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Silence on Nova Scotia highway financing signals election may be ahead

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It is interesting -- and perhaps instructive -- to compare the McNeil government's stealth, stroke-of-a-pen, done-and-dusted announcement it had clawed back a basic human right (a minimum wage) for teenaged hockey players with its aw-shucks, no-rush, we-just-want-what-you-want chorus for last week's release of a study on twinning the province's 100-series highways.

The study itself was carefully calibrated to rank the feasibility of twinning the un-twinned sections of each of eight highways based on clear criteria, including cost and safety, offset against potential revenue from tolls based on traffic volumes.

The CBCL engineering consultants, who prepared the study, even conducted a "willingness to pay" survey to determine how much motorists would pay (5-10-cents-a-kilometre, it turned out) for the privilege of driving on safer, more efficient highways, then factored that into traffic volumes to determine potential revenues.

No matter how you play off the revenue ins and cost outs, twinning 300-kilometres of highway represents a $2-billion, long-term undertaking.

The government was right to commission the study, right to look at all the financing options, right even to be cautious about which combination of options makes the most sense.

But it's hard not to suspect there is more at play in Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan's insistence there's been no decision on whether to charge how much in tolls and/or how to finance it all.

If the tea leaves from current Liberal polling are favourable, this could be an election fall in Nova Scotia. And that means every decision, every pronouncement must be filtered through the lens of its potential impact on voters.

There aren't many teenaged hockey players and few of them vote, so it's easy for government to disregard their rights as a favour to a hockey-owner friend, so long as it can be kept out of the headlines.

But tolls on highways? Theoretical willingness-to-pay surveys notwithstanding, government doesn't want to complicate the good news it might move forward with twinning with the reality rural locals might have to pay to visit the neighbours.

Financing? Reality has made public-private financing partnerships controversial.

Which explains why the Liberals not only won't discuss how to finance highways, but also punted even a discussion of what to do with lease-expiring P3 schools until...  after.

Let the campaign begin.

This article first appeared in Stephen Kimber's Halifax Metro column.

Photo: Doug Kerr/flickr

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