Tolls roads – coming soon to an interchange near you.


In 1978 the Canadian premiers met in Regina. During a break on a lawn near Wascana Lake, a hapless photographer was imploring them to stand still and smile pretty. But they blithely continued milling, not mugging.

Gerry Regan of Nova Scotia, often the class clown at gatherings like these, stepped in to take mock charge. The chap with the camera wanted to line them up from East to West by province. But Regan decreed they should arrange themselves from right to left, according to their position on the political spectrum.

He guided Sterling Lyon of Manitoba gently, but loudly, to the extreme right. “I’m not saying Sterling’s right-wing,” he announced to the world at large. “It’s just that he doesn’t think roads should be publicly owned.”

Everyone laughed. It was a good joke – for its time. Premier Lyon may have been both conservative and Conservative, but he itched to build roads. And privately owned highways? Unthinkable in the Canada of 20 years ago.

But times change. Premier Regan’s little joke would fall more than a little flat today. Especially in Ontario, home of the privately owned and operated Highway 407. Or in Prince Edward Island, which you can drive to toll-free over the new Confederation Bridge – but it costs you $35 to come back. Or in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. A short section of the Trans-Canada though northern Nova Scotia became a corporate asset late last year, and a big piece across central New Brunswick soon will be.

My Western editor thinks I’m nuts to say this, but let me go out on a limb and predict the same kind of thing – a private toll road – coming soon to an interchange near you.

What do I base this on? Well, I claim no special insight into your provincial politics or policies. But I know a little about your provincial finances – in a nutshell, darn near as bad as ours are down East. I know a little about the state of your roads – a Trans-Canada nowhere as bad as some appalling sections here, but otherwise darn near as bad as ours. And I know your chances of getting big road-building bucks from Ottawa, urgent pleas and good arguments notwithstanding. Once again, darn near as bad as ours.

I also know that, until quite recently, I never thought I’d see the day when Maritime roads would fall into private hands. This is a region where politicians know they must deliver big-time largesse. And they know their voters are slow to warm to new ideas.

Back around the time Gerry Regan was making his joke in Regina, my province was opening a huge new bridge in Saint John – a magnificent span across the city’s sizable harbor. It’s publicly owned, of course. But to this day Saint Johners gripe about the outrageous toll – 25 cents. So who could imagine our government would ever ask us to pay $7 – the proposed toll for the new Trans-Canada – to drive a couple of hundred kilometres from Fredericton to Moncton? And pay it to a private consortium headed by Doug Young, the former federal minister who was turfed by New Brunswick voters last election because he dared to dilute our UI?

So, as you might expect, the political cost of private road-building is high for both the Nova Scotia and New Brunswick governments. Both could face elections with new leaders at the helm this year, and both could lose, in part because of toll-road backlash.

Of course, both these governments could advance some sound arguments both for tolling and for having private firms own the highways. Most provinces spend more on roads than they garner in road-related taxes; general taxes make up the shortfall. All taxpayers – including poor people who can’t afford to drive – pay those general taxes, an unfairness that a government could claim it wants to correct. And the future wealth of the people investing in those roads depends entirely on the quality of their investment. Surely they have more incentive to build things to last than our traditional road-builders – politicians or bureaucrats, who urgently need to quell a public clamor today, but whose personal futures are assured by fat pensions.

But our Maritime politicians, beleaguered or not, don’t stoop to such logic. They prefer to just tough it out. They simply say we need the roads now; we can’t afford to put the money up front. Like it or lump it.

If I were you, I’d expect to hear the same sort of thing soon from your highways minister, a present or a future one who’s feeling pressed on one side by the driving public and on the other by bean-counters in the finance department. When you reach the point where the rubber really has to hit the road, things can go from unthinkable to fait accompli at a speed that might surprise you.

It sure surprised us.