Fuel taxes — and perhaps tolls — needed to pay for Prairie highways

OTTAWA (Dec. 31) — A study of CanadaÕs grain handling and transportation system recommended that federal and provincial governments use a portion of the fuel tax they collect to pay for construction, maintenance, and repair of municipal grid roads and secondary provincial highways used to move grain from farm to market.

The report is the second phase of a study commissioned by Transport Canada last December to evaluate Canada’s grain transportation network, including institutional, legislative and regulatory, physical, and operational concerns.

The increasing use of trucks to move grain and their impact on roads were among 15 issues identified in Phase I of the Grain Handling and Transportation Review, submitted last May. Others include producer benefits from efficiency gains; competitive access to rail lines, branch line closures, and the role of the Canadian Wheat Board.

The report did not assign responsibility for the deterioration of Prairie highways, explaining that trucks have become more prevalent with the closure of branch rail lines and local grain elevators in favor of larger, more centrally located elevators.

In 1996, for instance, 17 branch rail lines involving 535 miles of track were closed. The 35 elevators on those lines had been handling approximately 700,000 tonnes of grain annually, or approximately 2% of annual grain shipments from Western Canada. It would take 16,700 truckloads using a B-train tractor/semi-trailer to transport that amount of grain to higher throughput elevators, the study said. With more line closures forecast by Canadian National Railway and CP Rail during the next three years, an additional 1.2 million tonnes may be affected; to move that amount of grain would require some 28,600 Super-B truckloads.

While the report suggested that governments allot more tax revenue to road maintenance, it also recommended they explore charging tolls to use the roads.

The Saskatchewan Dept. of Highways and Transportation is experimenting with a toll-collection mechanism that monitors movement using satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS). The unit is programmed to discern when, for how long and how far the truck has traveled over secondary highways and grid roads. At regular intervals, data would be sent from the trucks to the province, which would in turn send an invoice to the truck owner via mail, e-mail, or fax.

“This appears to be the ideal toll assessing and collecting device,” the report said. “No toll gate is required, nor is any staff required to supervise this facility. The farm truck, if used on these roads, continues to be exempt from the toll system, the farmer being subject to the ordinary realty tax, which includes farm road maintenance.”

The report admitted that a GPS-based toll-collection system would be expensive for trucking companies because of the high cost of equipment and technology, and would raise concerns about whether the tax could be applies fairly to all truckers who use the roads.

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