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Question Period
(9 November 2015)

From Hansard - 9 November 2015

To view this section on video, click here, and start play at 41:35.

Cost of Highway Maintenance

Mr. Wotherspoon: — We learned last week that the Sask Party’s rhetoric about highways, like many other things, just doesn’t match reality. Eight years ago, 600 kilometres of highway was graded, paved, and resurfaced. This year the Sask Party cut that by 120 kilometres. On Thursday the Highways minister was unable to provide a decent explanation about the Sask Party’s cuts to actual roadwork. Does the Premier have a better explanation?

Hon. Ms. Heppner: — Mr. Speaker, we do have an explanation as to what we’re spending on highways. First of all, we’re spending $1 billion more in the last eight years than the NDP [New Democratic Party] did in the previous 16 years. Mr. Speaker, we are doing more multi-year projects. We are doing bigger projects. We’ve been affected by unprecedented flooding in the last several years and had to do emergency repairs. On top of that, we do regular maintenance and repairs, Mr. Speaker.

But I do want to update one of the numbers I gave last week on culvert replacements, which doesn’t sound very interesting but is very important to the structural integrity of our roads, Mr. Speaker. Between 2008 and 2015, those repairs increased by 3,600 per cent, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Wotherspoon: — Mr. Speaker, despite ramping up spending significantly, as we’ve heard here, they’ve actually cut the number of actual kilometres being fixed each year. They’re paying way more but they’re paving way less — 120 fewer kilometres this year compared to just eight years ago. You know, Saskatchewan drivers and taxpayers know that there are a whole lot of roads that aren’t being fixed these days, and we deserve a proper explanation for why this government is paying more and paving less.

And you know, we see the same tired answer from the minister today to the questions to the Premier. Last week, as she did today, the Highways minister claimed that it’s because they’re spending so much more on culverts. Does the Premier stand by that explanation, or does he recognize that answer for the hogwash that it is?

Hon. Ms. Heppner: — Well, Mr. Speaker, happy to have an intelligent debate about this topic. Mr. Speaker, I used culverts as just one example. As I said, it goes to the structural integrity of the highway system. But I also had a whole bunch of examples if the members opposite were listening.

Mr. Speaker, the difference is that we are actually rebuilding our roads. We have increased the primary weight system in our province by 61 per cent when coming into office, Mr. Speaker. That primary weight system is very important to our province. It accommodates increased traffic, not just increased regular vehicle traffic but truck traffic, Mr. Speaker. As members opposite would know, we’re an export-dependent province and without that network it definitely restricts the amount of movement that we have of our products, Mr. Speaker. Sixty-one per cent improvement of our primary weight system, Mr. Speaker — I don’t think that’s any small thing in our province and very necessary to the future growth of our province as well.

Mr. Wotherspoon: — Mr. Speaker, all that boasting rings pretty hollow for Saskatchewan people that are traversing roads and those that know the reality across Saskatchewan. The Highways minister said there was over a 3,000 per cent increase in culvert work that . . . apparently that’s what’s taking the toll on the Highways budget.

But let’s just look at the facts. In 2009 $45 million was spent on culverts and bridges. Last year $37 million was spent on culverts and bridges. Now that’s pretty stable. In fact it’s $8 million less, Mr. Speaker, and a small fraction of the total Highways budget. So it certainly can’t be an adequate explanation as to why there’s 120 kilometres less of paving here this year, of highway this year.

So either the Highways minister just, you know, has her facts dead wrong about culverts being the culprit for paying more and paving less, or perhaps the minister doesn’t want to give us the real answer. So to the Premier: which is it?

Hon. Ms. Heppner: — Well, Mr. Speaker, I’m glad that the member opposite brings up the amount of money that we’ve spent on culverts. And it is relatively stable and a far cry from the $9.6 million that the NDP spent in their last year, Mr. Speaker. It’s a 380 per cent increase in funding to those particular projects.

And again, Mr. Speaker, it’s not just culverts. I use that as one example because the people of this province, and particularly the members opposite, need to understand that it’s Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure.

