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by Pat Rediger

REGINA, Sask. – Various levels of government need to invest more money into everything from highway networks to transportation-related education if they want Canada to remain competitive, according to Moving Forward: A Guide on the Importance of Transportation in Canada.

The $150,000 report – a year in the making – was recently released by the Western Transportation Advisory Council (WESTAC) and the Van Horne Institute.

“In the trucking industry, it takes a look at how the price of fuel affects competitiveness. It takes a look at the deteriorating condition of the roads and how they should be paid for,” says David Colledge, WESTAC vice-president.

Although the national highway system accounts for 30 per cent of vehicle travel in the country, there are serious questions about its condition and reliability, the report concludes. Despite annual average spending by the provinces and territories of $1.4 billion between 1992 and 1997, the cost of upgrading the network is estimated at $15-$17 billion.

Without the help they need, deteriorating highways could jeopardize the nation’s ability to compete in international trade, the report says.

Ultimately, the federal government doesn’t treat transportation with a high enough priority because it’s more concerned about supporting social programs, WESTAC and the Van Horne Institute suggest. Still, the report adds that a better transportation system could create the very economic prosperity that feeds social programs.

High fuel taxes also weaken Canada’s competitive position, the report adds. The federal diesel fuel tax rate (four cents/litre) is about twice that of the American rate. There are similar concerns about provincial diesel fuel taxes, which average 12.8 cents/litre.

“Some in transportation want fuel tax revenues collected from the industry to be earmarked for spending on transportation projects, as is done in the U.S. There is growing consensus that transportation investments could proceed if federal, provincial and territorial governments were to share costs,” the report concludes.

“We also took a look at the supply of good drivers and how to attract and retain them, as well as education programs,” Colledge adds. The report stresses that Canadians have overcome unique challenges to show expertise in handling bulk shipments, intermodal goods and logistics information – and that knowledge could be taught around the world.

But transportation-related education has traditionally been a low priority in Canada. Pockets were established at universities between 1966 and 1984. More recently, these programs have been significantly downsized as a result of budget cutbacks.

Governments, businesses and educators need to partner to develop and fund programs that will fulfill the long-term requirements of the transportation workforce, the report concludes.

“New ways of offering educational programs, such as through Internet-based distance learning, could be used to extend our transportation and logistics expertise to more people. Investing in human capital will help develop a competitive advantage.”

WESTAC is a Vancouver-based association of major organizations in the Western Canadian transportation system, and is dedicated to advancing the region’s economy by improving its transportation system. The Calgary-based Van Horne Institute was established to address important transportation and related regulatory issues confronting industry and government – in North America and internationally – through research and education initiatives.

Colledge says the two organizations want the report released to high school students, to enforce the importance of transportation at an early age. The Saskatchewan government has expressed an interest in adding it to the curriculum, and a Calgary school has plans to introduce it this fall.

As well, WESTAC is developing a speaker’s bureau, which will promote the report at various functions. It is currently working with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to offer a session at its annual convention.

“This is a long-term approach,” Colledge says of what the groups hope to accomplish. “Education and health care are also needs that have to be addressed, but transportation must also become a priority issue.” n

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