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Why do we shuffle where we once ran?

Knock hard enough and long enough and someone is bound to hear. Seems that's what may finally be happening in Canada's political circles with respect to paying real attention to the inadequacies of ou...

Knock hard enough and long enough and someone is bound to hear. Seems that’s what may finally be happening in Canada’s political circles with respect to paying real attention to the inadequacies of our transportation infrastructure. Talk of a national and comprehensive transportation strategy appears – and I emphasize “appears” because past disappointments indicate there are no certainties – to be back on Ottawa’s political agenda.

News of Ottawa’s regained interest in transportation surfaced at a summer meeting of premiers during which the nation’s provincial leaders expressed serious concern that absent or aging highway systems and congestion on key routes to airports, ports and border crossings are eroding Canada’s ability to compete in the global economy. Premier Campbell of British Columbia, premier Hamm of Nova Scotia, and premier Handley of the Northwest Territories are leading the development of a national strategy, which they say will be multimodal and inclusive of all regions. These designated premiers are to work with provincial and territorial transportation ministers and bring this strategy to all premiers in November of this year for further discussion.

Then in late September, The Council of Ministers responsible for Transportation and Highway Safety agreed to expand the National Highway System (NHS), following a report and recommendations by the National Highway System Review Task Force. Approximately 4,500 kilometers of feeder routes and 5,900 kilometers of northern and remote routes are being added to the NHS, as well as approximately 500 kilometers of key intermodal connector routes. The expanded NHS agreed upon will encompass 38,021 kilometers of key highway linkages.

Should the nation’s transportation stakeholders be enthused about such developments or just shrug them off as yet more feeble attempts to tackle an issue that so far has proved beyond Ottawa’s comprehension?

Canadian Trucking Alliance chief David Bradley was certainly quick to voice his doubts the ministers will be able to carry out their agreed upon plan to expand the National Highway System.

While having premiers directly involved is a positive sign indicating Ottawa is willing to work across the broad front necessary for dealing with transportation issues, the success of their mission, I believe, will depend on their willingness to ask the tough questions Ottawa has avoided for years.

And I would suggest starting with the question Robert Ballantyne, president of the Canadian Industrial Transportation Association, posed at Canada’s National Transportation Summit I had the opportunity to chair earlier this summer: “We fought the entire Second World War and Canada built the world’s fourth largest military organization in less than six years. Why can’t we build a river crossing in less than 13 years,” Ballantyne asked, referring to the fact that there has been a recognized need for a new road bridge or tunnel between Windsor and Detroit for at least five years but it could be 2013 before the necessary infrastructure is in place. (And incidentally one of the key consultants working on that project thinks 2013 is highly optimistic.)

It’s a question that places the situation in historical perspective and gets to the root of many of our infrastructure-related problems. Why can’t we as a country no longer pull off what we once could?

Sure the transportation issues we face may be complex but the architects of our Second World War military operation in the 40s and of our initial large infrastructure projects in the 50s would have faced similar challenges.

Why did they succeed where we are failing, particularly when our study and understanding of transportation issues is that much more sophisticated?

The truth is inescapable. As Mr. Ballantyne suggested, there has been a leadership gap in managing our transportation infrastructure needs. To be effective a transportation strategy must be comprehensive, multi-modal and visionary. The federal government needs to rise above provincial, municipal and modal squabbling. It must look beyond the short-term and politically expedient projects which have sucked so much funding away from transportation infrastructure spending in recent years. Hopefully Ottawa is finally waking up to the fact it is the most obvious leadership candidate in resolving Canada’s transportation problems and will get on with the task at hand.

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