HALIFAX, THURSDAY, APRIL 21, 2016
COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON SUPPLY
Mr. Keith Irving
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The Committee of the Whole on Supply will now come to order.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. MICHEL SAMSON: Mr. Chairman, we will now call the estimates of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, Resolution E39.
Resolution E39 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $460,766,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, pursuant to the Estimate.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I would now like to invite the minister to make some opening comments, if he so wishes, and to introduce his staff to the members of the committee.
The honourable Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal.
HON. GEOFF MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, I do wish to make a few opening comments. I'll be brief, I know that the members opposite and all sides of the House have lots of questions for me so I'll give as much air time as I can.
Thank you for this opportunity. Obviously before we begin formal remarks, I'd like to introduce the staff who are here with me today representing TIR. First we have Bruce Fitzner, Chief Highway Engineer; Diane Saurette, Executive Director of Finance and Strategic Planning; Alan Grant, Executive Director of Policy; Tom O'Handley, my EA and buddy; Jason Kontak from the Premier's Office; Brian Taylor, Media Relations Adviser; and Pam Menchenton, Director of Communications - good to see you. Deputy Minister Paul LaFleche couldn't be here, I'm sure much to the chagrin of all members. They are the folks who are here with us today; they're going to stay here and spend lots of time with us over the next couple of hours.
I want to say, in sincerity, this is my one opportunity to do this and then we'll move on to the serious business of TIR and government. I have a tremendous amount of respect and trust for the staff that work together. This group and a few others work together every day. We work really hard and we do our very best on behalf of Nova Scotians. I know all departments have the same type of impact for Nova Scotians and the people we serve, which ultimately are the taxpayers. I do thank the great work that my team does, that our team does collectively. I'm proud to represent all of us today and I'll certainly do my best to not mess it up. With that, we'll move on.
Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to describe all the work we do at TIR on behalf of the great Province of Nova Scotia. Our mandate is to deliver quality public infrastructure for Nova Scotians, by providing a transportation network for the safe and efficient movement of people and goods, and continuing to serve the building needs of government departments and agencies.
We manage the greatest share of government's capital budget that helps to pay for a substantial road and bridge network, relative to the size of our province. We manage and maintain 23,000 kilometres of road that spans four regional districts, from Yarmouth to Amherst to the beautiful northern shores of Cape Breton. Our network also includes 4,300 bridges and nine provincial ferries.
I know these roads very well, Mr. Chairman, especially the route from Halifax to my hometown and constituency of Glace Bay. I travel back and forth at least once a week and I see first-hand the results of the day-to-day work of our TIR employees, how they handle the challenges of our Nova Scotia winters through plowing and salting; how they're doing with filling the potholes that inevitably reveal themselves every Spring; and how the results of their hard work during the summer and Fall construction season is truly paying off for our road network.
Each and every one of our TIR employees is committed to the delivery of safe roads that help keep people and the economy moving. We are responsible to manage the delivery of provincial buildings such as schools and correctional facilities, and maintain public structures such as provincial museums and this beautiful and historic Nova Scotia Legislature.
We also deliver major infrastructure projects such as the Halifax Convention Centre and the QEII redevelopment project. You heard earlier today about plans to develop a health care system that better connects Nova Scotians to the care they need, for the next 50 years and beyond, Mr. Chairman. TIR is working with the Nova Scotia Health Authority and the Department of Health and Wellness to provide the infrastructure support to house those services.
In addition to highways and public works, we are responsible for policy development related to road safety. TIR is responsible for the Motor Vehicle Act and for the delivery of legislation and regulations that help keep motorists safe on our roads.
This year we welcomed Nova Scotia Lands, Building Services, Real Property Services, and Environmental Services back to TIR from the Department of Internal Services. This reintegration, along with amortization of completed infrastructure projects such as the Port Joli-Port Mouton highway realignment project, accounts for an increase in our overall budget this year from $419 million to $460 million.
We have approximately 150 capital projects in our five-year plan this year, worth over $200 million, including the Granite Drive interchange on Highway No. 101, set to begin this Fall; and the final piece of work to complete the Highway No. 104 project in Antigonish, which is a twinning project which is expected to wrap up in November of this year. We are continuing with the Ingramport interchange on Highway No. 103, and we will be doing more work on the Cabot Trail this summer. We have a roundabout for Pictou in this year's program, and we will begin to work to replace an interchange on Highway No. 102 where it meets with Highway No. 103.
We need to maintain the highways that we build, using an operating budget of $216 million. This money is used for day-to-day operations of the department such as snow and ice control, highway and bridge maintenance, field operations, fleet amortization, ferry operations, vehicle compliance, and engineering and construction services, as well as administration, professional services, employee benefits, RIM work, and smaller highway and building projects.
After two challenging winters in a row, Mr. Chairman, we've had a better winter this year, which of course helps our overall road budget. We've been able to reduce costs, using newer techniques to manage snow and ice such as pre-wetting pavement before a snow event. This technique is very effective to prevent slippery roads, and at the same time create cost savings and efficiencies.
I want to take this moment to express my confidence in the budget and its abilities to support major highway initiatives, including the five-year improvement plan, ongoing road maintenance, and managing major infrastructure projects.
This year, we will release a twinning feasibility study that will consider the viability of using tolls to support the expansion of eight sections of Nova Scotia highway network. Nova Scotians have asked us to twin roads now to make them safer. While we can eventually twin the highways using our annual budget, it literally will take decades. Roads are expensive. Each twinned kilometre costs between $3 million and $5 million, depending on the complexity of the road. If Nova Scotians want twinning sooner, we have to look at other options to fund the expansion. Right now we are gathering information on the financial modelling so that when I bring this to the public, we'll have a full picture for the public's consideration. Our goal is to ensure everyone has the opportunity to see the information and weigh in on the results. Mr. Chairman, we will not implement tolls if the public does not want them.
Before I move further, I would like to highlight one initiative in particular that I think does deserve special attention. Last summer, we opened the first section of the Blue Route in Pictou County and are looking forward to more completed sections to come across the province. As we repave sections of our roads, we'll add shoulders and widen shoulders to accommodate cyclists. Eventually, there will be a continuous trail of connected communities via a cycling route across Nova Scotia. The hope and expectation is that this will encourage healthy lifestyles at home and attract visitors to our province, much in the same way the cycling route does in Quebec; it has done tremendous work for Quebec's tourism initiatives.
Our motive is similar, when it comes to the Nova Scotia to Maine ferry service. We put a transportation link in place that would provide an ocean gateway for tourists entering Nova Scotia from the United States and ensured we provided long-term stability for that service. From there Nova Scotia residents, businesses of southwest Nova Scotia, and the hospitality industry of all the province need to make the most of the opportunity to generate economic activity for the province. Mr. Chairman, we know that they will. I'm proud to say we accomplished what we set out to do, and in establishing a long-term relationship with a seasoned and reliable operator for this service, we provided dependability that residents, businesses, and hospitality operators can count on.
I am also pleased that the operator has restored a ferry schedule that will provide much more business for Nova Scotia hotels and restaurants on both ends of the ferry's daily run. This is positive news for our tourism sector.
Much has been said about our deal with the operator. Mr. Chairman, all ferries are subsidized in Nova Scotia, including all of our smaller provincial ferries at a net cost of $8.6 million, as well as every other ferry that transports people to and from our province. The Sydney to Port-aux-Basques, P.E.I. to Pictou, and Digby to Saint John would be included in that.
On the Portland to Nova Scotia route, we wanted to provide a realistic subsidy based on the previous two years of experience that we had with this service. The subsidy is based on passenger projections that are realistic and structured in such a way as to incent the operator to work hard at increasing the number of travellers, which means the subsidy is kept as low as possible.
At the two-year mark, we will have an opportunity to evaluate the service within the parameters of the 10-year deal. At this stage, the operator can opt to renew the lease on the vessel or consider another vessel, based on experience from now into 2018. This is a check-in opportunity for both the operator and the province that allows us to both consider the vessel, the performance, and the cost. That is why we have not set a subsidy for years three to 10. This does mean it is open ended as has been wrongly described. Rather, we wanted some flexibility that will allow room to make alternations if needed for the benefit of Nova Scotians, not the detriment.
As I have said many times, we believe - I certainly believe in this service. We support the residents of Yarmouth and southwest Nova Scotia and the entire province as this ferry is significant for every one of us.
We support the Nova Scotia hospitality industry as they capitalize on the opportunity that having this link brings into place for the province. We certainly saw the devastating effects, when the ferry was not in place for four years. For that reason, we are committed to continuing the service and believe with the right operator, which we do have in place, we will provide the best chance for success. With that, I am happy to take questions. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Leader of the Official Opposition.
HON. JAMIE BAILLIE: Mr. Chairman, I want to thank the minister for his opening comments and welcome to the House of Assembly the departmental officials who are with him here on the floor and also who are up in the gallery. I know how hard they work, and I want to thank them for their service to the province and for being here today. I am sure it is not the most fun they have throughout the year in their jobs.
I also just want to take a moment while I can and speak to the very professional staff of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal that I see working every day in my own home constituency of Cumberland South. From Area Manager Buffy White, through to the OS's and to the operators and to the others who work in the area of my home constituency, I believe we have established a good working relationship. I know they are out travelling the roads, inspecting the bridges, plowing in the winter, brush clearing and ditching in the summer, and are doing a very professional job.
Although, as the minister who is the MLA would know, and I know as an MLA, people sometimes complain when their road isn't plowed as fast as they would like. I believe I speak for the people of Cumberland South where deep down, even on those days, they know that the people who are out on our roads and highways in the wintertime are doing the best they can, sometimes in pretty adverse weather conditions. We would always want them to be safe first and foremost as they go about doing their job of enabling school buses to get to school, nurses and doctors to get to work in our hospitals. So, just before I start my question, I want to thank the departmental staff all the way through to all of the staff in the sheds around the province for the work that they do.
In that light, I would like to start by asking a few questions that are very important to me and to my constituents in Cumberland South. I know I am sure the minister and his staff saw the reports of the washout of the Spencer's Island Beach Road. Just for the benefit of everyone present, it is an important loop on the Parrsboro Shore Road between Parrsboro and Advocate. There is a pretty important tourist business, a campground there. It is famous as the launching place of the Marie Celeste, which is a tourist attraction in the area; it celebrates the great ship-building history of the Parrsboro Shore. It has literally washed out in the past few weeks.
Although it is a loop, the good news about it being a loop is that people that live on either side of the washout are able to access the main road. But nonetheless, their quality of life is affected and their ability to earn a living in tourism is affected. I would just like to start by asking the minister what plans his department has in place for the reinforcement of the roadbed and then the resurfacing of the Spencer's Island Beach Road.
HON. GEOFF MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, I thank the Leader of the Official Opposition for the question. Mr. Fitzner has some understanding of this particular road. We do have local staff taking a look, making an assessment, and trying to figure out what we have to do, not only for the short term to protect the area and make sure that the roadbed is in place but also the future costs, so some of that engineering work that has to be done. I'll make the commitment to the member opposite that we'll get that information back to the member as soon as we can. Obviously, there's no doubt about it, that's a priority. When it impacts the local economy and folks' ability to move around, have that mobility, it's critical. We'll get that information. The staff on the ground are looking at some of the assessments and trying to determine the engineering costs at this point.
MR. BAILLIE: I really do appreciate that answer from the minister. I do want to pursue this just a little more. Local residents are under the belief that armour rock or something similar will be required to shore up the roadbed. Armour rock, obviously being very heavy to transport it to the site, would exceed the Spring weight restrictions on our highways. I know that the department is looking at its options. Will there be some answers about the plan for that road by the time the Spring weight restrictions are lifted?
MR. MACLELLAN: We can get an answer to the member opposite. With respect to the weight restrictions, obviously they're in place for a reason. It's a tough one when you're talking particularly about mobility and for certain aspects, whether it be for fire services or emergency services. The challenge for us in our own weight restrictions, when we want to do critical repairs, is we can't get to those spots because of the conditions of the roads. Obviously it's different in different regions, but sometimes if there has to be an exemption - we don't do it very often - but if it is a critical situation, we can allow access that would exceed that weight restriction just to shore up some critical points in a roadbed.
There is certainly some work to be done there. We've got some images here. We will get an answer to the member, and we'll ensure that we do it in the quickest fashion we can and before the Spring weight restrictions, which still gives us a couple of weeks based on our last estimates. We'll get in there and get some of the specific detail.
MR. BAILLIE: I just want to clarify for the minister. I truly believe the residents of the area are not asking that the weight restrictions be lifted; they are very understanding that they are in place to protect our roadbeds, actually, and are in place for a reason. They just see the lifting of the restrictions, when they do come in the natural course of events, as a time when they would hope that there is a plan together to then deliver whatever materials are required to the site and get on with the job. We're not asking you to eliminate the weight restrictions in this case. They get that; they really do.
I'm going to move on, but while I have this opportunity, I just want to say that the importance of actually restoring the loop, of literally shoring up the shoreline and the roadbed with armour rock or an equivalent and then repaving, is for the benefit of the residents, obviously, and for the tourism opportunity and employment in the area. But there is private property that will be at risk if we don't shore up the shoreline and the roadbed there. That's another reason for getting this done that I know residents would want me to pass on at this moment: that eventually the highway itself, which the loop loops off of, may well be at risk. I'm doing my best to sell to senior officials the really good reasons why we should restore the loop, and I know in the next few weeks we'll see what the plan is. I just want to thank the department for taking an urgent look at the situation. I know it will be appreciated.
If I could move on to the Lake Road, which is in Wentworth, also in Cumberland South, it is not anywhere near the shoreline, so it's a very different issue. The Lake Road is actually quite heavily travelled, not just with local vehicle traffic. There are a lot of logging trucks that travel that road. I think it would be accurate to say that it has been patched and then re-patched and then re-patched, sometimes using RIM funds, other times in an effort to try to maintain some semblance of an asphalt surface. It has been decades really since the Lake Road has been on the priority list, on the five-year list. I'm just going to ask the minister if there is a plan to resurface the Lake Road, and if so, when will we see it on the five-year priority list?
MR. MACLELLAN: Thank you for that question. Mr. Fitzner is also familiar with that, and according to the TIR staff who are there and obviously in consultation with Bruce, it is a priority; it just hadn't made its way to the list with the pressures on the capital list. While it's one of those tough ones that we're just talking, as the member was explaining the road, but it has a relatively low volume - not an extremely high volume - but the volume of traffic, because of the logging, because of some of that economic development activity, really does pound on that particular roadbed.
Bruce admitted freely that it had been a while since we'd done anything significant there and it has been a series of patchworks. It is technically a priority for the department but the key thing is looking at getting that on the capital list, so we're going to go back and take another look and see what we can do for the capital plan, moving forward, and see what the budget looks like next year.
MR. BAILLIE: Thank you again to the minister for that answer. I am going to make the case for the Lake Road for a new reason. As the department will know, the Wentworth Consolidated Elementary School was closed last year and half of the students will now be travelling from Wentworth to Pugwash, with other half going to Oxford. Although the school board did not identify an exact busing route for those students to move from Wentworth to Pugwash, the Lake Road is one possibility.
When the school board officials were asked where they thought the buses would go, one of the routes they said was possible was the Swallow Road. Well I'm not going to ask the minister about the Swallow Road; it is a very, very local, rural road. Personally, I don't believe it's appropriate for a school bus with elementary kids to be travelling every day in the winter on such a rural road. However, a resurfaced Lake Road might make that trip easier, keeping in mind, when we're talking about elementary school children, I know we're trying to have their busing time be within policy guidelines of less than an hour.
It's going to be close, in the best of scenarios so I'm just making the case for placing the Lake Road on the five-year priority list for that reason as well, which is a new reason. Hopefully that will result in it becoming part of the list because I know that the residents of the area, including the parents of those kids, would feel better and be comforted even to see it somewhere in the five-year plan. I'm not advocating that it should be year five. I hope it pops up in an earlier year than year five - year one would be great. I know that people have difficulty with the idea that something can be a priority but yet not on the five-year plan.
Maybe I'll just switch to a more general question for a moment and I'll come back to specific roads. Could the minister tell us how roads are added to the five-year plan and how they are deleted? Sometimes a road that was on the plan comes off the plan. How are they deleted and who makes those decisions? How are those decisions made?
I'm not just asking because I want to speak to that person, although several MLAs would like to speak to that person, it is a question I get asked a lot in my travels around Cumberland South. I know there are a lot more people today who are aware that there is a five-year road plan and know what's on it and what falls off it. Maybe for the benefit of everyone here, if the minister could just quickly tell us, take us through the addition and deletion process of the five-year plan. Secondly, how is a road a priority when it's not on the five-year plan?
MR. MACLELLAN: To the member's question, the good news is with respect to the capital plan, which was really a tremendous way to inventory and prioritize roads in the province, 95 per cent of the roads that land on our list get completed, so that's the good news. Really when the roads are a priority and they make it to that list, the good news is that the lion's share of time, those roads actually do get treated and managed.
With respect to moving up and down the list, obviously conditions change in a hurry. Some roads that were prioritized and listed all of a sudden get a whole lot more critical because of a winter season, because of other conditions, so there is some movement inside the list. But again, we maintain that a good portion of the list gets completed.
With respect to how roads get on the list, obviously, volume is a large piece of that. No question, there are thresholds for paving, thresholds for some of that work. That's really a key factor, and I can be quite frank, for all members of the House, this isn't strictly an Opposition problem when it comes to roads. That really becomes an aggravation for members. They want roads to be done, and they're critical roads because of what they mean to the community because they may connect schools, because of economic activity, but the volume is just not there to justify that large-scale investment.
