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Estimates - Highways (10 May 2007)

From Intergovernmental Affairs and Infrastructure Committee Hansard - 10 May 2007

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Highways and Transportation

Mr. Hart: — Thank you, Mr. Chair, for recognizing me in committee this afternoon, I guess it is. Minister, I have a number of highways of course in my constituency that I would like to discuss. And I actually went back to last year’s notes, and I see that the highways are exactly the same except . . . that I would like to discuss with you. But I’ve added a couple more.

For many years now a section of Highway 22 between junction of 6 and junction 20, which is between the communities of Southey and Bulyea, has been a perennial problem in my constituency. And I listened very attentively when you were discussing with one of my colleagues the need to turn highways back to gravel. And that in fact is what you and your department did to a portion of Highway 22 in that area.

And the community of Earl Grey, which is in the middle of that section of highway . . . I have had a number of constituents from that community and area raise the issue of the highway, and they are very upset with that action that your department took in turning that highway back, reverting it back to gravel. And the question they’re asking is, is this a temporary action, or is there some longer term plan to bring this highway up to a granular pavement standard? And basically what are the department’s plans for that particular section of highway?

Hon. Mr. Lautermilch: — Mr. Chairman, that stretch of highway has not gone unnoticed by the department. I want to assure the member of that. And it’s been one of the roadways that have been recognized as regional economic corridor, and it will fall under that policy framework. The policy framework is just in the process now of being finalized. And so the plans for that stretch are to be upgraded, which is why I make the point that, for safety reasons, on occasion a TMS road just won’t cut it. It doesn’t do it. And you know, we just can’t convert them all, which is what I was trying to explain to Ms. Eagles. Even though it’s an inconvenience to some communities, for safety reasons sometimes it’s better to convert them to a gravel status and, you know, and blade them and grade them and try to maintain a dust-free surface.

We designed a provincial network — both with the provincial system and with municipalities — and we’re designing that system so that we can identify areas that require upgrading. And this stretch of road, I can assure you, is part of our proposal to upgrade. And as the policy framework is being finalized, this will be part of that analysis. The officials may be able to be more specific in terms of when they believe that upgrade may take place. I’m not sure if they know at this point. But it’s obviously part of the discussion, and it’s been recognized as a road that should be upgraded. Perhaps I could just have Mr. Stamatinos respond in more detail.

Mr. Stamatinos: — Thank you, Mr. Minister. What I can tell the member is that we are looking at a situation such as that particular section of Highway 22. There are other similar circumstances across the province. It fits into a suite of projects that we feel need some attention over the life of the TEA. That surface, it does carry a higher level of traffic. A good part of it’s now operating as a gravel surface.

And our intention is certainly to — as part of our TEA framework, in particular rural economic corridors — is to finalize a prioritization process that will look at all of these similar roads across the province with the view of seeing an improvement to those roads to a permanent mud-free, dust-free surface. It could be a structured pavement, but in any event it would be mud-free, dust-free, and over the term of TEA which is 10 years.

Mr. Hart: — Did I hear you correctly? The TEA, the planning process and the time frame for action, you’re looking at a 10-year period. And to this point in time, you haven’t got your list of priorities as far as those types of highways. That priority list will be forthcoming in the not too distant future. Is that a fair summary of the situation with that section of highway?

Mr. Law: — Perhaps to help clarify what the assistant deputy minister was saying, the 10-year time frame is the overall planning framework time frame that’s been assigned for the plan as a whole for the province. And this particular category was identified as a unique category within the strategy for some of the TMS upgrading that we needed to do in that time frame. So within the 10 years, there will be a series of roads in this category, which we anticipate as a result of our analysis, that really do require an upgrade.

Now the work could happen as early as next year on this particular section of road. Or it could happen in a later part of the strategy within the 10-year time frame. We have not determined which of these will happen in which years yet because we’re actually doing a ranking and prioritization of the different sections of TMS in this category of the strategy that need upgrading. But we will, I think, when we talked about a similar category — and I stand to be correction on this — that we thought we would probably have an initial ranking of some of these, the timing of some of these projects before the end of the current fiscal year.

