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Cumberland County trucker, MLAs vent over broken toll promise

Cars wait to pay the toll at the Cobequid Toll booths at the Cobequid Pass in August 2017.
Cars wait to pay the toll at the Cobequid Toll booths at the Cobequid Pass in August 2017. - SaltWire File Photo

TIR minister Hines steps away 2019-20 promise to remove tolls on Cobequid Pass in 2019-20

AMHERST, N.S. —

Bill Dowe is tired of broken promises when it comes to removing tolls on the Cobequid Pass.

Dowe, who owns a trucking business in Cumberland County, was looking forward to the removal of the tolls from the highway connecting Cumberland and Colchester counties. Now he’s being told he’s going to have to wait longer than promised.

“As frustrating as it is, it doesn’t really surprise me,” said Dowe. “Saying that, it still makes my blood boil every time they talk about it because I know we’ve been lied to from the get go.”

Dowe, who has been an opponent of the 44-kilometre toll highway between Thomson Station and Glenholme since it was first announced in 1994, said the toll adds to the cost of doing business in Cumberland County.

He said businesses like his are being impacted by the higher cost of staying competitive compared to businesses on the other side of the toll plaza.

During the 2017 provincial election campaign, and again during the 2018 by-election in Cumberland South, the Liberals promised to remove the toll once the highway’s debt is paid for and predicted that would likely be in 2019 or 2020, not in 2026 as suggested by the opposition Progressive Conservatives.

Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Lloyd Hines stepped away from that commitment on Thursday when he said removing the tolls is likely to be delayed so the province can complete a couple of other projects associated with the highway – possibly a rest area and maintenance areas.

These could help alleviate weather-related closures of the highway that have left motorists stranded.

“We said 2019-2020, but that’s a moving target,” Hines said of the plan to remove tolls. “As we receive more information and make some changes while we have the luxury of the toll revenue, we want to leave ourselves in a situation where we have a good solid asset that will prevail over the longer term. Once the toll comes off the maintenance costs falls into general revenue of the province.”

Hines said the planning is in preliminary stages for the two capital projects. He said the rest area would not likely have many services while maintenance areas would alleviate a problem where crews have found it difficult to get equipment in place on the highway when it’s closed by weather.

“We want to establish a couple of satellite maintenance areas toward the middle and have equipment there so we would be able to respond to these types of projects much earlier,” the minister said, adding the concept has been discussed internally for about year.

After last November’s closure, department staff decided to take a deeper dive.

The minister said there is no specific date for removing the tolls, but said the government is still ahead of the 2026 amortization date.

“We did say 2020, but that’s probably going to be pushed out a bit,” Hines said. “We have until 2026 and we want to leave an asset there that’s enduring and we feel those improvements will go a long way toward helping that piece of highway.”

Cumberland South MLA Tory Rushton said he’s not surprised the date is being shuffled again.

“This the third date we’ve heard from this minister,” said Rushton, a Progressive Conservative.

“It concerns me that Cumberland County is being hit again. All we want is transparency. Just be honest with us, let us know what is the contingency to get vehicles off the highway when there is an emergency and when are the tolls going to come off the highway. I just want them to stop holding Cumberland County hostage.”

He said most Nova Scotians would have no problem with paying a few dollars to drive well-maintained, twinned highways, but it’s unfair that one area is paying tolls and the rest of the province isn’t.

Rushton’s not sure if adding rest areas will help fix what has happened the last three Novembers and more than a decade ago when the first weather-related closure occurred. He said having plow operators ready to go at the first of November instead of December would go a long way to preventing closures.

Rushton’s counterpart in Cumberland North, Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin said government is breaking its own legislation that says once the highway is paid off the tolls will be removed.

She said continued tolls are making residents and businesses in Cumberland County pay twice for roads, through the provincial motive fuel tax and the toll.

“Businesses in Cumberland County are being treated unfairly,” the PC MLA for Cumberland North said. “Every time we export lumber, or lobster or blueberries inside the province it costs extra. It costs businesses in Cumberland County approximately $7,500 per truck per year to ship product to the rest of Nova Scotia.”

(With files from Andrew Rankin)

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