's due to perhaps the structural arrangement, whether or not the middle school or the junior high or the Grade 9 attached to a senior high, because it's significantly above other boards in the province.
I'm just wondering, is there something that can be identified which, in fact, will assist the board to address that, because at that Grade 9 level, that to me is the student
we're trying to now help with adult high school. I'm wondering, is there ever anything done by the department to do an analysis and find reasons for that?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite. The statistics that are available from the boards are passed on to the department. We ask the boards to review those and see what kind of a message may come to them, whether it is dropout rate or whether it is success rates with certain outcomes, but data is only as good as the time you give to analyze it and then to use it for future planning.
One of the things that we have in place now - a system where we can collect that data and it can come in electronically, and one of the things that we will be doing in that tracking model is for our department to be getting that data more readily and have staff at our department also doing an assessment and an evaluation, because it should be used to determine future direction and future investments, both from the department's level and from the board. So we recognize that data is important. The figures you're talking about, the 4 to 5 per cent, those are not statistics that we want to see repeated, so we're hoping that the tracking will allow us to get a handle on what's happening and how we can address it.
MR. GLAVINE: Another area that I'd like to now go to is teacher education. I hear from the fly on the wall that perhaps the deputy minister is actually quite keen on this, and that is having a review of teacher education with the possibility that Nova Scotia may move to where other provinces already are, and that is a one-year program. I'm just wondering, is there a possibility of a review, any kind of intention at the moment of moving that way?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite. If I could bring a little personal contact here. I do have special interest in teacher training and the quality of teachers that we have across our province and the variety of training institutions from which they have come. We recognize at this point in time that we have four universities that provide teacher training opportunities, but we are in consultation with universities and we are continuing to do a review of that - do we have enough seats, how much time is it taking for young people to get trained as teachers, what are the qualifications, what is the quality of their training program, and what we can best do to make sure that we have the best trained people, trained in Nova Scotia, to be teachers in our schools. So that whole business of teacher training is certainly one that I will be leading, as far as a review.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, through you to Madam Minister. I think Nova Scotia and perhaps other provinces are in a similar situation. I think we have a great opportunity here over the next eight- to 10-year period to capitalize on perhaps the
greatest resource for strong teacher training, and that is with the existing teacher complement that we have in the province. As you have alluded to the fact and I would concur that, overall, we do have an outstanding teaching force. However, when we take a look at the fact that 45 per cent, 46 per cent - and I just did the statistics on this yesterday - are between the ages of 45 and 55, so we have 45 per cent of our teaching force. What a great time to have a one-year program in our four universities for teacher training and a year of internship. I think the year of internship can certainly, in my view, gain from that tremendous resource that we already have in our schools.
We also know that some schools, last year, ran into difficulties with substitute teachers. There was quite a number of reports last year that a principal or a vice-principal had to spend a day in a classroom when there wasn't somebody available. What a wonderful opportunity, with an internship, to have somebody in the school who would be getting that kind of training. I'm wondering, do you know, at this stage, if the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, the Department of Education, would be positive towards that kind of concept of one year at university and a year of internship?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite. That option that you just shared may well be one of the outcomes of the review. It would be premature for me to suggest what the outcome might be, but I'm sure that will be something that will be on the table at that time and during those discussions. If I could just speak a little bit to the substitute issue. We know that school boards have experienced some difficulty with the availability of substitutes, and we know that parents have often been concerned about the number of substitutes that are in their child's classroom during the course of a year.
We've not taken that lightly. We've listened to what parents have been saying about that interruption and we've listened to what principals have been saying, and we've also listened to what teachers have been saying about the amount of time that they may have to be out of their classroom, not due to illness, but due to other requests. That could be, and sometimes is, a request from this department to have teachers who work on curriculum development, or some things like that, and so we're taking a real hard look at that because the fewer interruptions we have for those students, by introducing substitutes into the class, the more consistent that flow of delivery is. So we're looking at that as well.
It would also help to - again putting students first - make sure that there was consistent delivery and the relationship they have with their teacher is not interrupted unnecessarily. Also, it would help address the concerns that boards have about so many substitutes being needed, perhaps on a daily basis.
So the whole issue of teacher training and how students get that educational program, whether it is the one year of university and another year of practicum, those are,
as I said, options that we're looking at and may well be part of the discussion and the outcome of the review.
MR. GLAVINE: Madam Minister, just a couple of other areas to touch upon before I finish up - one that my colleague, the member for Annapolis, raised yesterday was in regard to the Nova Scotia Community College campus in Middleton, and one of the things that we have seen in that campus is certainly a decline in students and obviously if you shift programs out of the school, then there's no question, we're going to have less enrolment.
While it's good to go to that school and see that some of the physical space is being used for research, and certainly it's difficult to disagree with that initiative, but at the same time we're in an area where the basic trades are in a huge deficit in terms of numbers currently needed. During the past year, I had a meeting with the principal of the school, Mr. Stanley, as well as we brought in a number of companies that talk about this very fact. In this area, they've identified, of course, the basic trades of electrical, plumbing, carpentry, as being the most currently in need of and, I'm just wondering, is there a commitment, is there a plan?
We only have 18 per cent of our post-secondary students who go to community college and I know that's an area that, as a province, we all want to see increase. We want to see more balance toward the national average so that we can have a good complement of skilled people in a whole wide range of basic trades, up to the ones requiring more education and of a higher technical nature.
When we see what has happened in Middleton, right away we start to think about its future, and there's no question that if we put programs there, such as, for example, training the therapists for the ABA, or the EIBI autism program, if you have a quality program, students will come. There are places to stay in this community and in neighbouring communities.
Take, for example, the Nova Scotia Community College campus site in Lawrencetown, or what I certainly would like to see renamed, the College of Geographic Sciences - and I may have to work on that one a little - there's no question, they come internationally to that institute. There's nothing in Lawrencetown to attract people there but the college itself - outstanding programs. The same thing can be said about Middleton, if we put two, three, or four high requirement, quality programs in place, we'll definitely see the students come back.
Is there a plan to revive the Middleton campus of the Nova Scotia Community College?
MS. CASEY: If I could do an introduction first and then I will answer the question. I'd like to draw your attention to some folks we have in our gallery here today, just joined us. They are from the Dalhousie Explorer Program, which is an English immersion program. These are students from Quebec and they're here visiting us, we welcome you to the Legislature and hope that your stay here and in Nova Scotia is enjoyable. Welcome. (Applause)
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and to the member opposite. I spoke earlier about the O2 program. There will be O2 program students in 27 of our schools this year. One of the ways it meets a need because, as you've identified, the skilled labour void and we need to have people trained in those skills so they can take over as the other generation is retiring.
So we're meeting that need by providing opportunities for those students to be trained, but we're also helping with the Nova Scotia Community College situation because a completion of that O2 program guarantees those students a seat at the Nova Scotia Community College. So we recognize the importance of community colleges, the capacity that they have, and we now have a mechanism to feed into them a population that will help rebuild.
I appreciate your concerns about how important that facility is in those communities, and we see this as one step to help recruit, rebuild and increase the population of those students there. I look forward to how that will translate into your particular areas, but that's something really positive that we see coming out of that O2 initiative.
MR. GLAVINE: Just with the remaining time, I'll take a look at a few questions around the student loan program. Currently our government has a contract with RBC to be the primary lender and the province is the guarantor. Is that correct? Also, it's my understanding this contract will be up as of this year. Will this government be renegotiating that contract with RBC, and will it be going towards a different lender or will the Nova Scotia Government and the Department of Education become the primary lender?
MS. CASEY: Your facts are correct, we do have a contract with RBC. We will be extending that contract, but we'll also be looking - and RBC are aware of this - at what has been suggested by members around the House as a good move for students and that is a direct-lend program. What we see that doing for students is, a direct-lend should provide them with a lower interest rate which will help them in the accumulative debt for their student loans.
MR. GLAVINE: I guess with the remaining time, I'll just skip along here. The graduate tax credit that the government is announcing, will they go against existing loans or will the money be reflected as collectible dollar amounts in their income tax?
MS. CASEY: It's my understanding that the graduate tax credit is a credit for those students when they complete their income tax at the end of the tax year.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, regarding the parental contribution amount attributed to the student loan funding formula, how much more can a parental income be so that a student can receive more money under the program? Also, the Budget Address stated that it was decreased by 25 per cent, what exactly in terms of dollar amounts and income levels for parents and students in this province?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite, I guess the Coles Notes version here would be that by increasing the parental income level, more students would be eligible to apply for student loans and, therefore, more students could benefit from that option.
MR. GLAVINE: I'm wondering, Madam Minister, however, in terms of dollar amounts, income levels, what will those be established at? I think that's what parents are concerned about. One year ago when I visited most of the campuses in the province, this was one of the concerns raised by students, is that certainly by year three and four there was an increasing number who were using a line of credit for their education. I would think that would be a goal to try to eliminate some of that. So what will be then the dollar amounts, income levels for parents and students in the province?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member, it's my understanding that at this point in time the cut-off is $85,000, and with this proposal that we have in our budget the family income would be $105,000, so it's a significant increase.
MR. GLAVINE: That certainly is a significant increase and I'm pleased to see moving towards that level. The graduate tax credit, of course, is one that our caucus has talked about for some time. While we were certainly proposing a more significant amount, certainly a $1,000 non-refundable tax credit is a great first step. I'm wondering if this will be retroactive. Can a student who has graduated some time ago apply and be accepted for this credit?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, to the member, I would have to refer that to the Minister of Finance. I do know that that $1,000 tax credit can be used during one of any three years, but I would not be prepared to answer the question with respect to retroactive.
MR. GLAVINE: I just have one minute left and that probably answers a little bit of my next question which was if a student leaves the province and he's away for two years and came back in that third year, I was wondering, would the credit then apply in that third year?
MS. CASEY: It would be my understanding that if that situation did develop, because it says within any one of the three years, that if he came back and was eligible in that third year, it could apply.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time has expired for the member.
I would now invite the Minister of Education to close the debate.
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, I would like to make a few closing remarks as a result of our discussions. I would like to thank the members here for their questions and I commit to you that I will fulfill any of the promises that I have made either to seek information, to lead a review, or to meet with you individually to follow up on some of your concerns. I would also like to thank my staff who have been here providing me with information and helping me address questions, the information of which I do not have at my fingertips.
Mr. Chairman, if passed, this budget would help the Department of Education accomplish a lot for our students, our teachers, our families and our school communities. We are taking about $85 million more in the Education budget, and that brings it to a total of $1.37 billion. That is a significant contribution on the part of this government to help support students of all ages in our province. It is the second highest department budget of the provincial government and it is a testimony to the importance that we put on education.
There will be more money to help students succeed, to reduce class sizes, to add more supports and resources to our schools and, as well, we will initiate the new funding formula for school boards that would ensure they have the funding they need in order to deliver service to our children.
Learning for Life II, which is the province's multi-year strategy, will continue. The International Baccalaureate program will be launched and expanded. As well, 27 high schools across the province will introduce the O2 program and will build on the successes enjoyed by boards with similar programs. Students, as a result of the coming healthy food policy and more physical activity in our schools, will now be healthier now and later in life. There would be more funding to build and improve schools across Nova Scotia, and the review of the Education Act regulations related to school closures will go ahead this Fall as planned and as announced.
There will be new funding to improve the Nova Scotia Community College and to work with universities. There will be funding to provide more opportunities for more Nova Scotians to attend university and college, and there will be more funding for apprenticeships and adult learning.
Our support for education is growing faster than the rate of inflation, at a time when Primary to Grade 12 enrolment is declining by more than 2 per cent. Our support for schools and public libraries will continue.
In short, Mr. Chairman, there would be a sizeable investment in our future as presented in this budget. I believe that Nova Scotia has an excellent education system from pre-Primary to graduate. This is the result of the many dedicated people who work as teachers, counsellors, administrators, bus drivers, the many people involved in our education system. I want to thank them publicly for their efforts and tell them that their commitment and their passion is appreciated.
I would ask that the proposed budget for the Department of Education for public education and assistance to universities be passed.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Shall Resolution E3 stand?
Resolution E3 stands.
Resolution E4 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $227,872,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of Assistance to Universities, Department of Education, pursuant to the Estimate.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Shall Resolution E4 carry?
Resolution E4 is carried.
The honourable Deputy Government House Leader.
MR. PATRICK DUNN: Mr. Chairman, at this time I would like to call the estimates for the Department of Transportation and Public Works.
Resolution E33 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $291,955,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Transportation and Public Works, pursuant to the Estimate.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Transportation and Public Works.
HON. ANGUS MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, I'm very pleased to be able to rise in the House today and report on the work and the estimates for the following portfolios: Transportation and Public Works; Treasury and Policy Board; Sydney Steel Corporation Act, including the tar ponds; and Gaelic Initiatives.
I'll begin as Minister of Transportation and Public Works and address the Committee of the Whole House as it considers my department's 2006-07 estimates. I'll preface the numbers with an overview of our mission as it plays such a crucial role in building the foundations of our communities and roots through prosperity.
Our mission is to construct, maintain and manage provincial highways, buildings and public infrastructure; to provide the hardware of our society; to provide built capital that supports sustainable, economic growth and social well-being; and to lay the route to prosperity for future generations.
Committed to this mission are 2,000 dedicated public servants across the province who work for our department. They keep our communities going and growing by providing good public infrastructure. I'd like to thank the people who work for the department, both public and private workers, for doing a great job for all Nova Scotians. The staff with me here today: on my left is Doug Stewart who is the Chief Engineer for Highways Programs; on my right is the Director of Financial Services, Greg Penny; and in the gallery is the deputy minister, David Darrow. Greg Lusk, Executive Director of Public Works, is with him in the gallery. Brian Gallivan may be with us from time to time and Dan Davis who is Acting Director of Communications. Bruce Fitzner is up there as well.
Like many places in North America, we face huge resource challenges in building, maintaining and upgrading highways, roads, schools, hospitals and public buildings. At the same time, we know we must invest in transportation and electronic links that meet globally-accepted business standards. Those links will allow us to expand trade and business opportunities.
Another challenge is managing public expectations. We live in a fast and brave new world, yet we are surrounded by declining infrastructure and rising costs. We have some of the oldest buildings and roadbeds in North America, and we manage 23,000 kilometres of road. The average age of pavement is 21 years old and the national average is 14 years old. We manage 4,000 bridges in the province. Department staff estimate that the province's road and bridge infrastructure deficit is more than $4 billion, and that is climbing.
We all want safe and prosperous places to raise our families, yet we also want the province to live within its means. We are proud of our heritage, yet we must prepare for the future. So this year's budget increases the province's investment in infrastructure. In total, $351 million will go to maintaining and improving Nova Scotia's highways, roads and bridges.
The Nova Scotia Government will spend about $100 million more on roads than it collects in gas tax revenues. The 2006-07 capital budget for Transportation and Public Works is approximately $199 million - this includes $176 million for highways and more than $22 million for capital construction for buildings and other public works.
The department's capital budget has quadrupled since 2000-01, and this has led to more twinned highways and better secondary roads across the province. During 2006-07 the government has earmarked an additional $34 million in new capital spending for highways such as twinning Highway No. 103 to Tantallon, completing the Barrington portion of Highway No. 103, completing the Coxheath portion of Highway No. 125, completing the Highway No. 118-Wright Avenue interchange, twinning Highway No. 101 west of Falmouth, and twinning Highway No. 104 east of New Glasgow.
The amount of highway maintenance work carried out on our rural roads is also increasing during 2006-07 due to a $2.5 million increase over last year's budget. This year's investment is $17.5 million. The road improvement money, known as RIM, will go to asphalt patching, ditching and gravelling, shoulder repairs, guardrails and bush cutting. This year's investment brings us closer to our commitment to increase the road improvement money to $20 million by 2007. These projects are largely tendered, leading to greater cost efficiencies for taxpayers and first-rate work for residents; the feedback from communities has been very positive.
TPW is implementing a Pavement Management System during 2006-07 to make better use of current funding levels for the capital repaving program. This is the fourth year of the five-year Steel Truss Bridge Replacement Program. Expenditures for 2006-07 are estimated to be $13 million, largely to replace eight bridges.
Road safety is a two-way street, so to speak. It is a shared responsibility for those who build the roads and bridges and those who use them. Our job in the Department of Transportation and Public Works is to provide a well-designed and maintained provincial highway system - safe routes for safe driving.
My department will spend an additional $2.5 million in operational funding on provincial highway safety enhancement this year, including centre and edge traffic line painting, upgrading and installing guardrails, brush cutting and guide sign maintenance.
To further improve safety, our department will paint centre and edge traffic lines on more roads more frequently. Annual painting will now entail white edge lines on all provincial trunks and routes, and centre lines on all local roads. While all drivers use traffic lines as visual guides for safe travel, aging drivers find them of particular benefit and the department is revising its line-painting policy to paint traffic lines on more highways. Before the department painted the trunk and route traffic lines every second year, and in most cases our provincial route edge lines were not painted at all. Drivers will notice this safety enhancement and they will also see more road-painting trucks.
Nova Scotia is recognized nationally as a leader in road safety, and the Department of Transportation and Public Works is proud to be the government department in charge of the effort. Our budget for 2006-07 designates funds for road safety campaigns, including the promotion of new child safety seat laws. New seat belt regulations to protect children will come into effect on January 1, 2007. The department is launching a campaign this fall that will help parents choose the right kind of car seat, based on the size and age of the child. The province recognized that we need to better manage the safety of children as they outgrew age and weight recommendations for traditional child safety seats. We need to ensure a safe transition for children until they are big enough to use adult shoulder belts.
The department is also developing and will soon launch a multi-media campaign targeting risk-taking young drivers. The objective is to make the issue of speeding and impaired driving important enough to young drivers so that they will take action. The department will work with its road safety partners to promote safe driving in these campaigns, but we'll also continue to support ongoing campaigns such as Operation Christmas.
As I mentioned before, road safety is a shared responsibility. At crosswalks, the shared responsibility applies to pedestrians and drivers. We have made progress in improving safety for pedestrians. There are far fewer deaths in Nova Scotia today than there were in the past. In the 1970s there were 454 fatalities. Since 2000, there have been seven fatalities at crosswalks in Nova Scotia - four at crosswalks on two-lane roads and three at crosswalks with multi-lane approaches. We all know that one death is too many, and although crosswalk safety is more of a concern in urban areas under municipal responsibility, it's important for the province to investigate, identify and implement strategies and measures that will improve pedestrian and crosswalk safety.
Nova Scotia follows the national standards for signs and markings for crosswalks. Our department staff is in contact with other provinces regarding the use of devices such as flashing amber versus flashing red lights. Road safety is not just about the devices or the engineering. The relationship between the vehicle and pedestrian is very fragile. Road safety is also about education and enforcement, about sharing space and mutual respect.
Improving and expanding our roads and highways is key to ensuring our economic and social well-being, and for keeping our communities safe, vibrant and prosperous.
