10/27/2011 01:24 EDT | Updated 12/27/2011 05:12 EST

Nova Scotia Transport Minister says road crew saved money despite delays

HALIFAX - A government move into the road-paving business was defended by Nova Scotia's transport minister Thursday in the face of criticism its road crew didn't meet promised targets.

Bill Estabrooks said the province saved taxpayers $1 million in tendering by having the crew work in rural areas where there was a lack of competitive bids in the past.

He said it would take time to determine what kind of net savings might by realized once a government-operated asphalt-making plant is up and running next year.

"After three years we'll have a good, clear understanding of what we've done and how we've made out," he said.

Estabrooks admitted that targets to cover some rural roads with chip seal, a mixture of rock chips and liquid asphalt, wasn't met by the road crew that didn't begin work until August.

Estabrooks blamed wet weather and the need for training for the delay.

"They certainly know what they are doing and we'll get started earlier next year with better weather and continue to do as much chip-sealing as possible," said Estabrooks.

The minister couldn't give any update on how much work was done.

In an email sent later Thursday, his department said the chip seal setup was budgeted to cost $2.6 million but came in at $1.4 million because of lower costs than anticipated for equipment.

It also said it completed 40 kilometres of the 56 kilometres of double chip sealed road it had planned to do. The department said it had completed none of the 311 kilometres of road it had promised to pave with single chip seal.

Private road builders, who are adamantly opposed to the government's involvement in the business, said they already knew how much work had been done.

Grant Feltmate, president of the Nova Scotia Road Builders Association, said his organization used a retired roadworker to monitor the progress of the government road crew over the summer.

Feltmate said the government's lack of progress was predictable.

"Any activity roadbuilding-wise should be left with the private sector," he said. "We're good at it, we're effective and efficient."

When the government announced its own paving program in March, the Transport Department said it would cost $6 million to buy and run a mobile asphalt plant in 2012.

Another $2.6 million was to be spent to buy equipment and to operate a 26-member road resurfacing crew.

Officials estimated the province could save up to $4.7 million a year by doing some of the work itself.