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Newfoundland works, just ask Percy Barrett

ST. JOHN'S, Nfld. - Newfoundland and Labrador may hold the distinction of being the province most removed from Canada's industrial heartland - and the all-important U.S. market - but it is one of the ...

ST. JOHN’S, Nfld. – Newfoundland and Labrador may hold the distinction of being the province most removed from Canada’s industrial heartland – and the all-important U.S. market – but it is one of the best places to run a trucking operation, says the man in charge of its ever-growing road network.

Minister of Works, Services and Transportation Percy Barrett oversees Newfoundland and Labrador’s largest department – almost 2,500 employees – and as a result wears many hats. It’s the ministerial hat for transportation that has the greatest impact on the movement of freight in the province.

Despite the province’s rich heritage built on sailors braving daunting oceans, its future will be built in large part on the back of its truck drivers, as more and more of the province’s remote interior and far-flung outports are brought online with the laying down of new and improved highways.

Highways are open year-round and are navigable in all but the worst weather, Barrett explains. It is with that end in mind that the province is expanding its road network and reducing its reliance on coastal shipping, which is expensive and ruled by the famously brutal North Atlantic Ocean.

And the province is nearing a permanent road link with rest of Canada, Barrett says, an event of historic proportions to Newfoundland that rivals the construction of the Confederation Bridge to P.E.I.

The key is the Trans-Labrador Highway, Barrett says.

Once the third and final length of the system joins the communities sprinkled around the coast of Labrador to Happy Valley-Goose Bay in the interior, it will be possible for freight to be trucked from Quebec through Labrador City and then ultimately to the ferry linking Blanc Sablon to the Island’s Northern Peninsula.

There is no way of avoiding a ferry to the Island, but the crossing from Blanc Sablon is only a few hours, versus the six-to-eight hour crossing from North Sydney, N.S. to Port aux Basques, Nfld., Barrett points out in an interview in St. John’s.

The completion of that highway will signal the end of the once vital – yet seasonal – ferry to Goose Bay from Lewisporte, Nfld.

Barrett says the TLH is on schedule to be completed in 2003. As he reported to the Private Motor Truck Council, “This is an exciting time for the people of Labrador and the whole province.” He added, “It is also creating new opportunities for those in the trucking industries.”

Ferries and barges that service the outports and the far reaches of Labrador are expensive – without subsidies from Ottawa they wouldn’t operate at all, Barrett points out.

It is to that end that once a community is linked by road, the more expensive seafaring option must be ended.

“If you build a road, you can’t maintain two systems,” says Barrett, who became the minister of works, services and transportation when the Liberal Party under Roger Grimes took power in February, 2001. The province estimates that its gross domestic product will grow at 4.5 per cent in 2002, beating Canada’s overall GDP of 1.2 per cent hands down – due mostly to the development of offshore oil at the Hibernia and Terra Nova projects.

But this is a pivotal year for Barrett, and by extension the province’s road users.

In 1982, Ottawa agreed to help pay for the expansion and upgrading of Newfoundland and Labrador’s road system for 20 years, as part of a “rails-for-roads” agreement.

Money from the pact was given to the province’s transportation department to make up for the pulling up of the Newfoundland railroad. Every ounce of freight shipped over land has gone into the back of a truck since the mid-1980s.

The agreement’s final payout totaled $120 million for 2001/2002.

Now the province is negotiating a new funding plan with Ottawa.

To that end Newfoundland and Labrador and the three Maritime Provinces have banned together to petition Transport Minister David Collenette that funding for highways is a top priority.

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