Opinion - Is it time to stop fighting the carbon tax and start funding alternatives to driving?

Originally published in the Cape Breton Post on August 23, 2023

Many Nova Scotians cannot take transit to work or bike their kids to hockey or dance practice.

“You can put as much tax as you like on the price of gasoline, but people have to drive,” Premier Tim Houston said during a July 23 news conference.

“Walking? Not an option.”

The premier recognizes the car dependence afflicting the more than 40 per cent of Nova Scotians who live in rural communities, but will he recognize his power to provide viable alternatives to driving as the leader of the province’s government?

When asked “Is it time to stop fighting the carbon tax and start fighting climate change?” Houston described the carbon tax as a “blunt instrument” and encouraged anyone in favour to “speak to Nova Scotians and to say, ‘Can you change your behaviours?’ ‘Can you drive less?’. . . Go and talk to Nova Scotians and ask them what’s possible.”

As a Hammer (it’s my name, check the byline), I am a blunt instrument and I have had those very types of discussions. I have facilitated public engagement sessions about access to transportation options in communities across the province. I have heard from people who fondly remember the provincially funded regional bus networks that existed in Nova Scotia before the 1995 service exchange. I have traced every active transportation plan communities have developed to identify the infrastructure they need to be more walkable, bikeable, universally accessible and less car dependent. Nova Scotians want viable alternatives to driving.

The Electrify Nova Scotia Rebate Program has resulted in over 4,100 e-bikes sold, nearly triple the combined number of new and used battery-electric and plug-in-hybrid vehicles sold through the same program. Traditional and electric bike sales continue to grow across Nova Scotia, but the province’s investment in safe cycling and pedestrian infrastructure has not kept pace.

Not including Halifax Regional Municipality, there are over 400 projects proposed in community active transportation plans, totaling more than 1,200 kilometres of sidewalks, bikeways, multi-use pathways and paved shoulders. The backlog of engineering work to get these projects shovel-ready is roughly $40 million, and construction costs will be upwards of $1 billion.

The province has been spending nearly $500 million per year on highway construction; that scale of investment could build all currently proposed active transportation infrastructure in two to four years. Investing in active transportation will make communities more accessible, but complimentary investment in regional public transit could make the whole province accessible without needing to drive.

In the premier’s district of Pictou East, there is one scheduled bus route and it runs twice a month, on the second Tuesday and the last Saturday. There is also a dial-a-ride service, but it requires booking at least a day in advance with no guarantee your preferred time or even date will be available.

With service that abysmal, transit isn’t currently a viable option for most people but it could be.

BC Transit and Ontario’s GO Transit are both provincially owned agencies connecting communities of all sizes with conventional scheduled fixed-route bus services. Nova Scotia’s new Joint Regional Transportation Agency has $1 million to develop a multi-modal inter-jurisdictional transportation plan over the next two years, and a mandate that does not prevent them from becoming a transit service provider or bringing back regional bus networks Nova Scotia had 30 years ago.

Even if Houston cuts 75 per cent of greenhouse gases from electricity generation by 2030, transportation would account for nearly half the province’s emissions in 2030 according to his Better Than a Carbon Tax plan.

Greening the power grid is commendable, but we also need to address transport emissions. With or without a carbon tax, Nova Scotians want and need viable alternatives to driving, and the province will need to cover its share of necessary infrastructure investment somehow.

Ben Hammer is a transportation officer with the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax.


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