Canada’s perceived lack of a comprehensive and consistent transportation strategy has been a sore point among transportation professionals for decades. But there may be good reason for hope.
The main message from the high-level bureaucrats included in a transportation policy session at the Transpo 2007 conference held recently in Toronto was that both political will and understanding are currently aligning in such a way that there are opportunities to make improvements to our transportation infrastructure “that haven’t been available in maybe 40 years.”
“Governments understand that the last time there was a major build-out was when we were children. There is an understanding that we need to be putting in place long-term plans and strategies for infrastructure projects on a 20-year basis,” David O’Toole, assistant deputy minister for Ontario’s ministry of transport, told the packed room of shippers, carriers and freight forwarders.
As indication his province does “get it”, O’Toole pointed to the Move Ontario program which is providing $1.2 billion for public transit, municipal roads & bridges; the $1.8 billion to be spent on northern Ontario highways; the $3.4 billion to be spent on southern Ontario highways; and the $800 million being spent with the federal government and other stakeholders on improving border access.
Kristine Burr, assistant deputy minister, policy, for Transport Canada, said the federal government is changing its approach to transportation policy and infrastructure investment.
“Yesterday’s approaches measure commitment only in taxpayers’ dollars,” she said. “A systems approach places emphasis on integration of a range of policy and regulatory issues, including taxation, governance, land use planning, and the skills/ labour market.”
Acknowledging that the signals a government sends affect the investment decisions of private companies, Burr said the government is looking to promote infrastructure investment. She pointed out that infrastructure is a key pillar in the federal government’s Advantage Canada strategic long-term plan to build economic prosperity. She said Transport Canada is working towards a comprehensive plan for infrastructure that includes:
* Long-term predictable funding.
* A fair and transparent provincial/territorial allocation for a program to support: the National Highway System; other large-scale projects including transit and wastewater; and small-scale municipal projects; funds, accessible on a merit basis, to support public-private-partnership (P3) projects; a requirement for consideration of P3 options for all larger projects; and establishment of a federal P3 office.
* Gateways and border crossings, particularly projects selected pursuant to a new national gateway and trade corridor policy.
Burr explained that the thinking behind the gateway strategy is to create an integrated set of investment and policy measures that address not only how well that system works, but also how well our economy takes advantage of it.
Last October Ottawa announced $591 million would be pumped into the Asia-Pacific Gateway and Corridor Initiative. (The funding includes $321 million in immediate investments; $224 million for infrastructure projects and $27.3 million for “competitiveness” projects.)
Considering more than 70% of Canada/US trade by truck travels through border crossings in Ontario, Burr said it’s also important to understand how Ontario as well as Quebec and the St. Lawrence Seaway System fit in to the corridor plans. Nor should the East Coast be neglected, she added, pointing out that region is expected to benefit from both the future expansion of the Panama Canal and the diverting of Asian freight through the Suez Canal, with the deepwater port of Halifax becoming a critical port of call.
O’Toole agreed that a central Canada gateway is critical but argued that it would require a multi-year allocation of funding over and above the infrastructure funding commitments announced in the 2006 federal budget.
In the meantime, there is a need for policy and regulatory review to maximize the value of infrastructure inventments, said O’Toole.
“It makes no sense to invest millions in a light rail transit system if one is not also investing in policies that incent people to use that transit system so they can get off the roads,” he said.
Both O’Toole and Burr also stressed the importance of environmental concerns, something O’Toole said “flavors every decision that we make” and so must be woven into every proposal or it will not go forward.
The Conservative government has been much maligned for its perceived inattention to the environment but Burr said that minister of transport Lawrence Cannon has decreed that all infrastructure programs include environmental objectives such as reducing greenhouse gases and improving the quality of water and air.”
She also referred to the government’s ecoTransport Strategy, which provides about $100 million in funding towards new initiatives in clean transportation, including a technology for vehicles program and “ecoFreight” initiatives.
It’s important to temper the optimistic outlook, however, with current realities.
Despite all the good intentions at all levels of government, there remain important policy deficiencies and challenges. The nature of the political process itself can prove a significant roadblock, partly because transportation policy can fall prey to short-term political thinking. For example, shortly before press time, there was a private member’s bill that proposed banning replacement workers in rail strikes.
Such a bill may have seemed too ill-considered to make its way through the House of Commons but Burr warned that “in a minority government situation, there are no assurances as to what might go through.”
Another obstacle is the sometimes frustratingly slow progress of decision making. Every time a transportation bill dies on the order table because an election is called, the bureaucrats have to start the education process of the new minister from scratch. A perfect case in point: the amendments to the Canada Transportation Act that have been in limbo for years.
“It’s not surprising it has been seven years since the CTA review and still no amendments have been put in place. All I can tell tell you is we are as frustrated as you are,” Burr said.
The obstacles to good transportation decision-making were made abundantly clear by Tom AppaRao, who as director of transportation planning for the region of Peel has the difficult task of keeping up with a municipality where truck traffic during peak morning periods is growing at 7.2% annually.
AppaRao outlined six policy-related deficiencies:
1. Municipal/regional level policy and planning: Even though the first and last leg of every freight journey starts on a municipal road, there is a lack of sufficient recognition of the importance of municipal/regional level goods movement and related land use policy and planning; by the municipalities themselves, and by the industry and the senior levels of government, AppaRao said, adding this is made worse by a lack of adequate data, know how and tools.
2. Big picture planning: Goods movement is one part of a bigger picture of transportation and land use. What happens in the rest of the system directly affects good movement, AppaRao argued.
“We currently lack a clear, comprehensive sustainable transportation strategy for the GTA, or even a clear, common understanding of what it takes to make transportation sustainable, ” he said.
Further complicating matters is the fact that municipalities are experiencing rapid growth in passenger and commercial traffic, which exacerbates congestion, yet there are limited opportunities to provide more road capacity.
“There are conflicting demands for road corridors: Trucks vs cars vs transit; we need to find ways to rationalize the use of cor
ridors,” AppaRao said.
3. Funding: There is a lack of adequate, sustainable, predictable sources of funding to implement the plans that are in place, AppaRao complained.
4. Environmental assessment process: The EA processes for highways and transit are slow and cumbersome, causing excessive delays in protecting corridors and constructing the necessary transportation infrastructure.
5. Know how: There is a lack of adequate data, tools, techniques and guidelines for municipal/regional goods movement planning.
6. Partnerships: Stronger, ongoing partnerships with the industry and senior levels of government are required to improve policies, plans and actions at the municipal level. Both AppaRao and O’Toole said there is currently not enough involvement from industry.
“Transportation planning has to be done looking 30 years ahead to protect (trade) corridors. Any insights shippers and carriers can provide are helpful. We may not know what the problem is unless you tell us,” AppaRao said.
Editorial director Lou Smyrlis has 18 years of experience covering transportation and logistics issues. Winner of several writing awards, he has pioneered several research studies and is a frequent speaker at industry events.