Being as this is the first year of the program and this being a new category where we actually have some new funds, we’re trying to be as efficient and thoughtful about the relationships between how this work gets done and the two other parts of our strategy and how we tie them in.

So it’s not that nothing will happen for 10 years; it could be happen very early. But the prioritization process is something that we’re currently engaged in right now and will be in a position to talk about more in terms of the exact time frames for the specific sections like this particular one that you’re referring to on Highway 22, probably some time later in this fiscal year.

Mr. Hart: — Well thank you for that information. After some seven or eight years of me raising concerns about this particular section of highway, at least up until today in prior years, there really was no plan and the highway just was . . . continued to patch and be patched and deteriorate. And at least now from what you’re saying, Mr. Law, that there is at least a plan, and I think that is at least some progress that’s being made.

You know, I mean it certainly begs the question as to, you know, why didn’t we start this planning process much earlier; those are the suggestions that I made. I certainly realize that as the minister had said earlier that we just can’t address all the highways in one or two years.

But that is what the people living and using . . . along those highways and living along those highways have been asking for a great number of years. And you know, they’re very understanding. They understand that you can’t wave a magic wand and fix everything in a matter of one or two years. But they would have liked to know what the plan is. And so for that part of it, I think they will be somewhat thankful although they certainly have been waiting for a long time. And I’m not so sure they’re ready to forgive and those sorts of things.

Particularly the community of Earl Grey — who I know a number of residents have spoken to me in the last couple of days — who feel that they are being neglected and forgotten about because in the last couple of days they’ve also lost their school, they said last year we lost our highway. This year we’re losing our school. What else are we going to lose? So at least we have a bit of good news for them.

I would, just as I have suggested in other years and I’m sure you, Minister, you and your officials know that there is a . . . Pioneer Grain has a major inland terminal some 5 kilometres off of Highway 6. And they feel that they have invested fairly significant dollars — something in the neighbourhood of $14 million — and they feel that those 5 kilometres should be given priority. Under current situations, they do not have a primary access to their facility. And I would urge that given that circumstance that section of Highway 22 be given serious consideration for some early action under your new planning process.

I would like to move on, Minister, to another highway in my constituency. It’s Highway 310 between Balcarres and Ituna. Back in January of 2006, the department and some of the municipal governments in the area signed a partnership agreement that I have before me. And this partnership agreement calls for upgrading, a resurfacing of Highway 310 between the two communities.

And it also calls for the municipal governments to provide some financial assistance and also provision of some materials in the form of aggregate and also the municipalities foregoing some fees and maintenance payments that normally would be going to a municipality when aggregate haul roads are within their municipal boundaries.

And the question that the officials and the citizens of that area, they’re asking, are they going to see any commencement of work on Highway 310? And if so, when and how many kilometres? Because the agreement calls for three to five kilometres of work over 41 kilometres, which could take anywhere between 8 and 14 years — which probably, at least I don’t think and many people don’t think, is a very efficient way of doing this.

So basically the question is, is there any work planned on Highway 310 for this coming construction season? And if so, when and how many kilometres?

Hon. Mr. Lautermilch: — Mr. Chairman, yes there are plans for Highway 310. This is one of the highways again that has been contemplated under the rural economic corridor policy framework. The plan is that the department plans to rebuild three to four kilometres south of Ituna in this construction season. Aggregate has been stockpiled, and there has been about $800,000 allocated to it.

I’m told that similar progress, as in the past couple of years, is planned for the next number of years. And it will be upgraded to a dust-free, mud-free surface as part of the regional economic corridor policy framework under transportation for the economy. And again as Mr. Law has explained, it will be prioritized along with other roads.

And I think, you know, just to comment on your thoughts about communities waiting for a long time, probably that is true. And there are a number of reasons for that. We began — and I’m going to take you back to 1996 — we began with around 10,000 kilometres, I’m told, of TMS roads. We have upgraded 2,500 kilometres — 2,500 kilometres — in the last 10 years, and we have done that at a time when we were attempting to pay down provincial debt, as well as lowering personal taxes, lowering corporate taxes. We were still able to complete the upgrade of 2,500 kilometres of those roads. And you know, so I think that is no small feat.

