Money

Cobequid Pass toll may disappear for many Nova Scotians in 2019

Out-of-province drivers and commercial vehicles may still have to pay

The public accounts committee discussed removing tolls from the Cobequid Pass on Wednesday.   Sonia Koshy

The Nova Scotia government is looking to remove some tolls from the Cobequid Pass in about a year, but some drivers might still have to pay.

“A commitment has been made to remove the toll for Nova Scotia motorists,” Diane Saurette, a finance official in the Transportation Department, told the public accounts committee Wednesday. 

On the campaign trail last year, the Liberals promised to remove the tolls as soon as bonds on the pass are paid. Those bonds are expected to be paid during the 2019-2020 fiscal year, which is eight years ahead of schedule, Saurette said.

However, the tolls likely won’t disappear for everyone.

Saurette said vehicles from outside the province and all commercial trucks would still have to pay. She said she was concerned about the maintenance costs that would arise if the tolls were removed.  

“We actually run a deficit when we look at overall maintenance of our highway system on an annual basis. This year, I think it is somewhere around $30 million,” she said.

The Cobequid Pass is owned by the province and is operated by the Highway 104 Western Alignment corporation, a provincial Crown agency. The 45-km stretch of Highway 104 is the only toll highway in Nova Scotia.

The Cobequid Pass cost about $113 million and was built in 20 months. An estimated $308 million has been collected in toll revenue since the pass opened in 1997.

Tolls vary from $2 to $24, depending on the type of vehicle and whether payment is made in cash or electronically.

Liberal MLA Brendan Maguire was worried about the consequences of removing tolls, such as what might happen if there’s less maintenance on the pass.

“My main concern would be the safety of the individuals travelling that highway,” said Maguire to reporters after the meeting.

“People forget that this was called Death Valley. When was the last time it was referred to as Death Valley? So it is becoming a very safe piece of road.”

Fewer workers

There are currently 56 employees working for the corporation, including part-time and full-time workers. The committee was told this number would be reduced to 10 departmental employees if the tolls are completely removed.  

Tim Houston, PC MLA for Pictou East, said the government should stick to the deal of removing the tolls completely when debts are paid.

“It’s about fairness,” he said to reporters. “It’s unfair for the people of that area; it’s unfair for the people that use that road. To be the only stretch of road in Nova Scotia that has toll is unfair.”

The committee was told there are many other factors, such as maintenance costs that are to be considered before making a decision.

The decision about whether the tolls should be removed partially or completely is expected in 2019.