NS Highways: Don’t Debate Tolls, Debate Twinning

Nova Scotia will be wrapping up its Highway Twinning Public Consultations roadshow with the last of 14 public meetings being held in Shelburne on Thursday. Those who made it out to meet the travelling panel of engineers and consultants would have noticed one peculiar thing: the meetings were less about “twinning” than they were about “tolling,” at least from the government’s perspective.

Highway twinning is already Nova Scotia government policy. All things left unchanged, we will continue to pick away at twinning our remaining 100 series highways, spending about $30 million a year as we go. (That, of course, is only a fraction of the $400 million we spend each year maintaining, clearing and repairing our whopping 23,000 kilometers of roads and highways.)

When faced with outcry over the tragic deaths happening on some of our high-speed, two-lane 100-series stretches, the Nova Scotia government didn’t order up a feasibility study on twinning itself (including, say, the careful evaluation of alternatives) but rather a study into the financial feasibility of twinning faster. Basically, they decided to ask how many of us were willing to pay to twin more highways a whole lot sooner than business-as-usual would permit.

Estimated Collision Reduction Chart (Source: CBCL https://novascotia.ca/twinning/docs/Master%20Feasibility%20Study%20Presentation.pdf)

Estimated Collision Reduction Chart (Source: CBCL https://novascotia.ca/twinning/docs/Master%20Feasibility%20Study%20Presentation.pdf)

CBCL was hired to crunch the numbers, and came up with construction and toll estimates for the twinning of eight different stretches of highway totaling 304 kilometers. The major assumption was that the Nova Scotia and Canadian governments would each cover 25% of the constructions costs, leaving 50% to be raised some other way, like tolling.

According to a phone survey conducted by CBCL, Nova Scotians are willing to pay about 6 cents per kilometer in tolls. This resulted in both Cape Breton projects on the list being deemed not financially viable. The break-even point for the 7-kilometer stretch from Port Hastings to Pork Hawkesbury was a 12 cent/km toll ($0.84 each way), while the 84-kilometer stretch from St. Peter’s to Sydney would require 26 cents/km, or $21.81 in tolls each way, just to cover 50% of the cost of construction. (By contrast, the higher volumes of drivers on the other side of the causeway put individual toll costs much lower. Going from Taylor’s Road to Auld’s Cove on a newly twinned highway would only cost $2.37 each way, according to CBCL’s estimates.)

Based on ability to pay alone, only six twinning projects were deemed to have “good financial viability” under the tolling scheme. But that doesn’t mean we can actually afford them.


Safety first?

What goes unsaid in the report is that even with tolls covering 50% of twinning costs and the federal government another 25%, Nova Scotia would still need to increase its road construction budget to afford what’s in this report.

Nova Scotia’s current new construction budget can leverage at most $1.2 billion over 10 years with tolls and federal contributions. But the six “financially viable” projects listed in the report add up to just over $1.6 billion, leaving a $444 million gap between “good financial viability” and what we can afford.

That said, let’s set aside the hazy idea of financial viability for a moment, since ultimately it’s not the test of whether we should build infrastructure. The voices calling for highway twinning are not citing the ability to pay, after all, they are citing safety.

And twinning is definitely safer.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that twinning prevents all collisions. CBCL estimated the reductions in straight numbers of collisions resulting from twinning at about 1/3. For the roughly 40-kilometer stretch between Taylor’s Road and Auld’s Cove, even twinning would leave us with about 30 collisions a year. But, says CBCL engineer Audrey Muir, the reductions are “based in the number of fatal, head-on collisions.” By separating different directions of traffic, “you are eliminating head-on collisions, which are the number one cause of fatal accidents.”

And that’s the magic of twinning — and probably the reason why the Nova Scotia government has embarked on a massive public consultation on tolling for the purposes of twinning, without appearing to seriously consider any other options.

Route map for the Saskatchewan Transportation Company https://www.stcbus.com/

Route map for the Saskatchewan Transportation https://www.stcbus.com/Company

Other options

But it turns out that twinning is not the only way to reduce collisions, improve safety or even separate different directions of traffic.

