‘Tis the season to repackage. Fa la la la la, la la la la. Senior federal and provincial politicians gathered in Antigonish last week to announce a goodie bag of loot from Ottawa totalling an impressive $634 million for various infrastructure projects throughout the province. The funding looks somewhat less impressive when one realizes that it’s spread over seven years, and less impressive still when it’s pointed out that substantial parts of this had been previously announced in one way or another.

The package includes $235.68 million from the Canada Fund announced in last federal budget for such things as transit, water and wastewater facilities, green energy projects and high-speed Internet. Some $37 million of that is earmarked for small projects in communities outside of Metro Halifax, though the bulk, more than $198 million, is for large projects such as further twinning of the Trans-Canada Highway east of New Glasgow.

Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies, can recall that the further $25 million annually in so-called base funding for core infrastructure in Nova Scotia, for a total of $175 million through 2014, had already been announced at least three times.

Premier Rodney MacDonald promises that “every municipal unit on Cape Breton Island will benefit,” although it wouldn’t take a huge chunk of a billion dollars-plus (with a provincial contribution factored in) to provide something to each of the island’s five municipal units. On a visit to Sydney last week, MacDonald was vague about what Cape Breton could expect, especially for highways. On the prospect of twinning the Trans-Canada through Cape Breton, the premier said that’s part of long-range planning. But clearly the priority is to complete twinning on the mainland as far east as the Canso Causeway.

If infrastructure plans, particularly on highways, are really as fluid as the premier suggests, Cape Breton opinion leaders should lend the man a hand. They could do worse than reprise the call made back in June by Owen Fitzgerald, president of the Sydney and Area Chamber of Commerce, to accelerate reconstruction of Highway 4. Noting that three kilometres had been  slated for completion in the coming season, to add to the three done the previous year, he figured it would take another 15 to 20 years to finish the approximately 100 km route.
The eye-popping cost of highway twinning — $6.25 million per kilometre, to judge by an Antigonish project announced last week — should lead any reasonable person to wonder whether the Trans-Canada will ever be twinned across Cape Breton, and indeed whether that would be the best way to spend the horrendous sums required. The rebuilt sections of Highway 4 are a big improvement, and the retained twists and turns along the Bras d’Or Lake probably offer value as a tourist route.

But much of the benefit of this work is lost on motorists because of the numerous bad sections that remain. It doesn’t matter whether Highway 4 qualifies under the new funding announcement; every federal dollar spent on a highway in Nova Scotia is a dollar the province doesn’t have to spend on that project.

Fitzgerald called on the province to finish Highway 4 reconstruction in the next five years, by 2012. Cape Breton should bring its lobby together to push for that date.