Progressive Conservative leader Blaine Higgs says that if the party is able to form government following next year’s election, there would be no further talk about twinning the length of Route 11 in Kent County North to Miramichi.
Higgs, in a wide-ranging interview with the Miramichi Leader last week, said he thinks the Gallant government’s fixation with converting the highway into New Brunswick’s newest four-laner is purely a political move that carries all sorts of long-term risk.
He said while there is a clear case to be made for investing in strategic safety upgrades for Route 11, he hasn’t seen anything to date that justifies government’s current vision for the highway, and the corresponding expense to take to make it happen.
“As soon as we took the tolls off [the main highway], everyone thought they needed a twinned highway and it’s not because we have more traffic or because of any particular requirement, other than ‘if there’s a twinned highway over there, why don’t we get another one?’ " Higgs said.
“I think Route 11 should have passing lanes installed, there should be moose fencing – anything to upgrade the road is absolutely the right thing to do but our traffic count in this province does not warrant these great big highways.”
Higgs’ opinions on the subject have been consistent for years.
As finance minister in the Alward government, he stated during a budget consultation session in Miramichi, that he didn't think spending what was estimated then at around $1 billion to twin Route 11 was in the best interest of taxpayers.
Clarifying his positioning further, Higgs said this wasn’t just about Route 11 and his stance isn’t intended to be a slight against those who live along the highway and may have a strong desire to see it twinned.
After all, the government had invested in a similarly expensive – and expansive – overhaul of Route 1 from Saint John west to the United States border at St. Stephen.
For the record, Higgs said he thinks the money spent on that project could have been allocated elsewhere and that the Route 1 twinning hasn’t lived up to its promises.
“It was half-built when we were in government and there’s no traffic on it either,” he said. “But we just can’t keep charging more taxes and hoping people are going to finance these.”
The provincial Liberals, meanwhile, locked into a $273-million funding agreement with the federal government earlier this year that allows another phase of twinning to take place over the next four years.
The latest funding package will see the highway north of the Shediac River to the Little Bouctouche River at McKees Mills upgraded to a four-lane highway, with the construction of an 11-kilometre, two-lane controlled-access bypass from Glenwood to Miramichi taking place further north.
Work on both projects is expected to wrap up by 2021, however, Transportation and Infrastructure Bill Fraser has said the government would likely be pursuing additional funding in future years to continue the twinning north of Bouctouche, with the goal of eventually completing it all the way into Northumberland County.
Fraser, as well as Premier Brian Gallant, have repeatedly cited the roughly 2,500 construction jobs expected to be created during this next phase, as well as enhancements to public safety and the movement of goods along that corridor, as motivating factors for this approach.
The government recently announced it had hired a full-time employee who will be tasked with determining whether there is a case to be made for twinning the highway further and helping oversee some of that long-term planning.
Fraser pointed out that updated traffic studies will need to be compiled in order to supply the government with an accurate snapshot of Route 11 as it stands today.
“That's an ongoing process and now that we have the full-time resource working on this, we will be able to have some of those updates coming soon," he said in a recent interview.
"But that's a continual process and anytime we put in a funding request to the federal government, we need to meet their criteria as well, so it's important we have that homework done."
Representatives of the New Brunswick Road Builders and Heavy Construction Association have said they would be supportive of a full-length twinning, noting the opportunities it would likely create for small, medium and large New Brunswick-based firms who would be able to tap into direct contracts and supply chain work.
Higgs, however, said he’s seen enough evidence to show that, even with all of that short-term job creation, the bad outweighs the good.
He said part of the risk with tying up so many financial resources into a project like this one is not only capital cost but also the ongoing maintenance required to keep these new highways up to snuff.
Higgs said yet another twinned highway would likely mean less money leftover for upgrades to New Brunswick’s rural roads, which he says are already crumbling and in desperate need of attention.
Higgs also said there is value in building a highway network that brings traffic into the heart of a community rather than around it.
He uses the example of Route 9 from Calais, Maine, – just across the St. Stephen border – to Bangor as an example of some of the enhancements the province could look at for Route 11.
“That road at one time was a hard road to drive but it isn’t anymore – it has passing lanes on hills, on level spots and it’s a pleasure to drive now … but they didn’t twin it and somehow we think that’s the only answer,” Higgs said.
A number of business owners who operate along Route 11 in Napan and Miramichi have been vocal in their opposition to the bypass, which they maintain will adversely impact their bottom lines.
Higgs doesn’t disagree with them, saying their concern is completely justified.
“Why do we want to avoid our communities? When you drive through Vermont or New Hampshire, you’re driving through all of these communities,” he said.
“But with Route 1, for example, it didn’t spur any economic development – it closed down a few businesses along the route who are now bypassed and we have some businesses here who are going to be bypassed as well.”