REGINA, Sask. -A “New West Partnership” between the three westernmost provinces announced in May could be a gigantic step forward for the trucking industry.
Or not. As it turns out, reaction to the agreement, which supposedly establishes the three provinces as, basically, a free-trade zone, depends on who you talk to, and appears to be driven by where that person lives.
“It has huge positive ramifications for truck transport in one way or another,” says Al Rosseker, executive director of the Saskatchewan Trucking Association. He says his group has been working with Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia for the last two-and-a-half years or so, trying to get some regulatory harmonization, “and when you’ve got the Premiers kind of on side, basically saying they’re going to make this happen, it’s just major for us.”
The agreement, Rosseker says, will make it a lot easier for truckers to travel between provinces.
“Say you’re taking a load from Regina to Victoria,” he says, “and you can go straight through with minimum interruptions, whether they be having to slide axles at borders or check in with weigh stations, it got to the point where you’d be going from a weigh station out of one jurisdiction to a weigh station in another jurisdiction. It just didn’t make a lot of sense.”
Anytime red tape can be cut, Rosseker says, whether for truck transport or whatever, it’s a good thing, but before all that tape could be eliminated, the associations had to decide on the important areas where it needed to be cut.
“We’ve been working with the other associations in terms of trying to get our ducks in a row,” Rosseker says. “And governments have said that before we get going with any kind of regulatory harmonization, we as the trade associations, have to get on the same page and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
They’ve made great gains, too, he says, particular on long combination vehicles (LCVs). “It was a bit of a mismatch on moving goods, in terms of weights and dimensions,” he says, “and we’ve ironed out all kinds of things between the associations.”
One of the issues was maximum allowable speeds for LCVs. At one point, Rosseker says, the speed limit in Manitoba was 100 clicks, but only 90 in Saskatchewan and 100 again in Alberta. “We’ve got that ironed out now and it’s 100 across the provinces.”
Rosseker says that once the associations’ ducks were lined up, they found their respective governments very proactive in tackling issues, including weights. “I think all provinces will be at 63,500 kgs for B-trains probably sometime near year-end,” he says.
The agreement, which Rosseker says will start being phased in as of July 1, 2012, builds on earlier ones such as TILMA (Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement) that already took care of many trucking issues between Alberta and B.C. That may explain why the reaction from the trucking associations in those provinces is less bullish than Saskatchewan’s.
“The benefits are quite modest on the transportation front,” says Paul Landry, president and CEO of the B.C. Trucking Association. Landry doesn’t see a lot of issues outstanding between the provinces that the new partnership would clear up, anyway. “It’s not something that our members bring to our attention,” he says. “We don’t get complaints about cross-border irritations, so to my mind there are no major problems.”
To Landry, the more important issues concern cross-border shipping to the US and shipping farther east, into Ontario, but even there, he says, his members haven’t been crying out for changes.
“There might be some carriers that have some concerns about requirements for speed limiters and that type of thing -things that are different in Ontario than here,” he says. “But generally speaking there aren’t major problems operating between here and Saskatchewan.”
Does that mean all’s quiet on the western front? “I suppose that if I conducted a survey and asked our members to tell us about all of the issues they’d like us to bring to the government’s attention about operating into Alberta, then there might be some irritants that surface,” Landry says. “But I honestly cannot remember the last time I had a conversation with a carrier about cross-border (within Canada) issues.”
Landry says most of the conversations between associations concern issues such as LCV policies, “In terms of driver training and operational issues like when and where you can operate them and under what circumstances,” but he also notes that, because of the obvious geographical differences between B.C. and points east, there’s only one highway suitable for the cross-border operation of LCVs anyway.
It’s basically the same story in Alberta. According to Dean Paisley, president of the Alberta Motor Transport Association, “It seems like there’s more government and media hype than what the carriers think,” he says. “From their point of view there are some things we need to do now but for the most part they’re not unhappy. But we love the initiative, keep it coming.” He says his organization continues consulting with the industry and advising government on an ongoing basis, but “where it goes after it leaves (us) is up to the politicians.”
Paisley says the government of Alberta appears to be giving the industry some welcome slack, too, in that as far as boat tails, moose bumpers and so forth are concerned, “They’re not going to get down to centimeters. The overall length is set for a standard operation and if we need to put some of these accessories on, it won’t be an issue.”
One thing Paisley would like to see solved going forward is the harmonization of licences and standards for tradesmen, but he’s thinking beyond the west.
“I’d like to see (them harmonized) North America-wide,” he says. “I think we all would like see one commercial driver’s licence because then you have one set of documents if you’re checking a driver. But Canada is pretty good right now.”
