Nova Scotia legislature committee unable to get cost estimate for hospital project

HALIFAX — The official cost estimate for one of Atlantic Canada’s largest infrastructure projects remains under wraps, as officials told a Nova Scotia legislature committee Wednesday that they couldn’t provide a number.

The redevelopment of the Halifax Infirmary was pegged at $2 billion when the project, to be funded largely through a public-private partnership, was first announced by the former Liberal government in 2018.

However, in June the province said the cost is likely significantly higher because of inflation. Coinciding with that admission was the withdrawal from the bidding process of construction company EllisDon because of the “unprecedented cost escalation” and the supply chain and productivity issues affecting the construction industry.

Gerard Jessome, an official with the provincial Public Works Department, told the public accounts committee that the project’s cost is proprietary information belonging to the only bidder left, the Plenary PCL Health consortium.

“The province remains committed to the procurement process and has been moving forward collaboratively with the remaining bidder,” said Jessome, who added that Plenary PCL Health is expected to submit its estimate on Oct. 27.

“Once we have reviewed the submission, completed the negotiations and financially closed the project, we will provide an update.”

Karen Oldfield, CEO of Nova Scotia’s health authority, also deflected several attempts by Liberal and NDP members of the committee to get information on the project’s potential cost.

Oldfield said providing an estimate now would amount to a “shot in the dark.”

“In the fullness of time the numbers will be hard numbers, they will be known,” she said. “There’s nothing sinister happening here, we are in a procurement process.”

Oldfield also told the committee she is concerned about the growing costs of upgrading the Victoria General Hospital, which is to be eventually replaced by the expanded Halifax Infirmary. Oldfield didn't give details but said work is needed to extend the life of the Victoria General, which houses 16 operating rooms.

The hospital has had ongoing water issues and recently has been dealing with faulty air conditioning -- things Oldfield said she wants to “solve in the interim.”

Another looming problem is the size of the hospital redevelopment, given the growth in the province’s population since the project was first talked about in 2015.

Oldfield said she couldn't rule out that another building would have to be added to the project to make sure there are enough beds. “The current procurement will only solve part of the (population) problem,” she said.

Dr. Alex Mitchell, the health authority’s vice-president of clinical infrastructure, said Nova Scotia’s population is projected to increase by 11 per cent between 2021 and 2043, according to census and Treasury Board data.

“This is an ongoing need to continue looking at our infrastructure and our services and … moving as quickly as we can to adapt to changing conditions,” Mitchell said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2022.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press