Canada’s Transportation Infrastructure: a Backbone to the Economy

From Ottawa’s LRT project to Canada’s infrastructure bank to China’s controversial One Belt One Road project, infrastructure as a policy issue is everywhere these days. Despite this, only eight percent of Canadians are paying close attention to federal investment in infrastructure and only 48 per cent are following at all according to an Abacus Data poll. Before the Bell heard from experts and stakeholders about the issues facing this critical backbone to the economy.

The Policy Segment on Transportation Infrastructure photo courtesy of Twitter

Ihor Korbabicz, executive director of Abacus, said that despite the fact that most people aren’t paying close attention, 49 percent of Canadians nevertheless want more spending on transport infrastructure. Most Canadians are generally satisfied with the quality of service, but the gaps emerge between rural and urban Canadians.

During the pulse segment of the event, hosted by David Akin, Massimo Bergamini, president and CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada, said that (until the Transportation 2030 program unveiled by Transportation Minister Marc Garneau in December) there hasn’t been a national transportation strategy in Canada.

“We need to focus on small, incremental steps with clear accountability, clear plans, and clear funding,” said Bergamini. “We need better policy integration.”

Carole Saab, executive director of policy and public affairs with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said that there needs to be better coordination between different levels of government, especially because smaller municipalities often struggle with federally-designed programs.

“If the City of Toronto is struggling to engage effectively with other orders of government in a conversation that is long-term and forward planning, that’s infinitely harder for a smaller community,” said Saab.

Aylin Lusi, vice president of public affairs for UPS Canada, said that the shift that her industry has seen in recent years has been from the business-to-business model to business-to-consumer, which creates different stresses on infrastructure, such as more vehicles travelling to individual residences.

“The pain point that the movement of goods and the movement of people has in common is congestion,” said Lusi. “That impacts everybody on a day-to-day basis. There are things that industry is trying to do to alleviate those problems.”

During the policy segment, hosted by Sixth Estate’s Andrew Beattie, Derek Nighbor, CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada, said that forest products are already using ten percent of rail capacity in the country, twenty-five percent of what gets transported over roads, and twenty-five percent of what gets shipped out of Canadian ports.

“We need an integrated strategy, because a segmented strategy won’t work for us,” said Nighbor. “The biggest challenge we’re facing is congestion in the lower mainland of BC. We have a lot of stuff going to Asia. There’s huge opportunity in China and throughout Asia, and as we look at the markets of tomorrow, we need that Pacific gateway responsive and working for us.”

Marc Brazeau, president and CEO of the Railway Association of Canada, said that railways are currently transporting a record number of goods across the country, and that they are investing in the capacity to carry more.

“The challenge is always re-investing in the infrastructure,” said Brazeau. “In 2019, we’re forecasting $5.5 billion worth of investment back into the railways, but we have to do that with our partners. It is an integrated supply chain, so we need to make sure that we are getting that kind of commitment from our other partners, including government.”

Mark Halinaty, president and CEO of Thales Canada, said that the private sector has a major role to play in technology development to improve transportation infrastructure. As an example, Halinaty said that 5G communications in public transit means better communicating ridership information for capacity control.

“The key areas that will unlock vast potential are in Big Data and artificial intelligence,” said Halinaty. “Today, we collect all kinds of data for things like train control, but that data can be used for much more, especially if you start combining it with data for other modes of transportation and other systems, to be able to react to public demand and what is going on in the environment.”

Hon. Judy Sgro, MP for Humber River–Black Creek, ON, and chair of the standing committee on transportation, infrastructure and communities, says that she led a task force on transit infrastructure, and that the government’s 2030 plan, including trade corridors, would help complete the integration of the country’s transportation systems.

“We need a government to stay in long enough,” said Sgro. “[We need] to have a minimum of a ten-year commitment from all three levels of government, that they stick to.”

Watch the full edition here.

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