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Stop studying, the time for action is now, former deputy minister advises

OTTAWA, Ont. - As a former deputy minister, Nick Mulder certainly knows the workings of Transport Canada inside out. And the prescription he provided at a recent conference in Ottawa to meet our count...

OTTAWA, Ont. – As a former deputy minister, Nick Mulder certainly knows the workings of Transport Canada inside out. And the prescription he provided at a recent conference in Ottawa to meet our country’s future transportation challenges would certainly turn Ottawa’s transportation policy inside out. Speaking with the freedom of one no longer restrained by government policy, Mulder told members of the Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport in North America that the increasing pace of specialization and competition in the international trade Canada is so reliant upon means that transportation has become a major tool for competitiveness.

“The public and politicians have to be more aware of those facts,” Mulder said. He outlined four requirements necessary for transportation to thrive in Canada:

1. Policy and regulatory certainty and stability:

“We need more legislative stability…(Transportation providers) can’t generate cash flow and invest in infrastructure if they don’t know what the rules of the game are. There has been too much ‘ad hockery’ lately. We need an overall plan and we need to stick to it. We have to stop year-by-year tinkering and reviews and filtering plans through short-term political prisms.”

2. More freedom for innovation and entrepreneurship:

Mulder called for further commercialization, privatization, restructuring and P3 partnerships as well as self regulation.

Mulder said Ottawa should have less than half of the current 19 port authorities that it does. Many are essentially waterfront development corporations and should be transferred to their local communities, he said, and the rest should be placed at greater arm’s length from Ottawa.

He prescribed selling our major airports – “if India can do it, why not us?” – and using the funds for infrastructure plans.

He also said airport rents need revision so that the largest airports aren’t penalized for their success.

Calling the current air agreements a “cottage industry of vested interests” reminiscent of the last vestiges of mercantilism where “all is forbidden unless explicitly permitted,” Mulder said Canada should instead be a leader in major air liberalization, and not just with the U.S.

“Why can’t Cathay Pacific, British Airways or Air Canada operate anywhere? Many other industries can,” he said.

He called for the break up of VIA Rail and Marine Atlantic with industry being allowed to run them under contract for different market segments.

And also for developing cross border support for the break up of most of the Jones Act and shipping conference legislation to liberalize coastal and Great Lakes shipping.

3. Much more focus on intermodal and major urban transportation issues:

Mulder said we need a strategy that delivers us from the current trend of moving people and goods faster and faster to bigger and bigger bottlenecks.

He chastised current infrastructure agreements as “too short term, politically driven and not focused enough on strategic east-west and north-south highway investments.

He prescribed establishing an arm’s-length federal/provincial/industry fund for 15 years with stable funding.

His prescription called for greater understanding that shortfalls in urban transportation are causing most of the transportation bottlenecks and so those projects should receive priority.

“Ottawa uses the ‘manure theory’ of development. Spread the stuff around and hope something will grow. We need to focus instead on major cities to help them compete with the world’s major cities. That’s where the transportation focus has to be,” Mulder said.

He called for increased funding for urban transit, truck corridors and rail/truck interfaces as well as accelerated plans for the Pacific and Eastern Gateways and similar north-south links.

4. More means to allow industry itself to generate cash flow and make infrastructure investments: Legislators must do a better job of tackling transportation tax and fees issues, Mulder advised.

“I think it’s time to stop studying it, and get on with it,” he said.

Canada is in need of a joint-action plan on transportation strategy and that plan requires agreement among key stakeholders on the main elements of future transportation priorities, Mulder said. But he said there is also a great need to increase the awareness among Canadians and politicians on the role and importance of transportation.

“We don’t really do enough to lay out the facts on how important transportation is to the viability of our country. It is not what the media talks about, what university professors talk about or what politicians talk about,” he said.

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