During a 2001 review of Nova Scotia's primary and secondary highway systems, staff identified a $3.4 billion infrastructure deficit and, as I mentioned earlier, the deficit is now at $4 billion, and still, it is climbing. To address this need, the province developed a plan identifying priorities and strategies, investments, and increased the capital budget by 400 per cent during the past seven years.
During the next 10 years, the province will invest more than $1.5 billion in capital highway projects. A top priority is ensuring that corridors connected to export markets pave the way to our local prosperity and success within the global economy.
During the next 10 years we will invest more than $200 million to expanding our 100-Series Highways based on the primary arterial highway system vision. These roads are not only crucial to Nova Scotia's prosperity, but also to Canada's National Highway System. A federal-provincial agreement could be a vehicle for delivering highway improvements and would make our dollars go further. Infrastructure renewal is a multi-billion dollar journey, and we can't go it alone. The province is becoming more strategic and assertive in seeking federal cost-sharing agreements, such as partnerships that could make our dollars go much further.
Department staff and I have been in discussions with the Honourable Lawrence Cannon, Canada's Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities. Our discussions have focused on a federally funded long-term program to support our National Highway System, and a program to support Nova Scotia's development as an international gateway. Canada is the most trade-dependent nation among the G-8 countries. A transportation network that provides efficient and effective access to world markets is key to our economy's success. Certainly, strengthening Nova Scotia's position in the competitive world of international commerce is a top priority for the provincial government.
The Department of Transportation and Public Works is the lead department in the development of a provincial gateway strategy and action plan. During 2006-07, the department has earmarked a quarter of a million dollars toward the initiative. The goal is to make Nova Scotia the preferred eastern gateway to North America in order to capitalize on tourism, trade and economic opportunities. The province's role is to work with transportation service providers and organizations and facilitate federal relations to develop policies and infrastructure that support gateway expansion to the benefit of Nova Scotians and Canadians.
The Department of Transportation and Public Works is responsible for the care and operation of 2,200 structures across Nova Scotia, including 25 provincial buildings
and courthouses. It manages 16 industrial parks and 10 water utilities. The Department of Transportation and Public Works also builds, upgrades and maintains schools and special projects such as continuing care homes, justice centres, other provincial facilities, and service buildings for government departments and agencies.
In this fiscal year, about $22 million is allocated for renovations to government buildings for new construction projects. Work includes renovations to Government House and the Cobequid Health Centre. The province is also investing in the construction of two new justice centres in Lunenburg and Yarmouth.
The Department of Transportation and Public Works has the responsibility for the delivery of new schools and major school renovation projects that are included in the Department of Education's capital program. We work with our colleagues in Education and the school boards to design and construct high-quality projects that will address the current infrastructure needs and provide the setting for the delivery of high-quality education for future generations.
We're continuing our work to create barrier-free access to government and public buildings. The province is committed to ensuring that persons with disabilities benefit equally from services offered to the general public within government-owned and -leased properties. The Department of Transportation and Public Works requires all new buildings and new leases to be barrier free, and incorporates barrier free design into renovations of existing buildings whenever possible.
The Department of Transportation and Public Works now includes Government Services. This division provides common services to government users, from postal services to accommodation services, to government-wide provision of information technology and telecommunications. Staff in this division manage accommodations for all departments, boards, agencies and commissions. They sell surplus land and manage inventory.
The Department of Transportation and Public Works operates the largest data centre and information network in Nova Scotia. Staff work to protect our computers from outside attacks and manage thousands upon thousands of e-mails that flow in and out of government each day. Department staff handle government-wide contracts for telecommunications, negotiated tender agreements for local and long-distance telephone service, and data and cellphone service. The Department of Transportation and Public Works delivers cutting edge emergency and field radio services to 14,000 government and emergency first responders.
Through the Public Safety Communications Program Office, staff work to enhance public safety and responses to emergencies. They are responsible for the Trunked Mobile Radio System. This first-class radio communication system links all
emergency services in the province: police, to EMO staff, to volunteer firefighters and many others. The provincial government has also provided millions of dollars in equipment and services to volunteer public safety agencies so that they can access the Trunked Mobile Radio System. The province continues to assist volunteer groups with donated radios and free air time.
The largest contributor to climate change in our province is carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels for heat, electricity and transportation. Our department continues to explore new ways to meet Nova Scotia's Energy Strategy to reduce energy use in government facilities. We are already seeing savings due to more efficient building designs, and energy efficient upgrades of existing structures in heating, lighting and ventilation systems.
The province has also adopted environment-friendly purchasing and sustainable transportation policies. Environmental remediation is an important part of the Public Works portfolio. It involves routine work for the site management such as demolitions, disposals and cleanups. Large projects underway now are returning Boat Harbour to a tidal estuary, ongoing cleanup efforts at Five Island Lake, and site management at the old Halifax Infirmary.
Renewing roads, bridges, buildings and water systems while meeting demands for new initiatives that keep our communities and public services current - this challenge will require new ways of doing business. In 2006, we're mapping a route to infrastructure renewal that will be sustainable into future generations, that augments current and future economic activity, that supports new and emerging technologies, good stewardship and good design.
The government has been working to reform how it plans, builds, finances and manages public infrastructure to ensure that we provide the best service and use of existing facilities, and to ensure that we provide superior project management on new projects. We're mapping the way to infrastructure renewal to provide a supportive setting for our communities and businesses - a setting that encourages investment, immigration and growth vital for the prosperity of future generations.
As Minister responsible for Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, I'll review the estimates for the 2006-07 budget but, before I do, I would like to provide a brief progress report from 2005-06. As you know, reclaiming the Sydney tar ponds and coke ovens has been on for more than a decade. The$400 million federal-provincial memorandum of agreement of 2004 calls for the removal and destruction of some of the worst contaminants and the in-place treatment of other contaminants, using proven technologies.
The Province of Nova Scotia has agreed to contribute up to $120 million toward the cost of the cleanup, and the Government of Canada has agreed to contribute $280 million. The federal-provincial agreement provided for operational costs for the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency; the agreement also provided funding for four preventive projects that need to be completed before the start of the main remediation project.
Two of these projects - the relocation of the coke ovens brook and battery point barrier - are underway and will be completed this construction season; a third project has been completed - the replacement of the main waterline through the site to Whitney Pier; and the fourth project is the remediation of the former Sysco cooling pond - it has been tendered as the province's first Aboriginal set-aside - and four tenders have been received and are now being evaluated.
Before implementation of the first phase of remediation, the provincial government agreed to participate in a joint Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency independent panel review of the detailed project description and environmental impact statement. The final report of the panel's findings is due to be released on July 13th, and afterwards the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency can begin final detailed engineering and the development of tender packages.
It is estimated that during the 2006-07 year, the Government of Nova Scotia will incur net capital costs totalling $7,414,484 on the tar ponds project - net operating costs are expected to total $2.67 million.
Decommissioning of the Sydney steel plant is nearly complete - approximately 50 tons of scrap are being cut up and sold; plant components have been sold to a private company and await shipment from the site; and the former steel plant site is now being redeveloped into a large industrial park known as Harbourside Business Park.
It is estimated that in the 2006-07 fiscal year, the Government of Nova Scotia will incur a net capital and operating cost totalling $12.4 million on the decommissioning of the Sysco plant and the redevelopment of the site.
For a few moments I want to speak about some initiatives underway in the Treasury and Policy Board. The top priority is our Better Regulation Initiative. I am pleased to report that all departments are working with TPB on this. Taking the lead is the Department of Environment and Labour, Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, and the Office of Economic Development. Businesses succeed when regulations protect society and the environment, but also let businesses do what they do best; that is, stimulating the economy and creating jobs.
Since the Red Tape Reduction Task Force in 2004, Nova Scotia has become a national leader in streamlining administrative processes and expanding on-line services.
During 2005, the province reviewed as many as 150 Acts and regulations. In 2006-07, the Better Regulation Initiative will address red tape through several routes: (1) government and industry will analyze the accumulated impact of regulations on small- and medium-sized businesses; (2) we will review the cost of regulation; and (3) we will review any change in the way laws are designed, communicated and enforced.
The Treasury and Policy Board is also working on Third-Party Entity Governance and Accountability. This is a multi-year initiative to strengthen policies and procedures among third-party entities reported within the province's financial statements. For 2006-07, TPB will develop orientation materials for members of government boards and make recommendations to Cabinet on improving the appointment process, remuneration guidelines, governance and accountability processes.
Finally, Mr. Chairman, I am responsible for Gaelic Initiatives. I am very pleased to report that the 2006-07 budget earmarks $200,000 for activities that will help develop Gaelic heritage across the province. The money will go to initiatives and projects at Gaelic organizations and small-business ventures. It will go to research into Gaelic language and culture, and to expanding links to Gaelic Scotland, Ireland and parts of North America.
Mr. Chairman, that concludes my opening remarks. I appreciate the patience of the committee and look forward to the discussions.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Pictou West.
MR. CHARLES PARKER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I welcome the opportunity to have a few minutes to speak on this very important topic. I thank the minister for his opening statement and certainly welcome all the staff who are here today, with you in the gallery and everybody who is here with TPW. We have a lot of questions as you can imagine, and I'm going to be sharing some of my time with some of my colleagues on this side of the House over the next number of hours.
I recognize that it is a large department and certainly one with a lot of responsibilities, as has been outlined. I'll say right off the start that I've had a good relationship, I do believe, with most of the people in Transportation and Public Works who I've had the opportunity to work with, both locally in my area in Pictou County and the staff within the department. So I thank the minister and his staff for that.
As I said, I just want to get right into the questions here. I guess the first issue, Mr. Chairman, is going to be around some overall questions on the budget itself. In the Estimates Book your budget is outlined as $291 million and change - $291.955 million to be exact. I'd just like, if I could, from the minister, to get a breakdown on what portion or what amount of that $291 million is for Transportation and what portion is for Public
Works and other sections. It's primarily for Transportation, I realize, but could you give us a breakdown on the dollars for that part and also for non-Transportation?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, I thank the honourable member for his remarks, especially his comments about staff, it's very much appreciated. They are a dedicated group of public servants in the province and whenever somebody sees fit to provide that recognition it is always appreciated.
I did have the figures here in my notes, the total is $237 million, and that is for the Highway Program; that's the total for the Highway Program.
MR. PARKER: Mr. Chairman, $237 million, so that would leave about $54 million, I guess, for non-Transportation, Public Works primarily. So $237 million is what is allocated to the Transportation portion of your budget. Of course, as we know, in that budget some of that is being spent on amortization, I guess, for past years of construction of highway bridges or roads or whatever were built. In the supplement section of the estimates, the amount for road amortization is around $51 million. Bridge amortization is $5.7 million. So it's about $57 million, I guess, roughly, would be - while it's being spent in this year, it's really for past projects, I believe. I realize why you have a capital budget this year for new construction. This really is for paying for old construction, I think I'm correct in that. So that $57 million, if you take that off the $237 million, then around $180 million for new work or new construction. Am I correct on that assumption?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, the $57 million to which the honourable member refers is, indeed, as he described it, but it is not part of the capital budget, it is part of the operating budget. So that is combined with the other figures of operating, and we have an operating budget of $180 million plus the $57 million to which the honourable member referred.
MR. PARKER: Mr. Chairman, I guess, in actual fact, the number of new dollars available for this year to pay for new programs, maintenance, not counting new capital work, but for ongoing maintenance and department salaries and so on, is $180 million. The other $57 million goes to pay for previous projects that have already been completed. It's paying the mortgage, really, for past projects. So, in actual fact, it's $180 million for new work and maintenance and salaries for this fiscal year. I think I'm correct in that. Of course, as I know, you have a capital budget that's not included in this budget, but I think it's $176 million. So the two combined is approximately $350 million, $354 million, somewhere in that range, from this budget and the capital budget.
I want to come back to the minister's comments. Your opening remarks were around the infrastructure deficit. The study done 10 years ago indicated that we face an infrastructure deficit in this province somewhere around $3.5 billion. The update on that
now is probably closer to $4 billion - a huge amount of money to fix up every road and every bridge in this province to a satisfactory condition. I think the recommendation was that we spend over a 10-year period. To make up for that was somewhere around $350 million a year. So we're still a bit short on that if the deficit now is over $4 billion. We still have a way to go, by the sound of things.
I would like to know what it is the department - while it's important to recognize that there is an infrastructure deficit and while we're gradually working towards it, the truth is we're getting further behind in our highway infrastructure in this province. Bridges and roads are crumbling; they're getting worse than they had been. We're heading in the wrong direction and, while it's important to recognize that, what is the department doing to correct the situation and how are we ever going to catch up with an ever-increasing infrastructure deficit?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, there are really two major initiatives that this government has put forward with respect to addressing this huge challenge which the honourable member identifies. The first is that we have greatly enhanced our capacity to maintain the roads that we have at existing levels. We introduced our road improvement money program known as RIM - I don't think road improvement money was the first name that went with it, but the initials remain the same through RIM - and that budget has gone from approximately $9 million when it was introduced to $17.5 million this year.
The results of that have been considerable, especially when you look at the work that is being done in areas of ditching, bush cutting and gravelling, which really adds to the basic fabric of the roads if you like, and of the extra time that we are able to get from paved roads through the spreader patching initiative that takes place. So that's one thing that we have done in order to address that very important topic.
The other is that we have increased the capital budget by four times what it was when we came to government - $44 million, and multiply that by four and you have a $176 million increase in the capital budget. Now, are we all the way there yet? No, but we have made very significant progress and we are determined to continue to make that progress.
MR. PARKER: Mr. Chairman, are we all the way there yet? No, we're not - we have a long way to go. I guess it's important to recognize that, and I'm going to give you some examples in a few minutes of some roads that certainly need a whole lot of work. I'm sure on a daily basis, as MLAs, we hear about roads that need a tremendous amount of work in each of our ridings. Probably the number-one issue that I hear about in my constituency office is roads, or need for ditching, or asphalt patching, or repair,
guardrails, bush cutting, grass mowing, more pothole filling - just a whole long list of concerns - and there's no question we have a huge challenge here ahead of us, but more needs to be done.
I just wanted to ask, in reading through the estimates I can't seem to determine exactly how the maintenance dollars are broken down between the 100-Series Highways and secondary roads, and I'm wondering, can you give us any figure on the maintenance dollars that are spent, first of all, on the 100-Series Highways and the maintenance dollars that are spent on secondary roads in this province?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, the allocation of the funding is based on sort of the inventory of road that we have and, in terms of maintenance, it is allocated on a formula basis. So much goes to the 100-Series Highways and so much goes to local roads, whether they be numbered roads or just county roads, the money is allocated to them. The RIM money, to which I referred earlier, that money is not spent at all on 100-Series Highways, but is allocated completely to local roads. That is done by a formula which results in that money being distributed in the same way throughout all areas of the province so that the formula, when applied, determines how that money is going to be spent and that's how it's spent throughout the entire province.
MR. PARKER: I'm not sure if I'm any more clear here. I guess what I was asking is, do we have a dollar figure on the maintenance that is spent on the 100-Series Highways and do we have a dollar amount that is spent on secondary roads? Is there an exact figure for both those categories?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, I understand that there is such a figure. I don't have it today but I expect we will see you again tomorrow and I will have it with me at that time.
MR. PARKER: Yes, you will see me tomorrow and it's going to go on for a while, that's for sure.
I guess I would also ask if you can give me a figure on the maintenance cost on bridges as well - so the 100-Series Highways, secondary roads and bridges, how much you spent on those three categories. Okay, thank you.
I guess I want to move on now in your capital budget - and this year it's $176 million - and how that's allocated around the province. I'm just interested in knowing how the decision is made and which roads are going to be done. There are 23,000 kilometres of roads out there in this province and obviously there isn't enough money to go around to get it all looked after. How are decisions made in your department as to which roads are going to be improved, or the capital budget? Can you give me some insight into that process?
MR. MACISAAC: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. There are really two processes, if you like, that take place. One is an assessment that's an ongoing process, that is conducted by staff at the Department of Transportation and Public Works. That's based on the knowledge of local department employees who do an assessment of the roads. It's also - we use our ARAN vehicle. I don't know if you have ever had the opportunity of seeing it but if not, I would be glad to arrange for you to see it. It is a vehicle that has tremendous capacity to do assessment of roads by travelling over them, and it accumulates a great deal of data. That gives the department staff a real good look as to the actual standard of the road itself, in terms of applying a whole host of criteria.
Also, the volume of traffic on a road is a factor that plays into it. The other, of course, is communication with communities, whether that communication is conducted through people from the community writing directly to the department, or whether they write through members of the Legislature, or sometimes county councillors become involved in articulating concerns that they have. We do our best to try to marry the concerns from both a technical perspective and from the community, in terms of establishing the capital program.
MR. PARKER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I want to pick up on this community effort. As Transportation and Public Works Critic, I hear from various communities around the province and often get petitions and letters, as I'm sure you are too, Mr. Minister. In fact, lots of times I pass them on to you or to your department.
Just as an example, one community group in my area that I'm going to mention, that has worked very, very hard, is the West Branch Community Improvement Association, they've been an active group. I know your deputy minister has had the opportunity to drive in that area and look at the roads in that area of Pictou County. They have an active executive, they're lobbying continuously and their job is, as my job is, to bring to you and to the department their concerns, and they've done a good job of that. We were successful last year in that area, and they got Highway No. 256 paved and we were thankful for that, and this year their project was the West Branch Road from River John to the community of West Branch. I'm just wondering if you can update - I talked to your chief engineer a few weeks ago and he gave me an update at that time and what the tender process was. I wonder, can I get an update on the current situation at this time?
MR. MACISAAC: I'm told that we are awaiting the estimate and it should go to tender before the end of this month for that particular road. Again, the honourable member points out that there is a community that did quite a job in illustrating their concerns. They even produced a video which we had an opportunity to view, and that of course factors into it. Just if I go back to the ARAN, that measures ruts and produces a video of the road itself so that people can see it.
MR. PARKER: I have some other questions I'm going to follow up in this line in a few minutes so I'm going to come back to that, but I want to share my time here with our Leader and I will turn it over to him.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Leader of the Opposition.
MR. DARRELL DEXTER: Thank you, Mr. Minister, your staff, it's a pleasure to be here this morning to discuss the estimates - afternoon, sorry - to discuss the estimates of your department. I just want to focus, and I don't think I'll take very long with this, but I just want to focus on a few things that I haven't quite understood and I'm sure you'll be able to explain to me. One of them is the question of how the amount of money that's spent on highways is actually calculated, because I go to Page 18.2 of the Estimates Book and it talks about the Highway Programs and there are a number of estimates set out there: Highway Programs - Administration, Field Operations, Highways and Bridges - you know, they're all set out there on Page 18.2.
