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No way but the Highway 

Halifax council has no problem spending millions for highways, but says relatively small downtown projects are budget busters.

Halifax councillors spew a lot of pretty rhetoric about their support for downtown, but when it comes to putting hard money on the table, the real support is for suburban highways.

Last week, council was told the Washmill underpass project into Bayers Lake, originally priced at $10 million, is an astounding $8 million over budget. But hey, no big deal. "It would be irresponsible not to vote for this," said councillor Reg Rankin, expressing the prevailing view; council voted 17 to four to spend the extra $8 million, on top of $3.3 million already allocated to the underpass. (Only councillors Sloane, Watts, McCluskey and Barkhouse dissented.)

This is nothing new. Last month, council voted to spend the city's portion, $8.7 million out of a $23 million total costs, on the new Larry Uteck interchange on Highway 102, which services sprawling new developments in Bedford. The developers will pay the city back for some of the money, but $2.8 million will come straight out of general tax revenue---a flat-out subsidy for private developers.

Last year, council ate a $7 million loss on the Mount Hope interchange on the Circumferential Highway, total cost $12 million, after the federal government decided not to sell off the adjoining CFB Shearwater.

That's $18.1 million from HRM taxpayers to pay for just three suburban highway projects. And no, property taxes from new suburban neighbourhoods won't at all help the city budget---it costs more to provide services in residential neighbourhoods than they pay out in taxes.

In contrast, when it comes to spending money that benefits downtown, councillors suddenly turn into penny-pinching misers. I'm told, for example, that councillors are already aghast at ballooning cost estimates for permanently operating the Common oval---the originally projected $110,000/year increased first to $250,000 and now to $750,000. I suspect the numbers are increasing because staff is loading up the proposal with all sorts of unneeded bells and whistles, but still, even at the high estimate, the city could operate The Oval for 15 years with the money spent on Washmill.

And all expectations are that next week council will drastically scale down the Bridge Terminal expansion proposal. The terminal is the lynchpin in Metro Transit's bus system, now handling 17,000 passengers a day, most of whom are travelling to and from downtown Halifax---workers and shoppers in downtown businesses. The expansion is needed to improve safety and handle many thousands more passengers riding on dozens more, and larger, buses.

The terminal expansion was problematic to begin with---it required taking park land from the Dartmouth Common and building the terminal very close to Dartmouth High School. But after consultation with the neighbourhood (disclosure: I live nearby), a compromise was reached---the terminal would proceed, but its most negative effects would be diminished by building it into a hillside and providing a pedestrian bridge over the bus lanes. The compromise wasn't perfect, but it brought together the needs of downtown Halifax with the desires of central Dartmouth, the urban centres of HRM.

Now, however, we find that that compromise solution, originally projected to cost $9.5 million, would actually cost about $12.1 million. So council is preparing to save money by jettisoning the pedestrian bridge and raising the terminal back up to grade. The scaled-down project will be unveiled at a public hearing tonight, Thursday, 6pm in the old Dartmouth City Hall at 90 Alderney Road. The hearing is perfunctory, required by law, but besides one or two dissenters, councillors have collectively made it clear they don't give two wet turds what the public thinks, and the scaled-down terminal will be approved at next Tuesday's council meeting.

This is how it works: Every neighbourhood-saving amenity is sliced from the Bridge Terminal in order to save money, but the entire Washmill plan, including elaborate landscaping, gets fully funded.

And when councillors fret and worry about The Oval's relatively puny operating costs, they go so far as to suggest we sell off naming rights and subject the Common to advertising, because by golly, we can't subsidize citizens having fun. But no one suggests that we sell off naming rights or advertising on highways, or that developers pay full price for the suburban highway intersections they need. That's literally unthinkable.

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