That can be a tough one, and to that end, what we do when it's not just volume, the other considerations are things like economic development activity, social services, schools, and hospitals - those types of things. Of course, with logging trucks, with industrial events that take place in different regions, there obviously is significantly increased wear and tear on roads, particularly rural roads that haven't been dealt with in a while and of course with gravel roads, which has been a very hot topic for our department this year. There is a science behind it.
The member would know, and all members of the House would know, when you have such an infrastructure deficit - and everyone has dealt with my department at one time or another - we really don't apply politics to these things. I'm happy to say that. There are disgruntled people all across the province despite their political stripe, I can say with absolute certainty. But we do our best, and there isn't any ranking other than what the road needs are, what the priorities are.
As the Leader of the Official Opposition had stated in his opening comments, we have tremendous staff. I really feel that the people on the ground, in particular in the four areas of the province, the way the regions are divided, do great work to get into the communities. They live there for the most part, and they get a sense as to what's important, what the priorities are. I think discussions between the staff, the MLAs, MLAs' staff, stakeholders in the community, small business owners, parents, and families really give an indication of what the priorities are, and sometimes - I should say most times - that's taken into account, and it helps prioritize the road.
The science behind it is pretty structured now, and again with the deficit, we just try to knock off a few of the pressing and urgent projects each and every year, and then when the season begins anew the next Spring, we go back at it again. That has been the way we've approached it. We do our very best to get in what we can, but it really is opportunities like this where the senior staff, all members of staff, can get a renewed understanding of the priorities of different regions through their MLAs. This is an important exercise as well, to get these things on the radar, so to speak, and make sure that we're giving due consideration in every chance that we can.
MR. BAILLIE: I appreciate that answer. I'm not sure if the minister said we've taken the disgruntlement out of politics or the politics out of disgruntlement, but either way it sounded like a good thing, so I appreciate that. I just want to ask the second part of my question. It was about how we can say a road is a priority when it's not yet on the five-year plan. Is there a priority list of roads that will be placed on the five-year plan? How is it possible that we can say something is a priority, when it has not yet reached the five-year planning stage?
MR. MACLELLAN: I was chatting with Mr. Fitzner and missed that second part. Basically, the roads are rated. We have an internal system; it's kept at the district level, and it's in consultation between staff at that level with Bruce and the engineering department here. The ratings are kept, and these roads lists are compiled, and then it basically comes down to budgetary decisions. As the year begins again, and we're looking at our five-year capital plan and what additions we're going to make, then really, we look at the budget space again with all the consultation that takes place between staff, TIR, and the folks in these respective communities and regions. Then we make the decisions there. When it's a priority, it's getting there, and then it becomes about the budgetary room to get it on that capital list. That has traditionally been the system that we used and the methodology.
MR. BAILLIE: I do have a couple more roads I would like to ask about. One is the Two Island Road outside Parrsboro, and somewhat like the Spencer's Island Road, it has had washouts in areas. It is actually a significant provincial highway. There are many, many seasonal residents along the Two Island Road as well as permanent residents. When there are permanent residents there, it brings student busing into the Town of Parrsboro. There is a beautiful golf course on the Two Island Road as another example. It is part of the Parrsboro Shore tourism network of roads.
I know I am asking for a significant commitment on this one, because locally anyway, officials believe that we are going to need to reroute a part of the Two Island Road to move it further away from the shoreline or we will be permanently and annually reinforcing it. There has been some work done on the Two Island Road, and I want to acknowledge that. Can the minister share with us what the plan is this year, and in subsequent years, for the Two Island Road?
MR. MACLELLAN: For the Two Island Road for this year, we have $100,000 put aside for design and engineering. We do have to figure out what that corridor looks like and how it would have to be changed as a result of the conditions that the member opposite had mentioned. That will take place this year and give us a sense as to the true cost. Some of the initial estimates we have figure with the scope of the work that would have to be done for the Two Island Road, we are looking at probably in the range of about $1 million. It is a significant investment, and with that measure you have to, firstly, get the design and engineering completed properly; and secondly, have it up for consideration again, as we discussed earlier, through that process of identifying capital plan priorities and making that budgetary space. This particular road is on the radar, vis-à-vis that $100,000 study and design work that we will do, and then it becomes about the construction in 2017.
MR. BAILLIE: Thank you for that answer. That is the start of some good news for the local area.
Just before I leave that part of Cumberland County, I can't help but ask if the department has done any more work on the future of the Parrsboro aboiteau. I know we do not have a lot of expertise about aboiteaux anymore as there are not very many; they are very, very old structures. The department did, in conjunction with the Town of Parrsboro, put in place a temporary fix for the aboiteau, and when I say the aboiteau, I refer to a permanent solution of the aboiteau and the bridgework and road surfacing that are on top of it. I would just like to ask if there is anything in the budget this year, or plan in the near future, for a permanent solution to the road and the aboiteau itself.
MR. MACLELLAN: Thank you to the member, with respect to the aboiteau. We have had initial discussions with the Department of Agriculture. That aboiteau is connected to one of our bridge structures so there have been some discussions. We have not had anything nailed down yet with respect to the plan but we are aware of it. We can follow up to get some specifics for the member in the next couple of days, just to see what exactly we have, and we can update the member so he can get that back to the community.
MR. BAILLIE: Mr. Chairman, I welcome that and look forward to receiving that in the next couple of days. I know that residents of the area are anxious to see what the plan is.
I should have mentioned right from the beginning that the Transportation Critic would normally lead off the line of questioning but as the minister and others saw earlier today, he has lost his voice. I can say our caucus meeting was a lot shorter than normal this morning. In his honour, I do have to ask what the plan is for the New Boston Road.
MR. MACLELLAN: It would not be estimates if the member in that caucus did not ask about the New Boston Road. It is one that has always been an important project for the member. He has been an advocate for as long as I have been here, which is six years now. We did take a tour of the New Boston Road this past summer and certainly we understand his concerns, particularly at the two ends where the traffic and the volume is. I know that there are a number of pressing priorities for that member in a riding that is relatively vast and the New Boston Road is one of those. We don't have anything that is specific to share today, but stay tuned - maybe.
MR. BAILLIE: I'm glad that the minister knew I wasn't asking about the Boston Road outside River Hebert in Cumberland County but actually the New Boston Road in the constituency of the member for Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg. He has handed me a long list of other roads, and I actually have some more Cumberland County roads but I think I'll return to that at a later time.
I do want to ask about the River Hebert District High School renovations. I know the department has been working on this for a long time and there have been a lot of twists and turns along the way and I don't see any value in getting into all the twists and turns today. I do want to just very quickly, though, give credit to my predecessor, MLA Murray Scott, who started the process of the reconstruction of the River Hebert District High School and the plans and the initial architecture that went into that. It not only was under way with the PC Government of his time but through the four years of NDP Government and now the two years of the current government.
The residents have rallied, when necessary, to push the project along when it was stalled. They've been very patient, I think, in waiting for this work to be complete. We all believe we're very nearly there. I know there have been issues with the gymnasium, and now that we're approaching the end of this school year, it has become particularly crucial to know whether we'll be able to populate the school for the start of the next school year, including with a regulation-size gymnasium.
I'm going to ask the minister to give us an update on the completion of the River Hebert District High School.
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, I don't have a specific report to give the member at this point. We've all heard the story of River Hebert and the trials and tribulations that have gone on with that school. Certainly it has been a long process and again, I think it's fair to say that any time you're dealing with a school in any community across the province there's a certain connection to it and it really is a community link and a pillar for many of us with respect to who we are and what we are in communities.
To see sort of what has gone on and understanding the community's frustration with the process and how things have been bungled on a number of occasions with respect to the building and the development and the whole process for that construction, again, that's another issue that I don't have a specific answer for the member opposite. But we'll endeavour to get one and we can get that back to the member as soon as possible. I'm sure it won't take a whole lot of time.
MR. BAILLIE: I just want to say, while the minister and his officials are here, that although there have been a lot of twists and turns, I can say that in the community people have seen the takeover of the project by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal as part of the solution to getting this going again. I want to thank them for that. They saw the appointment of the new contractor, Stantec, as part of the solution and I think things really got moving in an organized way, as far as I know, and a cost-effective way with the new budget that was allocated to the school in that time and I want to thank them for their work. They have been great at keeping the community up to date on their work, particularly through the school advisory committee.
The minister is going to get the answer for us so I won't dwell on this, other than as we approach the end of this school year, the question of what we can do in September - and hopefully it's a complete move by then, as that was the most recent timeline, and that's the most important information we can get for the community.
Mr. Chairman, while we're on the subject of schools, there is great concern in the Town of Springhill about the condition of the West End Memorial Elementary School and the Junction Road Elementary School. Specifically today I want to explore the risk of asbestos in those two old schools. I wish I had had a moment to talk to the minister about this before we got to estimates but while we're all here, it appears there were some studies done about the presence of asbestos and whether it has been disturbed or is a risk in those two schools. I'd like to ask the minister if that's his department that has those studies. If so, can the residents of the community have them?
MR. MACLELLAN: I certainly haven't seen the reports of that nature. I guess a comment earlier to what the member said about the staff, I would obviously agree that there are tremendous people in the Public Works division in how we handle schools, hospitals, those facilities - of course our highways as well. The buildings and structures we look after, it's incredible to see the professionalism and the quality people that we have surrounding the entire department, both here in Halifax and out in the field.
At the end of the day for us, really, it is project management. We get the process, in the case of schools: our part of the process is once it has travelled through the school board and they have done their work, being the stewards for the school operations on the ground, then in consultation with the minister and the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development we really get to the nitty-gritty work. When the project is ready to be teed up and that specific engineering design, planning, and mitigation work is required - that is really when we step in.
I would have to check on those reports. I would dare say that if there is anything connected in any way to asbestos, I would probably be given a heads-up on that to this point, but we will certainly check that. I know Tom Gouthro in the department would have a pretty good idea of both of those particular schools to see what is there and what is happening with those particular projects. We will dig into that for sure.
MR. BAILLIE: Mr. Chairman, I look forward to receiving that information. As long as those schools continue to be used as elementary schools, I know that the parents of Springhill will be interested to see those reports. Ultimately though, the solution is to build one new elementary school in Springhill and to dispose of the two old schools. In fact, that is on the priority list of the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board, to do exactly that, to replace them with one new one, not just because of the asbestos risk, as awful as that would be but for many, many other reasons including that they are outdated and actual curriculum programming is now impacted. They can't deliver the curriculum for a variety of reasons, including in the West End Memorial Elementary School where the gym is actually in the middle of the school and people have to cross through it, in the middle of gym activities, to get from one place to another, which interrupts their ability to deliver physical education. The library is in a similar circumstance; the building is old and leaky.
The Junction Road Elementary School gym, there have been great pictures of all the buckets on the floor from the leaky roof. I know that the residents have, in a sense, done their job. They have convinced the school board, who sets their priority list, that new construction is a priority for them. The school board has passed it on to the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. The department has not yet selected it from the priority list for new construction. I hope that happens soon. I know that is not the minister's department but I do want to share with the minister that the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, in defending why they have not allocated a new school to Springhill yet, says that they are under the impression that a renovated school will do.
They rely for that opinion on work that was done by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal seven or eight years ago. We would all really like to see that. Ultimately, if the kids of Springhill can get an equivalent, modern education from a renovated school as opposed to a new one, I think that we could have a discussion about that. Don't get me wrong, a new school is what we will be pushing for. There are concerns about a renovated school, including that the footprint - well the only one that could be renovated of the two would be Junction Road, and apparently the footprint there to expand it does not exist. You can't build up and you can't build out, in other words, among the other constraints. Is the department aware of a study that was done by their own engineers seven or eight years ago, and if so, can that be made public?
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, I personally do not have any specific information about the West End Memorial Elementary School or Junction Road Elementary School reports from seven or eight years ago. I would be surprised - if the schools are in the condition as described by the members, and I'm sure that is the case, I would think that we probably need to look at some of those aspects in a more recent sense than seven or eight years ago. Obviously, there would be a deterioration if there was not major improvements made to those particular areas of those schools in question. There would be no reason, in any event, for us to hang onto reports. The whole purpose of studies and reports and the analyses of facilities or highways or bridges or anything under the realm of transportation, is to make it available and really shape the conversation about where we make investments.
We talk so much about the infrastructure priority and the things we have to do in all regions, whether it be that building facility infrastructure or on our roadways, really to prioritize those things, you have to know what kind of condition they are in. A lot of times priority comes through immediate crises, certainly emergency situations on the roads. Any information we would have to suggest that we would have to get moving quickly, there would be no reason why we would withhold that.
We've had a significant merger with respect to the Public Works functions of government. I think it's fair to say that Education and Early Childhood Development and Health and Wellness were a little bit on their own and TIR did our own Public Works efforts for a number of years. We really combined those over the last year, for the most part, so we're all in-house and working together. There are still capable and committed engineer officials with Health and Wellness and Education and Early Childhood Development, but they are part of the TIR team. We're not duplicating work, we're not expending resources we don't have to. We're creating efficiencies and getting things done as a team. That's what we've focused on. Whether it be these two elementary schools or any of the operations we have and the buildings we have, obviously we're going to do what's best. Of course there are always financial and fiscal constraints that we face.
I know with the member talking about the school process and getting schools on the list is the function and the requirement of the school board, not dissimilar to the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board, which has made some real heavy-duty decisions down in our region of this great province and they have to set priorities. Then of course they make the request and we have that capital program process that we go though at Education and Early Childhood Development, in consultation with TIR. There are lots of decisions and lots of analyses that we do for all our schools and look: we've got to keep kids, teachers, staff and families safe; that's the number one priority. Any information we would have about any school, certainly we can check into that and if it still exists from seven or eight years ago, I'm sure it's somewhere, then we can take a look at it and see why we couldn't put it out there for the families.
MR. BAILLIE: I do appreciate that answer as well. I just want to also add how much I appreciate one of the things the minister just said, which is that even though the study is eight years old, surely there has been further deterioration of the school since then. That is absolutely true, that is actually the case. I don't think anyone would reasonably want to rely on an eight-year-old study that says a renovation is possible, when the schools have obviously only gotten worse in the past eight years. I really appreciate that the minister acknowledges that and I look forward to receiving the information and maybe it will resolve whether renovations are even possible. If they are, then of course the next step would be to update the information and see if they're still possible, hopefully leading to a decision to get on with presumably a new construct, but if not, a renovation that meets the needs of those students.
Mr. Chairman, I would like to move on to something that is of particular interest to Cumberland County but really has provincial implications as well, and that is the results in the budget of the Highway 104 Western Alignment Corporation; in other words, the Cobequid Pass or the toll road in the province, which is in Cumberland County.
Mr. Chairman, on Page 21 of the budget documents themselves there is a table - Table 5.2 - which is entitled the 2016-2017 Revenues by Source. At the bottom of that page is a list of net income from government business enterprises. The second last one is the Highway 104 Western Alignment Corporation. You'll see when you get there that the forecast revenues to the province for the year just ended is $3.69 million but the budget for the upcoming year - I guess we're now in the upcoming year - is $8.4 million and change. Could the minister explain the increase in provincial revenues from the Cobequid Pass toll road?
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, thank you to the member opposite. We did briefly discuss this prior to coming in. There are a couple of different aspects to it, and it is a little bit complex, so I'll start off with a general kind of breakdown of where that has come from, and I'm sure there will be some follow-up from the member.
Basically, as of 2006, the government of the day made the commitment to not have toll increases. What happened was there was a schedule through the bondholders, through the private sector relationship, the agreement. There were set times when there would be increases in the tolls, but as a government decision in 2006, it was determined that that government wouldn't proceed with those increases and instead would provide a subsidy. There has been a number of subsidies to counteract that amount of lost revenue that would have been required through the province. That had been ongoing since 2006.
At the same time, there were instances in years gone by when there was a prepayment made. You've got the regular bond payment, but there were also prepayments made to that bond. That totalled about $5 million. There would be a prepayment made to the bondholders for the Highway 104 Corporation for the Cobequid Pass project. Based on those two with the subsidy and the prepayment that would take place in some years, there would be a negative net impact to the province. When you added those two things together and took the net income from the Cobequid Pass, from that relationship, we would end up in a negative position. For the last four years, we've had negative final financial impact on the Cobequid Pass and the Highway 104 Corporation budget.
Essentially we decided not to make the prepayment and reflect that in the numbers here. We did the same thing the last two years, I believe, and didn't make the prepayment because of the same kind of situation, the same reality with the budget, but it was shown in the forecast. Ultimately the difference in the revenue source is that we didn't make that prepayment because when you're coupling the subsidy and the prepayment, it just became too much and ended up with a negative cash position for the Highway 104 Corporation.
MR. BAILLIE: I'm sure glad I asked that question.
I just want to confirm what the schedule said, Mr. Chairman, which is that for the last five years the province has received net income - not a loss but income - from the Highway 104 Corporation, ranging from $1.9 million in 2013 to the budgeted amount of $8.4 million. That's a positive number. I just want to make sure that's correct, and then I will have further questions.
MR. MACLELLAN: That's the net income, but what is not reflected in the budget is that level of subsidy. That's part of the net revenue, the estimated net income, but it's not part of the actual number. When you look at what the net impact is, there is no line item that shows the particular subsidy, the grant that we have. That's part of it, and that would actually put it in a negative position, when you include the amount of subsidy that we would give each year to make up for the lack of toll increase.
MR. BAILLIE: Now I think we're getting somewhere in terms of understanding the ins and outs of this. Would the minister share with us what the subsidy is, both for the year just ended and for the budget year? I understand it's in the details of the departmental budget, but I think it would be interesting to know, for those who pay those tolls, what that subsidy is.
MR. MACLELLAN: In 2016-17, the subsidy number we have is $2.94 million. Last year it was $3.057 million. Just as a note, since this began - I mentioned in the opening response, this subsidy started because the tolls weren't increased as of 2006. As of 2006, the total subsidies we've allocated for this process are $22.36 million. (Interruption) Since 2006, $22.36 million, year after year.