I did some figuring. One of the things I find unfortunate about the way the estimates are structured, they don't actually add up this column. But if you add that column up which I have done, you come to $237.708 million, that's what you come to. I see you shaking your head, but that sounds about right? Okay. Just say for comparison purposes, I have here the Nova Scotia Budget Highlights, and here it lists what motive fuel taxes are in the province, the revenue that comes in for motive fuel, and that's $244.902 million. I think any way you add that up, that is a difference of at least $7.2 million between the money that's actually spent on highways and that money that is brought in, in motive fuel taxes. I've heard the government say over and over again that all motive fuel taxes are spent on highways, but on the governments own addition, that never happened, so I'd just like your response.
MR. MACISAAC: Previously, we spoke about two numbers that constitute the makeup of Transportation and Public Works' budget, and one is the figure to which the honourable member referenced and that is the amount of money including the amortization charges that are spent by the department of $174.6 million, or $174.602 million. In addition, there is the capital budget of Transportation and Public Works, which is an amount of $176.8 million, and the total of those two is an amount of $351.4 million, and that is an amount in excess of the revenue from fuel tax and the Registry of Motor Vehicles of almost $30 million.
MR. DEXTER: Well, that's all very true and I've heard that all before, but of course it's also irrelevant because the capital program, the capital spending of the department does not come out of this year's revenue; it's going to be paid for in the years to come. In fact, by it's very definition, it's a capital program and you can use an amortized amount toward what you're going to pay this year, but even that, if you think about it, doesn't make any sense because in your first year you wouldn't make that
payment. The first payment you'd actually make toward paying down the capital debt that you're accruing would be in the next year. Just to be clear, none of the capital money that you spend this year comes out of the revenue this year, am I right?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, the cash that we spend in the Department of Transportation and Public Works, in this year, is an amount of $351 million. That goes on the roads of this province. That's the cash outlay. That was the commitment we made and we've lived up to that commitment.
MR. DEXTER: This is exactly the point, because it's not true. The capital program that you spend comes as a result of borrowing, on behalf of the province. That borrowing which you do will be paid for in future years. It is not paid for out of the revenue. Now, I can't believe that the minister is sitting here and telling me that he doesn't understand that. Tell me whether or not you understand the difference between capital financing and what you are getting and putting in the roads out of this year's revenue.
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, if we want to approach the number from the way the honourable Leader of the Opposition is approaching it, then the expenditure would have to be, to meet the criteria he's establishing, the expenditure this year would have to be $1.7 billion.
MR. DEXTER: Well, maybe he can explain that. That's baffling to me. It's quite a simple question here - you have a capital budget which has been established and you talked about it, you added the two numbers together, but the reality of today is the capital program that you have is done with money that you are borrowing and are going to pay off in years to come. So maybe you could explain what you said and explain to me the difference between what I've said and what I've represented here.
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, the fact of the matter is that the cash we're spending on roads this year, that is the amount of money that's going out to purchase liquid asphalt, to pay wages, to pay for the diesel fuel that goes into it, to pay the salaries of department people who are associated with the capital work, all of those things, plus the operating outlay of the Department of Transportation and Public Works is an amount of $351.4 million. That, Mr. Chairman, is $28 million more than the revenue taken in from motive fuel tax and from the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
MR. DEXTER: Mr. Chairman, my frustration level is just about high enough - but, you know, I could go and borrow on the basis of my home and I could borrow $100,000, and I could spend it tomorrow, on my home, along with a portion of my income, and that doesn't mean that my income has gone up by $100,000. It means I have
borrowed $100,000 against an asset which I'm going to pay for later. That's what capital does. That's the fundamental problem with the way - and quite frankly, the way I continue to be frustrated with the Department of Transportation and Public Works misleading the people of this province about how much money is actually spent on highways. I'm happy to turn this back to my colleague.
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, you know, there's obviously a difference in interpretation, but the commitment that has been made - and speaking about misleading - the commitment that has been made is to spend all of this money on the roads of this province, and this government has exceeded that commitment and we anticipate continuing to exceed that commitment, because the capital budget that we have now is four times what it was when we came to government and it's our intention to keep that capital program going, as we've stated. You can play with the numbers all you want, but the outlay of cash on the roads of this province is an amount of $351 million in this fiscal year.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Pictou West.
MR. CHARLES PARKER: Mr. Chairman, I am going to go back to my line of questioning on trying to figure out how it is that the department determines which roads or which capital projects they're going to be working on each year. As was mentioned previously, sometimes it's community input that is a factor in that. Sometimes it is the ARAN machine that will determine what needs to be done, and I suppose it's sometimes department staff who have local input into the administration here in the department. I guess I'm trying to figure out just how it is they determine that A road, or B road, or C road is going to be done. We're pleased that the West Branch Road is going to be done. We're pleased that several other roads are going to be done in the province this year but, as was mentioned previously, we need a whole lot more roads done. There's just no shortage of them.
I would like a little more explanation from the minister on the process. Who makes the final decision? Once you have community input, you have your area manager's input, you have your engineer's input, who makes those decisions on which roads are going to be done this year?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, as I indicated, the recommendations do come forward from staff and they are based on a variety of factors, which I had outlined previously. I am in the position where I provide the final approval of the program based on the recommendations that come forward.
MR. PARKER: So the final decision then rests with the minister or the deputy minister, or the buck stops here with the minister, I assume.
I guess I'm going to come around to the word "fairness". Secondary roads, bridges, are they allocated on a fair and equitable basis throughout the province? As you know, we have 52 constituencies here in Nova Scotia. Some of those are urban ridings, but I'm guessing there are probably 35 or close to 40 rural ridings that would require an investment from your department. Riding by riding, is the principle of fairness and equity allocated to each of the constituencies, each of the counties, each of the areas of this province?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, we do try to be as equitable as we can, and we've determined that we have about 28 ridings that we could describe as being rural ridings and there are another 24 which are either all urban or mostly urban. So the criteria that you would apply to those ridings would be different than the criteria that you would apply to the ridings that we would categorize as being rural or completely rural.
I would just like to come back to a previous discussion that took place, and draw to the attention of members of the House the Financial Measures (2006) Act, Part VII, which deals with our commitment with respect to funding. Section 29 of the Provincial Finance Act in 7AA(1), "Notwithstanding Section 7A or any other enactment, the estimates referred to in Section 7A shall include, for each fiscal year, an amount respecting the construction and maintenance of highways that is not less than the total of . . ." all of the revenue items, whether it be fuel tax or Registry of Motor Vehicles. So we're meeting the commitment as spelled out in the Provincial Finance Act for the Province of Nova Scotia.
MR. PARKER: Well, we're a little on two tracks, I think, in two different questions. My question to you was around the fairness to each of the constituencies and is it operated on a fair and equitable basis? I did notice, I think it was in the Throne Speech, that there was a line in there on the last concluding portion that says we will address need before want, and that's a very sound principle to live by. I can certainly say there are all kinds of rural roads in this province that have a whole lot of need. Based on that premise, the need would occur before want, are we getting fair and equitable treatment in each of our ridings?
Mr. Chairman, I want to refer to a document that was provided to me by your department on the 2005-06 capital program. So last year, based on the capital expenditures in each of our ridings, I see ridings like Colchester North received over $9 million, that's neighbouring the constituency of mine. I see the riding of Hants West received over $8 million in capital construction. Hants East, on the other hand, had a little over $5 million. Another neighbouring riding of mine, Pictou East, had $7.3 million. My riding had approximately $3 million last year. Here is another one, Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley, $12.5 million last year in capital construction, and on it goes. I can see some ridings that are receiving very little. Here's the riding of Antigonish, almost $6 million. The riding of Inverness, $7 million. Why are some ridings
apparently getting more capital investment than others if we're looking at a system of fairness and equity throughout the province?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, constituencies are not the same in terms of the inventory of roads that exists in all of the constituencies. If you have a constituency that has a large portion of 100-Series Highways travelling through it and work is being done to re-establish that, that's far more expensive than it is to do the repaving on a county road. We do have, as a policy of government, we dedicate a certain amount of our funding on an annual basis to maintain the 100-Series Highways of the province, because that needs to be the priority of the transportation system. So an examination of the numbers that the honourable member has does not take into account factors such as the influence of 100-Series Highways on those numbers. You made reference to Antigonish, well I can tell you that if you move away from Highway No. 104 and take that money out of the Antigonish figure, it's not as big as I would like to see it.
MR. PARKER: Mr. Chairman, I realize that the 100-Series Highways are a different category altogether, and secondary roads, I guess, all we're asking for is equity and fairness. I know, for example, let's take Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley, I don't think there are any 100-Series Highways in that riding that had an investment of $12.5 million in it. For example, in my own county, in the previous capital year of 2004-05, I see the riding of Pictou East had more than $5 million invested and Pictou West had about $0.5 million. There's a huge difference - and I realize there is a little bit of grubbing, a little bit of work done on Highway No. 104 in that riding, but it certainly doesn't explain that difference.
I guess the principle, as outlined, it was mentioned in the Speech from the Throne, you look at the idea of need before want, and I guess that's all I can ask, that the minister and his department would treat everybody fair and that every area of the province receive fair and equitable treatment. I know from my area of the province, in Pictou West, there are a whole lot of roads that I hear about from people on a daily basis - people are very unhappy with them.
Whether it's the Toney River Road or the West Branch Road, the Scotch Hill Road, the Green Hill Road, the Cape John Road, the Mill Brook Road - there are just dozens and dozens of roads out there - the Fox Brook Road, maybe you're familiar with, Mr. Minister. It just doesn't end, the Granton Road, past the Michelin plant, the Abercrombie Road, the Bay View Road, the Braeshore Road, just a long list of secondary roads that are crumbling or are in very poor condition, very poor shape, and over and over I'm hearing about it in my constituency office, as I do hear from other MLAs around the province who are having real concerns.
There are many out there that require a good amount of repair and work. I guess I'm asking the minister that fairness and equity and equal treatment for all be a guiding
principle within the department. I don't know if you want to respond to that - if not, I would go on to some other questions.
MR. MACISAAC: As the honourable member was speaking, I've been able to find his area of the province in this atlas and, indeed, all the roads which he referenced are visible. All of us, I'm sure, could get up here and provide quite a list of roads that are wanting - and I see the honourable member for Hants East nodding his head in approval. I'm sure he can provide me with a considerable list as could my colleagues with me.
Certainly the principle of fairness is one which we'll do our best to consider in all of our decision making.
MR. PARKER: Just very recently, last week I think, it was announced you're perhaps not going to be able to carry out as much capital work in this province as you had hoped, primarily due to the rising cost of asphalt. I know during the election campaign it was announced over and over that we were going to have the largest capital program in 40 years, something like 2,000 kilometres over the next four years alone but, by the sound of things, that's not going to happen. So I wonder, Mr. Chairman, through you to the minister, could you give us an update on what amount is not going to happen, and has a decision been made on which projects will be delayed or will not happen this year?
MR. MACISAAC: The pricing of roads is not something you ever know with certainty until such time as the contracts are bid upon, and you get to the point where you decide to award or make other decisions because the pricing is far higher than you had anticipated through the estimate process. I want it to be clearly understood that we are going to spend the amount of money that we said we would spend.
Leading up to the calling of tenders for this year's program, we did anticipate there would be an increase in the price of liquid asphalt, and I think initially we estimated the number to be an additional $2 million. Subsequent to that, based on some of the early numbers that we saw, we deemed it appropriate to add another $1 million to that figure. Until the contracts start coming in, you don't know with certainty what those numbers are going to be, so that means that we're in a position where we're going to have to look at some of the programs that we had anticipated doing this year.
We're not going to put or decide not to do those projects, but we may have to put some projects in what we call a Fall tender call so that we can get to the point of awarding the contract. But the work would not take place or not be completed until next fiscal, because those contracts are awarded then it's the first work that gets done in the following Spring and they're usually completed very early in the construction season.
The total number of projects that will be in that category has not yet been clearly determined. We're currently looking at about one dozen but, then again, we still have about 20 per cent of our work to be called and we're going to have to monitor very carefully the results of that. What it does do, of course, is bring into play other surfaces that can be used for the building of roads and, in particular, the use of cement and concrete in the building of roads. It will be interesting to see what impact that has.
It also brings into play the use of alternate surfacing to pavement, double-chip seal is something that can be used in roads where there isn't a great deal of heavy - as in weight - traffic on the roads and that's an opportunity. The other thing, as I indicated earlier, that we need to do in some instances is to enhance the maintenance program and RIM becomes a much bigger factor in that. I'm just reminded here that New Brunswick uses double-chip seal on a lot of it's local roads and apparently with some success. We're doing some roads in that now and it may be that it will be a very preferred surface in some situations.
MR. PARKER: I guess what I'm hearing from you that the promise of, I guess it's 500 kilometres is it? It was 2,000 kilometres over four years, so that's 500 kilometres a year. I assume that this year there will be 500 kilometres tendered, but maybe you're saying there's going to be some delay in that, that it will be some Fall tender rather than all being done this summer. Some will be tendered and actually done in 2007, am I correct in that assumption?
MR. MACISAAC: I thank the honourable member for his second question because I didn't make it clear the first time. As a matter of fact, I didn't address it so it's not a matter of clarity, I just didn't address it. I meant to say, and to make it very clear, that we will be resurfacing more than 500 kilometres this year, even with the 12 projects that may not get done until next year. In this construction season, there will be in excess of 500 kilometres of pavement put down which leaves us on schedule with respect to the commitment that we made during the campaign.
MR. PARKER: So 500-plus kilometres, maybe 510, 520, I don't know where it's going to end up - perhaps the minister could clarify that - but it's in addition of 500 kilometres to secondary roads - I guess we're talking secondary roads here, or is the 100-Series included in that? Maybe you can clarify that for me; 500 kilometres, I assume, of secondary roads that will be done this year, if he can clarify that. Also, how does that compare to last year, to 2005-06, how many kilometres were actually paved in Nova Scotia in the fiscal year that just ended in March?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, when we talk about the paving program, we're talking about, as I indicated in my answer to the fairness question, you have to take into account 100-Series Highways as well as local. So what we're talking about is total kilometres of pavement put down on the road surfaces of the province. If the honourable
member is interested in the history, I can give it to him. It will be in excess of 500 kilometres this year. If we go back to 2001-02, we did 209 kilometres. In 2002-03 we did 301 kilometres; 2003-04, we did 318 kilometres; 2004-05, we did 386 kilometres; 2005-06, we did 470 kilometres; and this year we will be in excess of 500 kilometres. I can't give you an exact number because we, as I indicated, still have about 20 per cent of the work to be called.
MR. PARKER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. As you mentioned, Mr. Minister, it brings into question the ability of other road surfaces and maybe they're competitive on costs. Concrete, certainly I've had some opportunity to travel in Quebec and Ontario where concrete is used considerably, and perhaps this will now allow concrete to become a competitive-priced product, and also you mentioned double-chip seal. I'm not quite sure exactly, is that over old pavement or is that over gravel? How does that work? Is it resurfacing the asphalt that's there or is it something different?
MR. MACISAAC: Chip seal surfacing is used in two different ways. The chip seal surfacing on pavement is used to enhance the life of existing pavement and that's a single layer of chip seal that's put on that. When we use the double-chip seal, it is used on gravel roads and that's a process whereby they go out and put down a layer of chip seal and then, once that's set and fixed, they can come by and they put down another layer of that chip seal. I believe in subsequent years they sometimes go out and do another layer on top of that. So we may even have to look at changing the name to triple-chip seal but, you know, it's multiple layers of chip seal that go on over a period of time. The initial application is two layers.
MR. PARKER: I just wanted to verify, Mr. Minister, the number of kilometres you said were paved in 2005-06, this past calendar year or fiscal year, you mentioned 470 kilometres. I guess the information that I had from your department previously, provided by your department staff, was 500 kilometres. Which is correct? Is it 470 kilometres or is it 500 kilometres?
MR. MACISAAC: The 470 kilometres is pavement and does not include surfaces such as chip seal, which would be included in the number the honourable member has.
MR. PARKER: Mr. Chairman, I want to move on to a different topic, I guess, because my time is slipping along here. Recently in the news there was a discussion in Antigonish and Guysborough County about the highway that's not going to be built. It's for Keltic Petrochemicals, a company building the Goldboro project there. It was quite willing to put in a 100-Series Highway at no cost to the province. It would cost somewhere around $50 million, a nice new surface, a 53-kilometre highway between the Town of Antigonish and the Goldboro facility. All of a sudden they withdrew their application and they said the province was not supportive, would not come up with the maintenance dollars to look after it. It seemed like a godsend to me. Why would the
department not support a project - almost like a gift horse in the mouth here. They were willing to spend the capital investment of $50 million. Why did the province say no?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, I think we want to be clear about the decisions that have been taken here. The decision that was taken, as I understand it, by Keltic Petrochemicals was to remove the road from the environmental assessment. That does not mean that a decision was taken not to build the road because if they are going to go ahead with their project, which is an LNG terminal, a petrochemical plant, access to that site would be required.
We, as a government, have said from day one that if a project goes and they are creating 500 jobs on the site in Goldboro, there will be a road to that site. So the company has taken the decision to remove their route for the road from the environmental assessment. Subsequent to that, there has been communication from the department that while it does reflect the attitude of the department with respect to a brand new road as set out by the descriptions of Keltic Petrochemicals, it does not necessarily reflect the policy of government with respect to address the transportation needs of that project. It's not to say that the department was dismissing the need to provide access to that site through a transportation link, it simply dealt specifically with the proposal as presented by Keltic Petrochemicals.
Government, and the department, have a very real interest, as I indicated in ensuring that there is a link to that project, if and when it proceeds. I must say, I've never met a more determined individual than the President of Keltic Petrochemicals, Kevin Dunn. He has kept this project alive and has brought it forward in a very logical, methodical way, and he is nailing down the essentials that would be required to make such a project a go and that is a supply of natural gas. So while the project is not yet a go, I'm reasonably confident that if anybody is going to succeed in this, it would be Mr. Dunn who would succeed.
So assuming that he's successful with this project and it gets launched, then there is going to be a road, and we will participate with the company in the development of that road, and for the interests of the honourable member, I can say that Keltic Petrochemicals and the Department of Transportation and Public Works, will be meeting in the very near future, i.e., within the next number of days, in order to discuss their need and the needs of the people of Nova Scotia. If we can deal with a transportation route to that site that enhances the transportation routes used by current citizens, then we've served not only the interests of the company, but we have enhanced the transportation opportunities for people who live in the area. If we can do both of those things, we feel that that would be a very good solution to the problem of providing transportation linked to that project.
MR. PARKER: Mr. Chairman, so it sounds then like the department has, I guess, changed their mind, or has a different approach on it. Certainly the initial reaction from the department personnel was: The alignment proposed in this draft report is not consistent with our 100-Series expansion plans. We have never supported it and thus are not prepared to comment on the environmental or safety issues associated with it.
