Grain transportation key among ag issues

Party representatives discussing agriculture at a recent election forum focused on Canadian Transportation Act review

Saskatchewan agriculture leaders taking part in a campaign panel discussion in Saskatoon agreed that transportation is a key issue.

But solutions to problems like the transportation crisis that left prairie elevators plugged to capacity in 2013-14 are not easy.

“(Rail transportation) is probably the most important issue … facing … grain producers here in Sask-atchewan right now,” said NDP candidate and ag critic Cathy Sproule.

“There’s a lot of work to be done here and we’ll certainly be holding whoever is in government to the fire to make sure that this gets looked after.”

Candidates for all major parties gathered for the Why Ag Matters forum in Saskatoon March 22.

Lyle Stewart, agriculture minister in the previous government and Saskatchewan Party candidate, told the audience that while a recent report on the Canada Transportation Act has some good items, it missed the mark on the rail revenue cap and on how small shippers and short line railways can get good service from the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways.

“With all the (CTA) submissions from Saskatchewan being basically on the same page, I don’t know how the thing got derailed … but we’ve got to get buy-in by the feds on this thing.”

Concerns about rail transportation, government regulation and the level of service provided by Class 1 railways has been at the centre of Saskatchewan’s political radar screen since late 2013.

That’s when rail service interruptions caused an industry-wide bottleneck in the western Canadian grain supply chain.

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Stewart acknowledged that the CTA review’s final report was disappointing to the province’s agriculture sector.

Sproule and Progressive Conservative leader Rick Swenson said they support a recommendation from the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan that calls for keeping maximum revenue entitlements, also known as the railway revenue cap, and a full review to assess grain transportation costs.

The CTA review recommended removing the revenue cap within seven years as part of a move toward a more “commercially grounded” railway industry.

The revenue cap limits the amount of revenue that a Class 1 railway can collect for moving a tonne of grain over any given distance.

The report also recommended a reduction of railway interswitching obligations, which were implemented in 2014 to ensure better competition for grain shippers that are normally serviced by only one railway company.

Stewart said the Sask. Party would oppose moves aimed at removing the revenue cap.

Swenson said Saskatchewan’s transportation infrastructure — both rail and road — should be top priorities for the Saskatchewan government.

“The government put out a document several years ago — a growth document —  saying that we would produce a whole host of goods and we would produce more of them,” Swenson said.

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“Agriculture has done fantastic, those agendas have been met. But if we can’t get our products to market, then it simply doesn’t matter.”

Swenson said the Sask. Party’s agricultural growth agenda should have been matched with a comprehensive transportation agenda, a 10-year plan that identifies key corridors, outlines the province’s plans for new infrastructure investment, and takes steps to fortify the province’s network of short-line railways.

Ray Orb, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, said maintaining a good rural road network is critical to the success of Saskatchewan’s farm economy.

He said provincial-municipal revenue sharing agreements allow for a certain level of maintenance but securing adequate levels of funding is a challenge.

The provincial government provided $25.5 million worth of funding to the Municipal Roads for the Economy Program (MREP) in 2014 to fund 80 municipal road, bridge and culvert projects in 64 RMs.

However, MREP funding was reduced to less than $15 million in 2015, forcing some municipal projects to be placed on hold.

“But we’re asking for that $25.2 million to be reinstated … and we’re asking the province to give us a two-year commitment on that as well, so we’d have that into 2017,” said Orb.

“It makes it a lot easier for RMs and contractors too if they can see that the projects are out there and they can bid on them accordingly.”

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Contact brian.cross@producer.com