There was about 200 people who showed up to a meeting about twinning the highway between Sutherland's River and Antigonish.
©CAROL DUNN/THE NEWS
More than 200 people crowded into a conference room at the Pictou County Wellness Centre Monday night to voice their opinions about twinning eight sections of highway in the province.
People from all over Pictou County, including a large number of firefighters, attended the public consultation regarding the highway twinning report compiled by CBCL Limited about hastening projects using tolls.
Carl Falsnes, a pilot from Barneys River who is also a volunteer firefighter, travels Highway 104 between Antigonish and Sutherlands River frequently and said he often witnesses close calls. “This divided highway has got to happen. It’s not a matter of if, but when,” he said. “A lot of people are here because they’re affected by it. That’s why this room is full.”
An overview of the report noted that constructing the eight identified sections of 100-series highway, totalling 300 km, would cost $2.4 billion.
According to the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, the province’s budget for maintenance, operations and highway construction for the 2016-2017 year is higher than revenues that will be generated from vehicle registration, licence fees and gas tax, a shortfall of $30 million.
If constructed using tolls, highways could be twinned decades earlier than through conventional approaches.
“It would take well over 30 years at current funding levels to twin,” said Bruce Fitzner, executive director of infrastructure development for Nova Scotia Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal. He said a recently opened portion of divided highway on Highway 104 in Antigonish County took about 20 years to plan and construct.
The Sutherlands River to Antigonish piece of Highway 104 – a 37.8 km section – is estimated to cost $285 million, with a possible toll range of $2.27 to $3.78 for a one-way trip.
The dangerous section of highway is notorious for collisions, including 15 fatal accidents since 2009.
Fitzner said when highways are twinned, accidents still take place, but the severity is greatly reduced. “When you twin, it virtually eliminates head-on collisions.”
He said more than 90 per cent of accidents are due to driver error, whether they’re distracted, impaired or speeding. “The difference with a twinned highway is it’s far more forgiving if you cross the line.”
A woman who lives near the Barneys River Station exit said the road is very outdated, and Barneys River Fire Chief Joe MacDonald, who has been fighting to have the highway divided, agrees. “I think the present 104 is outdated and old. It was built in the ’60s. It wasn’t built for the amount of traffic that’s on there today,” he said, adding that bigger and longer trucks make it “very, very hectic and dangerous.”
A man from Plymouth was applauded when he said he disagrees with the third-place ranking of the Sutherlands River to Antigonish section among the eight portions identified by the province for possible twinning. He noted the large number of trucks using the highway to transport goods to Newfoundland and Labrador, and high volumes of tourist traffic in the summer months.
With a show of hands, the majority of the people at the meeting indicated that twinning is the only option to improve Highway 104, and many of them indicated they would support tolls to twin highways sooner.
However, not everyone is in favour of tolls.
Eric Williams, who operates a sawmill in Barneys River, is concerned about the effect they would have on his business. “As a businessman, I can’t be in favour of tolls,” he said. He suggested that an extra two-cent tax be added onto the cost of gas and diesel instead, to pay for the new highways. “That way everybody across the province and people coming in are paying.”
Several speakers mentioned different means of funding, while others said tolls are a small price to pay to save lives.
“A life is a life,” said Carl Boudreau of New Glasgow. “You can never get that back.”
The local session was the first of 12 scheduled around the province, including one on Feb. 13 in Antigonish. The last public consultation takes place March 1 in Dartmouth.
Data from all 12 sessions will be compiled into a “what we heard” document to provide the government with information to make decisions about the highways. TIR has indicated it would only explore tolling further if Nova Scotians say that is what they want.
For more information or to provide feedback, see novascotia.ca/twinning