by Jim Park
Among the many issues facing us these days, two have the unique potential to forge a coalition between truck drivers and our four-wheeler friends. One is the cost of fuel, but the other is far more important in the long term - the appalling state of our highway system. That coalition hasn't happened yet in any meaningful way, but it may be necessary if our various governments are to be pushed into action.
Given the importance of our roads, especially to highwaySTAR readers, and with a federal election just around the corner, we're going to examine this issue in detail over the next several months. Working together with our sister publication, Today's Trucking, we figure now's a good time to whip up a little interest in the matter.
Anyone who drives through Vancouver or Montreal, even on a quiet afternoon, should already be pretty interested. And the Trans Canada Highway's tortured route through Calgary is so ludicrously inefficient that, on its own, it should inspire legislators to think big. So far, even that hasn't been enough.
But it may be Windsor, Ont., that best demonstrates how much the Canadian economy depends on good roads, and how easily it can be hurt by bad ones. Every day, 7500 trucks loaded with international freight rumble at a lowly 60 km/h down a very long stretch of Huron Church Road, past the fast-food joints, the shopping mall, the strip club, on their way to Detroit and the monstrous American market. The 9200-ft Ambassador Bridge there is the busiest port of entry on the Canada/U.S. border, and utterly critical to the smooth flow of goods within the world's richest trading partnership. Yet on any given day, a pedestrian can bring our most significant international trade route to a standstill by pressing a button at any of several crosswalks.
That's how bad it is, which isn't to mention the crumbling pavement that batters your freight as well as your behind. But how did we get to this point?
It was 1988 when Ottawa first identified our officially designated National Highway System, defined as the main arteries used for interprovincial and international transport. It's made up of 17,722 km of two-lane paved roads, 3317 km of freeways, 2733 km of multi-lane arteries, and even 587 km of gravel roads. That's a lot of real estate, but for all intents and purposes nobody's managing it. Canada remains the only developed country in the world that doesn't have a national highway policy. We have one for air, marine, and rail transportation, but it stops there. Nothing's in place to ensure development of a highway system to accommodate the growth we've seen in the past decade, let alone what we might see over the next one.
The key issue is money, but it's more fundamentally about the bizarre relationship between Ottawa and the provinces.
The federal government's involvement in road building has always been modest. The Constitution hands responsibility for highways to the provinces, so all federally funded highway construction has been on a cost-sharing basis. It's still that way. The feds offer a given percentage, and the provinces come up with the balance.
That's how the Trans Canada Highway (TCH) was launched in 1949. Ottawa put a ceiling of $150 million on federal contributions to the TCH project, which was supposed to be done in seven years. But many provinces balked, and the money to finish the job in that time never appeared. In the end, the feds kicked in $250 million and the project was extended all the way out to 1972.
Since then, with no national policy, Ottawa's contributions to provincial highway construction have been through single cost-shared agreements of fixed duration. So the provinces focus on their own development rather than national infrastructure priorities. It's the classic Canadian political struggle, and highway users are caught in the middle.
The U.S. has both a highway policy and a dedicated funding approach to pay 90% of the cost of operating the interstate system. The Federal Highway Trust Fund, using revenues from federal excise taxes on fuel and tires, plus the heavy-vehicle use tax and fines and penalties, pays for building and maintaining the infrastructure.
Why not in Canada? Because Canadian treasurers and finance departments say dedicated taxes limit fiscal maneuvering room. Americans applaud dedicated taxes for that very reason, according to Globe & Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson. "They don't want politicians and bureaucrats spending money on other things," he wrote recently. "A penny for roads is a penny for roads, not something else."
What we wind up with is a patchwork approach to highway development where a road is built here and a pothole repaired there. Along with a lack of policy comes a lack of standardization. That's why we have unpaved shoulders on Ontario's major highways, traffic lights instead of overpasses on Manitoba's portion of the TCH, and highways through Canada's national parks that are good enough to eat from.
In fact, it's pretty clear that our federal government doesn't see highways as a real priority. The Canadian Transportation Act - the legislation governing all aspects of transportation in Canada - doesn't even mention highways.
According to Jim Facette, president of a lobby group called the Coalition to Renew Canada's Infrastructure, the feds have yet to get their heads around the shift from an economy dominated by rail transport to the present truck-oriented system.
"Maybe that's a result of the extensive lobbying work the railroads are doing, or maybe it's a spin-off of the historic perspective in Canada," Facette says. "We've got an opportunity coming our way soon with a mandated review of the Canada Transportation Act. We'll have to work hard to get highways on the map at that meeting, but I think the time is right."
And while we're talking about federal commitment, try these numbers on for size: in the 1996/1997 fiscal year, Ottawa collected more than $4 billion in federal fuel excise taxes, and pumped a measly $317 million back into our decrepit National Highway System.