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Transport vision, or erotic dream?

CALGARY, Alta. - Federal Transport Minister, David Collenette, has touted his Straight Ahead document as a vision for the future of transportation in Canada. Yet in some transportation circles it's be...

STRAIGHT AT YA: Straight Ahead was supposed to be a document of vision, but not everyone's buying into it.
STRAIGHT AT YA: Straight Ahead was supposed to be a document of vision, but not everyone's buying into it.

CALGARY, Alta. – Federal Transport Minister, David Collenette, has touted his Straight Ahead document as a vision for the future of transportation in Canada. Yet in some transportation circles it’s becoming ridiculed as everything from Straight Ahead With Blindfolds On, to Straight Ahead Into a Brick Wall.

The document has certainly been greeted by the transportation industry with mixed reaction. Recently, the Van Horne Institute and the Western Transportation Advisory Council (WESTAC) held a two-day conference to discuss Collenette’s ‘vision’ at the 2003 Transportation Blueprint Workshop.

Panels representing various forms of transportation were assembled, and Collenette himself was penciled in as the keynote speaker during a luncheon on day two of the seminar. However, Collenette wasn’t able to make it to the conference and instead, Jean Patenaude, director general, strategic policy with Transport Canada inherited Collenette’s spot on the hot seat.

Patenaude says Straight Ahead is “a vision that provides direction as we adapt to change,” and that “it’s already having an impact.”

He says the conference itself was an indication that the document is a powerful tool that’s instrumental in stimulating important dialog across the country. But not everyone at the conference was a member of the David Collenette Fan Club. Five panels were assembled to critique Collenette’s vision.

Of particular interest to the trucking industry was a panel assembled to air the view of surface transportation modes. This panel included: Lisa MacGillivray, president of the Canadian Industrial Transportation Association (CITA); Ward Weisensel, vice-president of transportation and country operations with the Canadian Wheat Board; David Bradley, chief executive officer of the Canadian Trucking Alliance; Brian Crow, president of Motor Coach Canada; Doug Smith, executive vice-president, logistics and intermodal with OmniTRAX; Ian May, chairman of the Western Canadian Shippers’ Coalition; and Bill Rowat, president of the Railway Association of Canada (RAC).

Of all the members on the panel, Bradley was far and away the most vocal critic of Collenette and his vision.

“I’m having a hard time getting excited about this document,” says Bradley.

“There isn’t a whole lot in the document that pertains directly to trucking.”

Although Bradley’s trucking persona had difficulty getting excited about it, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, he admits the economist in him finds it a fascinating publication.

“This is an economist’s erotic dream,” he says, noting there’ll be hundreds of reports stemming from the document in the months and years ahead. “But at the end of the day, they’re going to do nothing with them.”

Perhaps the most optimistic member of the panel was the RAC’s Rowat. He says while Straight Ahead doesn’t address all of the railways’ concerns, it does make some positive assessments, and strikes a fair balance between the needs of both carriers and shippers.

“It’s a move in the right direction,” says Rowat.

He also says it encourages intermodalism and opens the door for more co-operation between truck and rail.

“The report comes out very clearly in support of intermodalism,” says Rowat.

“The first step is now, let’s get an assessment of the capacity and ability of intermodalism…there’s probably quite an extensive capability there.”

In the months leading up to the release of Straight Ahead, some industry observers worried the document would more aggressively urge a modal shift from truck to rail. Everyone on the panel seems to agree that it’s a good thing that didn’t happen.

“If you’re going to believe in competition, then you have to let the marketplace decide things,” says May. He adds that subsidizing one mode over another would be wading into dangerous territory.

“You’ve got to let them duke it out and let the best mode win,” he says.

CITA’s MacGillivray agrees.

“Rail has to become a mode that we should want to use, not a mode that we have to use,” she says.

“If you want to make rail more appealing, then you have to do something about the service.”

Bradley stresses that Canadian carriers don’t necessarily view the railways as their main competitors – their focus is more on U.S. carriers.

Therefore, he was disappointed there wasn’t more emphasis on border security and highway infrastructure within the document.

“I don’t think that it deals adequately at all with our competitiveness with U.S. carriers,” says Bradley. “We must maintain access to the U.S. market.”

Otherwise, he says nations such as China and India will threaten to take over a large chunk of Canada’s trade with the U.S. He’s also concerned that there isn’t enough emphasis on border security.

If border backups persist, he says Canadian carriers will lose business to their American counterparts, especially when it comes to Just-in-Time deliveries. Ultimately, it may be simpler in the long run for the U.S. to manufacture more products domestically and Canada could find itself left out of the equation altogether.

Bradley says among the biggest disappointments was that Straight Ahead all but rules out any future changes to the way fuel taxes are allocated.

“I find it quite concerning that here we have a vision document and there is still no national highway policy,” he says, referring to the part of the document that reads ‘The government’s interest in investigating governance models for road infrastructure and urban transit should not create an expectation of change in its policy with regard to excise taxation of fuels.’

“What a cop-out!” blasts Bradley.

Despite his criticism of the vision, Bradley did commend Transport Canada for taking the initiative to pursue it in the first place.

“Part of what they’re trying to accomplish is to put transportation on the agenda and for that, they can’t be faulted,” says Bradley.

To conclude, here’s a comment from each of the panel members that summarizes their feelings about Straight Ahead:

Bradley: “It went out of its way to neither offend nor inspire…I’m left underwhelmed by it.”

Weisensel: “We are supportive of some of the remedies that have been laid out in Straight Ahead.”

MacGillivray: “Transport Canada can’t seem to decide whether they’re there for carrier viability or to develop a competitive transportation system. They’re doing a good job at assuring carrier viability.”

Crow: “I don’t read this document and have a good understanding of the government’s vision.”

Rowat: “There’s a tendency, we find, towards re-regulation in the document.”

May: “The document is a bit conflicted…I appreciate the value of a long-term approach, but I think the document gets confused to the point that it misses the point.”

Smith: “It’s very vague.”

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