Post-Covid infrastructure plans could build a prosperous future

John G Smith

Canada’s infrastructure is crumbling. Make no mistake about it. You can feel it in your kidneys every time the wheels connect with a pothole, and track it in terms of the hours stuck in traffic jams.

During a 2018 infrastructure summit known as CanInfra, the Boston Consulting Group reported that 25% of our bridges are in poor or very poor condition. The same could be said of 14% of roads. And it notes that estimates for a national “infrastructure deficit” average between $110-$270 billion.

road construction signs
(Photo: istock)

A 2009 study by Metrolinx concluded that road congestion annually sacrifices $6 billion in productivity within the Greater Toronto Area alone. The CD Howe Institute says such losses are even closer to $11 billion once you include the lost opportunity costs for businesses.

Such challenges are hardly a secret. But as we emerge from the clouds of Covid-19, infrastructure investments are seen one of the tools that could spur a broad, lasting economic recovery.

Some commitments have already emerged. A National Trade Corridors Fund in Canada promises $1.9 billion over four years, beginning in 2021-22, combining with another $2.7 billion from private and public sector partners. Individual provinces and territories are making infrastructure commitments of their own.

Knowing exactly how much new money is on the table is a perpetual challenge because politicians love to announce, repackage and repeat infrastructure plans. Then there are always examples of proposals that are purely politically motivated, such as the plans for a $10-billion Quebec City-Levis tunnel, seemingly born from the mind of Quebec Premier Francois Legault. But there also appears to be growing interest in work on vital projects that won’t necessarily be completed in a single election cycle.

I truly believe the post-Covid investments – if properly managed – could lead to a generational change not seen since the aftermath of World War 2.

This is a good thing. Canadian governments of every political persuasion have woefully underfunded infrastructure for decades. The Boston Consulting Group identified a particular dip in the 1990s as politicians prioritized deficit reduction campaigns.

But there’s a challenge. Sooner or later the related bills will come due, and we need to ensure that trucking shoulders no more than its fair share of the costs when the time comes. It would be far too easy for politicians to make the trucking industry a scapegoat when raising the required funds.

Proof of that recently emerged south of the border, when U.S. Senator John Cornyn floated the idea of charging trucks 25 cents a mile to support a Highway Trust Fund. That would raise an estimated US $33 billion a year, according to calculations made by a 2019 federal committee on taxation, and it would help address a gap created in part by fuel taxes that have been frozen at 24.4 US cents per gallon of diesel since 1993.

The American Trucking Associations and Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which rarely see eye to eye, rightly joined forces to decry that idea. They noted that while trucks account for 4% of the vehicles and U.S. roads, and 9% of all vehicle miles traveled nationally, the trucks already pay half the user fees.

But we’ll also need loud voices to call for the infrastructure updates that extend beyond ribbons of asphalt and concrete.

Updates at ports and rail yards are needed to ensure the smooth handoff of intermodal containers. The promise of battery-electric and fuel-cell-electric trucks will only be realized through investments in the charging and fueling infrastructure. The inevitable return of clogged border crossings, once the borders reopen, will demand updated computer systems to ensure data is exchanged as easily as possible. Weigh-in-motion equipment and preclearance programs can leave enforcement teams to focus more attention on the non-compliant crowd operating at the fringes of the industry.

One universal truth binds all of these projects together. If governments find ways to help the trucks move, the economy will truck right along with them.

 

John G Smith

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, Inside Logistics, Solid Waste & Recycling, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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