In an interview with The Guardian, Brian Douglas said the province can’t just make small fixes to the highway as it tries to improve it because the government has to follow national standards.
“It’s the Trans-Canada Highway,” he said.
Originally, the province proposed three plans for highway development in partnership with the federal government to make improvements to the Trans-Canada Highway as part of the Atlantic Gateway trade corridor.
Those plans called for changes to the highway in either Tryon, Crapaud or Churchill and the government held public consultations to decide which project to go with.
It chose Churchill and a plan to divert the highway through Strathgartney Provincial Park.
The government changed the plan after public outcry, deciding instead to move the highway to the north of the park.
Since then, there has been vocal opposition to what has been dubbed ‘Plan B’, including a recent protest at Province House where hundreds gathered and, at times, booed Premier Robert Ghiz when he addressed the crowd.
In arguing the need to improve safety along the highway, the government has been using numbers the RCMP reported between 1996 and 2010 to show how many accidents there were on the six-kilometre section to be changed.
Those numbers show two accidents involving fatalities, 38 cases with injuries and 63 that involved property damage.
Of those accidents, nine happened in the summer, 23 were in the spring, 33 were in the fall and 38 happened in the winter.
For the entire length of the Trans-Canada in P.E.I., there were 12 fatalities, 391 injuries and 637 crashes involving property damage during the same period.
It’s based on those figures that the government has been saying the section of highway to be re-routed had 56 per cent more accidents than the average for the Trans-Canada Highway in P.E.I.
To improve safety, the province is lowering the grade on hills, straightening the road and improving sight distances for driveways, of which there will be about 30 fewer than on the current stretch of highway.
It’s also putting in turning lanes for five roads that intersect the highway and widening the Bonshaw bridge.
Some project opponents have suggested the province just make changes to the existing section to lower speeds and make it safer that way.
The province’s chief engineer, Steve Yeo, said it’s not good engineering practice to have changes to the speed limit on a highway because some people would obey the different speed limits, but others wouldn’t.
“You get speed differentials and when you get speed differentials you get a lot more collisions and accidents and possible injuries and fatalities,” he said.
To complete the project, the government will be expropriating 10 houses, for which negotiations are underway.
The cost of the project is pegged at $16 million and shared evenly between the provincial and federal governments, but opponents argue the province can’t afford it.
Transportation Minister Robert Vessey said the province is spending $3 million for the project this year out of $38 million the government already allocated for capital roadwork.
That number will increase to $5 million next year, he said.
“The fact is it’s a $16-million project we’re cost-sharing with the federal government.”
With the federal government contributing half the money for the project, Vessey said he wondered if people opposed to the project would pass on that kind of deal if the money had to be spent on health care or education.
“I doubt it,” he said.
Among the concerns from those opposed to the plan is the environmental impact it will have, including in the area’s old growth forest.
Vessey said the project won’t destroy the entire old growth forest and will affect less than two per cent of it.
The project will also have to undergo an environmental assessment and, at its widest, the new road will have a footprint of 350 feet.
Douglas said the province is working with the Fisheries and Oceans Department and other agencies to make sure it complies with all environmental regulations.
“It’s a real environmental assessment,” he said.
Yeo agreed and said if the province doesn’t follow the environmental guidelines, the federal government would cut its portion of the project’s funding.
“It’s not an option,” he said.
The government expects to hold a public meeting to release the results of the environmental assessment in August.
Part of the project also involves four stream crossings with improved watercourses and fish passages, Yeo said.