So I guess, Mr. Minister, the department is taking the opposite approach to that and you're saying now that you're prepared to work with Keltic Petrochemicals. Are you still willing to pay for the maintenance if they're willing to put in the road?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, one of the factors that members would be interested in observing about this particular issue is that the route as proposed by Keltic Petrochemicals is a totally greenfield route and that would require an environmental assessment. It would be a Level 2 environmental assessment - very extensive, time- consuming and involves a great deal, and that's why the company took the decision to withdraw that from their environmental assessment of the entire project, given the communication to which the honourable member referenced, and that is a 100-Series Highway that was proposed. It's a 100-Series Highway that would serve the needs of the project but would not serve the needs of anybody else who lived in that part of the province.
If we are able to, in our discussions with Keltic Petrochemicals, identify a route that is suitable to them as well as to ourselves and that route employs existing roadbed, then we are able to avoid the need for an environmental assessment because we're building the road on existing roadbeds. That would greatly shorten the time frame that would be required in order for an assessment and approval to be required to proceed with the construction of that road. In answer to the question will we do the maintenance on the road, the answer to that question is absolutely, yes, we will maintain that road, but it will be a road that will reflect the mutual needs of the Department of Transportation and Public Works, the Government of Nova Scotia, as well as the Keltic Petrochemicals company.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The member's time has expired.
The honourable member for Preston.
MR. KEITH COLWELL: Mr. Chairman, I've got some specific questions for the minister, and the first one I'm going to start with is you indicated earlier, I believe you said it was $351 million in total budget that you use in the department - could you break that down? I don't want it totally broken down because it's in the thing here, but broken down between what you do and the portion of that that you put into actual maintenance on the roads and the costs that you do for new paving and new construction - not saying new construction but repaving of roads. So, in general terms, what do we pay?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, I thank the honourable member for his question. I can provide numbers to the honourable member. The operating part of the budget is an amount of $174 million. The capital budget is just about $177 million - and if I'm rounding, I should have said $175 million in the first instance. Now, in the operating part of the budget, the highways and bridges operating account is $151.6 million; vehicle compliance is $2.6 million; and maintenance improvements is $20.4 million. That gives you the total of $175 million. As I indicated, the amount of money spent on highways and bridges, capital equipment is $176.8 million. I don't know if we have a breakdown between the highways and bridges - yes, bridges are $14.1 million and steel truss bridges, $13 million. So that would be a total of $27 million on bridges.
MR. COLWELL: If it would be possible, could you supply that in a written form at a later date? It doesn't have to be today. (Interruption) Yes, that would be great. Now, on capital projects, $177 million you indicated, roughly - how is that broken down? Is that broken down between bridge repair and highway reconstruction and new construction? How is that broken down?
MR. MACISAAC: Under the TCA, or the capital portion of the budget, $25.6 million is provided to asphalt. That's new surface. So if we twin a road, then we reference that as being new asphalt laid.
The sub-grade is $3.5 million, repaving - that is the laying down of asphalt over existing paved roads - is $109.6 million. As I indicated, bridges are $14.1 million with steel truss bridges being in the amount of $13 million. We plan to spend $7.4 million on machinery - trucks, graders, things of that nature. The purchase of land, we have an amount of $3 million that has been set aside for that. So the total, as I indicated, is $177 million. We have $600,000 set aside for vehicle purchase as well; that would be trucks, vans and things of that nature.
The point to remember, of course, is this is a budgeted item. As tenders close and things happen, then there's a bit of movement in terms of those numbers.
MR. COLWELL: Now, recently your department indicated some of the tenders you may have to rethink because of the cost of petroleum products now, the asphalt cost has gone up. How much has that affected the department in their ability to pave some of the roads? I know it's hard to say as prices are continually changing. How much effect is that going to have on your new surface, repaving and the new asphalt or the new surface budget? Will that mean that you're going to have, like, 5 per cent less that you're going to be able to do in each year, or 10 per cent or 3 per cent? What kind of percentage do you think that's going to - how it's going to affect each one of those?
MR. MACISAAC: This is similar to a question I had previously. What I can say is, in terms of any impact on the twinning of roads, or new pavement - what we described
as being asphalt - there will be no impact on that. We're going to proceed with those projects.
Currently we're considering approximately 12 projects that may not proceed. Despite the fact they won't proceed, we still will be doing in excess of 500 kilometres of resurfacing this year. I can't give you the precise number because we still have about 20 per cent of our work to call, but it's going to be 500-plus kilometres that will be done. So the 12 projects will take from the total we had hoped to achieve somewhat, but we're still doing a very, very large amount of work this year.
MR. COLWELL: There's one project I know has been put on hold for a long time and I'd like to get some detail on it if I could. I know some land has been purchased for it over a long period of time. It's Highway No. 107 bypass that will almost connect to Burnside, but not quite and comes in through Lake Echo, just this side of Lake Echo. It's one that you may not be familiar with, because it has been on the books for a long time and there has been very little progress on it, but it's one that the traffic congestion is now getting so bad on Main Street and through Highway No. 7, Highway No. 107, where it comes together there, that if it's soon not fixed, the accident rate is going up.
There are a lot of improvements the municipality is trying to do to try to get the traffic to flow through there better, but the road just can't handle the traffic. A lot of traffic comes through from the rural areas to get to either downtown Dartmouth or Halifax or into Burnside. Indeed, as the growth and the population goes up and more and more new houses are built, it puts more and more stress on the existing road that's probably taxed - not to the limit yet, but it's getting close.
I wonder what the plan for that road is. Is there any plan to continue with that and hopefully alleviate some of the congestion that's there and some of the accidents we've been seeing in the last few years? I would say, and this is just a guess because I don't know what the traffic flow really is and I'm sure that the department or the municipality would know because this one section of road belongs to them, but Highway No. 107 wouldn't, of course - it would be a provincial road. How the traffic has increased, to me it almost doubled over the last five years, it appears, but again, that's just my guess, it doesn't mean that that's accurate.
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, one of the reasons that I was moving here is I was attempting to find that particular road on the map. I have found it and I understand what the honourable member is referring to. Indeed, we have completed the environmental assessment of that piece of road. We are moving at acquiring the land for the road. In terms of being able to proceed with the project, it is unfortunately not a road that is cost shared with the Government of Canada, and that has been a limiting factor in terms of our capacity to be able to move. As the honourable member would know, it's not part of the National Highway System. So, you know, from that perspective it makes
it difficult, but it is a road that we would like to see proceeded with. It's a question of when available funding shows up.
MR. COLWELL: Can you give me an estimate? I know it's difficult because this is something new that I hadn't talked to you about before. Is it possible for the department to give me an estimate of when you may feel that the final amount of land will be acquired, and how aggressively are you going after the land? I know these things take time and it goes all in a progression, but when the land purchases might be completed.
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, we will endeavour to provide as much detail as we can to be helpful to the honourable member. I'm a bit reluctant to start predicting when the purchase of land will occur, and I think for obvious reasons, but we'll be as helpful as we can in terms of providing information to you.
MR. COLWELL: Yes, I fully understand when it comes to purchases of land, there are some serious negotiations and on behalf of the taxpayers, we've got to make sure you spend the money prudently, which I'm sure you and your staff will do. The only issue with this is this is a 100-Series Highway and the whole eastern part from Halifax Harbour out has really been a depressed area for a long, long time.
We don't really have a good transportation system there and this particular point, where the road goes in and connects to the other highways and continues, has really been a detriment to development in the area from the standpoint of transportation for businesses and also for people who commute back and forth to the city to work, or to Burnside, or any other place that they must have to travel to every day, but in particular for businesses because if a business doesn't have an easy access of transportation, of course, they struggle through the process.
Then you add into that problem, there have been more and more accidents on Highway No. 7 and Highway No. 107 where it's sort of one road, it's really an upgraded Highway No. 7 in that area before it really gets into Highway No. 107. That has caused lots and lots of problems. There are some very dangerous intersections there that there are near accidents or accidents on a very continuous basis. So if this road could be put in, it would alleviate the tremendous amount of stress on the road.
It is a situation I wanted to bring to the minister's attention because I think it's very important that this road be considered and actually put in place as quickly as we can to ensure that we don't lose any more residents to accidents that we can avoid - of course, you never know about that - and also to make it more suitable for people so they can start
and operate businesses in the area, to ensure we can employ people in the local area, so they don't have to travel on the roads and generate more highways.
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, I do appreciate the points that the honourable member is making. I'm familiar with the area and have travelled that particular piece of road that he would like to see bypassed. Indeed, it is a challenge. Our difficulty and our challenge is that it is among the high-priority roads that we have - and we have too many high-priority roads. Certainly it is one that we would like to see done.
MR. COLWELL: I appreciate that, and I'm sure after our discussions today the minister will put this a little bit higher on the list - I would hope so anyway. I know you have a lot of priorities and it's important. It's one that's going to become a more and more difficult one for your department to deal with, I guarantee you, just because of the traffic flows. As more and more people realize what a wonderful place the Eastern Shore is to live, more and more people are moving there. That's going to be a real challenge for the department in a very short time.
I have another road that I want to ask about - I've asked about this one before - O'Connell Drive, and I'm sure your staff is very familiar with this one. It's in Porters Lake. O'Connell Drive is now presently a subdivision road, but it really should be a secondary road because of the school that's there, creating a tremendous amount of traffic, beating the road right to death. I think your department staff, your maintenance staff, who do an excellent job with what they've got to work with, and the roadbed, considering what they have to deal with they do an excellent job. I can't say enough good about the staff in the area who have worked hard to keep this road passable - literally passable.
We had, last year, one time that it was impassable, and actually they closed the road, the ruts were so deep, with the school buses travelling over it and all the vehicles going to the school. This is a road I believe should be paved from the Highway No. 7 to the school, because it's owned by the province - any road past that is owned by the municipality, actually. The road to the school should be paved and paid for by the province, because the school is causing all the traffic and all the problems, and there's only about 25 houses on that street that actually have road frontage - very limited traffic.
Actually now that the school is closed, the maintenance problem on this road is gone; it's actually gone. They'll grade it a couple of times this summer and they'll put calcium chloride on it to keep the dust down - beautiful - but as soon as September comes, nothing but problems. I would bet if you look at the cost of your department maintaining this road over the last two years, you could have paved it and paid for it, it's that expensive to maintain. They've done everything they can to try to get the roadbed better; they've tried everything that they would have under the maintenance budget to do it.
I would like to see this road actually paved at the province's expense, where it is a road that is really a secondary road because of the tremendous number of cars, vehicles that go to the school all the time. They have some large sports fields there that they use. The students - there are now close to 500 students there, it's a P to 6 operation, and a lot of parents travel there every day. I would like to inquire on that, what is the plan for that particular road?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, one of the most common arguments that I've encountered since I became Minister of Transportation and Public Works is an argument that I've employed myself in the past with previous ministers, that if you pave this road, you'll save yourself all kinds of maintenance costs in the future. I now fully understand why I got the response I got from previous ministers. It's because we don't have the money to pave all of the roads we'd like to pave. We'd love to take that operating budget and slim it down and do that - however, that's not an alternative at this point.
I'm not familiar with the details of that road, certainly not as familiar as I am with the needs you articulated with respect to Highway No. 107, but you've certainly brought it to our attention and we'll look at what the circumstances are.
MR. COLWELL: Just to give you just a little bit more information on the road - the road is very short, the section I'm talking about, and last winter, during the winter actually, they had to dig the roadbed up, about two feet deep, and put in some very heavy gravel so even the trucks and buses could get over it. It was so bad at one time, there was a gentleman who lived up the road who was extremely worried that he wasn't even going to get a moving van in so he could move. That's how bad the shape of the road gets with the right freezing and thawing conditions, and of course last winter we had a lot of Spring thaws - it would freeze and thaw and freeze and thaw.
I guarantee you, you check your records on this one, this is a road that really costs you more than if it was paved. There's no question. If you ask the local supervisors or anyone who works at the Department of Transportation and Public Works in the local area, it's the number-one road they work on, and they work on it every week when the school is open. It's that simple. It's one that I think deserves some special attention, and hopefully you'll be able to review that and see if there's something that can be done in that regard. I would just ask if you would, after you get a chance to review the information and look at it - and I think it will take some time to get the details back from the local operation to your staff - to see if we can't get something done with that road, I would just ask for your commitment.
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, we'd be very pleased to have a look at that road.
MR. COLWELL: Paving is always a problem in Nova Scotia - we never have enough money and we have too many roads.
The other one I want to ask about, which you may already have on your list to do - and your staff can probably tell you right away - is from Lake Echo through to Porters Lake. I believe there's going to be a tender, or there has been a tender called to have Highway No. 7 paved in that area. I just want to confirm that.
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, if all goes well, that tender will be in the paper tomorrow.
MR. COLWELL: I'd like to thank the minister for that, because that is a section of road that's in extremely bad condition. The residents will greatly appreciate it. We get a lot of traffic there - maybe we'll take some traffic off Highway No. 107 and make that a little bit better, too. I do appreciate that, and the residents will as well.
Going back, the vehicle compliance, what does the department do now with vehicle compliance? That used to be with Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations. Is that totally with the Department of Transportation and Public Works now?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, yes, that's now the responsibility of the Department of Transportation and Public Works.
MR. COLWELL: I know we had some trouble two or three years ago on a local road we have, and I just want to put it on the record that I managed to get hold of one of the compliance officers and they were extremely good to deal with, they showed up as quickly as they could, they corrected the problem, and indeed the residents were very happy with the service they received from the compliance officer. I just want to pass that along and put that on the record. It's a tough job when you're trying to catch people who are tearing the roads to pieces when the roads are closed, and in this case some residents complained, I passed it on, and it was looked after, I would say, in a positive way. If you would pass that on to the director who looks after that, I would appreciate it.
On vehicle compliance - how many officers do you have in the field? Do you have any intention of increasing the number of officers and the number of vehicles on the road for truck inspections, particularly heavy trucks? Because they're on the roads, sometimes I've seen them on closed roads in the Spring of the year, in particular, and they really beat our roads up badly, and it makes it difficult for us to maintain the roads. The money you're putting in roads is wasted if they're being destroyed by big trucks.
MR. MACISAAC: I want to thank the honourable member for his compliment to the compliance officer involved in the incident which he referenced. I don't have to
pass his comments on because Mr. Fitzner is in the gallery and heard your comments, and he appreciates them very much.
With respect to the number of compliance officers that we have, we have in the province five scale houses. They are located at Amherst, inbound and outbound; there is one at Kelly Lake; another at Enfield; one is outbound Highway No. 102 traffic, and one is inbound Highway No. 102 traffic; and we have one at Aulds Cove, located at the Causeway. We have approximately four compliance officers at each of these locations - that would be 20 - and we have 13 mobile vehicle compliance officers, you might see their trucks as they move around the province. We have four motor vehicle inspectors and three supervisors, and we have recently just hired eight additional compliance officers.
The honourable member asked if we had plans to hire more. Just to let him know, we have just hired eight additional - I'm not certain if he heard that or not, but anyway - they do 25,000 vehicle checks per annum, and 3,600 commercial vehicle safety alliance inspections are conducted annually by this branch.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Leader of the Liberal Party.
MR. MICHEL SAMSON: Mr. Chairman, on that subject, I just arrived and I have to take the opportunity for a couple of minutes to raise some concerns, in fact, with the Aulds Cove weigh station that is there. The minister may recall that his colleague, the now Minister of Agriculture, some years ago while in Opposition - in fact it may have been before the minister actually returned back to the House, but he, as someone involved in the trucking industry, had raised the issue about the fact that the way the Aulds Cove station is that you have vehicles crossing the yellow line to go into the weigh station and vehicles crossing the yellow line to get out of the weigh station.
That's the only way on and off Cape Breton Island, and I can tell you from personal experience that I have seen too many close calls at that specific site, where either large trucks were cutting in front of traffic, after being tired of waiting more than likely, and trucks cutting into traffic, which made for significant safety concerns. I'm curious if the minister is aware of that problem, and can he give me any sort of indication whether that specific safety issue has been looked at for the Aulds Cove weigh station?
MR. MACISAAC: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I thank the honourable Leader of the Third Party for his question. Very early in my time as the Minister of Transportation and Public Works, I had the opportunity to visit the weigh station at Aulds Cove, and while there I was very delighted to see the results of our investment of
approximately $300,000, maybe a little bit more than $300,000, to address just the problem that the honourable member referenced.
I don't know if the honourable member in his travels back and forth has noticed that just to the east, I guess, of where the original toll stations used to be, you will see two screens there. What has been installed - you will recall you had to do a bypass around that area for awhile - is automatic, and I'm told we spent $600,000 to fix the problem, or address the problem as it is not fixed in its entirety. However, what happens is that the scales embedded in the pavement have the capacity to be able to not just provide you with a readout of the weight of the truck itself, but of each axle on the weigh, and the operator inside can look at a computer screen and see the numbers as they come up.
Now the operator is not required to respond to those numbers, because they happen fairly quickly, as you can appreciate, with an 18-wheeler, or more than 18 wheels going over that surface, but the equipment will alert the operator that the truck is over the limit - not only alert the operator to that fact, but the screen will flash and will tell the truck driver that he or she is to report to the weigh scale. At the weigh scale the business is done and it's determined whether or not there was an infraction of the rules.
What this has done is greatly facilitated the flow of traffic toward Cape Breton Island, so we have minimized the number of left turns that must be made into the scale house as well as the turns from the scale house back out into the traffic. The reason for that investment is to create, first of all, that safety that's acquired as a result of that by reducing the large number of left turns - because before whenever the scale was open they had to report - but it also, of course, generates a tremendous efficiency with respect to the operation, and provides a great deal of useful operation with respect to the total weights of the traffic that flows back and forth over that particular section of highway.
MR. SAMSON: Travelling during the construction, I can tell you that I was laughed at by a number of my friends when I tried to tell them that it was my belief that it was an underground scale that was being put under the road - and fortunately you've vindicated me and my suggestion that that's exactly what it was. What it has done has lessened the amount of left turns, but it has not eliminated the amount of left turns, or addressed the issue of trucks leaving the scale house and continuing to Cape Breton by having to cross the yellow line again into oncoming traffic in order to go.
I certainly am appreciative of the fact that the department has taken steps to lessen the risk, but the fact is that still remains as a significant risk, especially in the wintertime when driving conditions may not be very favourable for sudden stopping. As I mentioned before, I've seen, myself, way too many close calls and we certainly wouldn't want to see any sort of significant or unfortunate accident take place at that specific site.
I'm just curious, I don't believe I've seen any sort of public information campaign to inform the residents of the surrounding area of that new scale that's been put in, or its intention to do exactly what you've just told me it was going to do. I'm wondering if your department has undertaken any sort of public campaign with the local media, or anything to even inform them or to inform our provincial media of what's been put in place and the exact reason for it, because that may also address some of the safety concerns we're getting from residents throughout that area.