MR. BAILLIE: Thank you for that. So that I'm totally clear, would it be accurate to take the net income on this schedule, $8.4 million, and subtract the subsidy of - I think you said $2.94 million that is in your department's budget expenditure - and the difference is the income that the province gets in net terms from the toll road in the Cobequid Pass.
MR. MACLELLAN: That is accurate, that is the number. Just as a matter of context, in the previous four years, we've had net negative positions - so $2.08 million, $1.2 million, $1.1 million, and $430,000. If you look back to - going back to 2012-13, it's almost a zero. It closes in that whole amount; but that is correct, that calculation - that impact is $5.4 million.
MR. BAILLIE: Mr. Speaker, I do want to turn to the prepayment that the minister mentioned a moment ago. It sounds like it's a principal payment against the bond's indebtedness or a retirement of some of the bonds outstanding. I just want to confirm that that's the case, and if that is the case, who makes those payments? Is that a payment from the corporation itself, or from the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal to retire that debt?
MR. MACLELLAN: The payment is made by the corporation and, to date, the total payment has been $37.9 million, and $20 million of that has been prepayment.
MR. BAILLIE: Now, to the big question that I know the people who use that toll road every day are going to want me to ask. When the net gain to the province reaches, as it has now, more or less $5.5 million, has there been any consideration to reducing the tolls so that basically the province is operating that toll highway on a cost-recovery basis and a debt-reduction basis and not to make a surplus for the province itself?
MR. MACLELLAN: To the member's question, in 2017 there was a scheduled increase of 50 cents for the toll. Based on the schedule that was developed as part of the agreement with the bondholders, there would be 50 cents going onto the toll. Obviously, we're not going to do that. It's certainly not increasing; that's for sure. Also, some of the revenue that has been received has been part of a five-year repaving plan and we're now into year four of that. We have two more years of full-scale repaving projects that we've been doing; it's about $5 million per year that we spend on those particular repaving portions. Again, it is a $5.4 million positive position this year but they had been negative positons over the last couple of years.
Essentially, when you look at the bigger picture, the money is being reinvested. We're not increasing the tolls and it is where it is at this point. Again, over the course of a number of years there is a balancing there, but at this point we're keeping it as is.
MR. BAILLIE: I wasn't here when the 2006 agreement was reached, but I can see how there would be an ongoing expense to the province if the idea was to protect the users of the Cobequid Pass from increases. I can't imagine that that agreement allowed for the province to have a gain under that formula. When the minister says, well, we had some losses in other years, that would have been the deal, I guess, from a toll-payer's point of view. Now we're offsetting that with years where we have a profit. I'm not sure that's what that agreement was intended to accomplish. In other words, it was intended that there be an expense to save the ratepayers from increases, I don't think it was intended that in some years it would result in a gain.
Now having said that, the minister has said that where there is a gain it's being used for the maintenance of the road anyway and that goes to the principle whether the highway is to be operated for cost recovery or whether the province profits from the tolls on the Cobequid Pass. Just to finish the math, can the minister share with us the budgeted amount of maintenance and repaving work for the Cobequid Pass for the upcoming year?
MR. MACLELLAN: What we're spending this year, that was the question?
MR. BAILLIE: Yes.
MR. MACLELLAN: It's $4.8 million. Just to add to that, with respect to the member's comments about the overall toll, based on the plan, I certainly can appreciate the point about the net position and that it was supposed to be a positive net position. Part of this is the fact that there had been scheduled increases in tolls. That didn't happen and certainly we're not advocating for those and won't be increasing those, without question.
I also think there is a bigger conversation now that's going to take place here. But with respect to the investment, it will be $4.8 million for this year for Cobequid Pass.
MR. BAILLIE: Mr. Chairman, I appreciate that; that's pretty close to break-even so I will move on from that one. Although I do want to ask about the prepayments or the early debt retirements that have happened because there is an opportunity, if the financing costs of the road go down, to pass that saving on to the toll-payers who are heavily weighted to residents of the area who might actually use the road once or twice a day to get back and forth to work or do other things. Is there the possibility of a toll reduction as those revenue bonds are paid off? Is there a policy for how that might actually end up leading to a reduction in tolls?
MR. MACLELLAN: To the member's points: as he would know full well, we do have the Macpass option for residents. If they have taken up that offer, it does reduce the toll from $4 to $2. That is one incentive. To the point about the future and moving ahead, year over year this will be an annual decision so it doesn't preclude us from making the prepayment. It goes back to the fiscal health and the decisions that we will make so that's certainly part of it.
With respect to the Act as well, there is a portion there that we can make those alterations to the tolls, just to address operating. As time goes on and we get through this schedule, there is opportunity to look at those things for the Province of Nova Scotia, that's the government of that day. Thank you.
MR. BAILLIE: I appreciate the efforts we've just gone through over the last 10 or 15 minutes to drill down into the details. Obviously for those who use that road every single day to do their daily activities - go to work, go to the grocery store - a toll, whether it's $4 or $3 or $2, it's a big difference when it's part of your everyday life. I think that has been the argument of Cumberland County residents for the last 20 years; they've had a toll right in the middle of their county, unique to them at the time, still today unique to them, if you don't count the bridges. Opportunities to actually make life a little easier for them, particularly if the debt is being paid down and the toll is no longer needed to be at the level that it is to pay that debt, I would hope that the first persons to benefit from that time would be the toll-payers themselves.
I don't believe it was ever intended that the province would be in a net positive position from those tolls. Certainly it was sold to Cumberland County residents 20 years ago as a method of building the road and having the costs recovered through the use of tolls, not as a profit-making exercise. I really encourage the department to look for those opportunities as debt is retired, to give the users a break, particularly the everyday users.
I know in the past there have been calls to let emergency vehicles through without a toll and that has happened, and I think that's a great thing. There have been calls for people who are on dialysis or who have regular and frequent medical appointments, particularly in Halifax and they're on the other side, to give them some kind of a break. That's not administratively easy, but it's worth the effort to see what we can do for them. These are ways that we can actually give a break to people who need it as that debt gets paid down.
I know that the department will be looking at eight other sites. I think we may as well learn the lessons from the Cobequid Pass. It has been a burden particularly placed on the local area and so these things are important for that reason. Mr. Chairman, I don't mean to get into a speech about this but I'm just impressing upon the department, while I have the opportunity: that has been the experience in Cumberland County.
While we're on the subject of toll roads there is a study coming. Only by memory, I'm thinking it was due March 31st. Can the minister give us an update on when the study on the other sites will be completed and the plan for public release?
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, I will get into the specifics of this feasibility study, but I do just want to touch briefly on the member's comments. Look, it's all reasonable and I think that when you talk about a region that has been subject to a toll situation, as those residents have, there are decisions and there are realities to it and I think that that's exactly to the topic we're on now. That's exactly why, when we looked at the toll feasibility and what we have to do here in Nova Scotia with our 100-Series Highway network, it is exactly why we're taking the path and the process that we've embarked on.
If safety is number one and it's a priority, then we have to build better highways. I think that certainly I wouldn't downplay any of the points that the member, and those from his particular region of the province, would feel about tolls. Then there's the argument that Cobequid Pass is a pretty great corridor from an operational perspective from its condition. That becomes the question and that's the question we're posing directly to Nova Scotians.
With the safety studies on Highway No. 101, Highway No. 103, and Highway No. 104, what we've seen loud and clear is that there are short-term and medium-term measures that you can take. They will improve safety, there's no question about it but at the end of the day, if you want to vastly improve the safety - the mobility, sure, but the safety of Nova Scotians as they drive across our roadways - twinning is the answer.
When you look at our capital plan, which if you compare it to our sister provinces, our neighbours in the Atlantic Region, but even per capita across the country, we spent a lot of money on highway infrastructure and it's well spent and it's well invested. It is good money but we spend a lot, and with that being the case, we're literally inching along our 100-Series Highways and we're in a situation where we have to make a decision. That decision becomes: do we have an alternative way to finance those eight corridors? We're going to bring that to Nova Scotians and let them decide.
It is an important conversation and I think it's one that we can have openly and honestly, and when the time comes, I look forward to hearing from all sides of the House as they represent their respective communities.
With regard to the actual question, we do have the engineering portion of the feasibility study completed now. We basically crafted it to be in two sections. The first one is the engineering study which looks at the corridor, how much the project would cost, what the kilometres would be, the terrain, the other considerations of establishing a divided or a twinned highway, and then look at what the overall capital cost would be to our program and where the other funding partners are, et cetera.
The second part which, let's be honest, is the more interesting and provocative part for Nova Scotians and that is the financial modelling. You can do all the polling you want and you can try to glean an understanding of what people think but you can't really get that fulsome understanding, until you know what it's going to cost. For us it's the financial modelling piece that is the key now.
Every indication, every feedback and communication we have with the private sector, the consultant who is doing the study, says that we'll be done by the end of April with that, so that's what we're looking at now. The end of April looks like the timeline, and then for me it's important to get out into the communities. We have about 12 public meetings scheduled, I think, as part of the program - is it 12, Bruce? I will certainly attend every one, if at all possible. We're going to make that possible because it's a big question.
I can say this now for the record here at estimates, in front of all Nova Scotians: we're not sold on an answer; we just want to know what the answer is for Nova Scotians, so that's what we're endeavouring to find out. When we're finished with that study that's exactly what we'll do. Thanks.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The time for the Progressive Conservative caucus has expired. We'll now move to the New Democratic Party caucus.
The honourable member for Queens-Shelburne.
HON. STERLING BELLIVEAU: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. It's certainly a pleasure to participate in the Budget Estimates. First of all I want to thank the minister for his time today in this particular process and I want to welcome his staff. I know there are some in the gallery and some accompanying the minister as we speak.
I just want to point out, Mr. Chairman, that I had the opportunity to appreciate this process of the debates in this Chamber and I want to go on public record as saying this is the best part of our democratic process, where we have an opportunity to address the minister and his staff almost on a one-to-one basis. I really appreciate this opportunity and I think it's something we all should appreciate.
I can also assure the minister that coming from rural Nova Scotia, there are several major files in most rural MLAs' constituencies, and I can assure the minister opposite that TIR is one of those that I can hold onto first-hand. The roads issue, gravel roads, double chip seals, I know that some of the staff maybe find this - probably they can hear me and they know what words I'm going to speak but these are major issues when it comes to rural Nova Scotia. It's an important topic so any time you have the opportunity to speak to the minister and his staff one-on-one, it's really appreciated.
I do believe in being fair and hopefully my comments will reflect that today. I want to point out a few of the capital projects within the constituency of Queens-Shelburne. A couple of those represent new bridges; one is in the very early stages in the Town of Shelburne and the other one, the large bridge in the Milton area, in my observation is close to 90 per cent finished and the capital projects, the completion of Highway No. 103, the phase that's going to hopefully be completed by this upcoming construction season in the Port Mouton area. I drove that corridor and many of us have across Nova Scotia. It's something that's really an improvement for all Nova Scotians as we drive our highways, so I appreciate the efforts there.
In fairness, I said I would try to be fair, but my disappointment I can say is when this government, the very first day the minister sold a paving project that was maintained by the government. To me, watching the budget, my memory serves me correctly in the last couple of years, that has been cut by I believe close to $25 million. Those are some of the concerns I have.
Before I get into my notes - I actually have a habit of making notes during all debates and all questions, and I made an interesting note that the minister said in one of his QP questions. He was participating in yoga classes. I recognized that and I think that the minister is very well prepared for a Budget Estimate so I congratulate the minister in participating in the particular program.
One of the interesting issues in southwest Nova Scotia, and the minister may be able to read my notes from there, he probably can anticipate where I'm going with this next line of questions. If I can just back up several months, there was a federal election, and what I'm alluding to here is the ferry out of Yarmouth. The federal government at the time, back in October, made a public announcement. The federal Liberal plan was to introduce infrastructure for transit, for roads, and every politician agreed. I heard everyone - and I take notes - including the Premier, all sides agreed that Portland to Yarmouth is an international highway. That funding of $20 billion over the next 10 years by the federal government should be eligible, in my line of thought, and I will ask the minister - just trying to set this up for his evaluation on this - the concern that I have is that there was a federal promise and, to me, $20 billion is a considerable amount of money.
We had the MPs from West Nova and South Shore-St. Margaret's publicly acknowledge that they would take this particular campaign promise to their respective federal Cabinet and demand that a portion of that infrastructure money be allocated to the ferry. I have several points - and I agree that there is an international highway; I agree that there should be at least three people at this table to make the financial contributions to this ferry; and I agree that there should be a ferry system, there no question. But I'm asking the question to the minister: where are those voices now from the federal MPs about obtaining this infrastructure money for what I call a very high-price option for only one provincial taxpayer?
Just before I turn it over to the minister for his response on this, the second part of that equation is that - and I heard the minister in his earlier presentation - every ferry system in Atlantic Canada has a federal contribution except one, which is the Yarmouth ferry. I struggle with that. I know the importance of that and why those campaign promises were made, why we know that we have $20 billion in an infrastructure promise and why isn't a portion of that coming to that ferry in Yarmouth? Those are my first lead questions, and I look for your response.
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, I thank the member for the question. Just as a clarity, I did not say that they were federally subsidized, I just said they were subsidized. I didn't make the distinction that there was only one that was not subsidized by the feds. I will tell you, without question, the feds are interested in ferries in general; there is no doubt about that. I will get to our local members and the local requirements in a minute.
Just as a general idea of where the feds are with ferries and certainly as they pertain to Nova Scotia, no question about it, they have allocated specifically $51.4 million for ferry operations. They have a very close working relationship with Bay Ferries, with Mark MacDonald. Obviously, Northumberland is a critical service that we have from Pictou to P.E.I. Marine Atlantic, which is a significant portion of our local economy down in Cape Breton, is really a lifeline in many ways. I think that when you look at Marine Atlantic, you look at Northumberland, Bay Ferries in Digby to Saint John, and now in Yarmouth, there is no question that when you talk about the bigger piece and the bigger aspect, ferries are part of the economic drivers for communities.
We all need them, and every member who is associated with one of these ferry runs that has involvement, the international link with Portland and those federal services as well, they are key economic drivers, and we need them. That is a general comment about where the feds are. I would never suggest, regardless of political stripe, that this current federal government or the previous one, in fairness, had turned their backs on the ferry operations that we have here in Atlantic Canada.
With respect to our new partners, the conversations have been real; they have been happening with respect to the overall New Building Canada Fund and what it means for us. I have met with Mr. Garneau and Mr. Sohi. The conversations about that Nova Scotia ferry and the international link are critical, and it is usually my lead because of the importance of this service and having that Nova Scotia ferry in place is key. I appreciate the fact that the member did acknowledge that it is an important piece of not only the regional economy in southern Nova Scotia but for the entire province.
Thinking back to when I was first elected in 2010, the biggest concern, complaint that Cape Breton Island tourism operators had was the cut of the Yarmouth to Portland ferry. That is a big piece and we know how important that is.
There are a few different aspects and tie-ins between ourselves and the federal government. The terminal is a pressing piece. We are going to have to do some work to the terminal in Yarmouth to get it upgraded, short term. There are considerable upgrades that have to take place, just like the federal government did, made a major investment in Marine Atlantic down in North Sydney last year, a couple of years ago. They will be the same type of request as time goes on. Again, there are a number of options and flexibilities in the actual agreement we have with Bay Ferries and which vessel and the operating model that we have for Yarmouth, but at the end of day, we are committed. That terminal is going to be an important piece of that relationship for the next number of years.
Colin Fraser, the MP for that area, has reached out to me directly. We have had a number of specific conversations about how the federal government can help on that front. They are all important. The federal government has not shied away from that conversation; they have not given any indication that they would not support us. It becomes about what the model is, what the requests are, and as the member so aptly put, this is about the infrastructure of the terminals. Obviously, they have a role to play with Bay Ferries on the Digby to Saint John portion of their relationship.
The federal government, the bureaucracy in Transport Canada, have a very high level of faith and trust and commitment in Mark MacDonald, just recently renewing that relationship for Digby to Saint John. We have the new vessel down there. That is not only a significant sign of the relationship but their concern.
When it comes to the Yarmouth ferry, I'm sure we will get into the details about how important it is and how critical that service has become for the province. To suggest that the feds are not interested, that would not be the case; they are actively engaged. My counterparts at the federal level in Transport and Infrastructure, and of course Minister Brison at the regional level, they get it. They understand that there is going to be a ferry for the long term here for Nova Scotia and we just want to make sure we make key investments and will look for that partnership. I certainly believe that when that time comes our federal partners will be there.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Before we move to a new question from the member for Queens-Shelburne, I wonder if I could ask the member to hold off for a moment, if we could use a moment of your time for a very special introduction.
I would like to ask all members of the House to turn their focus to the Speaker's Gallery this afternoon so that I may introduce a very distinguished guest. Today, one of our newest senators, the Honourable Chantal Petitclerc, graces us with her visit today. Senator Petitclerc from Quebec has won several gold medals at the Paralympic Games, Olympic Games, and Commonwealth Games. Her visit to Halifax is in connection with her role as Canada's Chef de Mission for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games and continues to be a champion of the rights of persons with disabilities. I would ask all members of the House to join me in welcoming Senator Petitclerc to Nova Scotia. (Applause)
The honourable member for Queens-Shelburne has the floor.
MR. BELLIVEAU: Mr. Chairman, I too welcome our guests in the gallery.
Getting back to the ferry in Yarmouth, there is a very important second component of this particular ferry and the analogy that was done to present or have a high-speed catamaran in Yarmouth. One of those that really doesn't have enough time spent on it, and I appreciate where we're at today right now to do this, is the component of recognizing the need for commercial traffic.
