June 1, 2001
By N. K. Becker, P.Eng.
Of all the daily hardships we as a profession have the ability to alleviate, those resulting from Canada's gridlocked transportation systems cry out for solutions. Traffic accidents and transportation...
Of all the daily hardships we as a profession have the ability to alleviate, those resulting from Canada’s gridlocked transportation systems cry out for solutions. Traffic accidents and transportation delays have become an enormous social, economic and environmental burden on our nation. This burden tears at the fabric of family life for urban commuters, causes immeasurable damage to our natural environment, increases the cost of everything we buy or sell, and taxes us all in countless ways.
Many countries suffer from too much population or from too much history. Canada suffers from too much geography. Efficient transportation is not a luxury in Canada. It is the imperative that has kept us viable as a single nation since Confederation. Canada owes its very existence to the visionary prime ministers who in their time fought for a national railroad, for a TransCanada Highway, for a national airline and for a St. Lawrence Seaway.
Fortunately, through a combination of good luck, hard work and the re-engineering of many venerable government institutions, Canada is entering the new millennium with her economic fortunes much improved. Over the past several years, our federal government and most of our provincial governments have amassed sizable budget surpluses.
The time has never been better for the engineering profession to serve the public interest by focusing the attention of the Prime Minister and his government on the extraordinary benefits that all Canadians would derive from the formulation of a 21st-century master transportation plan. To be effective, such a lobbying effort must demonstrate why such a visionary transportation plan is of vital interest to our nation and how the benefits of such a strategic national transportation plan would provide an extraordinary return for the investment.
Are we as a profession up to this task? No-one could seriously question our technical qualifications to advise our federal government on how to implement such a plan. But do we possess the clarity of vision and the leadership skills necessary?
A legion of transportation industry interests, consumer safety groups, engineering societies, environmentalists and municipalities are individually lobbying our federal, provincial and territorial governments for NAFTA truck routes, high-speed inter-urban rail service, urban mass transit systems, new airports, improved marine facilities, dedicated bicycle lanes, safer highways and inter-modal transport systems. By speaking out publicly in favour of increased government spending for Canada’s national highway system, the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada (ACEC) has joined the growing chorus of special interest groups who are each clamouring for more federal funding for some specific program or project involving road, rail, marine or air transportation. Should we as an industry be content merely to join this discordant chorus or should we step to the podium and orchestrate a score that will harmonize the many voices vying for the attention of our politicians?
Our politicians may be scientifically challenged, but they are not obtuse. As frequent travellers, they know that our transportation arteries have become dangerously clogged. Like the rest of us, politicians waste countless hours in traffic that they would prefer to spend at home with their families. They lament the cost and delays of air travel, and they hear endless complaints about the inadequacies of our urban mass transit and inter-urban passenger rail systems. They also know that inefficiencies in our highway, railway, airline and marine transportation systems exact an enormous toll from all Canadians.
If we accept the premise that the primary function of a national government is to provide citizens with those basic needs that they are powerless to provide for themselves, then surely our federal government must get off its assets and formulate a strategic national plan that will provide us all with a national transportation system worthy of Canada. A plan of this type must be developed with a vision that extends beyond our present needs and beyond the term of office of our present politicians.
Recognizing the dysfunctional state of our transportation systems, ACEC’s leadership has asked its members to lobby politicians to widen the entire TransCanada Highway to a four-lane highway before the end of this decade. It might well be perceived by those politicians whom we lobby that ACEC is only interested in the fees consulting engineers would derive from such a pet project. How could our federal politicians possibly justify widening vast stretches of underused highway while ignoring the more acute transportation problems that concern the public?
As transportation experts and leaders, we owe it to the public, to politicians and to our transportation industry clients to advocate comprehensive solutions to Canada’s worsening transportation problems, solutions that are both well engineered and broadly focused. For an example of how this might be done, we need look no further than to our southern neighbours. The U.S. federal government recently passed the Transportation Equity Act that will pump U.S. $217 billion into all modes of strategic transportation programs. It is being touted as a “Rebuild America” vision targeted at improving all modes of transportation, not just their national highway system. This comprehensive legislation not only provides massive government funding for transportation systems, but also is a vehicle for the private financing of vital transportation links.