So I'm just curious, could the minister, through his staff, indicate whether any sort of public information campaign has been undertaken, or if they plan to undertake - or maybe they will even take that as a positive suggestion as to how they might convey that to the local residents in the area about how they've addressed a significant safety concern?
MR. MACISAAC: I'm going to keep my eyes on the gallery to make sure what I'm answering here is in fact correct. I do understand that there was an announcement, and perhaps not as significant as the announcement anticipated by the honourable member, but we will certainly take his suggestion under advisement in terms of the appropriateness of doing that. And I do want to point out to the honourable member that indeed we have cut by more than 80 per cent the amount of traffic that is required to make left turns in that area. So it's a very substantial reduction and we believe it will go a long way to enhancing the safety of passage across the Causeway, and suggests to me that there might be more dangerous traffic exiting from Tim Hortons up the road than there is now from that - but we'll take the honourable member's suggestion under consideration.
MR. SAMSON: You have four local newspapers right around that area: The Reporter, The Inverness Oran, The Casket, the Guysborough Journal, certainly I think it's a means of letting the public in that area know. I still have people look at me funny when I try to tell them it actually is an underground scale, because when coming on to Cape Breton, those two flashing panels don't light unless you're overweight. As much as I threaten those people travelling with me that if they eat too much we might be overweight, it hasn't gone off yet. So I haven't been able to prove to them that's exactly what's there. So I would strongly encourage the minister.
Is it safe to say that right now, as it stands, your department has no plans, long term or short term, to have a two-scale house system at that Aulds Cove area which is what exists at all the other scale houses in the province, at least to my knowledge? Are there any plans in that regard, or is that investment you've just made an indication that you have no plans to look at that?
MR. MACISAAC: Currently, there are no plans to provide another facility. We will certainly want to evaluate very carefully the success of the investment that we have
made of the $600,000 and monitor the impact it has on safety of traffic back and forth. If it's helpful to the honourable member, I'd be glad to write him a letter saying that there are underground scales.
MR. SAMSON: If the minister would be so kind, I'll leave it in my vehicle so whomever is travelling with me, I'll just be able to flash the letter to confirm that that is the case.
Just a couple of more questions minister. As I'm sure you are aware, municipal officials and local officials have raised significant concerns about deterioration around the Canso Causeway, especially around the rock work that exists. There are significant fears that there's been deterioration under the watermark of the Causeway as a result of a number of significant winter storms that we've encountered in the past three or four years. It is my understanding that your department undertook some studies in that regard. There was some level of rock work that was undertaken above the high watermark. I'm curious as to what assurances you can give to the residents in along Cape Breton and the eastern mainland area that the Causeway, as it now stands, is structurally sound, and whether your government has any sort of intentions of making further investments regarding the structural integrity of the Causeway leading to the swing bridge, especially on the mainland side of the Canso Causeway.
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, yes, we did carry out some studies, and did the required work that the studies indicated we needed to do. Whether or not we're in the situation that we have to provide further in depth and detailed analysis with respect to the entire structure is something that we would want to continue to monitor very closely. I certainly do recall, having been there at the opening of the Causeway, and I know that I was much shorter then than I am now, but the rocks on the sides were much higher than they are now. They have settled considerably, and that's certainly indicative of something happening in terms of the under structure itself. At any rate, I'm going to do a bit of research and I might have more to say on this tomorrow.
MR. SAMSON: Thank you, and I appreciate that. I'm sure the minister would have heard of municipal officials and local representatives quite concerned about that.
Mr. Chairman, I have just a couple of more questions before I turn it back to my colleague. I guess in some of my levity of my questions and the levity of the answers from the minister, let me finish with these two questions. Mr. Minister, unfortunately, a very serious issue has been the decline in fish stocks along Chedabucto Bay, especially up along the area mainly between the Pictous and going up toward Cumberland and over in P.E.I. Some fisherman have blamed the fixed link and some have blamed the Canso Causeway - I'm curious, has your government any intention of removing the Canso Causeway in light of some of those concerns raised?
MR. MACISAAC: No.
MR. SAMSON: It would have made it a much more interesting afternoon had the minister's response been different than that.
Let me finish with one more. Mr. Minister, it was a Progressive Conservative Government back in the early 1990s, under a certain Don Cameron, who came in in the darkness of night and removed the tolls on the Canso Causeway - our beloved tolls - Cape Breton probably being one of the only areas in the world where the removal of tolls would create an uproar and an anger against the government because of the fact that people could no longer pay that toll. So allow me to finish by asking, does this minister and this Progressive Conservative Government have any intention of reinstituting the long lost, beloved tolls on the Canso Causeway?
MR. MACISAAC: No.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Preston.
MR. KEITH COLWELL: You had all the "no" answers for my honourable colleague, so I need some "yes" answers now.
Going back to scale houses, I notice that some of the scale houses in certain areas of the province at certain times are closed. The one on the road from the airport, the road between Halifax and Truro, oftentimes I've seen, when I'm driving by at different times of the year, that it's closed. There are still a lot of heavy trucks on the road at that time - could you tell me the reason that this scale house is closed, and why it isn't open around the clock every day to ensure that there are no heavy trucks sneaking through?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, the honourable member correctly points out that they do not operate 24/7. Indeed, if you're driving towards the scale house, you will see a sign saying that when the amber lights are flashing, the scale is open. That's to warn truckers that they must prepare to report to the scale. As I indicated earlier, we have five scales across the province and we have four people assigned to each scale, so it's not possible with that allocation of human resources to operate 24/7. They do operate on staggered, random shifts, so there is no way of predicting when the scale house would be closed or when it would be open. We don't have the resources to keep it open 24/7.
MR. COLWELL: Let's just use one as an example, because with the different scale houses it would be difficult to compare them all. Let's use the one that's between Truro and Halifax, on the main highway, the four-lane there - there are two of them, one going in each direction, those scales, how many hours a month would they not be open?
MR. MACISAAC: I'm told, Mr. Chairman, they are open more than 50 per cent of the time.
MR. COLWELL: On the basis of being open, say, more than 50 per cent of the time, and I realize it's impossible to answer that (Interruption) yes, well 50 per cent of the time, how many infractions in the 50 per cent of the time that they're open do they actually have, is it one truck in 100 that's overweight, is it one in 50, is it one in 500? What are the statistics on that?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, I don't have that number with me, but I will endeavour to get it and provide it to the honourable member.
MR. COLWELL: What I'm really trying to get to here, in a roundabout way, is I would like to have a secure feeling in this process. These trucks, if they're overweight, beat the living daylights out of our roads, and then we have the continuous complaints all MLAs have with the roads beaten to death, and at the same time the truckers need to carry the heaviest load they're legally allowed to haul in order to make any money today. What I'm getting at is, is it worth - with the infractions you catch, and the people you catch - operating these things 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and ensuring that, indeed, that's a stronger compliance for these truckers to make sure they come in, and not all the truckers, of course, are Nova Scotia companies or Nova Scotia operators that are travelling through the province, which is not a problem, but they may have different regulations from different places they have to abide by. I want to really get an idea of the effectiveness of the scales, and, indeed, if they are doing their job, being open roughly 50 per cent of the time.
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, I thank the honourable member for the question. The fact is that there isn't a predictability factor to the scales as to when they're going to be open or not open. It becomes very difficult for anybody to design a travel pattern that would get them by the scales when they are closed. That's one factor.
In addition to that, we currently have 13 mobile vehicle compliance officers, and we've just hired another eight, so that's 21 mobile compliance officers. They are travelling all of the roads of the province. So they could come upon a trucker in any given circumstance at any time. You can't just look at the work of the scale house and say that's all that's taking place with respect to compliance. These 21 individuals are out on our roads throughout the entire province, and they are doing a considerable amount of work.
Now we don't view the scale houses nor the compliance officers as revenue sources. They're there to be a deterrent to individuals to avoid carrying weights that are over the legal limit. I share the concern of the honourable member with respect to what overweight trucks do to our roads, and that's one of the reasons we have increased the
number of mobile compliance officers, because we have a lot of traffic on roads that don't go anywhere near the scale houses. We want to be able to be certain that we are providing opportunities to have a deterrent in place in those circumstances, as well.
MR. COLWELL: I appreciate that, and I'm glad to hear that you put more mobile operators in place to check the non-compliance guys, because every trucker in the province knows every back road there is if they can get around the scale, I'm sure. Not that they're trying to beat the system, but sometimes they have to work pretty hard to make a dollar. So I'm sure there are different things they encounter.
What sort of training program do you have now for your mobile inspectors, your compliance officers in this field? How do you do the hiring process for them? Is there a particular program you have in place for training, and it goes through the process? I realize when they go and look at a truck, they don't just weigh it but they look for all kinds of infractions, make sure the tires are okay, a lot of things on the vehicles.
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, the regular hiring process takes place. There is a set criteria of qualifications that individuals have to meet. They obviously need to have an understanding of the trucking industry and a pretty good detailed understanding of the trucks themselves, and how they are operated and how the weight is distributed in the trucks and what relates to the safety operations of those trucks.
If I might just go back to the previous question, I can point out that there are 25,000 vehicle checks conducted by the vehicle compliance officers in a year. There are 3,600 commercial vehicle safety alliance inspections that take place annually in the province. So that's a considerable amount of checking, and there's no predictability as to when that occurs.
MR. COLWELL: Some more information I would like to get is, I have noticed in my area that the compliance officers have been out with the RCMP, on occasion, hauling vehicles over and then doing a thorough inspection on just passenger vehicles, which I think is a very good idea, how many of those do they conduct in a year?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, that is the 3,600 figure that I referenced in answer to your previous question.
MR. COLWELL: Sorry about that, I misunderstood the information. I appreciate the answer. Now, what the vehicle compliance officers do in a non-commercial vehicle, they have the right ,I understand - and correct me if I'm wrong with this - to order the vehicle taken off the road and towed to a location. Can they also issue a ticket like the RCMP does for non-compliance, or do the RCMP have to do that?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, they can issue tickets with respect to non-compliance under the Registry of Motor Vehicles, but the RCMP are there and play a role in the event that they get beyond infractions related to the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
MR. COLWELL: I think that's very positive. It's nice to have the RCMP there, because when you stop somebody you never know what you're going to run into, I suppose. I'm glad to hear that they can lay charges under the Motor Vehicle Act, because I think that's important that they have the ability to do that, especially when they see some things that they probably wonder how the car got there and never mind how it's going to - they're going have to tow it away.
Back on the scale houses. The one when you enter Nova Scotia, how long is that one open? Is that open 50 per cent, the same as in Truro, or is that open longer hours because that's the main entry port back and forth to Nova Scotia, and the other one that's exiting, what percentage of the time is that one open?
MR. MACISAAC: I'm told, Mr. Chairman, that it tends to be open more often than the others and with an emphasis on looking at traffic coming into the province.
MR. COLWELL: Yes, and what percentage of infractions do they find at that location? Is it typically higher than the other scale houses, or would it be about the same as the other ones?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, that's not a number that I have with me but we will get that number for the honourable member.
MR. COLWELL: I appreciate that. I'm not picking on the scale house operators, I think they do a good job. The only thing I would like to see is if we had more resources, then you could hire a few more people to do the job, but, again, I'm not an expert on it, and the department is. So they make those decisions and recommendations to staff, but anything we can do to ensure that our roads don't get beat up real bad is a bonus for all of us in Nova Scotia, and if somebody has an infraction that's costing us money that we can avoid, I think it should be done.
I also have a question about my riding. In Preston, in particular, there hasn't been a lot of road work done there in a very, very long time, probably since the riding was created in 1993. In the Black community, in particular, East Preston, I can't think of one single road that has been repaved, not one in all that time. Now, some of the roads are in pretty good shape and some of them are in terrible shape. For instance, we have Upper Governor and Lower Governor Streets. At one time, the Upper Governor Street school bus refused to go on it, it got that bad, and that's a paved road. We had some other ones
too. Is there any intention to do any work - well, let's start with Highway No. 7 through East Preston into Lake Echo, is there anything on the list for work being done there?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, I was just looking at some numbers, and in comparative terms I think Antigonish has 460 kilometres and there are 60 kilometres of road in Preston that we have responsibility for, so in comparative terms it is very difficult to do a comparison with respect to the number of dollars spent in that riding as opposed to the number of dollars spent in other areas. Having said that, we are doing work in that area this construction season.
MR. COLWELL: Mr. Chairman, really the question I was asking - actually in East Preston itself we have had some work done on the Porters Lake and the Myra Road, which was desperately needed; there was some work done in a small part of the East Preston, Lake Echo, Mineville area last year, which was excellent and people are really happy about that in the community; and actually in East Preston itself, it is an area that Highway No. 7 goes through, which used to be the main highway, and I don't think it has been resurfaced probably since the 1950s when the road was initially built, and it has held up very well, actually, but now it is full of potholes and really needs to be done - is there any plan to do that section from the Highway No. 107 turnoff, when you hit the Highway No. 7 heading into East Preston and up into Lake Echo?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, it is not on the list this year.
MR. COLWELL: There is another serious issue in the community that I noticed about eight or nine months ago - maybe a year ago - and I did write the department about it and I did send a letter off to our district director, Dave VanSlyke, about it. As you come in Highway No. 107, and this is a real serious issue - on the surface it may not sound serious, but it is a very serious issue for the community, and the community didn't really realize that this wasn't in place and I have travelled that road ever since it was built - but if you are heading in on Highway No. 107 towards Dartmouth and you come up on the exit into East Preston, on to Highway No. 7, there is no sign, absolutely no sign indicating that it is East Preston.
When I contacted Mr. VanSlyke, the engineer for the area, he said there had to be a sign. We went and looked and there is no sign - I am talking about the proper, 100-Series Highway sign that identifies a community. Now here is a community, a Black community, that has been struggling for years and years to try to be identified in this province and years of lack of service and all kinds of other issues that we could take days going into here, and they don't even have a sign indicating that this exit goes into East Preston.
Now coming the other way there is a sign, but not when you are coming from the Eastern Shore towards Dartmouth, there is absolutely no sign and I would like to get a commitment from the minister that a sign will be installed. Now I realize that these signs are expensive, but that is the only place on a 100-Series Highway that I have ever seen that does not have a sign indicating the community you are going into.
MR. MACISAAC: So the honourable member is referring to the intersection that is at the conclusion of Highway No. 107 and the beginning of Highway No. 7, or it relates to the area that you referenced earlier, where you want the bypass? (Interruption)Yes, okay. It's the road that takes you up to East Preston. Okay.
That is at Exit 17, okay, and we will certainly have a look at that. If we are in violation of the sign criteria, then a sign will be placed there, but we will certainly see that there is an evaluation of the sign criteria with respect to that intersection and address the concern that you raise.
MR. COLWELL: Even if there is not a violation of the sign rules that you follow, I think you should change the rules because this goes into one of the largest indigenous Black populations in the province and it has no identity when you're travelling west on that highway. It is definitely at Exit 17, and when you're heading west there's no indication there's an Exit 17 - or even a road there that you're coming up towards. I will take the commitment from the minister that indeed you will look into this and correct the situation, if you can at all correct it.
The other thing, when you come out of the same intersection it's a very dangerous spot there. I wrote to the previous minister and asked the department if they could put an entry lane there, as you head west off Highway No. 107, so that people trying to enter in the morning during rush hours and stuff - and the sight distances are quite short considering the speed of the traffic - if we could put an entry lane like you would have at any interchange, to help alleviate the problem there. There is a tremendous number of traffic accidents in that particular location, could we possibly look at doing that?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, it's my understanding that that situation has been evaluated. It is part of the priorities for next year, and the turn which the honourable member referenced is part of that planning process.
MR. COLWELL: Thank you very much, I think that will do a lot to alleviate some traffic problems in that area - and you never know when you're building highways what the expenses are, but it's not an expensive cure in terms of what you have to deal with every day.
How much time do I have left?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thirty seconds.
MR. COLWELL: About 30 seconds. Well, I want to thank the minister for his answers today. I can assure you I will follow up on these things - as you will - and thank you for your commitments for the things that you're going to be able to, hopefully, do for us in the future.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Hants East.
MR. JOHN MACDONELL: Mr. Chairman, I want to thank the minister and his staff for allowing me some time to ask some questions. It's nice to see you, Doug - Doug Stewart was my area manager when I was first elected in 1998, Mr. Minister. So other than my present OSs and the area manager there now, I don't know who in the department would know more about the roads in my constituency other than maybe me. My first question - I have to get right to the point - does the department have any intention of putting out tenders to pave any roads in Hants East this year?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, Highway No. 102 from Exit 9 to Exit 10 is being done now - that's the one I ran into the other day and was trying to adhere to the speed limit and noticed that everybody else on the road was whizzing buy me at a considerable rate, which caused me to become a bit perturbed because I think people need to respect a little bit more those who work on our roads, and pay attention to the speed limits when they're posted. Route 354, I understand, will be called in the next week or two, and I understand the Georgefield Road also will be called.
MR. MACDONELL: I'm not sure whether I should just sit down. (Interruption) Well, I've been behind for so long that I'm not sure just how far ahead I am.
I want to say thanks. (Interruption) Yes, it's not in the paper yet. Definitely good choices. The Georgefield Road - I don't have to say any more. I guess in terms of the 354, is that from Kennetcook to Noel, or Kennetcook to the Findlay Road, or Findlay Road to Noel, can you tell me that?
MR. MACISAAC: That is from Kennetcook to Findlay Road.
MR. MACDONELL: Thank you, Mr. Minister. Well, definitely, Route 354 is in need, and I should say Routes 354, 236, 215 and the Georgefield Road, and Highway No. 202 through West Gore. I know the department has some way to test roads to determine how bad they are or how good they are. I assume somebody does testing on the roads in Hants East. Is it possible to find out what those test results are and the criteria that would indicate that they are beyond the point, the level at which something should have been done or should be done? Is it possible to get that?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, there are various methods we employ in order to do testing of roads. We try to keep tabs on the entire system throughout the province. That is one factor that enters into the decision-making process. It is employed along with a lot of other criteria that is used in making the determinations, part of that being the ARAN vehicle results, as well.
MR. MACDONELL: Well, thanks. I am not sure you answered my question about whether I could get that or not. I am assuming there is a quantitative something. I am thinking there must be a number that says if you are five or below, you should be redone; if you are six or above, you shouldn't.
MR. MACISAAC: This is one of those times when I wish those who accompany us could answer the question, because the detail of answer they could provide is far greater than the one I can. As I indicated, there is a ride number that is generated by the ARAN vehicle, and that gives an indication as to at what point the road should be on the priority list, along with, as I said, other factors as well. The number taken by itself is not going to tell a layperson very much, but the professionals are able to use that number and it assists them in the recommendations they bring forward to staff and to the deputy and myself.
MR. MACDONELL: Maybe you could consider me a "de-layperson" in the sense of the time it has taken to get some of these roads done in my area.