I raised this question at the Public Accounts Committee. We also have a ferry in Digby and I want to recognize that. I recognize it because the commercial ferry traffic, the trucking traffic, is roughly 30 per cent less than the original old workhorse, the Princess of Acadia. That needs to be recognized, Mr. Chairman.
I actually asked this same question to one of the ministers' executives, and I won't name the individual but I can assure them, Mr. Chairman, this executive appreciates and loves hockey so I'll let the minister figure that out.
I ask this question to the executive of the minister and the response I got about the truck traffic was something to this effect: he simply held up a map of the lobster districts across Atlantic Canada, which is roughly 41. The point I think he was trying to make with that particular map of the 41 lobster districts is when this catamaran is in service, roughly from the middle of June to September, our lobster seasons are not in progress.
My question through you, Mr. Chairman, to the minister is, do you share that same thought process and was this part of the analysis that determined that The Cat was the right ferry and excluded truck traffic at this particular time?
MR. MACLELLAN: To the member, with absolute honesty, I didn't have any specific conversations about that particular issue, about seasonality of the lobster export in that sense. I know what the member is referring to. That wasn't really part of the discussions and that doesn't discredit or support the logic either. The member, having a depth of experience in the fisheries, could probably articulate on what that exactly means in terms of the lobster season specifically and how the export schedule would be impacted.
With respect to the trucks, this is one of those issues that has taken flight around the Nova Scotia ferry conversation. From our perspective there are a couple of points that have to be raised. First and foremost, there could be a trucking organization or particular truckers out there listening to this and it may not be where they're at but I can tell you that from the feedback I've had from the truck industry, from friends who are connected to the export of aquaculture and seafood, it was never about the Yarmouth to Portland service having the ability to take trucks. It wasn't specifically about that.
I mean if you look at the trajectories of the Nova Scotia ferry since it was cut in 2009, we've had four years where it didn't exist and then two years under the previous operator. Obviously it wasn't part of that complement for the four years that the service wasn't in place.
Really the focus I've heard and I've understood is that the issues that some specific truckers have is related to the capacity at Digby to Saint John. In my humble opinion that's a very different conversation than - there's a problem that the Nova Scotia ferry doesn't take trucks to Maine. That problem is with capacity on that current run that has existed for a number of years, even when the Nova Scotia to Maine service was dormant, for those four very tough years. That is a question that I can ask and a conversation I can have and a strategy and the consultation that we can do between ourselves at the provincial government, Minister Marc Garneau in Ottawa, who I have spoken with at great length about this particular issue because of that connection with Bay Ferries and the Fundy Rose, and of course with Mark MacDonald and Bay Ferries.
If there are issues of capacity, if this becomes about scheduling during a particular point in the season or across the board or what exactly the issues are, I would be more than happy to try to help on those. Whether there is a trucking organization in the industry, individual members who feel that they require that Nova Scotia service that leaves Yarmouth or it is about Digby to Saint John, I would be happy to have those discussions. There have been a couple of individual members who had contacted me about this particular situation but I had not heard from industry on the whole.
The Minister of Agriculture and Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture had said that the issue was more about the capacity. That is something I have heard in other places. Our staff had gotten that as well. That is the bigger piece. So back to the member, if he would help on this one. If there are members of the trucking industry obviously connected to the seafood industry, this is about capacity with Digby to Saint John and that is a fight we can have, so to speak, and a battle that we can help with. Mark MacDonald has been overly accommodating with respect to these conversations and breaking down some of the specifics. That is something that we can work with Mark and with our federal partners who obviously fund the Digby to Saint John run.
That is one part of it but I would be remiss if I did not mention the aspects in Portland. Portland has terminal issues, there is no question about that, with respect to the port that is smack dab in the middle of the city. They made that policy decision that they would not be receiving trucks because of the congestion. I have been there; it is a very congested, tough-to-navigate downtown core because of the level of traffic that is down there particularly in the summer months. It is a tough thing to manage down there for the officials not only at the terminal level, but in the downtown core. So that is one consideration.
To be very clear, this was not about the high-speed service. It wasn't about whether or not the service that was the Nova Scotia ferry coming to Maine would be able to carry trucks, because my understanding is that technically speaking the new Cat can provide the provision of taking trucks. That is not the issue; the issue is with Portland in that perspective.
Secondly, as you can imagine with Homeland Security and U.S. customs, there is a broad level of concern from the U.S. side about how they would manage those vehicles as they came off the ferry service. There was an issue of capacity and pressure and challenges with U.S. customs and with Homeland Security, coupled with the fact that the City of Portland was simply just trying to phase out trucks that were coming in the downtown core. They made that same overture to Nova Star as well. Regardless of what the service looked like this year, they would not be receiving trucks from Nova Scotia vis-à-vis that particular ferry service.
That is where we are with the truck traffic and how it impacts the overall economy of southern Nova Scotia and indeed the province. I would be more than happy, in fact, I would welcome and encourage those conversations with our truckers here in Nova Scotia, because if there is a way we can create some kind of solution as it relates to Bay Ferries and the Digby to Saint John run, then obviously I would love to participate and hope to find them answers that will support their business. As we know, the value of our seafood industry, the member knows full well, and of course naturally our exports to our largest trading partner and a very lucrative market in the northeastern United States, which is exactly the reason to have the Nova Scotia ferry in the first place.
MR. BELLIVEAU: Mr. Chairman, I think this is a crucial time here and a point that we are trying to address.
First of all, I want to recognize I have not been in Portland for a few years but I want to go on record: the last time I was there I visited the Portland Fish Exchange so I am very familiar with knowing that fish trucks accompany that particular city. I am actually shocked and amazed at these statements that are coming from that particular port. I know that we have a limited amount of time here, but I want to emphasize, before we move on, about the commercial traffic.
I make reference to the senior executive who held up that particular map of the lobster districts and gave the impression that there were no concerns for commercial trucking about getting our fish exports out of southwest Nova Scotia, particularly lobsters, because the season was closed from June, or June 15th on. This was actually a light-bulb moment because I want to publicly inform the minister that in the last two decades the evolution of the holding facilities across Nova Scotia, particularly in southwest Nova Scotia, can literally have lobsters year-round.
Now, I also want to point out that there is the record landing of lobsters and other fish products, but particularly lobsters, historical landings in the last decade, especially the last five years, last two years. When you see the Digby ferry go down here two weeks ago for one week, you know that those truckers have to go around and usually, if they are going to make the New York run, they may have to have two drivers. I am not qualified to talk about that but I understand when they're driving over 11 or 12 hours, they need two people in that cab to do that.
When they talk about having some capacity on that particular ferry, it gets my attention. I really believe if the analysis was done to say that we do not need that commercial component of a ferry in Yarmouth, because our lobster season is closed, totally missed the point. This is why this is our job here today to address that. I hope the minister takes that into consideration and has some of this consultation with the commercial truck drivers to understand that these holding facilities literally have lobsters year-round and there is great demand for this particular commercial ferry option. Just before I move on, I will ask the minister if he wants to comment on that point.
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, I thank the member. That was never a part of the analysis. Not to suggest that I would discredit or confirm what the deputy minister had said to the member opposite with regard to the trucking, as I suggested, the nature of the complaints and the concerns that I'm getting are about that capacity and what we could do to improve it. It seems to be the focus of the improvements in that capacity is around the Christmas and winter season but, again, that does not discredit what the member is stating about the holding facilities and freeze facilities and our ability to maintain and protect the health and the integrity of that product, which is so important and so invaluable to the export levels and the trade that we do with our very important and largest trading partner.
I would reiterate that these are fundamentally the points that the member is making and what I hope is the focus of this discussion, which is about that absolute value and the importance of the Nova Scotia ferry for our entire province. That is one example of how being established with our trading partner, in any event, for tourism, for that economic link is critical. That is the value of the ferry. I am so relieved and happy to hear that the member sees the value in re-establishing that service; that means a lot. When you get inside this bubble and you take some of the criticisms that have arisen, and they happen on most files, but the fact that the former government and the member of Cabinet would suggest that there is a key piece of economic activity and economic foundation for the southwest and the entire province and that is the Nova Scotia ferry.
To hear - and honestly, this isn't a point that I'm trying to make - to hear Darrell Dexter talk about the Yarmouth ferry and to see his analysis on it and what he saw for the years after they decided to make that cut and how he explained the impact on the region, on the people, on the confidence of businesses in the private sector down there is important. I will reiterate this many times over my estimates, I am sure: when I look back to my experience coming here in 2010, the number one issue, the thing that we heard of the most from all the House and the collective debate that happened, was the devastation of the southwestern Nova Scotia economy and southern Nova Scotia, and again the impact from the entire province when that Nova Scotia link was cut.
My friend and colleague, the MLA for Yarmouth, made that point every chance he had and every debate that we took our place here and participated in over the three years that we were in Opposition. The member for Argyle-Barrington also came with case after case, story after story, of how decimated the economy was.
When we get into things like what's the economic analysis, ask around, would be my response to that. There would be countless numbers of people: entrepreneurs, small businesses from restaurants to hotels, tourism operators, every commodity, the craft stores, antique shops, all of the different components of what makes a rural economy so great and so vibrant was impacted.
The fact that we are having this discussion and the fact that the member opposite is asking specific questions about the service and about its viability, it matters. I think when you get through the debate about the negotiating prowess of the particular government and realize that fundamentally, for the people of Yarmouth and the people of Nova Scotia, we all support the Nova Scotia ferry. It's good to have this level of debate and as long as we are united in the fact that that region and this province needs this service, that's the main take-away.
I'll stand here and we'll talk about the different components, from the trucking industry, to the vessel, to the model, to the long-term agreement, to the two years that we have to really renew the relationship with Mark MacDonald and Bay Ferries - we'll have all those discussions. I really welcome this opportunity, outside of media scrums and Question Period and social media, to have real debate about the Yarmouth ferry, because at the end of the day, not only every person in this House, every person in this province who understands what happened when the service was removed, is supportive of having that service back.
It's our job to get that agreement right, that relationship, that service, have that market performance come back and that's really what our focus is now. It's great to have conversation and dialogue about the aspects of the Nova Scotia ferry. It's a great thing for this province and really it signals that all MLAs of all stripes haven't given up on a region and will support an economic tool that's so very important to their existence, their survival, and certainly their growth.
MR. BELLIVEAU: Mr. Chairman, I do have to move on and I reluctantly move on to some other questions. I want to take the question in a different line here now, to talk about the previous vessel, the Nova Star, basically going through some bankruptcy procedures as we speak.
I know I've raised these questions about the piper being paid and there are a number of these creditors left holding the bag. I also took note, I observed the Premier suggesting that he is willing to meet with these individuals, and what I heard was the promise of a meeting. I have written down here May 4th. Now I was hoping the Minister of TIR could explain to these creditors, is there a meeting scheduled with the Premier to go over what is left owing to these creditors? Can you update us or give some insight in that direction?
MR. MACLELLAN: Thanks to the member opposite. First and foremost, again I appreciate the member's approach with this particular question. There's no one in this House, there's no side of this Chamber, government or Opposition, that has a monopoly on caring about small businesses in the province. When you hear the story about Nova Star's bankruptcy and the creditors who were impacted, everyone feels that. When you look at a small business and the member, in jest, made resolutions about paying the piper and that organization that was impacted was part of the media story, part of that creditor list, it's not an easy thing.
We don't want to see any Nova Scotia business lose money in any event but when it becomes a bankruptcy situation regarding an operation of this magnitude and this importance for the province, certainly we are concerned about it. At the end of the day, they have a meeting set up with the creditors, I think it's May 4th, so they'll go through some of the options.
I was here as well. I heard what the Premier said. We haven't had any contact at this point and, in absolute fairness, what I know about the situation with the creditors, with the amounts, what happened on the Canadian side, on the U.S. side, I truly read through the media. I haven't had anything specifically that would suggest there is an established group that is coming to talk to us but, again, based on my opening comments about this particular subject, we'd be happy to sit down. The Premier made that commitment, I'll do it with him, or separately or on a number of occasions, if that's the case. At the end of the day, this signifies something and I do appreciate the member giving me this opportunity.
The Nova Star operation and the vessel didn't work, and it didn't fit. The fact that we had this relationship, we fulfilled our obligations for two years; clearly, we were heading in the wrong direction. We have these discussions about the numbers and the commitment we have made to Mark MacDonald and Bay Ferries, which are very, very public, but when you look at what the numbers would have been - forget about getting through the 2016 operating season - just to get here, the many millions of dollars that would have been required to keep Nova Star in place. We had that indication; the numbers, the data, the communications with that former operator made it very clear that they were not the partner for us and the operator that we needed for long-term stability for the Nova Scotia ferry service.
At the end of the day, in good faith, we made those payments. In good faith, we had meetings about their market performance. At one time it was suggested to me directly that that service would eclipse 100,000 passengers last year. We know what the true numbers are, but it signifies the direction that we thought we were in that clearly did not materialize.
When we severed the relationship with Nova Star, the statements were very public that they would honour and fulfill their obligations to creditors, to accounts owing. That was something that they had said they would do and clearly, with this information becoming public, that is not the case. We are obviously concerned. These are Nova Scotia companies, people, families, businesses, and entrepreneurs that have been impacted by this.
The private sector gets in the relationships and coexists with each other and makes agreements such as this. Just like our highway projects, our infrastructure projects, we have a relationship with a contractor; they pay subcontractors and that is the way the world works in terms of projects and development and how we invest tax dollars. Obviously, we are very disappointed in this. This signals the reason why we have moved on to such a reputable, experienced, committed operator like Bay Ferries and Mark MacDonald at the helm. That is where we are, but with respect to those creditors, we will see what the result is from that May 4th meeting. I'm sure that there will be some feedback provided to you as well as to other members of this House. I will react at that time. I am part of the Premier's commitment as well, and we are always willing to listen to Nova Scotians and let them provide their opportunity to share their stories with us and ask what happens next.
MR. BELLIVEAU: I can assure you that time goes fast in this particular process so I have to move on and I'm going to shift gears. One of the arguments that I used with my caucus colleagues is that the South Shore and the Tri-Counties are in the banana belt of the Atlantic Provinces, and I use that phrase many times. Regarding that theme, I know that the minister may have answered this question, the truckers or the contractors are asking about Spring weight restrictions. I also want to have that theme about the banana belt. I know that a lot of roads can be graded if the conditions are right. What I am suggesting is that I truly believe that we are living in the banana belt of the Atlantic Provinces, and there are opportunities to have a grading system, probably months ahead of other regions, especially across Nova Scotia.
My first question is about the weight restrictions. Is there a possibility of them coming off earlier in southwest Nova Scotia and, in particular, is there some way of looking at grading gravel roads much earlier, if the conditions are appropriate? I ask for the minister's comments.
MR. MACLELLAN: The official date for the Spring weight restrictions, as the member would probably know, is May 9th. In any opportunity in the thaw season, we would hope that we can get earlier and get those restrictions off. It does impact businesses; it impacts the economic flow of particular areas and what we hear from every region of this province, when weight restrictions become challenging, but the reality is they are in place for a reason, and I do not have to belabour that point. These roads get soft and they take a significant beating during the Spring thaw months. We have to do our best to protect them.
As it looks now, given the weather forecast, given the state of some of our roads that are subject to the weight restrictions, there is an opportunity for us to draw that date back earlier, and look, if we could do it tomorrow, we would for sure. We understand the impact and the pressures that get put on people, travellers, everyday residents to businesses and how they're affected by the Spring weight restrictions. We almost take it case by case, and believe it or not, different environment, different climate, allows for earlier consideration of things like grading on these roads in different regions of the province.
There are extreme cases, and I'm positive I heard an extreme case of road conditions from each region of the province over the last couple of weeks where we've had the opportunity to get some of our larger equipment in to do some grading, to do some cleanup work to the extent possible.
For whatever reason, given the fact that we had a mild winter, we would hope for a mild impact of the thaw and the weight restrictions, but that really hasn't been the case. It has actually been a very tricky year and very trying for some areas and certainly for some roads in particular. We do take those on a case by case. We look at emergency situations, which ones can be worked on to be deemed passable. Like everything else, a lot of our play is reactive when we hear from bases, when we heard from local depots, our representatives on the ground and TIR, through MLAs, through community stakeholders and residents who call, we try to do our very best to get there. So that has been the philosophy.
There is opportunity to do some grading on some particular roads in particular circumstances so that really is case by case. The answer is yes, of course, Spring weight restrictions will come off as early as possible. The target date, the set date is May 9th but we would love to do it long before then, if we can.
MR. BELLIVEAU: I appreciate the answer. I don't know if I established that the South Shore is the banana belt of the Atlantic Provinces but I definitely tried.
Mr. Chairman, armour stone, I can assure you that we have an abundance of it. It is in relatively good supply and it's a cheap option for protecting our highways. I'm talking about erosion from the sea now and I'm also making reference to the town called Lockeport that has trouble with the seawall there and the causeway adjoining that town. To me, there is something we need to take seriously because of our climate, our warming waters.
There are a number of locations that I frequently drive that probably need to be shored up or protected with armour stone. I'll use Lockeport as an example. There has been some work in the past on this particular causeway to put armour stone in there but it's never quite enough to do a reasonable job. I'm asking the minister, because the sea level rises and this issue is not going to go away, is there something that your department is actively looking at and can you comment on that particular topic?
MR. MACLELLAN: It is on the radar screen, particularly at the national conferences and gatherings that we have as Transportation Departments and representing our respective provinces.
I know the member in his time in Cabinet would have participated in some of those as well for his portfolios. For us there is no question about it, there is an impact on climate change. Look at the corridor with the aboiteau between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, the fact that it is real and sea levels are happening. I'll digress from getting too far down the road but with the impact of climate change, fossil fuels and all the things we can do as a developed society and developed nations to impact that is significant.
