Nova Scotia unlikely to remove all tolls on Cobequid Pass: minister

Nova Scotia's transportation minister says it's unlikely all tolls will be removed from the Cobequid Pass, the province's only toll highway. File/ Global News

Nova Scotia’s transportation minister says it’s unlikely all tolls will be removed from the Cobequid Pass, the province’s only toll highway.

Lloyd Hines said maintenance and capital costs will fall to all provincial taxpayers if tolls are entirely removed from the 45-kilometre stretch of highway, opened in 1997 between Amherst and Truro in an effort to reduce accidents in an area formerly referred to as “Death Valley.”

Following a cabinet meeting Thursday, Hines said the legislation that created the highway gives the government discretion in changing the tolls, and a final decision is expected in about a year.

“The legislation does not compel us to lift the toll, so we have discretion there, and we are going to exercise that discretion in the best interest of the taxpayers of Nova Scotia – all of the taxpayers of Nova Scotia.”

READ MORE: Details of toll removal on Nova Scotia highway still being considered

But Progressive Conservative Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, the MLA for Cumberland North, said she “fundamentally disagrees,” with the minister’s stance, adding the act clearly states tolls must be removed once the debt on the bonds issued to build the highway are paid off.

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“We are tired of paying tolls and taxes more than the rest of Nova Scotia,” said Smith-McCrossin. “I think all Nova Scotians should be treated equally and fairly and leaving the toll on the Cobequid Pass once the debt is paid, actually goes fundamentally against the Western Alignment Act.”

The Highway 104 Western Alignment Act states: “Tolls shall cease to be imposed or collected … when all costs and liabilities relating thereto, including its financing, design, construction, operation and maintenance, and any repair, improvement, replacement, alteration or extension, have been paid or otherwise discharged, and all financing with respect to the Western Alignment has been paid or otherwise discharged.”

Although the Cobequid Pass – also known as the Western Alignment – is the province’s only tolled highway, Hines pointed out Halifax has two tolled harbour bridges and that ferry users in the province also pay a toll.

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Hines said the government’s considerations on Cobequid Pass tolls are apart from its decision announced last April not to toll other roads and highways in the province.

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“This (tolling) decision was made many years ago and we need to make sure that what we do is in the best interest of taxpayers,” he said. “The question is, can we maintain some of the revenue that has been instrumental in making that road the best kept piece of highway in the province?”

The Liberal government has said it plans to remove the tolls for Nova Scotia motorists, but is considering what to do about commercial trucking and out-of-province motorists.

Earlier this week, Transportation Department officials told the legislature’s public accounts committee the highway’s debt is expected to be paid off in fiscal 2019-2020.

They said the pass had collected $308 million in tolls since it first opened, and last year collected $19 million in revenues with about $12 million going toward expenses such as maintenance and capital costs.

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