So, Mr. Minister, you mentioned those conditions that would get a road on the priority list. So I am wondering, any of these roads that I mentioned, Routes 215, 236, 202, 214, is there a priority list for which - the Georgefield Road and Route 354 have been given consideration, but are any of these other roads on that list considered in 2006, 2007, or some time in the future?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, obviously in any area of the province, whenever we take a decision to do one or two or three roads, we are not by any means deleting the list, because other roads move up and take their place. The roads to which the honourable member refers are roads which, next year, will find themselves at a different point on the list because of the work that's being done this year.
MR. MACDONELL: I'm going to assume they're on the list; that's good to know.
I want to say that I was interested to hear your numbers about the $44 million that you talked about when the Progressive Conservatives came to power in 1999, and how much you've increased the budget for the department.
I have to say my concern would be that in 1998, as green as I was in doing this job, I was amazed when I called the OS and would say, you know, Mrs. Jones called and there was a pothole or there was an issue, and my OS would usually say I can do that in three days, two weeks, two months - or it's not happening this year. I was quite impressed with the number of times I called, because I know their day doesn't start with we're going to wait for John MacDonell to let us know what it is he wants done. They had a plan for where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do, and I used to keep interfering with that by calling. But, I was quite impressed with the way they would deal with me and it was very helpful for me to be able to go back to Mrs. Jones and say the department says this.
Most people were quite patient if I could actually tell them it won't be done, it would be a week, a month, whatever - they didn't appreciate it, but at least as long as they knew, and if the department could hit that target somewhere close, they were willing to accept that.
When I think about how much the budget has grown and how much more difficult my job has become when there's more money. We had three depots in Milford, Noel, and Upper Rawdon. The Upper Rawdon shed basically has been closed for some time, and my understanding is the men we have presently working for the department in Hants East now is about the same as we had in one of those sheds. We're down to about one-third of the men - and I know all about the RIM funding, I think rural impact mitigation is actually what that means, if I'm not mistaken.
One of the things I noticed early in my job of doing this was in 1998 and in 1999 we had fairly mild winters, if I remember correctly, and I used to get a lot of calls in the wintertime from people who, on gravel roads in particular, because if we had a mild spell and the frost was coming out of the road it turned to a sheet of ice, especially during a rain, and the department wouldn't put sand on until the rain stopped, so I would get calls from people who were walking with their children on these icy roads. I think about the year 2000, roughly, we had a fairly heavy snowfall that winter and I got almost no calls. So I said, oh, great, I like winter with snow because the number of calls was greatly diminished.
The next year we had a heavy snowfall and I started to get some calls, and the next year we had a heavy snowfall and I was getting more calls. It only occurred to me that there's something different about the complement of equipment or the crew or something, but oh, no, everything's the same. I think the winter before last we had a heavy, wet snow in November - you probably remember - and we had department trucks that weren't off the road in the ditch, they were on the road and stuck. Certainly on
Highway 215 we had a real heavy snowstorm and we had no four-wheel drive truck - it's my understanding there's an order for a six-wheel drive for my area?
I want to say I had real concerns about the complement of men and equipment in my constituency, as to whether they're able to do the job. I know the model of truck they try to use, I don't know the name of it, is kind of an all-purpose machine, I estimate, but I think there are those times when you need something with a little more harrumph. I think about all the farmers in my area who have a baler that sits inside for 10 months of the year, but when they need it to make hay, they have it. I kind of wonder about the department trying to have a vehicle that does all things, except it doesn't plow snow well.
I want to know if you can address my issues around the complement of men that I have in my constituency compared to what I think there used to be back to 1998 and what I deem to be a reduced amount of funding in my area. For the size of my area - I heard you mention to the member for Preston, you gave the kilometres of road in Antigonish compared to the kilometres of road in Preston. I would like you to do that same comparison in Hants East and Hants West. My understanding is, I have quite a few more kilometres of road, in particular, gravel roads, than Hants West. Hants West also has the Towns of Windsor and Hantsport, which I think would take care of their own roads. The funding that my colleague indicated that's capital that has been spent in those two constituencies, certainly in a case of Hants West is smaller and got more funding, that seems to be an inequity.
The fact the Minister of Transportation and Public Works was in Hants West would give him a bit of an edge, I think, over a member of the Opposition. I guess what I'm getting to is, I assume that the department knows roughly that if you pave a road today that you probably have a lifespan of 20 years - they might say 30, but whatever that number, you can tell me. Therefore, if you take the number of kilometres of road the department is responsible for, then you have basically 20 years to get them back in shape again to do that.
I think, in my constituency, I'm kind of concerned that roads that were actually paved in 1997, I guess, before I got elected, I think about Highway No.14, I think they're actually starting to repair that road that was paved then, and I have roads that are so bad that I'm not sure we're ever going to get caught up. That's my biggest concern, that we're going to start to patch roads that we should get a bit of an edge on maintenance that are starting to cost money now, when we have roads that are in terrible condition that really need to be replaced and haven't been. I certainly know in Hants West - there were roads that were repaved that my constituents would have loved to have had before they were repaved, and we still are in serious shape. That's not to say I don't appreciate what the department's intention is for my roads now, but they are terrible. If you could address some of those concerns, I would appreciate it.
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the comments of the honourable member. First of all, with respect to the personnel in the department, I understand the complement of personnel has not changed significantly in the period of the past 10 years. We are, indeed, spending more money on maintenance of roads because of the RIM program. The fact that we're getting more money and we're getting more roads addressed with maintenance through the contracts that are put out there, even though you have approximately the same number of people, you're getting much greater amount of work done than previously would have been the case without the RIM money.
There is a challenge with respect to areas that have a large stock of inventory, I guess, of pavement, and trying to keep that pavement in shape. It lasts longer in some parts of the province than it does in others, the various factors that enter into that. I am not expert enough to know what all of them are, but there is certainly one of them, weather, being a major factor. I was interested in listening to the honourable member talk about rainy winters as opposed to snowy winters. I've always preferred winters where you get a good layer of white pavement that comes early and lasts well into the Spring. Those are great winters and the cheer of people tends to be much greater in those circumstances than when you're dealing with changeable weather conditions, where you have frost coming out of the ground frequently and going back into the ground.
The equipment, we have allocated - how much money for equipment this year? (Interruption) Yes, there's a significant amount of money in the budget for additional equipment. I think $8 million is the figure and I understand that you're going to get an additional $2 million over what was available last year. I understand there's a major piece of new equipment coming to your area to serve that part of the province. So I don't know if 6 x 6 means anything to you - it sounds more like a hand in cards to me - but you're getting a new 6 x 6 for whatever that will do for you.
MR. MACDONELL: Thank you, Mr. Minister. Well, maybe I could get you to have it painted orange instead of yellow to see if that would help me, if that goes through the winter.
I want to touch on something that I know your chief engineer should know something about. The road I live on is the Renfrew Road, which connects with the Montavista Road in Enfield. Some of the residents on that road are quite keen to pay to have the road paved, or I think double-chip sealed - I wasn't sure just which one, I guess whichever price seemed more reasonable, but anyway the department had come up with a program for these J Class roads that were not subdivision roads, if I have this right, and so this was the group that actually had them pushing the department to come up with a different program because they wanted to spend money of their own.
So this seemed to be the program, but then they were told the municipality knew nothing about it - it was supposed to go through the municipality, the same as the other
programs - and then they were told that there was no uptake on the program, so that money was thrown into the regular subdivision maintenance, you know, on those cost-share programs. So I just wonder, can you tell me how there could be no uptake on a program that they never even got to the process of applying to, as far as I know, and a program that I would have understood that they would have been the reason they drafted the program? It was for them.
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, the purpose of that program was to provide an opportunity for linkage, if you like, from areas where there was settlement to another area where you might have some J Class roads but there is no link between the two. That was the intent of putting that program in place. There was very little uptake on the program this year. I'm not certain that it's a program that we're about to abandon; I think we need to perhaps see if there isn't an opportunity for there to be a clearer understanding of the purpose of the road and find opportunities to identify where that funding might be used in the future.
MR. MACDONELL: Mr. Chairman, I'm not sure that those roads would meet that criteria because it comes to a dead end; it doesn't connect to another road. I've got to be honest with you, if it was based on road frontage, like most of these are, I have about a kilometre of road frontage along my farm and I would be one of the residents who might be considered paying for that, and I wasn't struck on that notion. I have pursued or tried to pursue for these people - I thought sand-sealing would do that. From what I heard from my OSs and the area manager, double chip, didn't really sound as though they were too keen on it. They thought to maintain that was difficult but that road that I grew up on, the Renfrew Road, used to be sand-sealed many years ago and it was a mud road. This road is a fairly good quality gravel road, but when I approached the department, they said, no, we don't do that or we try not to do that anymore.
But I got the sheets from Kings County and Lunenburg County, and I think there was 30 kilometres, or whatever, there were 30 different sections of road, some of them might have been half a kilometre, in some cases that were sand-sealed. So I thought, holy mackerel, they're doing a lot of sand-sealing in those areas, but I couldn't get three kilometres of sand-seal in my constituency, and I think that would actually address the concerns these people have. So I just wonder if you could address why you don't want to do that anymore, because I thought it seemed to be a reasonable cost and address their need?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, I can tell the honourable member, when it comes to sand-seal, that it's becoming very, very expensive to put sand-seal down. It's not a surface that is suitable through all parts of the province. It does better in some places than others, but through the experience the department has had, they have made the determination that they are not doing any new sand-seal. We do maintain roads that are currently sand-sealed.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, we've reached the moment of interruption, and we will recess until 6:30 p.m.
[6:00 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[6:31 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Hants East.
MR. MACDONELL: I want to thank the minister for his help earlier, and his attention. I have a couple of other issues and I'm running out of time. Bridges, a couple of specific bridges. When you go almost to the western boundary of my constituency, nearly to Hants West, the Herbert River cuts across Highway No. 14, and there's a concrete bridge there. I don't know if it has another name, we refer to it as the concrete bridge. Also, the Herbert River crosses what I call the South Rawdon Road, and it's the Weir Bridge on the river there.
I want to tell the minister, just for his own clarification, when you approach the Weir Bridge, Mr. Minister, you come down two long hills to that river, and actually at the bottom of the hills there is a slight turn on each side to take you to the bridge. Your sight distance there is very short. This is a single-lane bridge. If ever there was a place in Nova Scotia that needs two lanes this is it; this bridge should be a two-lane bridge. It's a dangerous spot, I have to say. I was under the understanding, in correspondence on this bridge, that it was to be replaced in 2006.When I spoke with Mr. Merritt at your department some time ago he was kind of hedging, like it wasn't going to happen. So I'm curious about both the concrete bridge on the Herbert River and the Weir Bridge on the Herbert River, if you could tell me if the department has any plans to replace those bridges and when?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, I thank the honourable member for his question. We're doing two bridges in Hants East this year, not the two to which the honourable member referred, but we're doing the Maitland Bridge and the Milford Station Bridge.
MR. MACDONELL: I always think the Milford Bridge is the Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley jurisdiction not mine. (Interruption) Well, if the work is getting done, I'll take credit for it.
The Maitland Bridge, I'm glad you mentioned it. There is a problem there around the Maitland Bridge and, actually, a sluiceway, or whatever, was built by the department some years ago, and I think they started to dismantle it, which a year ago caused a change in the brook - I think it's the Mill Brook that goes under that bridge - and has eroded two buildings that were there. I wonder if the department has a plan to actually do something?
They moved one of the buildings, the department helped with that, but the other building, there really is no other place to move it. Actually, the back left hand corner, the stream has gone and eroded it, and there's nothing supporting that corner, or that building. I know Jacques Whitford was there and did a study, and there really needs to be something done. I wonder if you can tell me what's happening there.
MR. MACISAAC: It's my understanding that the problems to which the honourable member referred, it's intended to deal with those and the process of doing that bridge replacement.
MR. MACDONELL: I'll say thanks. I'll talk to, maybe, Mr.Merritt or Mr. Stewart, to try to find out a little bit about what exactly is going to be done to help correct that.
The last point I want to raise, because I can, is my concern around the number of men I have in East Hants, and you indicate that it hasn't changed. I know that when the OSs go out and they identify the rim patching, the spreader patch as I call them but certainly patching done by the private sector, then they would know that the patching that's left, the holes that are left, are for them. The holes that are left, I assume, are done by the department. For three years in a row we've gone into winter with the holes from the Spring. I've raised this with Minister Russell and it's something that didn't happen when I was elected in 1998 and probably the same in 1999, but at least the holes were patched come the Fall and the last three years they haven't been patched. That's something I would like to see the department try to address and that's what makes me question how many men we have to actually do that work on the ground.
MR. MACISAAC: It's certainly the objective of the department to fix holes when they should be fixed and I'll certainly pass on the concerns of the honourable member and hopefully that problem could be rectified.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Cape Breton Nova.
MR. GORDON GOSSE: My question for the minister is concerning Sysco, Sydney Environmental Resources/Sydney Steel Corporation. Zoom developers continue to occupy space in a portion of the Sydney Steel plant property. I'm just wondering if the minister can tell me what penalties are being paid by Zoom for occupying that space on the site?
MR. MACISAAC: I'm going to suggest that my deputy minister join me on the floor of the House and I can get more definitive answers than trying to do telepathic communication long distance here. As I indicated in my opening remarks, we've made considerable progress on that site. I believe we have a site over 400 acres that's currently being reclaimed and turned into a business park. That, of course, has resulted in the
development of some very good real estate in that part of the province and provides the potential, as the honorable member would know, for that area to grow and expand into the future. I'm going to ask the member if he could just repeat that question, because when I realized it was Sysco I was trying to get the attention of the deputy to get him down, but if you could repeat.
MR. GOSSE: As Zoom developers continue to occupy space on the Sydney Steel Corporation/Sydney Environmental Resources Ltd. site, they're paying a monthly rental fee for this and I'm just wondering, could the minister tell me how much their monthly rental fee is and what's their projected fee for the upcoming year 2006-07?
MR. MACISAAC: The monthly rental fee is $35,000 per month.
MR. GOSSE: Mr. Chairman, on Page 227 of the Sydney Environmental Resources Ltd. steel plant budget context, in the 2005-06 estimate and forecast, scrap sales are at zero. For the upcoming year 2006-07, the government is forecasting $7,450,000, I'm just wondering is that the complete total for the year or is that a number of years?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, the figures the honourable member refers to reflect the market for scrap metal and the years where there is a zero indicates that, in fact, no sales occurred because there was no market, at least the price that could be obtained was not suitable. It's anticipated that the figure for this year would, in fact, represent the sales as I understand it for this year.
MR. GOSSE: I'm having a hard time sleeping sometimes in the evening hearing the scrap being loaded in the boats. I know that wasn't this year, it was the year before when they were loading scraps in the boats at Sysco. They actually sold that scrap, I guess, and got nothing for it because I know for a fact many people in the community were wondering what the noise was and that was the scrap being loaded in the boat and that was 2005, I think, and some in 2006, but, it's not here anyway. Also, in that document the $635,000 for rental fees, I'm wondering if the minister can tell me who was renting at the Sysco site at this present time and the $635,000, who are the people that are renting on the site right now?
MR. MACISAAC: The details of that question I'd like to take as notice today and provide the detailed answer. Certainly Zoom is part of it, but not all of it and we can get that information for the honourable member. I'm back up tomorrow and can provide it.
MR. GOSSE: Thank you, Mr. Minister, I appreciate that and I'd like to receive that and look forward to that. Also, I'm just wondering if there's a possibility of answering this, Sydney Environmental Resources Limited, are they going to continue to exist after the date of October 31, 2006?
MR. MACISAAC: There's been no decision taken on that, options are being looked at and I anticipate bringing something before Cabinet in the reasonably near future.
MR. GOSSE: That's just been mentioned to a few of the employees that are working down there, that Sydney Environmental Resources Limited will no longer exist after October 31, 2006. Mr. Chairman, a lot of the former steel workers are still, as we spoke earlier and talked about, they're working and cutting scrap and doing things now. Is this the contribution from the province, $12,300,000, is that what they're forecasting for the upcoming year for 2006-07, the provincial contribution?
MR. MACISAAC: If the honourable member wouldn't mind elaborating a bit on the question, I wasn't quite following it.
MR. GOSSE: Page 227 in the Budget Context, Sydney Environmental Resources Limited/Sydney Steel Corporation, the Crown corporate business plan on Page 227, the province's contributions for Sysco, or that organization, whatever they call it, is $12,300,000 for next year. I'm just wondering if that's the true figure.
MR. MACISAAC: I found the number in the book, Mr. Chairman. If the honourable member could just repeat the specifics of the question, I'll see what we can do here.
MR. GOSSE: My final question to the minister, please - I'll let that one go by, it's in the book. I just wanted to ask the minister, past October 31, 2006, is there going to be any work on the remediation, the tar ponds and the cleanup, remediation work for the security and the steelworkers who are on the site at present?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency has been operating and intends to operate in a way that will maximize opportunities for Cape Breton workers, and that's the intent for the future.
MR. GOSSE: Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Pictou East.
MR. CLARRIE MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, to the minister. I have so many issues in relationship to roads with potholes that I should have requested about an hour. However, I was very excited about being part of the 60th General Assembly when we were going to be dealing with the largest repaving and repair in 40 years on our roads. However, I'm very disturbed to be informed that Route 348 from Route 289 intersection,
that's Little Harbour to Pictou Landing, or actually Little Harbour intersection to Lewis Road, it's 4.2 kilometres, and that section has been deleted, and I'm saying why, Mr. Minister?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, I can indicate to the honourable member that there were, as previous discussions in the Chamber indicated, a number of projects that, as a result of the liquid asphalt pricing and the labour component, has pushed some of the contract prices that we were receiving to a level where we have had to look at postponement of projects throughout the province, and that is one of them.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, to the minister. People in that area are wondering exactly what "deleted" means. Does it mean just for now, or for how long?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, what we've been saying of these projects is that while the work will not take place this year, we will do a tender call in the Fall, and those projects will again be looked at. If the Fall call is successful and the pricing is appropriate, then the work would get underway early in the construction season next year.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, to the minister, would the minister be prepared to table in the House a list of all the deletions and reductions in rural ridings?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, that list is not a list that is in any way complete, because we still have a number of contracts that need to be called. I can tell the honourable member that he is not alone. There is a project in my own riding that will not proceed this year as a result of this. I know the honourable member for Guysborough-Sheet Harbour has a project that will not proceed, as does the member for Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley. There are a number of projects, about a dozen projects around the province. However, we have not made a final decision on all of these.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, to the minister, would it be possible to get the partial list at this point in time? You have already answered one of the questions that I was going to ask. I was going to ask about possible deletions or reductions in his own riding. Is it possible to get the partial list?