We do, as a rule of practice for the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, anything impacted by sea levels and close to the waterways we have, and obviously the coastlines, we do build into some of the projects when the capital work design is taking place, some of the mitigation considerations for the impact of that sea level. When we're working in those areas, when you're talking about roadbeds, corridors that are along the ocean or near waterways, then armour stone and other protections that we could provide there, those preventive measures, we would do that to the extent possible. Without question, it is part of the conversation.
Hopefully, we will do something collectively, as developed nations and the entire planet, to really curb what we are doing with respect to the impact on climate change. For us at Transportation, we do have to develop and build some of that capacity and some of that investment into the infrastructure projects that we manage that are impacted by the sea levels and by the erosion from water.
MR. BELLIVEAU: Well, thank you. Before I move on to another topic, I think more of a general provincial example of the use of armour stone would be the Tantramar Marshes. That corridor is crucial to the traffic flow and the railroad systems corridor connecting Nova Scotia to New Brunswick. I want to just make sure we have it on record.
As I move on to another topic, I want to recognize the work that the minister has done with regard to the MV Miner. I congratulate the minister for that and I recognize that was in a very sensitive, protective area of Scatarie Island. I can tell you my family had fished there, very familiar with that and a quick little story. When I called my 83-year-old uncle he said to me on the very first day he knew the ledge around there and was familiar with that ocean setting. He suggested that if that vessel did not come off within 24 hours, it would not be coming off. The only way it came off was with a cutting torch. So credit to your local knowledge. I do compliment the minister for addressing that issue.
There is only one condition, I said I would be fair - fair comment - I congratulate you, but I do have an issue with the funding. I know the minister suggested that he would be going after federal funding to be reimbursed. I agree that that is a federal responsibility. My question is, there are a number of derelict vessels right across Nova Scotia. I can point one out in the Town of Shelburne. It sunk; it has had a fire in the most recent weeks, and yet it is still at the wharf. I don't have to go very far to know that there are several in Bridgewater. It is not an issue that is going to go away in Nova Scotia. In fact, there are something like 400 of these derelict vessels across Canada.
This is a serious national issue, and I appreciate the work that was done on Scatarie Island, but I can assure you that there are other sensitive areas in all coastal communities that have these derelict vessels. My question is, what work is the minister doing with his federal counterpart to address this very serious national issue?
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, I thank the member opposite for drawing attention to the MV Miner and the larger issue of derelict vessels here on our coastline. There is no doubt about it that when we became involved in the MV Miner story back in 2011, it had to go. So your uncle is very astute to the region and the climate and the conditions out there off the shelf off Scatarie Island. It had to be removed with respect to the impact not only on that natural wilderness, which is a protected area, but also the impact on the fisheries.
It was amazing; my first time out there was during lobster season at the end of May and the vessel was completely surrounded by buoys. You can imagine the economic stimulation that happens because of the location of Scatarie Island, how it impacts the lobster settlement; the migration is significant, no doubt about it. It's too bad that individuals, anyone who would be either neutral or against that type of decision to remove that vessel, I wish they had had the opportunity to see it because the majesty of Scatarie Island, just off the coast of Main-à-Dieu, and to see this significant area that should be protected, rightly so, impacted by such a derelict, honking, ugly, deteriorating vessel really was a shame.
I think we owe it to our citizens here in the province and in the country to address these things as they impact our natural environment, our way of life, our economic ability to generate our income, so it's significant. I was happy to be part of that and we made the right decision.
With respect to the larger picture, this was probably the most alarming, shocking part of that process for me. I had many conversations with the previous government about this and it led up to a process that was a review of the Canada Transportation Act.
I could not believe, could not fathom that an international group could form a shell company, their only contract, so to speak, was to take a vessel from North America over to a scrap yard in Turkey and their only real responsibility to get paid for that was to get rid of the ship from the home port. The stories about these tugging operations, cutting the lines loose in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and sinking these vessels, I'm sure there's some truth to those. It's mindboggling that in an endeavour of that size, in a process and an activity of that danger and of that importance, particularly when there are contaminants on a vessel, like asbestos, like diesel, like all these things that could really destroy an ecosystem, could be pulled across, have this type of thing happen where the two lines break - not anticipating that a tow line on the MV Miner would split in the Fall season in the Atlantic Ocean, it's pretty remarkable that that wouldn't be considered into the planning.
The fact that this happened in the first place, it landed there, and there was no obligation, no insurance, no requirement, nobody held responsible, to me was a serious gap in the Canada shipping laws. It wouldn't have mattered to me at the time who was in government, from a political perspective, that is absolutely asinine. From our perspective, one of our big plays of the Canada Shipping Act process, the review, was to make that very point. Once the vessel gets there it's a problem in itself, but prior to that, someone has to be responsible.
I think that some of the derelict vessels that the member would be familiar with were part of that same process. There was some measure of responsibility for someone to scrap those vessels. They end up at a port like Shelburne or Bridgewater, and then they don't go anywhere and it's an absolute disaster.
I truly hope with the CTA review that Minister Garneau will take a good look at those things. The Pacific coast is peppered with them. There are obviously some along the north coast in some spots, and of course for us on the East Coast, there's a significant amount of these vessels and we're seeing them play a negative role and have a negative impact on our own communities here in Nova Scotia. So it is a serious challenge. It's one that should be taken seriously not only in the preventive measures vis-à-vis the Canada shipping laws, having that insurance, having that protection for Canadian taxpayers.
Also, my understanding is that the feds have been looking at a fund to do some of this cleanup. They do have a system, a process now that removes the oils, the heavy liquids and the things that would be on there normally in the operation of a vessel but again, using the MV Miner as an example, it was a tough impact on a community and I think anyone who is hit with one of these eyesores is really a travesty and I think from the legislative side we have to do better. When these things land, we've got to do our very best to find the financial resources to get them cleaned up.
MR. BELLIVEAU: Thank you, I know with the absence of time here we're moving fast. I want to talk about gravel roads and I'm going to name three. One in particular is the Clyde Road, most locals call it the Ohio Road, that's the eastern portion of the Clyde Road in Shelburne. I think it is a good candidate to have double chip seal. I know this has never been identified in the five-year plan, yet this road is difficult to maintain because of the sand base. I can assure you, with the previous government, the western portion of that was done in the Clyde River area. I can tell you one of the highest paid compliments that an MLA can have is in addressing the needs of that. What I'm trying to say is that the eastern portion of that needs to be addressed.
Also there is the Shore Road in the Gunning Cove Ingomar area and basically there are eight or nine kilometres that haven't been fulfilled. That particular road is called the Shore Road, 28 kilometres long and there has been a portion of those roads done in the last five or six years, except the last two. There is a gap. The Labelle Road in the Caledonia area - these are all a number of roads that have a long distance of gravel. I said earlier in my presentation, this is something that we get called on, on a monthly basis and I am bringing those roads to your attention in almost a Reader's Digest version because we do not have the time to spend on them that I wish. There are three roads and there is no appearance that they are in this five-year plan. I would like to have a brief overview of the possibility of addressing the needs of the residents that live on these roads.
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, I thank the member opposite for some of those specific requests. We do have the Sandy Point Road on the capital plan for this year. I am sure the member is aware of that. Looking at the member's list and the significant investment being made in his area, I think is a testament to two things: number one, there are no politics involved in this; we are just trying to do the best work for all Nova Scotians and this isn't about particular areas. The member has received some specific projects at the same time, also the fact that he brings a number of local roads that he wants considered is an indication that there is that deficit and there is a lot of work that we do and we do our very best, with the significant capital plan we have, but we cannot get to them all.
With respect to the Upper Clyde Road, Ohio East, Mr. Fitzner says we can look at a chip-seal assessment to see if that is something we can do, so that's one. Obviously, the member would know, he has brought this in the form of a debate on a number of occasions in the House, we do only publish the local roads year over year. That is why I mentioned the Sandy Point Road by way of one of the pavement preservation projects that we have for his particular area for this capital plan. We will continue to look at the local roads. We do have the list specifically of what the member mentioned. We have to do those assessments and then it goes year over year.
I think that one of the back and forths that the member and I have had over the last couple of years was how those local roads are treated, and I think we have always had a different perspective. That member would like to see a five-year local road plan. I am of a different mindset. Because of the nature of local roads and how the impact and the priority and the treatments of these roads change over time, I think that there is some value in having an annual opportunity to revisit that list and look at them again on an individual basis, just like we would with the local roads that the member just mentioned. So that is certainly part of the plan.
The member mentioned sand seal roads. That is something that we do not have in Cape Breton whatsoever. I have learned a lot from the member for Kings South, the member for Lunenburg West, and of course the member here for Queens-Shelburne about the impact. The Minister of Health and Wellness has the most. There you go, back to my earlier comments, everyone gives me a dirty look once in a while, members, not just the Opposition side of the House. That is the nature of the business. It is an annual fight to get some of those local roads included because of that limited fiscal purse, but we do our very best. I know that the member does have a good working relationship with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal officials on the ground and the communities that he represents. We certainly encourage him to continue to have those conversations and set out his priorities and work with the staff at establishing those into our overall system.
MR. BELLIVEAU: Mr. Chairman, quickly, one of the conditions of our roads that does not get much recognition in this particular House, and I think it is certainly a safety issue, is bush clearing along our corridors or highways, particularly Highway No. 103 and the 100-Series Highways, and the secondary highways. These are safety issues because of animals frequently on the highway and it is certainly brought to my attention.
I am going to give the minister, because of my time here, an opportunity. I can go into great depth, but the bush clearing or the chipping, especially on the 100-Series Highways and on the secondary roads, is a safety issue. Can you tell us the tendering process and if this work is going to be done on an increase or has it decreased in this year's budget?
MR. MACLELLAN: Thanks to the member. Brush cutting is one of those issues that in the large scale of over $400 million we spend as a department, seems like a small thing but when you look at the impact and the overall importance of things like brush cutting, grading, dust control, some of the work in the ditching and the culverts, they are a difference-maker for those of us in Nova Scotia who live in rural areas on rural roads. The impact is felt.
Because obviously we put a lot of emphasis on the actual roadbed itself, doing that gravel work, doing that grading work, sometimes there is a reactive component to the brush cutting and we get those local calls and our folks spring into action at TIR, as best they can, to try to address some of the concerns of brush cutting.
With respect to where the level is of funding, there is an increase in that particular budget line item this year. But again, to suggest that because there's an increase means that there's plenty of money, wouldn't be accurate. There's always more we can do and that's why we have to do our very best to prioritize those types of decisions. Again, they're the best example of something that's made on a very local level and really it's in consultation with stakeholders, with our staff on the ground who will go out and do those things as they crop up. It's really a daily-basis set of decisions.
MR. CHAIRMAN: That concludes the allotted time for questions from the NDP. I'm wondering if this would be an appropriate time, would the minister and his staff like to take a short break, or would you like to continue?
We will now recess for two minutes.
[5:47 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[5:53 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: I call the committee back to order. We will now proceed with questions from the Progressive Conservative caucus.
The honourable Leader of the Official Opposition.
HON. JAMIE BAILLIE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I know we are back for our second go around here. It seems to me when we last were speaking, we were talking about toll roads, or starting to, and the Cobequid Pass as the current example. I don't want to leave the Cobequid Pass totally just yet because of the example it sets for all of us.
I know there is a study outstanding on other toll-road possibilities. I just want to ask the minister if that study had any parameters around it such as that the intent of any toll road, if it happens, is a cost recovery and not actually a profit for the Government of Nova Scotia.
MR. MACLELLAN: Yes, that is the case with respect to how we would do that model. The financial model becomes important but it is on a cost-recovery basis.
MR. BAILLIE: Mr. Chairman, I'm glad to hear that. I think one of the only ways Nova Scotians would entertain that method of financing would be if that was the constraint. We will see what the study says, of course, when it comes out. I appreciate that answer.
In the case of the Cobequid Pass, when it was put in place, residents were told that they would have an alternative route, which is now known as Trunk 4, the old highway, which passes basically through the Wentworth Valley. The level of maintenance on that road has become an issue, so has the speed limit. I just want to ask the minister if he can confirm that the speed limit on the old Trunk 4 through the Wentworth Valley is set artificially low by agreement with the Highway 104 Western Alignment Corporation.
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, thanks to the member. That is, in fact, the case. I believe it is 80 kilometres an hour, and lower in some cases. That's part of the agreement as well and that trucks would be prohibited from using that Trunk 4. That is the case, yes.
MR. BAILLIE: Mr. Chairman, I know we would all be in favour of safety on any of our roads including Trunk 4 and that speed limits are set with transportation safety in mind. In this case, it appears we have an artificially low speed limit by agreement with the corporation, instead of being set based on the standards of safety that we use for determining speed limits. I am wondering if at this point, now that we are 20 years in, whether the province has the ability to do a speed study to determine what the safe rate of speed is, even if it is higher than the agreed-upon rate; if so, does the province now have the ability to reset the speed limits to what they would naturally be?
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Fitzner suggests that it could have been 90 back prior to the 80, possibly, and 100 in some areas. That is the case; it is set at that level. We would have to do a little bit of work on the agreement to find out if that is the case. For us, sometimes at the request of the department, sometimes of residents in many areas across the province, even since my tenure began here at the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, we would do those speed studies. We can check into the agreement and see what that is. An honest assumption is that is part of the agreement until the agreement has been satisfied, but we can certainly do that background check.
MR. BAILLIE: Mr. Chairman, I appreciate that. I can just tell the minister and his staff, this is an issue with local residents where in some places along Trunk 4 there are passing lanes; there are good sections of the highway, nice and wide with easy visibility that would more naturally attract a 90- or 100-kilometre speed limit. I suppose that when the contract with Highway 104 Western Alignment Corporation was initially signed 20 years ago that there was in interest in encouraging people to give a try to the toll road, but there's 20 years of experience now there. I think there is an opportunity to actually do this, to see whether even the corporation, itself, has a concern anymore about resetting the speed limits on the alternate route.
I think by this point people that want to take the toll road are going to take it and the people that want to take the secondary road are going to take it. In that case we should set the limits back. I just want to confirm this. Will the department approach the corporation about its interest or ability to reset those speed limits; if so, will it then do the speed study and act accordingly?
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, that is very reasonable. We can do that for sure. We will have to abide by the agreement but if there is, to the member's point about the corporation not being particularly committed to that, then we can take a look at it and see what is there. If that warranted a speed study down the road, then, by all means - so we will definitely check into that.
MR. BAILLIE: Mr. Chairman, I know that together we are giving a little encouragement to the people of the area that they might get home safely but a little quicker at night and get to work the same way in the morning; I appreciate that. I want to expand that now to the study that is going on for the whole province. The minister confirmed a few minutes ago that one of the . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. I would like to ask members if they could try to keep the chatter down a bit here. I know that one conversation does not sound very loud, but when a number come on top of it, it elevates to the point that it begins to disrupt - order, please - it begins to disrupt the proceedings.
The honourable Leader of the Official Opposition has the floor.
MR. BAILLIE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I was saying I want to take the same concept now and ask whether, just like the limit on profit making for the province versus cost control, in the upcoming study are there constraints on the availability of alternate routes - or let me put it another way. Will alternate routes be provided in all of those instances as well; if so, is there a policy around entry into agreements that might change the speed limits?
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, thanks to the member opposite for the question. We are still in that process, looking at the main corridors for these eight particular sections and the alternate routes. That is going to be a significant part of those conversations and that is why it is important for all of us, as elected officials, the different levels of government and the elected individuals in each particular area, and the public, to come out and get behind what they see as the best way forward, one way or the other. I think the Leader of the Official Opposition highlights this as one of those concerns.
When we have everything final with respect to the corridor, how the traffic flow is and what that soothing becomes, how that impacts the other areas, the alternate routes in places where that is possible, will be a significant part of that discussion. That is why it is so important for us, even just with the feasibility study, itself, to get that right, to have the information accurate and reliable, so that when we do the public meetings in respective areas of the province, we can give people the exact picture of what it will mean for them, just like I'm sure happened in his region when the Cobequid Pass discussions were taking place.
I wasn't around then; I don't know what the details were, but I know that our endeavour here is to get to the bottom of what people truly think we should do. The cost is a huge part of that. How people get home, the impact on local traffic versus that regional traffic really is the discussion. When you look at it as a whole, you look at it from a provincial and regional perspective, but when you get down to the Barney's River fire hall, it means something different for the people in that particular area.
I think the information that the member is talking about has to be part of that and I think that when you establish the agreements, in whatever form they could look like, should Nova Scotians give it the thumbs up, there will be a lot of consideration to those details. It seems like it is a simple thing. You build the highway; you put up a toll, but there are many implications for all of us. People who live in particular areas are impacted more so. That is an important point and that will all be part of the discussions and those factors as we get first the engineering piece finalized, and then that financial modelling as well.
MR. BAILLIE: I heard the minister say that he is sure these were the kind of discussions that happened 20 years ago with the Cobequid Pass. I know he was not around then, neither was I, but I just want to inform him that actually nothing of the kind happened 20 years ago. It was a Liberal Government then. There was no discussion with the people of Cumberland County. They were not involved in the decision to put a toll road in the middle of Cumberland. I would argue it was done exactly the wrong way then. No one here needs to feel the burden of blame for that, but it is an unfortunate reminder of how these things can go wrong, when it is imposed on an area against their wishes and, in fact, they were loud in their protests about this.