The first and most immediate alternative to twinning is to use our current toolbox of safety measures on the roads we have. Nova Scotia started this process with safety reviews of some of our more dangerous sections of highway, like the 104 between Sutherland’s River and Antigonish, in 2015. Contracted engineers came up with a list of 42 safety countermeasures ranging from the very cheap (replacing signs, adding chevrons to substandard curves) to the far more expensive (widening roads for alternating passing lanes.) In response, the Nova Scotia Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal (NSTIR) upgraded the size and reflectivity of recommended signage last spring and added shoulder rumble strips. They have also removed some awkwardly placed downhill passing zones, as per the report’s recommendations. That leaves a long list of possible improvements that could reduce the number of collisions.

Then there’s the improvements that we could be making which are not yet in our toolbox.

In 2009, Transport Canada hired AECOM engineers to evaluate and report on some of the road engineering safety countermeasures being used around the world, and discuss how they might work here in Canada. The report outlines measures like simple 2+1 road design (essentially, a three-lane road with a continuously alternating passing lane, similar to what was recommended in the 104 Safety Review), the use of speed cameras to deter dangerous driving and responsive warning signs alerting drivers to changing road conditions. One of the more compelling designs described in this Transport Canada report is from Sweden, where road safety is a national obsession: a 2+1 road design with cable median barriers separating opposing traffic.

These cable-separated 3-lane roads are common in Sweden, and have been known to reduce head-on collisions by 96% on high-speed roads, according to the report. High-tension cable barriers work by absorbing energy from straying vehicles, and then either slowing them down or sending them back into their lanes. They separate opposing traffic lanes without themselves becoming a dangerous obstacle in traffic, as is the case with concrete jersey barriers.

2+1 road with cable barriernear Linköping, Sweden. (Source: World Highways http://www.worldhighways.com/categories/traffic-focus-highway-management/features/21-type-roads-a-chance-to-be-better-in-road-safety-for-lithuania/)

2+1 road with cable barriernear Linköping, Sweden. (Source: World Highways http://www.worldhighways.com/categories/traffic-focus-highway-management/features/21-type-roads-a-chance-to-be-better-in-road-safety-for-lithuania/)

Of course, retrofitting our highways to 2+1 cable separated roads would involve widening in many places to accommodate an extra lane and space for the cable median. So the costs would not be insignificant. Trouble is, we don’t really know the costs of this particular (or any other) alternative, because we decided not to ask.

“Even though the department looks at different configurations,” says Bruce Fitzner, Nova Scotia’s director of infrastructure programs, “the basis of this study was really on the twinning, which is sort of the ultimate fix.”

Last, and certainly the least sexy way to reduce collisions on our 100 series highways is to reduce the numbers of cars and trucks using those highways. And to do that, you need to provide alternatives.

For the $30 million we will spend on new road construction this year, we could rehabilitate the entire rail line to Sydney, and not only divert damaging container traffic off our roads, but even have a shot at becoming part of VIA Rail’s plans for a new regional passenger rail service in the Maritimes.

Or we could take a page from Saskatchewan’s book. For a mere $13 million a year in subsidy, they have a comprehensive regional bus service run by their very own crown corporation. Nova Scotia, on the other hand, has extremely limited public transportation options outside of Halifax, a glaring weakness in our transportation infrastructure that affects workers, students and even tourists.


Lost in the ’60s

The possibility of introducing tolls to expand highway infrastructure seems like a double negative to Ahsan Habib, the director of the Dalhousie Transportation Collaboratory. While he sees plenty of opportunity for design changes to improve safety, Habib sees twinning as further inducing demand on our road system, while at the same time asking users who don’t necessarily have other options to pay.

“I do not see it as a smart approach in this age,” says Habib, “when everybody is trying to pull out of this supply-oriented transportation design…That’s a ’60s transportation engineering principle. It’s not right now.”

But it is, for better or worse, the way the Nova Scotia government is doing it.

“What we’ve put in place took almost 50 years,” says Bruce Fitzner. “We can and we will continue to do that, but people are telling us it’s taking too long. So what the toll is really for is to speed it up. We’re going to continue to do it the old way anyway, it’s just gonna take awhile.”



Erica Butler writes a regular transportation column for the Halifax Examiner





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