MR. MACISAAC: The list the honourable member is looking for is a list that is incomplete. We get into a situation with remaining work that's to be called, where a bid comes in way over the amount of money that we are going to allocate for that. We feel that if the costs were in the vicinity of $750,000 a kilometre for pavement, we might make the decision that we're not going to proceed with that. At that point, we would then revisit projects that are perhaps being considered for delay, and one of those projects, at that juncture, may proceed. It is a condition that is very much in a state of flux. All I'm providing you with now are estimates of what might happen in the future.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, to the minister. In the massive repaving and repair program that was promised, in light of that, how much has the capital program actually been cut by deletions and reductions? How many dollars are we talking about so far, in the partial list?
MR. MACISAAC: Just for the purposes of clarity, Mr. Chairman, the amount of money that we're spending on the program is still $176 million. That number has not changed. What has happened is that a number of the contracts that have come in have come in at a price higher than anticipated. As a result of that, the number of projects that we were planning to do and the amount of work that we were planning to do had to be scaled back to meet the prices that exist.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, to the minister, I understand that some of this problem relates to asphalt costs. What percentage has the cost of asphalt increased this year over last year?
MR. MACISAAC: I'm told that the price of liquid asphalt has increased by approximately 65 per cent. That translates into approximately a 20 per cent to 25 per cent increase in the price of contract work over that which was estimated.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, in light of that, is it deemed by the department that that is a reasonable increase - 65 per cent? Has there been any research done? Is this a situation where there may be a bit of gouging? I'm just wondering, a clarification on that 65 per cent.
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, the price is a price that reflects what's happening in North America. Recently there were articles appearing in the national newspapers talking about the impact of liquid asphalt right across the country. I'm told that there are parts of the United States where they simply can't get the liquid asphalt that they need in order to do their work. So it is not a question of, you know, somebody taking undue advantage of a situation. We have prices that are bid, it's a competitive process. The contractors are looking for the cheapest price for liquid asphalt they can find, so that they can be competitive and win the bids. The price of liquid asphalt is the reality of the marketplace currently, and that is reflected in the price that we pay for gasoline. It is reflected in the price that we have to pay for heating fuels. It's indicative of what's going on in the petroleum products market.
MR. MACKINNON: Another major concern in the riding of Pictou East is one that involves four kilometres of the Woodburn Road. This was a road that was to be repaved, and it has been reduced by two-fifths. It is now going to be looked after from the Quarry Island Road to Route No. 289. The rest is to be covered, I'm told, by the RIM program.
In light of the deletions and reductions, has the RIM - Rural Impact Mitigation - I guess some people have a different name for that today, but I guess that's what it was called initially, Road Improvement Money may be the word they use now. However, has that budget been increased? If we're not going to get our repaving to the extent that we thought, I would hope there is enough money in the RIM program to cover some of these areas that are being totally hurt and affected by the reductions.
MR. MACISAAC: It is my understanding that the decision that was taken was to alter the treatment that was going to be provided for the Woodburn Road. All of the road that has been designated for repair, will, in fact, be repaired and it will be repaired with a single lift of asphalt over that piece of road. We're also going to do repairs on the bridge that's been affected by the heavy traffic as well.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, to the minister, I know I have put forward some questions of concern, but I would like to pass a bouquet as well. I understand there is some work currently being done on some of the bridges in Pictou East that really have needed considerable work for quite a period of time. I refer to the Plymouth Bridge and also the bridge in the village of Eureka. Plymouth is already underway and it is my understanding that there will be work done in Eureka very shortly. I hope my information is correct.
I know it's starting in Plymouth, but Mr. Minister, do the people of Eureka, their expectations, will they be met?
MR. MACISAAC: I do know there's a considerable amount of bridge work being done in Pictou and Colchester Counties. I recently signed a work order to that effect. My memory is failing me with respect to the details of everything that was on that list - it was a fairly lengthy list so I'll take his question as notice today and provide an answer to him tomorrow.
MR. MACKINNON: I am, in fact, running out of time here. That bridgework was of fundamental importance and it is my understanding that it is being looked after. I thank the minister and the department for that. I'm very concerned about the deletion and the reduction, and I think you'll be hearing more from the people of Pictou East in relationship to those two matters.
There is a series of other matters I'm dealing with the department on and I would like to commend the minister for the great staff that he has looking after Pictou East. I've had nothing but a good response from those folks anytime I've called his department. I don't want to sit down on a negative note and I do thank him and his department for what is being done.
MR. MACISAAC: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, and I want to thank the honourable member for his comments. I can assure the honourable member and all members of the House that any decisions that were taken with respect to the pressures of price, are decisions that we're trying to be as fair as possible with respect to those decisions right across the province, and the decisions, again, I want to emphasize are decisions to delay, as opposed to decisions to cancel.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, I have been informed that I have a couple of more minutes, so I certainly have many issues that I can raise in those minutes. We have a very serious problem in the Sinclairs Island area of Pictou East. I have been getting a tremendous number of calls in relationship to that, and people are very concerned that the Sinclairs Island Road is, in fact, in the worst condition in the memory of many of the residents who are down in that particular area. I'm glad that I do have an opportunity to put Sinclairs Island on the map with the department, to get it on the radar. I hope that the department will look at that very expeditiously.
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, I thank the honourable member for bringing the Sinclairs Island Road situation to our attention. I know that a previous member for Pictou County has a particular interest in the Sinclairs Island Road, as well.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, I hope that the department will have a similar interest in that road.
The fish harvesters in Lismore - Lismore is one of our best fishing communities in Pictou County. It has a tremendous history of good landings and it is an excellent fishing community. However, the Lismore Wharf Road is in desperate condition, and I've also had a number of calls in relationship to it as well, and here again I want to take the opportunity of raising that issue.
There are some heavy trucks that are on that road. Unfortunately, the trucks are taking product away from Lismore. They're taking it to Prince Edward Island for processing - another matter that we have to address - and these heavy trucks that are transporting fish away from processing in Pictou County are, in fact, probably part of the reason that that road is being broken up to the extent that it is. I've never seen that road - I've been going down to that wharf for the best part of 50 years, over 40 of them as a driver, and I think that this is something that has to be looked at by the department very, very closely. The road is in desperate shape, and I've mentioned it to the department on a couple of occasions and nothing has been done, to date. Please be advised that we're not giving up on Lismore, and we're not giving up on the road to the wharf.
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, I'm reasonably familiar with the road to the Lismore wharf, and have been on it many times. There is a similar situation with respect to the road to the Arisaig wharf. The Arisaig Wharf Road is certainly one that I intended
to visit with my engineer this summer. He doesn't have any jurisdiction over the Lismore Road, but we'll certainly make sure that folks in your area do have a look at that, and we'll see what they have to say.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, to the minister. I thank him for his forthright remarks. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time for the member has expired.
The honourable member for Digby-Annapolis.
MR. HAROLD THERIAULT: Thank you, Mr. Minister, for hearing me out tonight for awhile. I won't keep you too long, but there are lots of alders to cut, I can guarantee you that. There are lots of roads to build too in this province. I don't know if there's lots of money, but there are lots of roads to build. If we keep losing our people out of this province and our tax base keeps going down, we'll have less roads to build with less money too, that's for sure.
There is a road though in Digby from Digby to Weymouth, Highway No. 101, that I have to mention before I go home and this road, Mr. Minister, has been in the making for 30 years. This road is supposed to be Highway No. 101, it's called Highway No. 101 down there, but really it's Highway No. 1. It travels for about 20-odd kilometres from Digby to Weymouth and it passes homes, some of these homes 15 to 18 feet off of this highway. Heavy traffic comes down off the true Highway No. 101 from Digby and coming up from Yarmouth the other way off Highway No. 101, trucks and cars travelling 100 to 120 miles per hour.
AN HON. MEMBER: Kilometres.
MR. THERIAULT: Kilometres, excuse me.
AN HON. MEMBER: Whatever - they're going fast.
MR. THERIAULT: They're going fast and when they come to Highway No. 1 up through the homes where school buses are letting children off, where milk trucks are delivering milk, or they're delivering newspapers door to door, there's trucks loaded coming up through there at 100 to 110 kilometres per hour, they don't slow down one bit. There have been two or three of those big trucks that have left the road there and just by the grace of God they went between a couple of houses instead of through them. Any morning we're going to wake up, and you can mark my words right here, right now, you can mark them now, you can mark them on the wall behind you, we're going to wake up some morning and there's going to be a trailer-truck through one of those homes or
there's going to be a trailer-truck piled up in one of those buses with 50 to 60 children on it.
Now, you can mark that down anywhere you want, probably it will be marked in Hansard so I won't have to say I told you so, but it's going to happen. It's going to happen just as sure as hell that road is there and that traffic is using that, it's Highway No. 101. Thirty years the people have been hollering . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Parliamentary language.
MR. THERIAULT: I apologize, Mr. Chairman. I kind of lose myself when it comes to Highway No. 101 between Weymouth and Digby. When you have 100 people a week coming at you continuously, why, why can't we get this highway just single, we don't want it twin, we don't even want a passing lane there. All we want is a strip of highway up behind it, a few hundred yards away from the homes so that traffic won't come through our homes and kill our children. I say well, we're trying, there's not much money in the province, we know that, but we're trying, we're working at it, so I take up for the government all the time.
The last couple of years there were a few properties bought up through there and I appreciate that very much, that was done by the department - I do appreciate that. There are still some woodlots that have to be bought up through there, not a whole lot, I don't know the exact number. I keep talking to the department down home and they won't quite give me an exact number of what's to buy through there, but someday this road, I know, has to get built. I hope it does before somebody does get seriously hurt through there.
So my question is, I guess, about that, can the department see in the future - and hopefully not in the too distant future - that that road could be built? We don't want a double highway there, we want a single one, that's all, just a single highway that could possibly go from Digby to Weymouth, up away from those homes where I believe it's all marked out to go. Is it possible to see that in the not too distant future?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, as I listened to the honourable member, one of the phrases in my opening remarks came back to mind, and that is the difficulty we have in terms of the expectations that are out there. The honourable member articulated very well concerns that people in that area have, and I know he feels those concerns personally because you can tell by the way he expressed it here this evening.
We have situations similar to that in other parts of the province. We've heard the honourable member for Preston speak about the need for an upgrade in his area. We did go through the process of establishing an alignment to replace that road, did the environmental assessment and, of course, once you're in the process of doing that, then
expectations are generated as a result of doing that. Some properties have, in fact, been purchased. The purchase of properties is not yet complete and, you know, the timing of the road is not something that I could address this evening with any real degree of accuracy, but I can tell the honourable member that it is something that the department wants to see completed at some juncture.
MR. THERIAULT: Mr. Minister, I went to a meeting last year with the Road Builders Association. I know money is a problem in this province, we all know that. Anybody who doesn't, there's something wrong with their calculator. I went to a Road Builders Association meeting and I know we put $170-some million, I believe you said, into roads, into rebuilding secondary roads and whatnot. They told us if we didn't put $300 million into the rural roads, secondary roads and whatnot of Nova Scotia, that we would never catch up, that we would never ever catch up. It would take $300 million a year just to put us on a little speedier pace that someday we could catch up, and they wouldn't even give a time limit when that day would come at $300 million. So that gives you a good idea of where we stand with $170-some million going into that.
We're having ferry problems there now in Digby and one of the problems is roads, both in this province and New Brunswick, it was both stated. But coming out of Digby, through that little town, there's a terrible, terrible congestion right now of daily traffic there without any boat traffic coming and getting mixed up in it at a couple, two or three trips a day across that bay in the summertime. There's no real highway. They kind of follow the path through that goes through the town, on the upper side of the town, and that's a very, very narrow road, just barely wide enough for two cars to pass and bumper to bumper. There's one set of lights in the town and the rest are stop signs and yield signs. So it's quite a congested place.
Could that be in the planning of the department? If we are going to work hard in Digby and in western Nova Scotia to put a ferry service in Digby - a better ferry service is the goal, maybe even more ferries down the road from the United States - is that in part of the planning of the department to do any roadwork for the success of a better ferry service there in Digby?
MR. MACISAAC: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I believe the honourable member would appreciate the great challenge we have right now is to ensure the continuation of that ferry service. Assuming that we are going to be successful in doing that, one of the ways, of course, you do that is increase the traffic. The degree to which we can be successful in increasing that traffic will have a definite impact on plans we have with respect to accommodating that increased traffic through Digby.
MR. THERIAULT: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. We know the RIM money - I want to get back to the RIM money - I guess that's for digging ditches and maintenance and cutting alders. We have lots of alders to cut, that's for sure. Last year - and I thank the department again - we did see a few alders cut down and I thank you very much for that. People were happy, they saw those alders disappearing slowly in the ditches. I want to send along that thank you for that, but I think they're growing faster than they're being cut.
I know we need more RIM money to do that. Do you see the RIM money may possibly get raised for rural areas in the next two years?
MR. MACISAAC: I indicated in my opening remarks that the government intends to move forward with its commitment to increase the RIM spending by a total of $5 million over what it had been. The last instalment of that is more than $5 million and will come next year. This year we added $2.5 million to the RIM program, next year we're going to add another $2.5 million, so it will bring the RIM from a figure of $9 million in the first year that we had the RIM program, up to a figure of $20 million next construction season.
MR. THERIAULT: I want to go back to Highway No. 101 again from Bridgetown to Kentville. I travel that road every week. I come to this city every week since becoming the MLA. I used to travel it once in a great while just to come to the city, but now I travel it every week and I see things on that highway that sometimes are pretty frightening.
From Bridgetown to Kentville, there are no passing lanes at all. I brought this to the department before, and they said there are no passing lanes between Bridgetown and Kentville because there are no hills. The passing lanes were made for the hills, to pass slow-moving trucks. I guarantee you tonight or tomorrow you can go down the Valley and after you get by Kentville, there will be somebody on that highway driving 45 miles per hour - whatever kilometres that is (Interruption) Okay, 70 to 80 kilometres an hour and there will be a line of cars, you'll get behind a line of cars sometimes half a mile, maybe even farther. You'll whip out to see, you can't even see the end of them. But there's somebody - and it's not a big truck - out for a Sunday drive every day of the week. That's what's going on in the Valley.
No wonder people get frustrated. Some pass on the right-hand side on the shoulder, I've seen that. I've seen cars whip out, whip back between two cars and the other car coming head-on way down on the other side, on your left-hand shoulder. You see this stuff all the time. No one has been killed there yet and I believe somebody is looking after it, somebody up above me, I don't know, but somebody is going to be killed there.
Here is a fellow from the Valley, you can ask anybody who goes down the Valley and drives there a lot - there is somebody moving on that road slow. Now, why would the department say those passing lanes are only for big trucks that move slow on hills? There are people in the Valley who drive 45 miles per hour - 70 kilometres per hour - on that straight stretch of road and some days you will go right from Kentville to Bridgetown and you cannot get by them.
Did I ask a question? The question is - yes, I did - why did the department say that they can only put passing lanes where there are hills?
MR. MACISAAC: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Yes, the honourable member did ask a question but it was very early on in his remarks and I lost track of it. The department - just to set the record clear - has never said what the honourable member is suggesting. As a matter of fact, the department has done a rather comprehensive study of the traffic problems related to Highway No. 101. Part of the results of that study is the work taking place now and the twinning of Highway No. 101, not in the section the honourable member is referring to but further up, and that work will proceed. The need for passing lanes as you move further and further away and toward the section the honourable member is referring to is a need that is recognized. However, there are higher priorities with respect to the needs to get the twinning done in the sections that have been identified for that.
MR. THERIAULT: I guess some people just can't understand why you would twin a highway down to Kentville. We know that when you get below Kentville, the traffic does get a little bit thinner, but to take twinned highway traffic onto that narrow, bottleneck, two-lane road, it just doesn't make any sense to anybody. They think that while you're twinning, that you would put two or three passing lanes somewhere down along that highway, to free up that traffic that's in a bottleneck there. It's in a tight bottleneck and somebody is certainly going to get hurt there. Another one you can mark on the wall.
I want to talk about salt for a moment. Can you tell me whether the department has changed any of their policy on salting rural roads? Down on Long Island - I'm not sure what it was, I guess that's why I'm asking the question - they stopped using salt. I know of one incident down there that salt was put on top of a hill in the Village of Freeport, and the salt in rainstorms runs downhill. I helped three or four people along there get better wells or get their wells fixed and new wells drilled or whatnot, and I believe the department took care of that for them. I believe after that happened, there was something done that there was no more salt being put on that road on Long Island. Did a policy change in salting roads or anything in the department?
MR. MACISAAC: I understand there hasn't been any change in the salt policy, but in circumstances where salt is deemed to be a threat to wells, then sand is used in place of the salt.
MR. THERIAULT: Where the problem was with the salt was just on one hill, and it affected three or four homes. Then the salt was taken away from the whole island, which is approximately 10 miles, or 15 kilometres long. I don't believe they use salt anywhere on the island. The only problem - because the department had put it on top of a hill. Whoever did it down there didn't realize that salt will run downhill in a rainstorm, that's for sure. That's what happened there. It seemed like they stopped using salt on the whole island, because I've had complaints down there that they weren't using any more salt. It wasn't anything too serious, but they did just go to sand. So I thought maybe the policy changed for the whole island, or for the whole area, I didn't know.
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, I don't have the details of the answer for the honourable member. A few suppositions come to mind, but it would probably be best if I went away and asked the question and provided a more precise answer than I might provide through supposition.
MR. THERIAULT: Digby County is a big county. It takes you approximately three, three and a half hours to drive to each corner of it across it. It's a big area. In that area, the Digby detachment, the Digby department, itself, has two sheds. They have one on Long Island, which, in the wintertime, they keep an operator down there and I believe they keep a truck down there in the building. In Weymouth, which is quite a little drive from Digby, Weymouth and Long Island both have another shed over in back of Weymouth, Weymouth Mills, I believe it is.
It has been brought to my attention that these sheds are deteriorating pretty fast. They either need some major work done to them or, they say, in the next year, two or three, they'll fall down. Is the department going to fix these outer sheds? I don't know what you would call them. They're certainly not the main department, but they are outer sheds, where they keep snowplows, especially in the wintertime they find them handy because it's quicker. If they have a driver in Weymouth and a driver on Long Island, they don't have to get a vehicle or snowplow down to that area, the snowplow is already there. So they're just wondering if those sheds are going to be kept up, repaired, or if they're going to be let go.
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, at this point, there aren't any plans to change the structure and the base structure in that part of the province.
MR. THERIAULT: Thank you, Mr. Minister. I want to share some of my time with my colleague, the member for Annapolis.
I do want to thank you again for what you have done for the Digby area in the last couple of years. It has been certainly welcome to see a few alders go and some gravel put on - 500 kilometres of dirt roads, too, in that area, and there has been mud put on them for the last 10 years, and this last couple of years it was changed and some good gravel started to be put on them, and certainly needs some more. Thank you very much for what you've done.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Annapolis.
MR. STEPHEN MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, to the minister, I see now what has to happen. You have to start hammering about alders, because I appreciate the member talking about all the great work in Digby-Annapolis. I represent part of the Annapolis County, which I can't really say the same. So I do look forward to having a discussion today around transportation issues which pertain to my riding.
