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Gas tax dodge 

Sin taxes on driving, meant to be spent on green iniatives, are instead going to build more roads.

Carbon pricing at its simplest: you drive, you pay a tax on your gas. Call it an environmental sin tax. The federal Gas Tax Fund is distributed to the provinces, which pass it on to municipalities for green infrastructure like public transit, sewage treatment, sidewalks and "local roads and bridges."

Wait, what was that last one?

Yes, to borrow from Sesame Street, "one of these things is not like the other." You might even say, local roads and bridges "just doesn't belong" in the category of green infrastructure.

Deborah Bayer, the communications advisor for the Canada-Nova Scotia Infrastructure Secretariat, which is responsible for reporting on the gas tax fund, says she doesn't know why the categories are what they are. "They come from our federal counterparts," she says.

She also doesn't know how much of the fund is spent on roads and bridges. That's because, in the Secretariat's own reporting, that unsustainable investment is lumped in with money spent on active transportation.

"A lot of these are big projects that involved restructuring or repairing roads," Bayer explains. "So municipalities are not required to divide their reporting any further." She does acknowledge that the amount they spend on active transportation is likely "a very small number."

Here's what we do know. The money spent in the double-category of "active trans/local roads" was about 11 times more in 2008/09 than it was three years earlier. This increase is tied with the vague category of "capacity building" for the fastest growing expense under the fund, which went up two and a half times in total in the same period. (Interestingly enough, the only gas tax spending category that decreased in that time is "public transit"---municipalities spent almost 90 percent less on it last year than they did in 2006.)

We can also see some tangible outcomes for active transportation. There were 12 active transportation projects last year in the province's 55 municipalities. In all, 52 kilometres of pathways (trails, bike lanes and sidewalks) were built.

But the question remains: How do roads and bridges improve sustainability? What's the point of a sin tax that enables the sin? It's like taxing smokes and using the money to grow more tobacco.

And because of the way the information is reported, no one can tell how much of the money that should help stave off climate change actually hastens it. An 11-fold increase in spending is impressive, but how much of that was for roads and how much was for something sustainable? Municipalities don't have to report that, and the provincial secretariat reporting the data is too far removed from the projects to know much about them.

As a result, organizations like the Heart and Stroke Foundation can't assess how seriously municipalities are taking sidewalks and bike lanes, two strong indicators of heart health in communities. "It is important for active transportation going forward that these budget lines are separate, to show the significance of investments in active transportation versus building or renovating roads and bridges," says Christina MacLeod, policy and government relations coordinator at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Nova Scotia.

Spending on roads and bridges diverts funds from all kinds of health and sustainability projects, like improved wastewater management. Wastewater is particularly pertinent because last year Nova Scotia signed on to Canada's Municipal Wastewater Effluent strategy. It commits the 128 wastewater facilities in this province to removing organic pollutants from sewage before it hits the waterways.

Next year Nova Scotia municipalities will get just $56 million from the gas tax. Yet Department of Environment engineer Stefan Furrey estimates that it will cost municipalities $600 million to upgrade their treatment systems over the next 10 to 30 years, "not including operational costs."

Just last week, HRM applied to the Utility and Review Board for a water rate hike "to carry out vital work on [HRM's] aging and rapidly deteriorating wastewater and stormwater systems, and meet operating costs." What a shame if our precious little gas tax money is being spent on roads instead of on cleaning up our filthy harbour---an investment now required by law.

But because, intentionally or not, our government bureaucracies are hiding how the gas tax is really spent, we'll never know for sure.

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