He’d also like to see more information sharing between jurisdictions, but “You get into Canadian human rights and that sort of stuff.” He admits, however, that “we’re getting a heck of a lot better than we were in getting drivers’ abstracts from Alberta and B.C., Saskatchewan and to the US.”
The idea, he says, is to get a dependable source of drivers and foster greater safety. “There’s a few bad people out there that are running around under the scope but not a lot,” he says. “A few guys who’ve lost their licences go to other jurisdictions because they know if they change an initial in their name or a letter of their last name they can still get a licence because the computer won’t pick that up, but I don’t see that happening much anymore.” Part of the reason, he says, is because there aren’t a lot of jobs right now.
The LCV wish list going forward includes a 41-metre overall length, Paisley says, “and then the inter-axle spaces can be widened and a longer tongue length could be used on the converter, which helps prevent damage when hooking up trailers.”
Paisley says trucking companies are also dealing with discrepancies in holiday weekend operating regulations. “Alberta has gone to a three-hour restriction (4-7 p.m.) outbound from Calgary and Edmonton on the day before the holiday weekend and inbound on the last day,” but rules remain different in some other provinces.
Still, while these issues may be flies in the overall ointment, Paisley says they aren’t major irritants for most companies.
The obvious odd man -or province -out, in this western bloc is Manitoba, which as yet has not become party to such a wide-ranging agreement as exists between other western provinces. Yet there may be a light at the end of this tunnel, too, according to the STA’s Rosseker, and he gives a lot of the credit to the business-friendly government in his province.
“The Saskatchewan government has been meeting with the Manitoba government already on regulatory harmonization, among other things,” he says, “and I would think that the New West Partnership c
oncept is certainly on the table.”
Rosseker says Saskatchewan’s highways department has spearheaded “all kinds of harmonization initiatives and Premier Brad Wall got meetings started with Alberta and they started having even joint cabinet meetings. He’s doing the same with the Manitoba side now.”
This coming together of provinces has more than a touch of deja vu to it, as if history is beginning to repeat itself. “If you look back into history,” Rosseker says, “more than 100 years ago, when the west was being opened up, there were proposals that there would be a province called Buffalo, but the federal government at the time felt it was too big a region for them to be dealing with and that’s when the move came to break it into more provinces.”
Buffalo, according to Wikipedia, was the brainchild of Premier Frederick Haultain of the old Northwest Territories. Haultain’s envisioned province would have encompassed all of present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan.
“In effect,” Rosseker says, “what you have is the new Buffalo in terms of the trading bloc. The west is providing a lot of energy resources; we’re ‘have provinces’ now, and in terms of clout the thinking of the western premiers is that there’s a trading bloc here.”
It’s also about efficient use of resources, he says. “Even looking at trade offices throughout the world, do you want each province having its own office in the same city? No, you have one office and it’s staffed by people from Alberta and Saskatchewan and B.C., and you look at the trading implications as a region as opposed to province to province.”
In this day and age, Rosseker says, “partnerships are where it’s at. Everyone’s partnering on something. Businesses and companies and governments can’t just go it alone -it’s just too expensive.” He points out that such partnerships are happening all the time in the trucking industry, via takeovers or working partnerships where “a couple of firms will get together, not competing head to head but going after different loads together. I think this kind of partnership is what you’re going to see more of.”
Rosseker says such marriages of convenience make everyone stronger. “Saskatchewan has one million people and change and now we’re part of a group that has nine million people. We’ve got clout. We’re kind of the runt of the litter here, other than the fact that we’ve got oil, potash, gold, diamonds, uranium, water -and the path east -so it just seems to make sense for this kind of alliance to take place.”
To Rosseker, it should be a win-win scenario for everyone -a job creator that evens the playing field for everyone. “This isn’t West Side Story,” he says. “There’s no need to fight it out. Let’s work together.”
Such a trading bloc also brings excellent combined buying power, which is good for cash-strapped governments looking at bulk purchasing in such areas as healthcare and pharmaceutical, textbooks for the school systems and the like. And, Rosseker says, that’s also good news for the trucking industry.
“When governments are procuring all this stuff, the majority of it is going to be moved by truck,” he says, noting that the industry moves some 92% of the goods and products that pass through and across the province of Saskatchewan. “Sure, some of it’s railed,” he admits, “And that’s fine. But then it comes off of the rail cars and is trucked to various other points in the province and I would suggest it’s the same for the other provinces. I would think in Western Canada, 85% of goods are being moved by truck.”
So while the New West Partnership may not be a panacea, or even a big deal to some, it appears to be at least potentially a definite positive in the overall Grand Scheme of Things in Western Canada.