I just want the minister to know that it was not a great example of how to go about consulting because they were not consulted and, as a result, there have been a lot of hard feelings ever since. I think that is fair to say even though the drivership is pretty high, I think, now on that pass and the minister described it as a great corridor. I think most people would agree, if there has to be one that is a good corridor for it. It is probably one of the most travelled roads of the province because it is a major entry point to Nova Scotia. It has the volumes that mean the toll can be less than it would have to be on a low-volume road, for sure, including trucking, although I am not sure that is actually the route that was originally designed for the Cobequid Pass - but that is all history. It is important to learn from it. That is why we want to explore this today, when we have such a big examination of new toll roads coming up. I will not dwell on that.
One last thing though, the other unique part of Cumberland County is that it is on the border with New Brunswick and I'm sure, as the minister knows, there was a great deal of concern raised very quickly in Cumberland County, when the Government of New Brunswick publicly floated the idea that they might put a toll near the border with Nova Scotia.
I want to paraphrase the Premier's response to that which was: that's a decision of the Government of New Brunswick. That did not really sit well with people in Cumberland who would essentially have a toll on both ends of the county. Whether they're going to Moncton to the hospital or for work, which many people do, or to Truro, they would have to pay either way. That's an unfair burden, I would suggest, for the people of Cumberland County to pay.
Before I move on I just want to ask, is it still the position of the Government of Nova Scotia that if New Brunswick looks at a toll on the border that that's a decision of the Government of New Brunswick?
MR. MACLELLAN: The answer is yes, fundamentally it is, just like the decisions we'll make on our highway, Cobequid Pass and other corridors will impact other provinces, when people come from outside Nova Scotia into our beautiful province.
Having said that, simply put, that is a government decision. How the Premier and the Cabinet and the Government of New Brunswick made that decision, it was theirs to make. There's no doubt about it, we wouldn't be desensitized to the impact it would have for the region that the member is part of that representation.
We certainly watch closely, but at the end of the day that was their call to make and they made the one that was in the best interests for their province, as it related to their highway transportation, their infrastructure, and their overall budget. So that was their call. Again, we'll enjoy the freedom of making our decisions that are in the best interests of the people we represent and the taxpayers who put us here.
MR. BAILLIE: I do need to say that I am kind of disappointed in that answer. The minister may be right in the Constitution of Canada sense, that they are a separate, sovereign province from us and can do what they want. The fact of the matter is we are all supposed to work together; we are supposed to work to better the region of the country that we share. There are so many ways that the Government of Nova Scotia and the Government of New Brunswick co-operate, including a red tape charter. A toll may not be characterized as red tape but it would be flying in the face of how we all worked together to grow prosperity on both sides of the border, I believe, to put a toll between the two of us.
There is a large number of Nova Scotians who do work on the New Brunswick side who live near the border; I think it would be very unfair to them, particularly if the toll money was going to deficit reduction or road construction in the Province of New Brunswick when they are taxpayers and residents of the Province of Nova Scotia. I would hope that the Government of Nova Scotia would have a lot of say about it, at the very least, and would use the tools it has at its disposal, whether it's interprovincial trade agreements or the other institutions, like Atlantic Lottery and the veterinary college and so on, the medical school, that we work together on to make the point that we can't work together on all those things and then be tolling each other's citizens at the border.
That's not really a question but I just want the minister to know, I think there's a lot the Province of Nova Scotia could do within its own sovereign authority to dissuade the Province of New Brunswick from essentially putting a toll on our border that we share with them.
Having said that, I want to now return to the greater issue of toll roads and the studies that are going on. I took it from the minister's answers earlier that the engineering part of the study is complete or near complete and that the financial modelling is to be done. I believe he said that would be the end of April, more or less, which is about a week away. Will the whole package be publicly released at that time or will it be released at a later date than when the department receives it?
MR. MACLELLAN: I thank the member for that question. Just before I move on to that specific one, I want to address one particular piece about the difference with New Brunswick and it's an important one for us, and this will be part of that public consultation and the conversation as it relates to toll highways. The whole focus for us with this twinning feasibility study is the aspect of safety, and that's paramount.
The reason I say that is the member said something in his remarks that queued up my memory. We're not doing this to reduce deficits. We're not doing this to reduce financial burden with respect to our overall budget, our overall fiscal health. For us this is taking that money - it relates to the earlier points that the member opposite made about how this is reinvested and how it is a cost-recovery basis. This is what this is about. For us it is a very definitive decision of where we want to go, where Nova Scotians want us to go with respect to our 100-Series toll highway and twinning network.
This isn't about some other source of revenue. New Brunswick has different decisions to make. They are in a different situation. They are going to make those calls. For us, to be very clear, this is not about garnering additional money to put in the coffers; this is specifically about creating that network. Not that the member opposite suggested otherwise, but I just want to make that very clear. There are two scenarios with respect to how we would operate the private-sector agreement with respect to our highways.
On the issue of releasing the information, I was getting used to saying the end of April; it was kind of surprising that that is coming next week. It happens in a hurry in this business; the months fly by. I think what we will probably do is take all the information, put it all together. As members of this House would know, when you get these consulting reports, there is a wealth of information. They are very thick and detailed. It is things, quite frankly, that probably build up to a technical explanation for different aspects of the study. They don't mean anything in terms of the public consumption and public concern. That doesn't mean we are omitting anything or changing any of the information. When we get these mass reports, we usually try to put them in context that makes sense to people. I think with the engineering study and then with the financial modelling, there will be a little bit of work to put them together in time for those public consultations.
I think what we probably do to ensure that we have all the information organized and presentable in a sense that is relevant to people, we probably hold off on that until we do the public sessions. Our timeline is very quick. If we have all this information compiled in the next couple of weeks and then have it collected, we want to hit the road - probably early June is really our target, even late May if we could. We are not going to sit on these things. We want to put it out there and get these conversations started. We are going to move on as soon as we possibly can. We want Nova Scotians to have this information.
MR. BAILLIE: Mr. Chairman, I just want to say to the minister that I have a big, round, honking birthday coming up on April 28th. I am going to achieve a threshold he has many years yet to reach, so if he thinks the end of April is coming up fast for him, I can assure you, it is coming up even faster for me. Luckily, most of my own team here have long since passed that big, round threshold. You can all guess which big, round threshold it is. I understand that the end of April is coming very quickly; I think that is my point.
The minister talked about hitting the road; I'm sure there was no pun intended in that in the near future. Is there an actual, planned timeline of public release and then the 12 public meetings? Can you share with us the schedule for those if it has been drawn up yet?
MR. MACLELLAN: We do not have those specifically. We have never actually picked a date. The dates and locations are very specific and we have to identify those. Our whole focus, when we started this conversation probably months ago, certainly when we embarked on the feasibility study, was that we would have them all finished by the end of June. Once we get that information compiled, which is in the next couple of weeks, really, it is probably going to be a six-week window from start to finish with these. I think the number we have identified, just based on regional fairness and equity, is about 12 sessions overall. That would basically be 12 sessions over a six-week period, probably mid-May to the end of June.
Yes, and as Bruce mentioned too - all the people that we want to be there with the senior staff, with the officials who have a keen understanding of how this works and what it will mean in either way, whether we stick with the current capital plan or look at that alternative financing option will be present. It is important that I get a fulsome understanding of how people will react to these ideas and what they think. I am certainly planning on attending all 12, and I will endeavour to do that. This is a big decision for Nova Scotians and we want to make sure that the information is out there and it is fair and accurate. I will do my best to participate in that and be on the ground with men and women across this province and find out what they want to do.
MR. BAILLIE: I appreciate that. A moment ago the minister talked about road safety and I think we all agree road safety is paramount. Twinning is obviously safer than not twinning. That's true of our 100-Series Highways, it would be true of every road and street in the province. You could twin the Spencer's Island Road and it would be safer than if it was a single lane.
My point in raising this is to just for a moment separate the safety of twinning, which I think we all agree we want to do where practical. I don't mean to suggest to my constituents on Spencer's Island Road that it's not practical but I think they would not expect - I hope they're going to fix the road but I don't think they expect it to be twinned, so you've got to draw the line somewhere - the 100-Series roads with the highest volumes, obviously. I've spoken to Fire Chief Joe, I know the minister has, at Barney's River. He makes a very eloquent case for safety, and who would know better than our emergency responders who actually go out in terrible circumstances and see the price of accidents on our highways?
We're all in favour of safety and where twinning is the best way to accomplish that, I don't think there's going to be any debate about that.
I do want to separate the financing of twinning from the logic of twinning, if I can put it that way. In this case really what we're debating is not if safety is important or if twinning is safer than not twinning, I think we can agree those are givens. How you pay for that objective is really what I believe we're going to debate in the months ahead, all Nova Scotians are. The reason I say that, Mr. Chairman, is I do want to ask the minister if the department has looked at any other methods of financing the goal of twinning the eight sections that are under study.
MR. MACLELLAN: With respect to the question of the twinning and how we're going to pay for it, this is exactly the point and exactly the focus of not only the public consultations that we'll do physically but that ability for people to provide feedback.
No one has a monopoly over being concerned about safety. We're all in this together with respect to the safety of the highways and there wouldn't be any member on this side of the House who would suggest that anyone else is not concerned with that, that's very clear. We're all agreed and twinning is the best way to do it, without question. The head-on collisions are the ones that really take people's lives away and add severity to the impact of accidents and collisions that are out there, so it's a concern.
The other options we have in terms of funding partners, we have approached PPP Canada to look at what role they could play with respect to this feasibility, if there is a suggestion or a measure of support coming from the public, we have to get that information and know where people want us to be before we ever make that final decision.
Through the Building Canada Fund we'll make application; we'll look at how the federal government, the federal infrastructure stimulus can help us, there's no question about it. But at the end of the day, with all those things being considered, and they will be considered, they will be part of our plan, regardless. If the toll conversation isn't one that Nova Scotians want us to pursue, we'll stay with our traditional envelope and our traditional methods of funding these large-scale projects.
Mr. Chairman, looking at this on the financial picture and what it means in the 23,000 kilometres we have as a province and how we service those, and of course the importance of our 100-Series integrated highway network, the expense is staggering in some cases. One particular area I always use as the example when talking about this is through Antigonish. Every member has gone through there over the last short period, I'm sure, travelling to Cape Breton for various things - obviously some of us pass through it twice a week. That has made a significant difference in safety first, but mobility second, and you can see the value of those types of investments when you do them.
Mr. Chairman, that particular corridor, the two phases of Antigonish, took 10 years between the initial approval, design, planning, corridor clearing, and construction. We are still not there; it will be finished this calendar year - 10 years and $160 million.
You look at a capital plan this year; we are in the range of about $220 million. That eats it up in a hurry. That is one project, one corridor in one region of the province, absolutely critical to safety and traffic flow in that area, no question, but you look at the magnitude of what we have to do in terms of that twinning and how it is fundamentally safer. The member opposite used the Barney's River example; that is one where you have a significant mountain range, a waterway, a railbed, and a very slim corridor. The amount of capital work that would be required just to clear that area would be a significant capital investment.
How we do that across the board: you have Highway No. 104, which is obviously a priority for Joe and obviously a priority for the members from Pictou; then you look at Highway No. 103; Highway No. 101; the Burnside Connector here; and Highway No. 107. Some of the work that has been significant and was also a huge investment was Highway No. 125 in Sydney.
You look at the vast expanse of our 100-Series Highways and there's just not enough money. It is going to take decades to replicate the work, the amount of investment and effort that we did on that Antigonish project, to get all of these highways safer. How you prioritize them becomes a decision, with traffic volumes, with the impact on the area, with the safety piece always being paramount, but at the end of the day, we have to figure out a way to finance these projects. When you take a realistic, objective look at the capital that we inject and the amount of investment we make every year on the capital plan with highways and what levels of total kilometres we have to really enhance safety on our provincial 100-Series corridors, we just have to figure out an alternative form of financing, if we're going to make those big expansions.
It is certainly reasonable that maybe that is not the reaction from Nova Scotians; that is again back to the basis for all of this. Maybe people fundamentally will get in a room in a community hall, see a presentation, go online, call in to our toll numbers that will have that ability to receive feedback, and decide that this is not the plan. We are okay with that too. We don't shy away from the fact that we make a significant investment in our highway infrastructure and that capital plan that is on an annual basis, the five-year capital plan, the local roads plan, is part of that. It is a big decision to make and the funding realities are ahead of us. If we are going to do this mass expanse in a relatively short period of time, we just have to look at an alternative form of financing. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I would just like to remind members to do their best to keep their chatter down. Thank you.
The honourable Leader of the Official Opposition has the floor.
MR. BAILLIE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I just want to pursue this a little more because the Antigonish example is actually, I think, an instructive one; it is a good one. It did take 10 years, but it did get done in the traditional way where multiple levels of government come together. It took 10 years because the corridor had to be identified, because the land had to be cleared, because the roadbed had to be constructed, and so on and so on and so on.
The method of financing tolls or otherwise does not speed that up. That is a physical construction period. So, to me, this is another reason why we separate the actual construction and the safety benefits from how we pay for it. I think what the minister is saying is we could not do eight of those all at once, and I completely buy that, but that one corridor is an example of how it does get done with government money, borrowed or otherwise. In that case, I think the minister said that the cost eventually turned out to be $160 million. There was a significant federal contribution. I know because that section of 100-Series Highway was identified as a priority under the old infrastructure program.
I want to ask the minister, what conversations have been had already with Ottawa about their contribution? I think Nova Scotians would rightly want to ensure that they don't let Ottawa off the hook for a contribution to our 100-Series Highways, which qualify for federal funding, if we take on the burden of tolls and then they don't have to contribute anything, like they do in other parts of the country.
MR. MACLELLAN: I want to be very careful here because as I said from the beginning of this whole conversation, this endeavour about the feasibility study, it does no one any value for us as a government, for us as a department, and for myself as the minister who will be part of these very specific discussions, to have any position whatsoever. That's the reality of where we are. We're trying to find what Nova Scotians want us to do so I don't want to be advocating for or against.
Technically speaking, with respect to the member's comments a few minutes ago, the Antigonish corridor took 10 years. It's 16 kilometres, which is a great project. We all understand the merits of it. What we're talking about with these eight corridors is 300 kilometres. Look at the time it would take - that's 16 kilometres, and we're talking 300 if we were going to do them all. Of course we would prioritize them. The member is not suggesting that we would do all eight at once.
The reality is that it is not simply based on the construction timeline, this took 10 years. Obviously again we had a restrictive capital plan, even in the years when the capital plan was expanded greatly, from 2008 probably into about 2012 or 2013, with some of that federal stimulus of which the member had mentioned, the federal contribution, even at that point you have to stretch these projects out that are $160 million to address 16 kilometres, so there is a time factor there.
I'm not going to make that argument. If you're looking at design build and how it's done differently through the private versus the public sector, again I'll digress from that because I don't want to be championing the for or against side, but there would be an impact on the time frame for these large-scale projects.
I think that with respect to the federal government and Building Canada Fund, every conversation that we've had, I've had personally with Minister Garneau, of course, but in particular Minister Sohi, I think I've had about four occasions now to talk to him directly. We always mentioned the feasibility study and we broke it down in great detail.
What happens moving forward, what our priorities are for highway construction, they are very aware of. Regardless of what happens here, what transpires with this public communication, with this public consultation and where we go, the federal government is very aware that we will be making specific requests, large-scale requests, on some of the future highway projects that we wanted to get done. They are on the table regardless, but again, we certainly have to prioritize inside our capital envelope. I mean regardless of the funds you get from the federal government, you also have to put your own up as well, so that becomes subject of our own capital plan and our priorities as we move forward.
Those discussions are taking place. We're going to do what we can. We're always going to be adding and improving the 100-Series. Just really the timeline is what's impacted by these types of decisions, and again, the feasibility will give us significant information on how Nova Scotians react to that and what they want us to do moving forward.
MR. BAILLIE: I'm going to ask the minister very directly, will a federal contribution to the twinning projects be built into the financial models?
MR. MACLELLAN: The answer is yes, Mr. Chairman. Any of the highway projects that we have, any of the proposals, any business cases that we put together would always have a federal element to those.
MR. BAILLIE: Mr. Chairman, again I ask, what is the plan to maximize the federal contribution before asking Nova Scotians to consider tolls?
MR. MACLELLAN: I do not know if there is a specific question that I can answer there. I might have missed the specific part. Would the member mind giving that one to me again? I think I missed that.
MR. BAILLIE: Mr. Chairman, the question is, what is the plan to maximize the federal contribution before asking Nova Scotians to consider tolls, and just for a little extra detail the New Building Canada Fund, which would be one of the funds? But there are others. There is the Trans-Canada Highway fund, and some others are cost shared - sometimes it's one-third/one-third/one-third - not in this case - or a 50/50. I think Nova Scotians want to know that the federal contribution is maximized and not reduced by our tolls. Let me ask you another way: can the minister assure Nova Scotians that any tolls they are asked to consider would only be used to cover what would be the provincial contribution to these highway agreements?
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, I sincerely thank the member for clarifying that. The answer is absolutely, of course. With any project, we would want the maximum federal contribution. As the member is probably aware, with the former Building Canada Fund, which is still in play to a certain extent, there is a per-capita breakdown. There is an allotment, per province. Within those confines, we would apply for a certain amount of money and a certain portion of each project that we would submit that would be federal and, that would be the maximum. I think the point the member is making is would we use federal funds to cover the provincial portion. That is not the case at all. Every project we have, whether it follows this wide-scale feasibility or is within the current capital envelope and the current proposals that we are working on, they would all include a very significant provincial investment and allotment from our capital plan as well.
MR. BAILLIE: Mr. Chairman, this is one of those cases where the devil really is in the details because we have eight projects, our New Building Canada Fund is limited by our population, and surely we will not get federal funding for all eight. That leads to fairness issues from one project over another where the tolls might be only required to be a lesser amount where there is a big federal contribution, a bigger amount in another region of the province where there is no federal contribution or a smaller one. It is not really a question, it is just something I know we are going to be worried about as we try to figure how to finance all eight - not all at once, I completely agree. I will just leave that for thought for now.
