OTTAWA — An expert panel focused on the future of the country's transportation network is recommending the federal government give the private sector more opportunities to build highways and bridges, and open the door for more tolls and user fees to help pay for it all.
The report from a panel led by former Conservative cabinet minister David Emerson says the federal government should focus public dollars and efforts where the market fails consumers, specifically in the North, where companies may not want to invest because of the terrain, weather and lack of infrastructure.
In those remote and northern regions, only governments can make sure there are "safe and affordable facilities" to connect communities, because the traffic volumes "are insufficient to finance the capital and operating costs based on user fees alone." It also suggests the federal government identify properties that could be used in the future for national transport corridors and then prevent developers from building on those tracts of land.
The panel, which studied the Canada Transportation Act over 18 months, said the government should use federal infrastructure money to relocate freight rail lines where they pass through municipal cores.
It suggests a more minimalist role for the federal government, looser restrictions on private investment in the transportation sector, harmonized trucking rules across provinces, a privatized Via Rail and changes that combined would make it easier and faster to build badly needed infrastructure to connect major urban centres and link Canada to international trade partners.
"Independent entities, disciplined by competition and market forces, financed by private investment and 'user pay,' and empowered to act accordingly, are able to develop and operate the components of the core transportation system — our largest airports, ports and railways," the report said. "Transportation policy should continue to push the system in that direction."
Without those changes today, the report argues, the transportation system could suffer in the coming decades, since it could take up to 30 years to plan, assess, design, build consensus and finally construct a project.
The report cites the ongoing effort to build a new bridge connecting Windsor and Detroit. The bridge isn't yet built despite decades of efforts and billions spent by federal, provincial and state governments and "may be 20 years too late to stem the ongoing decline in Canada's manufacturing sector."
The Opposition Conservatives pressed the government Thursday in the House of Commons about when it would start to update legislation as suggested in the report.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau said the Liberals will consult other governments, aboriginal peoples and stakeholders on the report's findings and come up with recommendations to change the act.
Garneau said final decisions on legislative changes will be made later this year: "So stand by, it's coming soon."
By The Canadian Press