Ottawa must improve plan for infrastructure funding

The much-desired increase in rail grain hauling will unfortunately coincide with the annual spring road ban season.

Municipal and provincial governments traditionally put weight restrictions on road traffic in the spring to limit damage as the frost melts and roadbeds become soggy.

The urgent need to move grain might cause some jurisdictions to relax the road bans, and in other cases the restrictions might be ignored in the interest of immediate economic need.

After all, no one wants the railways to start spotting rail cars at elevators and then find there isn’t grain to fill them.

Unfortunately, that will likely mean highways, rural roads and grids will take a beating.

The cost of repairing those rural roads should not fall entirely on the shoulders of farmers through their property taxes.

The federal government, through inadequate shipper protections in the Fair Rail Freight Service Act of last year, contributed to the environment that allowed the railways to fall well short of meeting demand.

So Ottawa should provide money to help rural municipalities repair infrastructure damaged by spring grain hauling this year, just as they have in the past helped repair flooded out roads.

After all, the federal government might generate revenue from the grain rail crisis if the railways fail to provided the 11,000 hopper cars per week as required under the recent federal order. That order provides for fines of $100,000 per day.

Even if fines are not triggered, money should be found to help fiscally stretched rural municipalities deal with a problem not of their making.

However, beyond the short-term need, senior governments need to increase infrastructure improvements.

Thankfully, governments have started to address a long history of under-funding.

The federal government’s recent budget brought in a new version of the Building Canada Plan, which is an infrastructure funding program that will spend $53 billion over 10 years. The money is predictable and portions of it will be available to provinces, territories and municipalities for cost-shared projects.

Another example is Saskatchewan’s 4.7 percent increase in infrastructure spending this year, with $405.2 million going to road improvements.

These measures are praiseworthy, but more must be done because infrastructure shortfalls are limiting Canada’s growth and prosperity.

By most forecasts, the federal budget should be back to a surplus situation next year. Many political analysts note that the extra money would allow the Conservatives to introduce a “pre-election budget.”

In such situations in the past, the federal Conservatives have tended to identify voting groups to attract with specially tailored programs. They’ve created a host of tax breaks or tax expenditures as a sop to a range of demographics, from parents with kids in sports to transport riders to first time home buyers to apprentices.

These heavily advertised giveaways clutter up the tax code and do nothing to make Canada more competitive.

A better-funded strategic infrastructure strategy would do more for Canadians, creating economic opportunities, jobs and wealth and making lives better.

Infrastructure spending fits well with the government’s trade agenda. You can’t expect to sign deals with Asian countries and then expect the increased commerce to use the same overused roads, rails and ports.

The government must also look at how to stimulate better performance and infrastructure investment from the two major railways.

These could include stronger and easier-to-enforce railway performance standards, expanded interswitching distances to allow more competition and an examination of joint running rights.

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