In the meantime, I want to finish on the subject of safety because no matter what timeline you're on, it is going to be awhile before we have these roads, tolled or otherwise. It is going to be years. There are the consultations, then there are the agreements, then there are the federal negotiations, and so on - never mind the construction cost. So, for right now, for Fire Chief Joe and for everyone out there, are there safety measures we can take on our highways today that will make them safer while this is all worked out?
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite, absolutely, the most frustrating part of the large-scale capital investments sometimes is that it just takes so many calendar years to get through them.
With respect to what we do in the short or medium term, the basis for what we've been deciding are from the studies that we embarked on last year, the Highway Nos. 103, 104, and 101 studies that we put together, very detailed information about some of the short- and medium-term safety improvements we can make. Some of them are built into the capital and the annual operating budget.
In each region the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal staff on the ground would make some of those decisions and those investments to increase safety and enhance our ability to keep Nova Scotia drivers safe: signage; the visibility; obviously the winter maintenance, the things we do during the winter months; and all of the short-term decisions we make. Rumble strips are another good example that we've applied to many areas of the province and they've made a difference. Again, the Cadillac of safety truly is twinning, but short of that, there are things we can do. Speed reduction is usually part of that, in certain corridors for sure.
It's amazing to see the very sad, sombre reports we get through the department with respect to losses of life on the highway, major collisions that result in significant injuries to the people. It's sad and in a lot of cases it's preventable.
Obviously impaired driving has a devastating impact on our roads. Driving too fast is always a factor, whether it be in the summer months - ironically, some of our highest levels for fatalities on the highway happen in the summer because people drive too fast. Of course distracted driving is emerging as a significant issue: that's texting, driving, and talking on your phone. Manipulating your phone in any way increases the risk of an accident and something serious happening on the roads, and of course the conditions. We happen to be in a province where there's significant precipitation at many times of the year and when you don't have proper speed maintained that becomes very critical to your safety.
There are a lot of things we can do. Education is a big part of that, but at the end of the day a lot of it truly comes down to roadside and road corridor engineering. Short and medium steps help in those long-term improvements, and ensuring that highways are twinned really is the way to keep Nova Scotians safe.
MR. BAILLIE: That is an impressive list of things we can do. I just want to add to turn off the radio when your political counterparts are talking on political talk radio shows, which can sometimes be distracting - I'm sure he has had this experience, I know I have - is also a thing we can do, or put a music station on is an improvement for our own safety. I've heard him on the radio when I've been driving (Interruptions) Yes, exactly, that's right, and it's not a funny topic, it's a serious topic but just on that point, to add to his list.
The serious point of course is that there are things we can do now. Education, of course, is a long-term thing; clamping down on illegal driving, whether it's distracted driving or texting while driving or impaired driving, absolutely. Within the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal though, is there anything in the budget for this year that is aimed at improving safety on our existing highways, such as rumble strips, such as the collapsible railings and so on? If so, could the minister share with us what those things are?
MR. MACLELLAN: Of course those short- and medium-term improvements we can make are built into the capital projects so they are part of that. Obviously with things like signage and other operational aspects, they are built into the budget as well so they are on an operating side. There always are things we can do to enhance safety in every opportunity that we have to do, so we certainly do.
MR. BAILLIE: It occurred to me a few minutes ago the minister mentioned P3 Canada. Can he elaborate a little bit on who P3 Canada is and what discussions has his department had with them about our highways?
MR. MACLELLAN: P3 Canada is a federal Crown Corporation. The tie-in for us and where it has all sort of come together with respect to Minister Sohi is that they just were brought over into the Department of Infrastructure and Communities so we have a direct connection there vis-à-vis Minister Sohi.
We had one conversation, a large meeting with them probably a month ago, just to break down where we were, what this feasibility looked like. We gave a full-scale description of what we were looking at, the eight corridors. We obviously do not have a whole lot of specific information because that study is still ongoing, but we basically gave them a breakdown of what we could potentially be looking at and what would be the process should we apply. The one thing, as we have said every time this discussion has taken place, is we have to know that our people in the province are behind us. We will not advance anything to the P3 Canada Fund until we actually have the feasibility study done, of course, with those public consultations and that full array of public feedback so we know where Nova Scotians want us to be and then we could tap the P3 Canada Fund at that point.
MR. BALLIE: I think that is a pretty thorough review of where we are on the twinning and/or tolling of the highways. I would like to move on in the minutes I have remaining to an easier topic for the minister, which is the Yarmouth ferry, the ultimate tolled route I guess.
Let me just start off by asking the minister if he has an update for us on the status of the ferry schedule, the crossing schedule, which I guess is in the hands of Portland City Council, or it was the last time we talked about it.
MR. MACLELLAN: With respect to the schedule - and again, as I mentioned to my colleague, the member for Queens-Shelburne during our exchange, this platform gives us an opportunity to explain things and take a little bit of the tension and a little bit of the heat away from the debate, with respect to how we are messaging to Nova Scotians and what we are saying about this all-important topic for us.
With respect to Portland, like anything else, like a process that we would follow here with our provincial Cabinet, like any government body would have established, the City of Portland is clearly, directly, officially connected to the administrative portion of their terminal, of their port. The discussions that have taken place between Mark MacDonald at Bay Ferries and the Portland officials at the terminal, at the Ocean Gateway, have been taking place for months. Since Mark secured the right to negotiate with the Province of Nova Scotia, he had been having those conversations. Clearly, the people in Portland were well versed, well aware, well informed on every single step that Mark MacDonald has taken in Bay Ferries.
That was not the Province of Nova Scotia doing that; that was the relationship that Mark MacDonald had with the City of Portland based on history, his experience, and obviously his reputation. They worked out a lot of those details. Clearly, Mark MacDonald, as you can imagine, I think he had given this indication and this feel, he is a small "c" conservative guy in the sense that he is not overpromising anything. He is very poised, very calculated, and he is not going to make a promise that he cannot commit on.
When developing the schedule, these things were, from his perspective, confirmed and understood to be the case. Those conversations had taken place. Now we are at that point; obviously we have a vessel. We don't have a specific stamped approval from the council and mayor in Portland because this is their process, just like we would follow through our Cabinet. That decision has to be made. I can't speak to their decision. It would be misleading for me to suggest that there is nothing to worry about - that they are going to say yes, and it is going to be a rubber stamp.
Out of respect for the process that we follow in a similar fashion here, the mayor, the council, the people elected by the people of Portland for that city have to deliberate on these things, understand the impact. It is a very busy port, lots of things happening there, the timing is significant and the timing is very tight, so they have to deliberate on that. Obviously, it is clear where we are hoping it goes but I do not want to in any way jeopardize that to talk about a process that has to take place through an elected body. We are feeling good about the decision, no doubt about it, but we will let it unfold. They will make their decision and we will react from there.
MR. BAILLIE: Mr. Chairman, I'm not sure what tension and heat the minister was talking about. We can debate these things in a pleasant way; in fact, I just heard the minister say conservatives are poised and that they are calculated and that they are financially responsible and that they do not make promises they cannot keep. I cannot tell you how much that has relaxed me to hear him say that. I could not agree more. Well small "c", big "C", I mean conservative; it is wonderful that he thinks so highly of conservatives. I really do want to thank him for those great compliments.
We are talking about the schedule for the ferry. We will get into the cost, of course, in the course of questioning, but at the moment we're talking about the schedule. It is very important how that schedule is set or when it is set, what it actually turns out to be. I know that they are marketing the boat on the basis of the tentative schedule that is in place now. It is important to the people of Yarmouth and to all Nova Scotians that we maximize the benefits on our side by having a schedule that allows the boat to overnight here, maximizes the tourism opportunity here. I think we are all hoping that we get the schedule we want but I think we have to know - and, this is my question - are we locked in, no matter what the schedule turns out to be?
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, I'm not sure exactly which aspect of being locked in. Maybe the member can articulate on that when he gets back up. As I said many times, and I stand by this and I will say it repeatedly over the questioning that we have over the next few hours we are together with respect to estimates, at the end of the day, we have full confidence and full faith in Mark MacDonald and Bay Ferries. What I mean by that specifically, obviously the oversight and the relationship is important from a government perspective but the operational aspects of the Nova Scotia ferry, The Cat, have to be with Bay Ferries, all of these components, clearly when it comes to the schedule, there is a benefit for us.
That's what we were looking for and that's what he had hoped for, and obviously that's the case. When in discussions with the Portland terminal stressing the points of what was important and required for Bay Ferries, that was an endeavour and a fight that was led by Mark MacDonald. At this point, the schedule is what it is. I would not foresee Mark putting it out there with zero chance that it is going to be set in that way and that is going to be the schedule. He has to have some certainty, no question about that, but again, we are happy and comfortable with the diligence that has been put forth by Bay Ferries. Clearly, this is a decision and a process that has to take place in Maine. I think it is very unfair to suggest that we have this mountain of uncertainty ahead of us with respect to the schedule.
One of the realities of this is everyone understands two things about the Nova Scotia ferry, the relationship with Portland and the importance of this service. There are some tough realities here with respect to building up that market because of it being gone for four years. There is a lot of work that we have to do, Bay Ferries has to do, the province has to do, and our tourism operators have to do to get that stability back. That's critical and that is well known.
The other aspect of this is there are hiccups that are going to take place. With every operation that we have, there are always risks that things go badly. I know that this has nothing to do with the schedule, nothing to do with Bay Ferries. I know that there will be some challenges this year, next year, or five years from now, and every time something comes up, it is difficult when you're trying to promote and support a particular service and a file that is critically important to the province that we are going to have to say the sky is falling and this is the end.
With respect to the schedule, it is an operational issue; it is something that I know Mark will deal with competently. I have the full confidence in how he operates and when that decision is made, we will be reacting to it clearly. We are comfortable with where we are, and at this point, the operational decisions will be left with Bay Ferries and they will do a good job.
MR. BAILLIE: Mr. Chairman, let me try this question a different way. We all hope that we get the best schedule possible; is it the position of the department that we are going ahead with this agreement, regardless of what the schedule is when Portland makes its decision?
MR. MACLELLAN: We have an agreement with Mark MacDonald for the first two years of this service with The Cat vessel. That is a relationship that is set in place. I cannot speculate. This is one aspect of a number of aspects that encompass the overall operational plan for Bay Ferries and for The Cat.
The zero sum game of trying to anticipate what Portland is going to do, vis-à-vis the schedule and how it impacts the relationship with ourselves and Mark MacDonald, is impossible to try to explain that in a sense of if all is lost, depending on what the City of Portland says. Clearly, like everything else related to the Nova Scotia ferry, I've been honest and upfront. We've put the numbers out clearly; we've given people an indication of what the investment was, why we did it, and why we see it as being important. We've always maintained that the operational decisions will be left to Bay Ferries. They want this to succeed; it's clearly important for them as well.
I think, looking back at the entire process, the amount of pressure and scrutiny and criticism that has been faced by Mark MacDonald has been tough. I know it has been rough on him but I can tell you that he's truly in this for the right reasons. The Leader of the Official Opposition has said we'll get into the numbers and I look forward to that. The suggestion that somehow we got hosed and it's a financial windfall for Bay Ferries is very misleading. I think that we need a good operator and all sides of the House, all Parties have indicated a level of support, full confidence and support in a Nova Scotia ferry, so it seems like we're back and forth over the agreement and our ability to negotiate. That seems to be where it is.
I put our efforts to the test. I believe in how we've structured this. I said this to the member during Question Period, but he'll find that the relationship that Bay Ferries had with the PC Government in 2009 was very similar. I don't want to compare contracts, Mr. Chairman, this is our relationship with Bay Ferries so I don't want to get into that. The reality is that Mark MacDonald presented a plan on operations on start-up, on the charter fee that would be required. We put together a fair deal. We've got the operational costs out there for all to see. Now it becomes about market performance and we want this service to succeed and we know it will. Let's let Mark and Bay Ferries do their business and let's make sure that the Nova Scotia ferry is successful.
MR. BAILLIE: I know we're almost at the end of time but I just would challenge the minister to find any evidence where anyone has criticized Mark MacDonald. No one is holding him up to scrutiny. Our job is to hold him and his department up to scrutiny. Mark MacDonald obviously did a very good job in negotiating and that's what we'll pursue with the minister from his side of the transaction, when we return the next time around.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The time has elapsed for this segment dedicated to the Progressive Conservatives. We'll now move on to the New Democratic Party.
The honourable Leader in the House of the New Democratic Party.
MS. MARIAN MANCINI: Yes, I have just a couple of what I'm hoping are very brief questions and I did talk to you earlier about them, what direction I was going in with it. I am going to ask you about a school that is going to be constructed in Dartmouth South, in Southdale. There was a school there that was demolished and this new one is being built. The actual funding for building the school would come out of Education and Early Childhood Development, I guess, not out of your department. (Interruption) So if you're doing studies, traffic studies, would that come out of . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. I just remind the member not to refer to "you," but to pose your questions through the Chair.
MS. MANCINI: Okay - is "minister" appropriate? Thank you. So minister, yes the question I wanted to ask you was, do those . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Again, please do not utilize the word "you." Do not speak directly to the minister; direct your question to the minister through the Chair, if that can be of some help.
MS. MANCINI: It's late. I guess I'm not catching on. I'm mostly interested in whether, if traffic studies are being done by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, would it be coming out of the their budget? That is my question to the minister.
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, I thank the member opposite for the question. Just on the infrastructure piece on the capital - the school in this instance would be under the overall capital plan. It's inside that capital plan for government's overall project list, and then, obviously, because of the nature of the work, it would come directly and it would be subject to the work of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal.
Again, generally speaking, any cost directly associated with the school build would be part of the capital. There are a number of different examples, and it certainly depends - it is case by case and depends on the different situations for each and every build, but generally speaking, a lot of the costs that are associated with any build - the design work, traffic study in some instances - would be subject to being capitalized for that project.
MS. MANCINI: Thank you. Just by way of background, in this particular project, there had been a traffic study done to determine the best bus loop for the school. A residential group has formed because they have exercised some concerns about the options that have been chosen, and I understand it is through the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal that did propose and do the traffic study.
Their position is that the street that was chosen - and it is a very narrow lane. I have had the opportunity to go there and have observed it myself. I think it is only 29 metres in width, so it is somewhat of a lane as opposed to a street. That site was selected as the school bus route. It has two 45-degree angles, probably. It is narrow. If it is a bad winter, there is a tremendous amount of snow. The residents are very concerned. It has been determined that there might be nine buses per day, and while they are certainly not a constant in the area, they view it as a public safety concern.
They have made inquiries, and I have made inquiries on their behalf; indeed, I actually filed a petition on their behalf in the Fall. Their concern is that the last traffic study that was done did not incorporate an assessment of this particular street, Milverton Road. Their concern is that the traffic study was done on what had been the previous bus route before the school was demolished, and then, when it was considered inappropriate - and I have seen that, and I know that that is inappropriate too - there would be some safety issues there as well.
Their concern is that another study needs to be done, that the study that was done before did not include Milverton and then just kind of used it as a backup because the original proposal was not appropriate. So that is my question, I guess: I am wondering if it is possible, if it is the norm - should there be another study done to assess that, given the number of issues the citizens have raised?
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, to the honourable member, I think that in this particular instance we would probably have to regroup and maybe get some of the concerned residents in touch with our officials who would have been directly related to that. Clearly, if there is an issue with safety and navigation of a roadway in any event, we would want to be sure that we are doing the right things. If there are concerns, we would want to address them to the extent possible, in particular when it leads up to a school. I think we would probably have to get some work there.
Again, if there was - I can tell you from the folks that represent our department, Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, and of course the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and the Department of Health and Wellness, we just want to get it right. If there are issues with a school assessment, with a traffic assessment for a school, then obviously we want to make sure that we have been diligent to consider and reconsider any ideas. If this was done based on an old route, then clearly, there is dated information that we would have to update.
I think the best thing to do is maybe we could link up the group you are representing with some of our folks at the department to talk about some of this stuff, and if it warranted a relook at the assessment and a study, then we could do that. But maybe we can just get some clarity on what the issues are and see where our department people sit with that.
MS. MANCINI: Thank you. I don't want to misrepresent in any way - there was a newer study done. It's just that the residents feel that Milverton was not properly assessed as well.
Anyway, I thank you for your comments. I appreciate that. Those are my questions, Mr. Chairman.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Sackville-Cobequid.
HON. DAVID WILSON: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you, minister. I don't get to ask too many Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal questions, especially about roads. I must admit, my riding is almost 100 per cent municipally-run and -maintained roads, other than the highways around my constituency, where the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal maintenance has been quite efficient to fix any of the problems.
But we do as a caucus look through the budget and have questions. Mine are maybe more specific questions, which I will be taking out of the Estimates and Supplementary Detail book. I will try to give you the page, and then maybe just ask for some clarification and more information on it.
I want to start under the Estimates, Page 2.6, General Revenue Fund. It notes that the TCA Cost Shared Revenue more than doubled from last year to this year. The estimate was about $33 million, I believe, and now it is going to be up to $74.1 million.
I just wonder, can you explain this? Where does this revenue go, and will any of it be spent on infrastructure projects? Page 2.6, at the front of the Estimates and Supplementary Detail, under General Revenue Fund.
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, I thank the member opposite. The line item in question includes an injection of $51.4 million from the World Trade and Convention Centre. That is the federal contribution to the convention centre project.
MR. DAVID WILSON: That was from the federal government. Maybe I'm wrong, but I thought I understood the Premier mentioning that all that money - the $100 million and some that we got from not only the municipality but the federal government - was going on the debt. But what you are saying is that it's showing up here as an increase in that line item? Just to be clear, because I am unclear on the Premier's comments.