And, Mr. Speaker, it is more than just culverts. We’ve spent $45.5 million in the Estevan truck route, $60 million on Highway 7 twinning, $9 million on Highway 7 passing lanes, $17 million on Highway 10 passing lanes, $45 million on Highway 16 twinning, $62 million on Highway 11 twinning, $98 million for the south Circle Drive bridge, Mr. Speaker.

We have an investment in the commuter bridge in the city of Saskatoon. That doesn’t even take into account the money that we’re going to be spending on the Regina bypass which is a huge effort, undertaking for this province, Mr. Speaker. And again, so very important for the exporting companies in our province.

Mr. Wotherspoon: — Mr. Speaker, the minister can boast all she wants, but I think those on Highway 4 or 354 or 220 or 322 or 924 or 36 or 43 or 47 or many other highways across Saskatchewan know the reality of the ruts and rubble being left by members opposite, Mr. Speaker.

And the facts are clear. Just eight years ago . . . 120 kilometres less are being fixed up than just eight years ago despite that government spending a whole lot more. The Highways minister claimed that they’re spending so much more on culverts, but we know that that’s simply not the case either. More and more these days, we’re seeing just how badly this government is struggling when it comes to matching its rhetoric with the reality here in Saskatchewan.

Why won’t the Premier just admit that the main reason he is paying more but paving less is because he’s gutted the Highways ministry and hired a whole bunch of pricey external consultants?

Hon. Ms. Heppner: — Mr. Speaker, as I pointed out last week, consultants are necessary for the detailed and specialized projects that we’re doing. The member from Athabasca, the actual Highways critic, was actually in agreement with that, Mr. Speaker. I can read his quote into the record yet again.

But, Mr. Speaker, it’s more expensive to fix roads right the first time. The NDP would put some patching on an old, beat-up TMS [thin membrane surface] road. It would look good for a year or two and then it would fall apart again. Mr. Speaker, their approach to fixing roads in this province is like re-shingling a house with a rotten foundation. Mr. Speaker, we are rebuilding the house.

Condition of Highway to Dore Lake

Mr. Belanger: — Mr. Speaker, that rhetoric is going to be cold comfort to the people of Dore Lake who have driven all the way to Regina to join us here today, Mr. Speaker. They are incredibly frustrated by the Sask Party’s approach to forestry, but more in particular into highways, Mr. Speaker. They are annoyed to hear that the government is paying more, but paving less. They see forest resources being trucked out of northern Saskatchewan, and to add insult to injury, Mr. Speaker, the logging trucks are smashing the road up on their way out. Mr. Speaker, what does the Premier have to say to these residents of Dore Lake who have driven all the way here to Regina to have their concerns heard by this government?

Hon. Ms. Heppner: — Mr. Speaker, I thank the member opposite for the question. Highway 24, which is the Dore Lake road, we’ve been investing in repairing that road, Mr. Speaker, with upkeep and maintenance. As an example in the year 2012-13 we spent about $365,000 on that road. Mr. Speaker, in the ’15-16 budget we’ve spent a million dollars on that road in repairs and maintenance, and we will continue that maintenance going into the future, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Belanger: — Mr. Speaker, that’s why the people of Dore Lake are here today. They are here for concerns on forestry but more so the safety of their highway. Somebody is not listening on that side of the Assembly, Mr. Speaker. Dore Lake residents know that Highway 924 can’t handle the logging trucks that regularly use it. So like many northern highways, 924 is constantly being beaten up. And that just doesn’t mean discomfort for the people of Dore Lake driving up and down Highway 924; it means that their safety and lives are put at risk.

Northern highways are used to transport valuable natural resources out of northern Saskatchewan, yet this government refuses to properly upgrade these highways. So again, peoples’ lives and safety are being put as a result of your negligence. That is not acceptable and it needs to stop. So why doesn’t the Premier take this seriously?

