The ways to the roadway

by Julia Kuzeljevich

Time is money, especially when you’re delivering a load. And many truckers say it’s high time something was done about our roads. Canada is one of a very few countries in the world without a national highway policy or program, and many road studies have shown that national infrastructure policies can be a major boost for the economy.

But modern road planning has to take into account not only the tremendous growth in commuter traffic into the major cities, but also the growth in commercial traffic that is expected over the next couple of decades.

“Truck traffic has grown tremendously. If current trends continue we’re looking at a lot of congestion in the future,” says Eric Miller, professor of civil engineering and the joint program in transportation at the University of Toronto.

“The issue is an important one from a safety and congestion standpoint. We may be at a point where we may be looking at a separation of traffic streams.”

Miller says that it’s hard to estimate the needs, and solutions, of congestion because of commercial traffic.

“There’s traditionally less data to monitor truck flows. Most of our planning procedures are passenger-oriented. Collecting information on truck movements is difficult because they are a diverse and scattered population, and also largely private industry,” he says.

Miller expects, though, that over the next decade we will begin to take more “active control” over traffic. For example, with electronic signs, traffic managers can measure speed and advise motorists on how to avoid a congested area. Also, lights on on-ramps (a common practice in the U.S.) can pace the traffic merging onto the highway and help prevent bottlenecks. Perhaps even buried or suspended highways along existing routes could be considered as a way to handle the swelling volume.

A handle on traffic is something that every level of government would ideally like to have.

The problem is, our multi-tiered governments, right down to municipalities, have many competing interest for the various ideas out there. The province of Ontario, for example, established the SuperBuild Corporation in 1999 as an arm of the government that will both coordinate all government capital infrastructure investment and develop public-private partnerships. So will private sector involvement mean a road gets built faster?

“I don’t know if you’ll see things change dramatically time-wise,” says Sarah Harrison, spokeswoman for the SuperBuild Corporation. However, private funding could mean that the competition for which road gets built first may ease a bit.

“Maybe with private sector involvement, we might be able to move forward on building several roads simultaneously, instead of looking at a finite government budget for that year,” she says.

As if lobbying for a stretch of road wasn’t hard enough, imagine lobbying for the idea of one great big highway, stretching continent-wide.

Advocates of NAFTA corridors, sometimes better known as superhighways, are working for efficient transportation systems outside of the national sphere.

NAFTA corridors are routes that propose to link existing infrastructure to move goods seamlessly within Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

North America’s Superhighway Coalition, Inc. is a lobby group that tries to bring together the interests at the federal level with the state authorities and private business to promote its network of international trade corridors.

“We’ve been instrumental as a grassroots lobbying group. Working to attract federal funding matched on a local level,” says Ken Miller, a NASCO spokesman.

Advocates of superhighways envision something akin to the extensive road networks of periods such as the Roman Empire. But today, superhighways have just as much market value as the products hauled along them.

“If you can make it very attractive, you are going to have the private sector companies using that corridor, whether internationally or locally,” says Miller.

Corridor projects also recognize a major fact of life for Canadians: a growing volume of trade is going north-south. In Alberta, the provincial government has invested heavily in infrastructure projects over the last three years. A lot of that spending will be directed into the Canamex corridor, or the north-south trade corridor running from Coutts, Alta., up to the British Columbia border, and into the Alaska Highway.

“Our government decided we couldn’t wait for a national highway system anymore,” says Rod Thomson, executive director, transportation policy and economic analysis at Alberta Infrastructure. Thomson says that truckers will often use better U.S. routes over the Canadian ones.

“If we don’t have a good Canadian system, truckers will go down and use the U.S. east-west system. It’s not that inconvenient. “

Alberta plans to four-lane most of the corridor, about 1200 km, by 2007, to keep traffic here.

But once a project is approved, it’s a long way to completion. There are also environmental issues to consider.”

“You’d normally decide on an origin and destination, looking, from a biophysical and socio-economic perspective, where those road alignments would be,” says Peter Homenuck, a senior partner with the Institute of Environmental Research.

“You look at both minimizing disruption to stream crossings and animal habitats, and also for ease of connections to other routes. It becomes a comparative process. You’d rather displace fewer households or farmlands than more,” he says.

What about land that is already owned, or on which there is a residence? “The usual procedure would be to try to buy land at easement,” says Homenuck. Easement could mean a road cut through a corner of someone’s property if it works out to be a right of way. “If someone decides they don’t want to sell, they would go through the expropriation procedure and compensate the property owner for fair market value.

Ultimately, governments may be left legislating how existing roads are used as a mechanism to control congestion. “If things can’t be worked out between the interested parties, you get into regulations, which are lose-lose situations,” says Dan Mooney, a transportation manager Delta, B.C. The province has had its share of traffic nightmares in recent years, as the Vancouver region absorbs evermore commercial and commuter traffic.

That may mean the introduction of truck lanes, or even legislation or tolls that discourage driving in peak hours. Ultimately, there’s only so much concrete and asphalt to go around. n

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