MR. MACLELLAN: This line item reflects our department, but the revenue portion is held centrally. That is the $51.4 million. That is our spot for the World Trade and Convention Centre, our role in it for our budget, but the revenue portion itself is held centrally in part of that larger number that the Premier had alluded to.
MR. DAVID WILSON: I might as well go right on to the other fees and charges. There is more than - pretty close to double - $2 million from estimate to estimate, a little bit more if you actually look at the forecast from what was spent, to $4.3 million. So other fees and charges - I wonder if you could give us a little bit of detail on what other fees and charges entail on that line item.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Just a reminder to members to work on not using the word "you" in their questioning.
The honourable Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal has the floor.
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, to the honourable member, the two line items that really bump up that number are transfers in from the Department of Internal Services. It would be the utilities line and also the real property services. So that particular department would show a decrease to those amounts with those particular areas.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Mr. Chairman, sorry about that. Through you to the minister, I know this is the start of the Budget Estimates, and there have been a lot of things moving around departments. We are going to have a lot of questions on if there is a breakdown of those specific items somewhere in the documents provided, or is it - you know, that is your answer. Is there a breakdown that we can have on exactly what it is? Are you able to provide the committee with that?
MR. MACLELLAN: It does not exist as a list at this point, but we could easily do that for the member to provide an indication of what things have moved from Internal Services into our Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal. We can put that together.
It will probably take a couple of days, but it is literally just pulling these line items out of the overall budget and itemizing them from what has come from the Department of Internal Services to the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Mr. Chairman, we would appreciate that, because I know even after the budget was tabled, even within the media, like I said, there has been a lot of movement within departments. We would appreciate that, and I think Nova Scotians would appreciate getting that information.
I am going to go into your department budget numbers, starting at Page 22.2 under Programs and Services. Under Policy and Planning, I'm just wondering if the minister - through you, Mr. Chairman - could give us a little bit of an overview of what that line item entails. What work goes on under policy and planning within the department?
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite, I'm not sure if he was looking for a financial breakdown or just an explanation. Okay, so just generally speaking, policy and planning - our executive director, Alan Grant, and his team - obviously, it is as advertised. They do a lot of the key research and policy-related work, some of the legal aspects of what we do with respect to our major decisions.
Alan's shop really carries some of the major files and does a lot of the bulk of the research work and the preparation work for some of those major things. On a daily basis, the policy shop is connected to all aspects of our operations, from maintenance to road safety to the major decisions like the Nova Scotia ferry, the Bluenose, and others.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Mr. Chairman, one of the reasons I ask is that last year we saw the estimates about $9 million, $9.5 million; it climbed to about $22 million. So is that work - do you look for external support? Is that what drove the cost up about $12.6 million from the estimate to the forecast last year? Then, of course, we see a dramatic reduction this year of well over $20 million less spent in that.
A couple of questions in there, I guess. Do you look for external support, and is that the reason behind the $12.6 million increase? And why such a dramatic decrease in the estimates this year, of almost $20 million from what was spent last year to what will be estimated to be spent this year in the department?
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite, looking at the line items, a lot of the significant totals there that we would have changed would be related to the Nova Scotia ferry. Last year, there was an $8 million allotment for the previous operator. This year, the start-up for Bay Ferries was $12.3 million. That is reflected in those numbers, but you will notice the reason for the drop-off is, if you look down below, the ferry is now under the grants and contributions sector.
We basically held that there under Policy and Planning as a temporary line item to house that, and now it has moved down. Those numbers will be reflected in their entirety down in the Grants and Contributions segment.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Mr. Chairman, I am trying to do the math quickly here - is it roughly, say - it would still be down - it looks like about $7 million, or more than $7 million; $9 million, maybe.
Are you saying the $8 million for the previous operator would have been the Nova Star, I would assume? Is that why it is now different with the estimate going forward? So is last year's $8 million - of course, you won't need to pay that out - was that the discrepancy between what was spent last year and what the estimates are this year?
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, if the member opposite could elaborate a little bit? We're just trying to figure out where he is spotting the discrepancy. If he sees one, that's reasonable, but what we're looking at here, if we look estimate to estimate, the difference is about $8 million, which is that temporary place where the ferry existed under that previous agreement.
Hopefully that answers it. If not, you can certainly clarify.
That's good? Okay, thanks.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Mr. Chairman, once I sat down - it reflects that.
I am just going to drop down to highway programs. Under Snow and Ice Control, estimate to estimate is pretty close to the same, but there was an increase of about $3 million in the forecast for the budget last year.
I believe we had a mild winter, so why would we see a $3 million increase with such a mild winter? And maybe some details on that change in budget?
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, looking at those numbers, we actually did have a relatively mild winter. To give a bit of context, last year our overall budget was about $80 million, which was significantly over what we had budgeted based on the very challenging winter we had last year.
On top of that, what impacted us in this particular line item was the fact that we had a significant amount of snow that we had to deal with and connected expenses from the previous year that came into this budgetary season. The total number is about $7 million that we had to carry over. A lot of that was related to the impact on the equipment, and there certainly were some snow- and ice-related expenses as well. So the significant difference, really - we would have been under budget had it not been for what happened very early in the fiscal year of last year.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Thank you for that. Under Public Works, on a couple of the line items there, we see the estimated forecast from last year. One is under Real Property Services, but for the most part, under Public Works there is an increase across the board, with many line items showing like zero expenditures last year, and one - like Building Services is at $18 million.
I am wondering if the minister could explain these budget line items tied to the Public Works heading on Page 22.2.
MR. MACLELLAN: The Public Works elements of the budget existed under the Department of Internal Services last year. We have taken all of those over, and now they are housed here at the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal.
MR. DAVID WILSON: That's fine, but how are we as Opposition or the public supposed to look at budget to budget from year to year when this happens? Why would there not be some kind of figure here? I know it doesn't fall under the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal now, but why is there not something showing what the budget was in the Department of Internal Services, if it was there, or if it was in the Department of Health and Wellness? We are going to run into this throughout the estimates as we go forward in the next 80 hours or so.
I am wondering if - I don't know if the minister could answer or the staff or financial support could indicate why, then, do we not have any kind of figure showing what it was under the old department? Is it in another - I know Mr. Chairman is trying to help me, and hopefully this will help me through Health and Wellness budgets and the estimates in front of me.
MR. MACLELLAN: I certainly can appreciate the direct comparison that the member is looking for. It does exist. If you look at Pages 14.8 and 14.9 in the Estimates and Supplementary Detail, it shows that the estimate and forecast of all those particular line items do exist under the Department of Internal Services. Then, because of the transition and the new housing of those services here, they would be reflected in previous Department of Internal Services, and now they are actively with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Thank you for pointing that out. I would think there would be an easier way, but anyway.
I didn't get to the Department of Internal Services estimates yet, and I am sure the minister is happy about that, but I will go through it. I believe I am the critic for that also. I will have to double-check, but I appreciate that.
So without having that in front of me or looking at it, have there been any significant changes from when the budget was transferred from the Department of Internal Services, or are they pretty close to the similar budget that we saw last year? I can appreciate if you cannot answer right now, and we will have a look at it later, but I wonder if the minister could indicate if there are any significant changes, and if there are, which ones?
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, I thank the member for the question. The answer is no, both in the physical sense, where these particular staff members and their shops were located really did not change at all and will not necessarily change, and there is no significant impact on any of the line items. They are pretty much standard and carried over as they exist from the previous year's estimate and forecast, so it is pretty standard on both fronts.
MR. DAVID WILSON: I will take the minister's word, but we will double-check that and maybe get back to the minister later. But no, I appreciate that.
I'm now going to Page 22.4 under Senior Management, Programs and Services. I notice that there was a reduction of two FTEs in - I would assume that's senior positions within the department. I wonder if the minister could indicate which positions might have been reduced. We had 11 under the estimates in 2015-16; now there are nine, I believe.
Has there been a reduction of staff, or is it maybe unfilled positions at this time? I know there are circumstances where that happens. It looks like just a reduction in two, but I wonder if the minister could give us some information on that.
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, to the member's question, two positions did change locations. One was an administrative position that went from this envelope to policy and planning, and the second, a project management position, was relocated to building services.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Mr. Chairman, I thank the minister. Jump down then - a more significant change. I know that some - Financial Services was moved to the Department of Finance and Treasury Board, but under Corporate Services Unit, Funded Staff (# of FTEs) went from 21 to seven. Were all those positions under the financial services portion line item and those positions moved to the Department of Finance and Treasury Board? If not all of them, could he give a bit of detail on what positions were eliminated under the Corporate Services Unit?
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, I like this guy better when he is asking health-related questions. I don't like this line-by-line.
The answer is that there are 14 FTEs that were transferred from our department, our shop, to the Department of Finance and Treasury Board.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Thank you for that. I'm going to turn to Page 22.7 under Highways and Bridges. First, looking under Programs and Services, Mr. Chairman, to the minister, we are all concerned. Even though, as I indicated in the start of my questioning, most of the roads in my area are maintained by the municipality, I do travel quite often around the province, as the minister does. Surface maintenance, road maintenance, all of that is a concern.
Under Roadside Maintenance, it looks like there was about $500,000 unspent in there. To me, the overall picture of the budget may be not much, but I would think $500,000 could have been used on some of the roads that I was on. I am wondering why from the estimate to forecast - if I'm doing it right - about a $0.5 million reduction in what was spent - I wonder if the minister could give us a little bit of information on why that would happen, especially with some conditions of the roads that we see around the province.
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, I thank the member for the question on this particular set of items under Highways and Bridges. Basically, roadside maintenance would be things like brush cutting. Obviously, as we talked about earlier with his caucus colleague, the importance of that and what it means to some people on these rural roads for visibility and overall performance of the roadway - within that group of programs and services there is fluctuation, because some of these jobs and some of these specific functions overlap.
As an example, surface maintenance was up a similar amount that the roadside maintenance was down. There could be an overlap in the sense of those operating costs. If a pothole is done, it could end up in another budget, so it's not necessarily part of that one.
You will see some go up and some go down, but generally speaking, eventually the overall allotment for those items pretty much lands in the same financial place.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Thank you. I would be remiss if I did not bring up the cutting of alders. Former member Junior Theriault would hammer the Progressive Conservative Government over and over and over about the alders on the roads, in the ditches, and clearing them back. In a recent drive down toward Yarmouth - not the Valley way but the other way - I would agree with him. At a certain point, they could use that.
Is there a concerted effort to make sure, when we see the narrowing of the highways, especially on the southwest heading to Yarmouth, that the roadside maintenance is - could we not have said, okay, let's do a little extra? Could they do a little extra - I don't think I said "you" - about the shoulder of the road or the cutting of the alders and brush that kind of encroached the roadway?
I have to ask, on behalf of the former member for Digby-Annapolis, why couldn't we actively go out and put another $0.5 million in that work? Junior would call you and say thank you very much. I'm sure he is still talking about the alders.
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite, part of the frustration sometimes with drivers is the little things that, in their view, could be done a little bit better. I think brush cutting falls under that category, and some of that roadside maintenance. The reality is - again, we talked about the fluidity of some of these particular line items under Programs and Services, and obviously - this goes without saying - the priority is always the road surface. Sometimes we put a little bit of extra attention on particular areas to the potholes and to making sure we address the surface first, and again, admittedly, sometimes it can be tough to get to the large-scale brush cutting.
In honesty - and Junior would attest to this - it really is a reactive basis in a lot of cases. When we get calls, when there are complaints, where there are significant issues - that is really when there's a call to action. There is so much impact by the alders and by the overall brush that we have surrounding our roadways and highway corridors that we really get to them as best we can. When we are in a particular area doing some of that work, then clearly, we do our very best to concentrate on that area. Sometimes it gets very difficult to get back to a particular area, so you like to do as much as you can when you're there with other functions.
That is generally the practice, and again, we try to create a little bit of flexibility in those line items so that when there is a specific issue that has to be addressed, regardless of the operational impact and the time of year, we still get that done to make sure that concerns are addressed to the extent possible.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Thank you. I can appreciate that and appreciate the need to try to bring forward as much information as you can within the budget documents.
Under that Roadside Maintenance, within the department, is there a budget for brush cutting within that road maintenance or somewhere in here? Have you changed that or increased that, or is it just all in the one pot of money?
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite, it is a good question and it's one that people would genuinely be interested in the response.
Essentially how it works with the brush cutting and some of these aspects of roadside maintenance is that it is done very much at the organic level with the four districts. What is done there is that they would obviously get their overarching envelope of what they can allocate for things like brush cutting, and they allocate it based on what they require. We give the freedom and the flexibility.
I know that there is a deficit in all of our aspects of operations, maintenance, and on the capital side, and we would love to do more in every single aspect, but at the end of the day, we give our districts the flexibility to get out and talk to stakeholders like their MLAs, like community-minded folks who are concerned about particular problems in particular areas, and then they really create their own budgets. So the overall number that you see there is a result of the different districts and their fundamental requests and the package they have for brush cutting.
That is sort of the way we do it as a standard, and then there could be some fluctuations and variations as the year goes on.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Mr. Chairman, I will not go on too long on brush cutting on the roadside. If the minister could provide us with maybe a breakdown of what brush cutting and roadside maintenance - a breakdown of that - we would appreciate that.
Under Miscellaneous, last year's budget was $1.6 million but ended up costing well over $5 million. Now we see that it is back down to about $1.6 million. That is about a $3.5 million increase in Miscellaneous. What does Miscellaneous entail? I wonder if the minister could give us some detail on that increase seen last year of about $3.5 million.
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, to the member's question, it is an allotment of money that we hold centrally for events that could take place, such as storm damage - things that we can't really budget for that sort of come out of nowhere - that we would have held centrally at the department. Also, a significant part of that is the third-party work, so anything that we do from a third-party perspective would be held under that account as well.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Are you able to provide a breakdown of that fund? I know it might not be in front of you, but you budgeted $1.6 million and it ended up being about $5.1 million. It doesn't have to be right now, but I'm wondering if the minister could provide us with those details.
As you're looking for that, the other thing I want to look at is the actual FTEs - a significant drop, I would say - 25 less FTEs employed or tied to the Highways and Bridges, which I know is a big concern for many Nova Scotians. We know the aging conditions of our bridges around the province and overpasses that do need support, and I know in Public Accounts we've had the deputy minister here on a number of occasions, and there is a huge list of work that needs to be done.
I'm wondering why - first, if you can give us a list, a breakdown of that increase in Miscellaneous, but account for a reduction of about 24 or 25 FTEs under Highways and Bridges.
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, to the member opposite, the first question - we can give you that breakdown. That is something we can pull together in a hurry.
With respect to the FTEs, the line item, the first number is for the summer on Page 22.7. That was the increase of 25 you referenced, but on Page 22.8, you will see an indication that there is an increase of 25 there. It is really just the allocation of summer versus winter and how we put those hours across collectively for seasonal maintenance.
MR. DAVID WILSON: As I was saying, Highways and Bridges - definitely they're concerning the bridges, and I would assume that under that overpasses are included under Highway and Bridges. So for reference, there is an overpass in my riding - Highway No. 102 over the Cobequid Road. When I take that, you notice quite a bit of crumbling on the side. It is not a highly-used road underneath; it is highly used over top.
Are overpasses included under Highways and Bridges, or is that found somewhere else, about maintenance of the overpasses on our 100-Series Highways that go over some of the more local roads - for example, in my riding?
MR. MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, to the member's questions, that would be part of the Highways and Bridges allotment. That is one that we get, as I mentioned in response to a question earlier in Question Period about the highways and bridges and the bridge work itself - 4,300 bridges is a daunting task, no question.
Some of the challenges are obviously people get concerned, as they should, about the safety of the bridges. A lot of that becomes the aesthetics and the outside look. People are concerned, and they fear the fact that if there's crumbling concrete or if there are any visible signs of wear, that the bridge would be unsafe.
I just wanted to make it crystal clear that it is one of our biggest functions in the field. Inspecting those bridges to ensure that they are safe is paramount. It is a priority for our engineers who are out there every day on behalf of Nova Scotians. I just want to make it clear that the aesthetics and the appearance are one part of it, but obviously, we have to know that these bridges are structurally sound. That is a key part of our role and our job in doing the diligence that keeps people safe here in the province every day.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Mr. Chairman, I would agree, definitely. Often it is the outside concrete, which has no bearing on the structural safety of the bridge.
I would assume that if there are constituents with concerns they could call the local area, and this is more of a constituent question, that I notice a big chuck of concrete that could potentially come down. I would assume a call to the local area would have someone go out and have a look at it. I do not think I need to get an answer; I see some heads nodding.
Quickly, I know I'm running out of time - I only have about two minutes - one minute and 31 seconds? I do not have enough time to ask all my questions.
I believe there are many more questions over the next little while, and the minister and his staff will be here tomorrow. So I appreciate the minister's answers. I look forward to some of the information, and we will have some more for tomorrow.
One of the areas I want to look at when we start up again tomorrow is environmental services and remediation. This is something that was transferred in from the Department of Internal Services, and what I will probably do is ask for some breakdowns on what that entails, what the department is doing to address some of the concerns around the province, and maybe ask some questions on that.
I appreciate the answers from the minister, and I believe we are pretty close to - keep talking? All right, maybe a quick one if I can.
A Ferry and Wharf Amortization increase of about $500,000 - I wonder if the minister could answer, why such an increase this year?
MR. MACLELLAN: That is a great question . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Time has elapsed.
The honourable Deputy Government House Leader.
MR. TERRY FARRELL: Mr. Chairman, I move that the committee do now rise and report progress and beg leave to sit again.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Is it agreed?
It is agreed.
Would all those in favour of the motion please say Aye. Contrary minded, Nay.
The motion is carried.
The committee will now rise and report its business to the House.
[The committee adjourned at 7:40 p.m.]