train travel is a good start, but Canada needs to totally rethink
the way we move people and freight from place to place, says railway
advocate Christopher Jones.
news that construction of a high-speed rail link between Quebec
City and Windsor could begin this fall is promising for Canada.
It comes on the heels of a spirited debate among federal Liberal
leadership candidates about how to carve up the proceeds of the
federal excise tax on fuel. Both of these issues have important
implications for the sustainability of our current surface transportation
Minister David Collenette announced yesterday that the $3 billion
high-speed rail proposal he committed to last fall will go to cabinet
later this month. That proposal is the realization of a 1991 Quebec-Ontario
study that argued that investment in high-speed rail travel would
ultimately be less expensive than spending on new highways and airports.
years later, conditions are even more conducive to high-speed rail.
The prohibitive costs associated with the earlier electrified French-style
version of high-speed rail are off the table; congestion in the
Quebec City-Windsor trade corridor is costing Canadians an estimated
$3.3 billion annually; air travel has become less attractive since
September 11, and governments have become more conscious of the
fiscal costs associated with ever greater car use and highway fatigue.
latest version of high-speed rail travel would see the possible
introduction of a Canadian-built higher speed train -- the Bombardier
Jet Train -- powered by a diesel-feul turbine capable of 240 km/h
or 150 mph.
environmental case for this rail link, especially in view of our
Kyoto Accord commitments, is impressive. Assuming that Canadians
can be lured from their cars and aircraft at near the same rate
as their European and American counterparts, the latest numbers
suggest greenhouse gas emissions for intercity passenger travel
between Montreal and Toronto will be reduced by 12 per cent from
current levels. Overall, assuming certain load factors on these
trains, it will be possible to save 350-million litres of fuel annually
investment to upgrade rail infrastructure in this corridor of 14.5
million residents (and possibly in Calgary-Edmonton in the future)
would benefit both passenger and freight rail and would permit Canada
to keep pace with many of our G-7 counterparts who have embarked
upon high-speed rail modernization.
cabinet members weigh the pros and cons of higher speed rail, the
Liberal leadership contenders have begun to speculate aloud on the
fate of the federal excise tax on fuel. However, lost in the midst
of the tussle about which level of government should get what share
of the $4.7-billion in annual federal revenues from this tax, is
the question of what the real public purposes of this levy should
issue of provincial/municipal equity in allocating these revenues
is valid enough, but surely the more meaningful question is how
should these funds be deployed to lessen our reliance on an increasingly
unsustainable system of transporting people and freight?
the use of asphalt-destined dollars is hardly the ideal point of
departure for framing a national transportation policy for a new
century. It is time to ask ourselves some questions about the direction
of current transportation policy.
expanding car ownership and use -- forecast to be 50 to 60 per cent
higher in 2015 than in 2000 -- and the attendant requirement to
build new roads and widen existing ones, intrinsically a good thing?
Is it realistic for people to continue treating parking and gas
as the only marginal costs associated with their daily commute?
Can provincial and municipal policies that encourage low-density
residential development and commercial sprawl be regarded as wise
public stewardship when the inevitable result is rampant single-occupant
vehicle commuting and heavy commercial truck use? Is a posture of
simple indifference an appropriate response by government to evidence
of the pernicious environmental and health consequences of road
transport's chronic noise, smog, accidents or the destruction of
arable land and green space? How are we to regard studies that conclude
that children who live near high-traffic areas may be six times
more likely to develop childhood leukemia and other cancers?
transportation policy begs answers to these questions. While the
responses are hinted at in Mr. Collenette's new federal vision for
transportation, much work remains to be done. The traditional roads-first
transportation policy, formulated in the 1950s, has run its course
take the example of the excise tax on gasoline and diesel fuel,
consider how we might re-shape it to deal with the negative outcomes
that are a function of business-as-usual in surface transport. Now,
the federal taxation of fuels serves as little more than a crude
cash cow to underwrite the status quo, with demonstrably little
benefit to anyone. A revised policy might be used to lever some
publicly desirable outcomes including reduced congestion, diminished
emissions, curtailed road accidents, fatalities and injuries, and
preserved green space, to name just a few.
see how this might work, consider this new model:
pooling into one joint fund of all federal and provincial excise
taxes on gasoline and diesel fuels, including taxes on railway diesel
addition to this fund of revenues from legislated road-user fees
including charges for heavy-load commercial trucks and congestion
charges for commuters.
further addition to the fund of all provincial/territorial vehicle
registration taxes, license charges and fees.
new transportation fund could be administered by representatives
from all levels of government. Dollars would be allocated to four
sub-funds: a primary highway/railway fund; an urban transport fund;
a secondary road/short line railway fund, and a municipal street
in each area would have to achieve agreed-upon public interest goals
such as improved traffic flow, reduced greenhouse gas emissions
and better air quality, the requirement to support strategic trade
corridors of national significance, the preservation of land, the
diminution of noise, the contribution to improved children's health
and safety, or any other legitimate public objectives.
the fuel tax in this manner would enable other modes of transportation,
such as freight rail, which pay excise taxes to federal and provincial
governments but have historically received few benefits, to be eligible
for investment spending. Overall, the objective would be to move
away from a road-centric bias often driven by electoral considerations,
federal-provincial squabbling over fuel tax revenues and the costs
of highway repair, and a marked apathy to mounting evidence of the
corrosive impacts of business-as-usual in surface transport.
time Canada developed a more sophisticated and modern surface transportation
policy, one that acknowledges the benefits of high-speed rail, and
also strives to use existing measures such as the gas tax, and new
ones such as road pricing, in more innovative and sustainable ways.
Jones is director of government relations of the Railway Association