How much is our federal government investing in our national transportation systems by comparison? A paltry $2.1 billion spread over five years, for all modes of transportation.
The time is right for consulting engineers to champion a vision for a Canadian Strategic Transportation Plan focusing on defining both the vital corridors and the best modes of transportation that Canada needs.
Look north and south
Our strategic interests demand that we look beyond the east-west railway and highway corridors of the past. We must supplement these east-west corridors with north-south transportation routes and urban bypasses. These routes will serve as efficient trade corridors for industry, will foster tourism and reduce traffic gridlock on existing highway systems. National corridors should be designed with enough foresight to accommodate not only present modes of road, rail, air and marine traffic, but vanguard modes of rapid transit, electronic highways and vital utilities as well.
Any comprehensive, strategic national transportation plan should encompass all modes of transportation and should include the following basic components:
1. Joint federal/provincial funding of regional transportation studies on an URGENT BASIS. These should identify Strategic Transportation Corridors that must be established to reduce the accidents, pollution and delays that kill or maim thousands of Canadians annually, that degrade our quality of life and cost billions annually in injuries, damages and “just-too-late” business losses. The strategic corridors should be identified and the land acquired quickly under a federal mandate to cut through the endless provincial red tape that experience has shown invites delays and unnecessary costs.
2. The concurrent funding of applied research to confirm the design criteria that should be adopted nationwide for all elements of such strategic transportation corridors. Research should be based on a critical review of existing transportation systems. The goal should be to optimize safety and efficiency while reducing life-cycle costs.
3. A cost/benefit analysis to determine how the federal, provincial and territorial governments can collectively raise the revenues required for the acquisition and improvements needed to create strategic transportation corridors. The tax burden should be spread among the benefiting parties fairly (e.g. auto insurers, Canadian and U.S. truck traffic, industrial exporters/importers, commercial license holders, the driving public, etc.).
4. A redefinition of our natio
nal highway system to include not only the east-west TransCanada Highway, but also those north-south strategic highways that are deemed vital to our NAFTA and other federal trade interests.
5. Partnering agreements between our federal, provincial and territorial governments that provide for the establishment of the reserve funds needed for the implementation and maintenance of the designated strategic transportation corridors. The arrangements would be in accordance with national and regional priorities to maximize the benefits.
6. Adoption of federal policies that encourage the provinces and territories to complete all requisite planning, environmental assessments, engineering designs and property acquisitions as soon as possible so that the resultant construction can be completed during periods of national or regional recession. These federal policies should encourage each province and territory to undertake construction work during recession periods when the cost is lowest and when unemployment is highest (perhaps by increasing the federal contribution to reflect the federal governments’ consequential savings in unemployment insurance payouts).
Such a framework for a strategic national transportation plan embodies what every engineering plan should contain. It undertakes to define the scope of the problem; to identify the best solutions based on a proper cost/benefit analysis; and to recommend how these solutions can be financed, phased and implemented based on rational priorities and sound economics.
During the last federal election, our mainstream political parties battled for the opportunity to implement platform policies targeted at improving our quality of life. They told us that they cared about our problems and would work tirelessly to improve our health care system, reduce pollution, create employment, encourage research and development, help business and industry become globally competitive, eliminate wasteful government spending and lower the deficit. They also told us that if elected, they would consult with us on how best to craft policies that will fulfil their election promises most effectively.
The more cynical of us may harbour doubts about the sincerity of political promises made during an election campaign, but we owe it to our children and our country to help our elected officials steer the government on a proper course. While each of us could try to do this independently, the impact that our efforts might have would be multiplied if consulting engineers collectively championed a single, well reasoned initiative that our federal politicians could enact to make good on virtually all their election promises. I encourage the ACEC to lobby in favour of a well engineered, comprehensive national strategic transportation plan modeled after the recently adopted U.S. Federal Transportation Equity Act.
Let’s do it right, or not at all.
Dr. Norbert Karl Becker, P.Eng. is president of the Becker Engineering Group of Windsor, Ontario.