There was an announcement, I believe, around RIM funding. Was there not an additional $10 million that was put into that program over the last year?
MR. MACISAAC: The RIM program at one point stood at $10 million. We made a commitment in 2003 that we would double that amount of money over a period of four years. This year, we're at an additional $7.5 million, I guess, to that commitment, and next year we will fulfill the commitment and bring it to $20 million so that the total RIM program has gone from $10 million to $20 million from 2003 until 2007.
MR. MCNEIL: In my constituency, I have a highway shed in the Middleton area as well as one in the Lequille area. It has been brought to my attention that even though there's been a substantial increase in the RIM funding, the funding allocated for the constituency that I represent actually has gone down by about 4 per cent.
MR. MACISAAC: I'm told, Mr. Chairman, and I think it's important for members to understand that the distribution of the RIM money is done by a formula that is applied province-wide. To the best of my knowledge, any increase in RIM funding should reflect in an increase in money that is spent in any particular area in the province, because the formula doesn't change, at least to the best of my knowledge it doesn't change. So that if we put an additional $2.5 million into the program then that should result in additional monies being spent in your area. Now, there may be a difference in terms of the amount of money that is allocated in the ordinary maintenance program, which is separate from RIM, and RIM is done through contract work. The regular maintenance budget has been in effect and the money that's been available is money that comes out of that budget.
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, I ask the minister, has the maintenance budget been cut? Is it possible that the 4 per cent deficiency would be out of that budget?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, I can tell you that the ordinary maintenance budget has, in fact, been increased. Now whether the local administration of the department is allocating the money in a slightly different manner from what it did in the previous year, I can't say, but certainly the overall maintenance budget has, in fact, been increased.
MR. MCNEIL: I'd like to ask the minister, because I'm getting conflicting stories, and I'm not questioning what you're telling me, but I'm wondering if you could have somebody in your department have a look at the two sheds that I'm speaking of, that I represent, and give me your interpretation of what is happening there so I can then go back to my constituents and let them know.
MR. MACISAAC: The chief engineer just indicated to me that he was in that area about two weeks ago and he received, at that time, the same story that you're giving to me now. He undertook to get an answer, and when he has that answer I'll share it with you.
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, I thank the minister. I want to tell the chief engineer he is welcome back to my riding any time that he'd like and I'll be more than happy to go and show him any issues that happen in the riding of Annapolis.
I want to echo or add to the voice around the passing lanes on Highway No. 101. As you know, from Kentville to Bridgetown there are absolutely no passing lanes (Interruption) I better not invoke her name today. There are no passing lanes. I want to say to the minister that when you look, in particular, at the traffic that is coming from the Middleton area, following all the way through to Kentville, a lot of people are on that highway travelling for work purposes, a lot of truck traffic on that highway travelling for work purposes. If you have an opportunity to be on it on a sunny day, a day that it's raining, it looks like it's completely flat and yet there are little hollows in there where you don't see that car until you actually have pulled out to pass. There has been a tremendous number of accidents on many parts of that highway. I asked the Minister of Transportation and Public Works last year what his department had envisioned for that section of Highway No. 101 from Kentville to Bridgetown, when we could expect passing lanes - and I'm asking you again, when can we expect some work to take place on passing lanes?
If you look at the base of that highway - and the engineer may be able to help - when you look at the base of that highway, it's not complicated. There's plenty of room on both sides of the highway to shift the pavement a bit, to widen it to ensure that we have passing lanes on a lot of those flat sections. This is not a huge cost to the
department. So I'm wondering if the minister could tell me, when can we see some passing lanes in that section of Highway No. 101?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, I made reference, in response to the honourable member for Digby-Annapolis, to the work that's currently being done on Highway No. 101 and, of course, the need to continue that work, and the rate at which that work will occur very much depends on the success that we might have with securing federal funding for our national highway system, the 100-Series Highways, in the province. So being reasonably optimistic that we'll experience some success there in the relatively near future, if and when that happens, then it would put us in a position to be able to get to the point of doing the upgrades to which you refer more quickly than would otherwise be the case.
I'm also reminded that it isn't simply a question of getting a paving machine and laying down another corridor of asphalt. From an engineering perspective, there's much more involved in terms of providing passing lanes than that and the amount of work that's required is considerable, so again we're in a position where, you know, the simplicity of the stated solution doesn't in any way reflect the reality of the challenge to do it. It's approximately a $12 million figure in order to do the work that is required for that section of road.
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, I want to acknowledge to the minister that I simplified it, I know, beyond what it would be. I guess the concerns of the people, not only of my riding but the western part of the Valley, the question would be to them, are we going to wait until we twin Highway No. 101 to Kentville before we put the passing lanes in, or will there be some work happening coinciding with the twinning from Windsor down to the Kentville- Coldbrook area?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, again, it's not that I'm trying to avoid the answer, if I knew the answer I could provide it more clearly but, you know, the answer will be impacted very clearly by any agreement that we're able to reach with the federal government with respect to funding and that will have an impact as to when some of this work might occur. I want to say to the honourable member that I've driven that section of road often enough to have some appreciation of the frustration that local people experience - I won't say that I understand it fully because I don't drive it as often as they do.
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, I want to wish the minister well in his discussions with the federal minister and I'm hoping that he brings back a highway deal that all Nova Scotians can be proud of, and one that will hopefully provide a much safer transportation network for all the citizens, not only the ones who are in my constituency because I, like you, have been around the province and recognize there's a tremendous amount of roadwork that is required, especially in the twinning of Highway No. 103 and Highway
No. 101, and as we go through your constituency. So I want to wish you all the success as you begin to twist his arm to make sure that the deal is right for Nova Scotia.
One of the things that I heard earlier in estimates was around sand sealing. There's a road in my constituency called Brookside Drive. It's a part of my constituency that I actually have to leave and go into Kings County, into my neighbouring riding of Kings West, to drive back in on the road and back into what is my constituency - the end of that road is split between the county line of Kings and Annapolis and the only way in is out of my constituency of Annapolis, into Kings and back in on Brookside Drive. It is now a sand- sealed road - as you know, and I'm sure your engineer would know, Greenwood is well known for its sandy soil.
A year ago, the Minister of Transportation and Public Works had talked that the department was exploring the possibility of doing more sand-sealed roads, especially in areas where it was conducive to working properly. We spoke about this - and the engineer may be able to correct me - I believe this soil is conducive to this type of sand sealing. I had suggested to him that Brookside Drive would be a perfect experiment road if they're looking for a place to try to do sand seal. I would suggest to you the same, and I'm wanting to know if that is still a possibility that the department is moving forward with, going back to doing sand sealing on some of these roads?
I heard you mention earlier that sand sealing has been used to cover over some existing paved roads, but it was also originally used as a topcoat in many cases to being a dirt road into a paved road, or sand-sealed road. The one that is there was presently sand sealed quite some time ago, it's lasted the duration, but it's in desperate need of work and I'm wondering, where is the department going with that issue?
MR. MACISAAC: The honourable member raised a couple of questions. One is the resurfacing that is done to paved roads - it is not sand seal, it's called a chip seal that's put on that. Indeed, that is one area of the province where sand seal does appear to have worked effectively. The sand seal program is one that is administered locally by the departmental forces there. We have, in some areas, resurfaced existing sand-sealed roads.
We're not in the process of expanding the inventory of sand-sealed roads, but certainly it's our intent to try and preserve the ones that already exist.
MR. MCNEIL: So, in a local area where they're doing a sand-sealed road, would that come out of their maintenance budget or would that be part of the capital budget, as any other paved road would be dealt with?
MR. MACISAAC: The sand-seal program is partly funded out of the operational budget, partly out of the capital budget, but the administration of the program is done locally.
MR. MCNEIL: I'm really interested in this, because it's going to be one of the first things I ask when I get back home, why we haven't been applying or soliciting this type of support from the department before. I'm looking at the mechanism - I know right now, under the present situation, capital projects have a separate entity, maintenance has a separate silo, so to speak. What's the mechanism here? How does this work - does the local Department of Transportation and Public Works have to say to the department that they have a road down here that they believe will work, it's perfect for sand seal, it's been there now for the last 20 years, we want to redo it, how do we go about doing that? How do we go about accessing that funding?
MR. MACISAAC: That's a decision the local department people can take on their own, and I would encourage the honourable member to have a chat with Paul Stone in that area.
MR. MCNEIL: I will do that. I guess I would ask the minister if he could have somebody in the department forward me the protocol around that particular part. It might be because I'm missing that, but I would like to have the information around the protocol on how we go about actually applying for that type of set-up - it would be much appreciated.
I brought this issue to your attention shortly after you were sworn in as minister, the issue around Saw Mill Creek bridge. I spoke to your predecessor here a year ago about the issue and I had assurances by the former minister that that bridge would be replaced this year - actually he even went so far as to say we might put it to tender in the Fall of last year, to replace the bridge, but I definitely would see a new bridge in Saw Mill Creek this year.
Presently there is no tender that I know of, unless it has gone out in the last few days. I wonder, where are we in the process of ensuring that the people of Moschelle have a safe bridge to cross over?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, I want to assure the honourable member that we have not lost sight of the bridge, and it is being evaluated and it certainly could be a candidate for future work.
MR. MCNEIL: I want to just continue on the Saw Mill Creek bridge. Perhaps that's what the engineer was doing in my constituency, having a look at that bridge, around the issue of the alignment that I had some concerns with and during the campaign was busy and unable to go to the bridge at that time to show the issues that the
community had. I'm wondering if that issue has been dealt with - the alignment - and whether or not somebody in your department has seen that and whether the design will meet the satisfaction of the community.
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, certainly the design is one of the key factors that's being taken under consideration with respect to the evaluation that's currently taking place. The challenge, of course, is to get that right. Alignment questions with respect to bridges are very often very difficult to resolve. They appear to be a lot easier on the surface than they actually are and it does take some time to bring them to an appropriate resolution. So that's part of what's being considered with respect to this bridge.
MR. MCNEIL: I want to thank the minister for that. This has been an ongoing concern for that community for quite some time. I want to also say to your department and staff that I appreciate the response they had around the issue when the community raised a concern - they responded immediately. In Lequille, the concerns that I had and the community had with the shed in Lequille, your department responded to try to find a way to resolve this in the best interests of those constituents in that community. I recognize that it may have led into a bit of a delay but, in the long run, not only will they as a community be better served, but so will we as a province be better served.
Often I know in your department, and particularly on the front lines of the constituencies, many of your people are in a no-win situation. Often I end up getting the call after somebody has called the local Department of Transportation shed and has given them every piece of information or knowledge they may have ever had and ever wanted to know and then they end up coming to me to try to resolve it, realizing that they are in a tough position and they are the front-line people that you have out there.
I know you know this, but I want to say from my perspective, in the constituency of Annapolis, you have some of the best people working in your department on the front lines, in terms of day-to-day dealings with the public. It is an extremely, extremely difficult job and I don't know if Nova Scotians truly can appreciate that, unless you can look at it from the view that I have, or the view that elected members in this House have.
Many people see the very superficial level - like, I might say, I did when I mentioned to you a few minutes ago the simplistic approach to solving Highway No. 101, and that type of approach is widespread in Nova Scotia and we end up funnelling it all on top of the local people who work for you.
I know you're new in this department, I know you appreciate the people in that department, but I would submit to you and your government that you ensure the people on the front lines in every constituency in this province recognize how much we, as elected people in this House, understand and appreciate the work they do, not only on
behalf of your department, but on behalf of all Nova Scotians. It is a daunting task. I think the only job worse some days than the one I have in terms of the caseload that comes in, would be the Department of Transportation and the caseload they are provided with.
So I will close on that and maybe come back tomorrow, but I wanted to put those words on the record - your front-line people in rural Nova Scotia, particularly in the riding of Annapolis that I can speak to, are the leading people in our constituency and are doing the very best job they can to ensure the people of Annapolis have roads and a safe transportation network. It's something not only you should be proud of, but your department itself should be proud of the work they are doing. With that, I will share my time with the member for Kings West.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Kings West.
MR. LEO GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, through you to the minister, I don't think we have a lot of time left, I think 8:07 p.m. maybe is the time? It is, so I'll get started and continue on tomorrow.
I guess we're working our way up the Valley, perhaps, as you might say. We started down at Digby, we've come through Annapolis and we've arrived in Kings County, Kings West in particular.
I'd like to start with a question that, I guess, kind of sets the stage perhaps for the amount of money that is put in the Transportation budget - I know it's Transportation and Public Works, but in this House there have been many questions asked over the years, in the three years that I've been here, about whether the motive fuel tax, if all of it is going back into the roads and so on of the province.
I'm wondering, in terms of the gas price, and we've seen gas prices go up and so I'm wondering how the budget reflects the additional revenues that do come in from hikes in gas prices. Last year, for example, we saw gas rise to about $1.43 or $1.45 a litre and so I'm wondering, how is that reflected and translated into additional work in the Department of Transportation or how in fact it helps as the key revenue source, perhaps, for work in the department?
MR. MACISAAC: The motive fuel tax, which is the tax in question here, is a flat tax. It's a tax per litre, so the increase in price doesn't have an impact on the amount of tax - if anything, it has a negative impact because as price per litre increases, people make the decision to purchase less motive fuel and, if they purchase less motive fuel, with it being a flat tax, then the amount of revenue being generated from motive fuel tax would, in fact, decline in those circumstances.
MR. GLAVINE: I thank the minister for that - and I meant to talk about all of the taxes, the HST and so forth, that are there, because then it does reflect a higher amount. So I'm wondering how that does get translated back into the roads of the province, because additional revenues at certain times can be collected and are collected from time to time. So I'd like to know, how is that translated into work that Nova Scotians can see?
MR. MACISAAC: Just again, for the purposes of clarity, the commitment we have made with respect to motive fuel tax does not include the HST revenue that would accrue to the province as a result of sales. The Act itself makes specific reference under Part I of the Revenue Act to the motive fuel tax, and that's the one that applies. The revenue that comes from the HST is the revenue that goes, as it all does, into the general revenue, but the commitment that we have by way of legislation to spend it on roads is for the motive fuel tax itself.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, I was certainly pleased to see that additional dollars, additional monies, are put into the RIM program this year. One of the questions that I had around the RIM program - I know it has come to my attention in the past that this money sometimes did not stay with contractors in the local area, in other words, I suppose, through the tendering process, which we know does in fact need to be done. But I'm wondering, what is the policy in the department, if indeed there is a bit of a concerted effort made to have some of the ditching and the bush cutting and gravel on the sides of the pavement and so on, if in fact it's tried to be kept in local areas?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, the short answer to the honourable member's question is that the contracts are awarded to the lowest qualified bidder. Having said that, there is, at least in my part of the province, an increased awareness on the part of contractors for opportunities to go out and get work, and I had an occasion recently to answer an inquiry from a contractor from my area who in fact was doing work in Halifax, and has been doing it for a period of about five years now, so that is somebody who's not working at home, but at least is benefiting from the RIM program. The nature of the RIM work is such that it tends to favour in many instances - and I don't mean exclusively - but tends to favour smaller contractors and it is an opportunity for them.
We are not in the business of allocating that work on any sort of a regional basis. It's our belief that we have a responsibility to get the best possible price for the work, and the best way to do that is to award it to the lowest bidder, the lowest qualified bidder, in all circumstances.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, through you to the minister, I thank you for that response.
Certainly a hot topic, as you can tell from my two colleagues, is Highway No. 101 and certainly travelling it every week pretty well for the last three years, and many times of course through the past number of years - first of all, the plan is to get the twinning to Coldbrook, 2010, and I'm just wondering, as I travel the road now and I see some of what has been cut down and cleared, if we go along too far we'll have a second round of clearing, not perhaps the major trees, the largest trees, but certainly some of the smaller bushes, trees, et cetera, how far is the department projecting that this project is now behind schedule?
MR. MACISAAC: Mr. Chairman, the current work that is underway is not behind schedule. As we look into the future, the schedule will very much depend upon the amount of federal funding that we might be able to bring to the table to do that work.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, I know the importance of a strong agreement, a renewed effort, perhaps, to get federal dollars for this project, and certainly it doesn't sound like the commitment is in place for the completion of that project. I'm just wondering if in fact there are planned talks around Highway No. 101 - as we know, it has been identified in a number of national magazines as one of the deadliest stretches of highway in the country. I'm wondering, do you, as the new Minister of Transportation and Public Works, have an aggressive plan schedule to work towards a full commitment for federal funding for this project and, of course, within the projected hopeful date of completion?
MR. MACISAAC: Our efforts with respect to obtaining federal funding apply to Highway Nos. 101, 102, 103, 104, and 125 roads, so that road is certainly going to be part of the package that is under discussion with the Government of Canada.
MR. GLAVINE: Back last Fall, I tabled a bill looking at the use of centre lane rumble strips which have been used in some of the other provinces, jurisdictions, across the country and work very effectively in terms of increasing and improving safety records. Knowing that the part of the highway referred to from Bridgetown to Coldbrook is not in anybody's plan at this stage for twinning, certainly passing lanes can be justified, and I'm wondering, is this an option that could be given some consideration? I know, for example, just in the stretch from Greenwood to Coldbrook, I taught or coached three young people who died on that stretch of highway. We know there are many factors in collisions and in road accidents, but nevertheless it does have a number of elements that seem to contribute to a very, very high degree of accidents and accident victims on that stretch of road.
MR. MACISAAC: Certainly the honourable member has made a suggestion that's worth taking under consideration, and we'll look at it.
MR. GLAVINE: One of the areas that we keep hearing about, again from year to year, is the question of when tenders do go out. Many would say that it's late in the year and that perhaps we could have the tendering process earlier, and work perhaps started earlier which potentially now, with an expanded program that certainly was committed to in the last platform, and I'm wondering, is there any plan to try to make some progress in that particular area?
MR. MACISAAC: We're tendering far more than we did in previous years - we still have about 20 per cent of the work to call and certainly one of the things we'll be doing next year is having a number of Fall calls which will result in work beginning much earlier in the season.
I understand we're about to run out of time, so just on Highway No. 101 and the construction schedule, I want to draw to the attention of honourable members that after we finished the environmental assessment and began the detailed design work we ran into some unexpected wetland that required us to go back and revise the environmental assessment. Recognizing that it was going to delay the work somewhat, we took the money that had been previously allocated to that and put it into structures that are required, so the work in those structures is proceeding and when we get to doing the grade work then the structures will be in place so it won't affect the schedule in any way.
MR. GLAVINE: One final question. I had met with the . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time for the member has expired, as well as the time allotted today for the debate on the estimates in Committee of the Whole House on Supply.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. MICHAEL BAKER: Mr. Chairman, I move the committee do now rise, report considerable progress and beg leave to sit again on a future day.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The motion is carried.
[The committee rose at 8:07 p.m.]