Have we done them all? The answer is no, obviously we haven’t. We have 6,100 kilometres of TMS roads in this province. And that’s really what we’ve been discussing in today’s round of case work. It’s basically that what you’ve been raising are TMS roads.

And I asked your colleague from Estevan if in fact the Saskatchewan Party has a plan. We’ve outlined our plan, and you know, I hear what you’re saying about your constituents believing that maybe it’s not quick enough. So I want to know, are you committing to more dollars for the Department of Highways and Transportation, and if so, how much would you suggest that we commit on an annual basis? If you believe that the $5 billion isn’t enough, perhaps you can tell us what would be enough because those are the questions I think that are important.

So that is my response on Highway 310 and I’m sort of . . . If we’re back here again, I’ll be waiting for your response on my questions. Perhaps you’ll have some time to think it over, and you’ll be able to share with us what your plan is.

Mr. Hart: — One more? Okay. Well, Minister, your questions will be answered. We’ve said for a long time that the first thing that this province needs to do is something that you finally, in the dying days of your government, have undertaken which is an economic analysis in determining which highways need to be repaired. And it’s just another one of those ideas that you have taken from us. And we feel so long as the people of the provinces are benefiting, we don’t mind you borrowing our ideas.

But very quickly, I’d just like to raise some concerns with Highway 35 between junction 22 and junction 15 which last year your department designated as a nine-month primary weight highway, and yet that highway is under a great deal of stress. Last year there was, particularly on the area south of Leross, there was a fair bit of repair work done, and again this spring it is breaking up again. The people of the area feel that the work in that . . . done last summer wasn’t effective. They have a number of questions as to, you know, the amount of dollars being spent on that section of highway and who did the work because they honestly feel that the province didn’t receive value for the dollars that were spent.

Hon. Mr. Lautermilch: — Mr. Chair, the member will be pleased to know, I’m sure, that this government — this NDP government — has delivered for spring repair an incremental $25 millions over and above what was budgeted for last year.

The member will also know that we’re dealing with a lot of melted snow and rain. We’ve got a lot of water around, and a lot of the roads are not in the condition that we can approach them with some repairs. And obviously the high water table and high water levels are creating some difficulties for the department.

But I think it’s fair to say that a commitment of $25 million to — new money — to the spring repair program is an important recognition by this administration that now that we have some financial freedom that this province hasn’t had for many, many years — probably since the 1970s — that we are able to allocate more dollars to the things that people in Saskatchewan need and that people in Saskatchewan desire.

And so how have we done that? We’ve done that because we’ve been able to pay down billions of dollars of Grant Devine’s debt, a legacy that he left this province, the people of this province, and we’ve done that because we’ve been able to ensure that this economy has been growing along with some of the other provinces. And the economy in this province is growing leaps and bounds, and so we’re generating more dollars from income tax, personal income tax, business taxes. We’re generating more dollars from our resources because the activity out there is unprecedented in the oil and gas sector and in the potash sector and in the uranium sector.

And I have to tell you that I am very proud of being part of an administration that has put this province right side up again. And that’s what we’ve done since 1991. And it’s showing in our ability to put more money into our road system. And it may not be quick enough for members of the Saskatchewan Party, but they haven’t today . . . And I’ve asked them over and over again to offer an alternative, and I’ve heard nothing. I have heard not one word in terms of an alternative to what we’re doing in the highways and transportation system. And I find that disappointing, but that’s the reality we deal with.

So Mr. Law if you’d care to respond specifically to this highway, I would appreciate it.

Mr. Law: — Thank you, Minister. Just a quick word or two on the response to conditions on Highway 35. Last year the minister referenced the $25 million of new money we brought in. That was specifically for a spring program that we provided for some response to the emergency conditions we found. And what was new or different about what we tried to do is we introduced some new, more sustainable preservation methodologies and protocols in terms of the repairs that we were bringing to the roads.

We’ve undertaken to try and do something similar in the assessment of the problem that’s in front of us this year. And have included Highway 35 as one of the areas where we recognize the need to bring some of those methodologies to bear this year. So we are still doing the assessment of this and talking about how we will manage it, given some of the preservation funding that’s been available to us. But our intent is to try and apply some of the new protocols to result in sort of longer lasting solutions in these areas.

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