Hon. Ms. Heppner: — Mr. Speaker we are taking this seriously. We’re taking the safety of the residents of the North seriously, and we are taking the investment into those roads seriously. Mr. Speaker, we’re working with the logging companies in question. The speed limit on that particular road is about 80 kilometres an hour. We’ve requested of the logging companies to slow that down to about 70, which will help with the roads getting beat up a little bit less. And, Mr. Speaker, we’ve asked them to pull their trucks off the roads before freeze-up so that we can do some maintenance so that the road’s in good condition before winter.

But, Mr. Speaker, on highway spending overall in the North, this year’s budget, ’15-16, saw a 52 per cent increase over just last year’s budget, Mr. Speaker, which was a massive increase over the NDP’s last budget for northern highways. Mr. Speaker, we are investing.

Mr. Belanger: — Mr. Speaker, I challenge the Minister of Highways to name one highway in northern Saskatchewan that she’s upgraded since the Sask Party’s been in government, Mr. Speaker. And the answer, Mr. Speaker, is exactly what I’m getting now — total silence.

The people of Dore Lake have driven a long way to get here to Regina. Mr. Speaker, every day these residents see resources being extracted from their area and they’re concerned about the sustainability of that work as well, Mr. Speaker. They are frustrated about how forestry is being handled in that area, but they’re equally frustrated to see that none of the benefits as a result of that forestry is being put back into investments into the highways.

They’re determined to have this government hear their concerns and they’re frustrated about forestry, but more so about roads. They’re frustrated about the lack of respect on these highways. They are frustrated that the matter of life and death is on edge here when things could go wrong with these rough, beaten-up roads. So once again, Mr. Speaker, the frustration is very loud and clear. They are frustrated about the lack of a logging buffer around their lakes and their community.

My question to the Premier: will the Premier agree to meet with these constituents to hear all of these very serious concerns, or will he keep ignoring them?

Hon. Ms. Heppner: — Mr. Speaker, as I said, we are investing in the North. We put additional resources into Highway 924 this year and we are working with the logging companies to make sure that those roads stay in good as condition as possible while we’re doing regular maintenance. And, Mr. Speaker, I would be happy to meet with the people who came down from Dore Lake this afternoon after question period.

Mr. Belanger: — Now, Mr. Speaker, the people of Dore Lake invited the Minister of Highways. This is the reason why we’re inviting the Premier today to meet with them. And when they first invited the Minister of Highways, she refused to attend, Mr. Speaker.

But I’m not surprised that the Premier won’t meet with them because what we’ve seen from the Sask Party throughout this session is an increasingly dismissive and arrogant approach. Mr. Speaker, the rhetoric doesn’t even come close to matching what the real challenges are.

This government brags about investing in highways. We don’t see that in northern Saskatchewan. But we do know that they’re fixing 20 per cent less roads than were fixed eight years ago with greater cost. And, Mr. Speaker, people like my constituents from Dore Lake who have come down to Regina today are bearing the brunt of this government’s wasteful spending and neglect what matters the most.

Again to the Premier: after years of record revenues — record revenues — why is he still failing to get the job done when it comes to fixing highways throughout all of Saskatchewan, including northern Saskatchewan, including Dore Lake?

Hon. Ms. Heppner: — Well, Mr. Speaker, as I have pointed out, the member opposite was Highways minister at one time. He should remember what his budgets were compared to what ours are, Mr. Speaker. We had a 52 per cent increase in northern highway infrastructure just year over year, Mr. Speaker, which is a massive increase over the NDP’s last year in office, Mr. Speaker.

But for all the bluster from the member opposite about us not taking highways seriously, I don’t think that the people of this province believe that statement, Mr. Speaker. And you know who didn’t take highways seriously, Mr. Speaker? The NDP. They didn’t take them seriously when they were in government, and they certainly don’t take them seriously when they’re in opposition. Before every Throne Speech, before every budget, they send out press releases listing their top priorities, Mr. Speaker. Highways has not been mentioned once in any single one of those press releases. If it was a top priority, make it a priority.

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