Transport bill passage down to wire

Farm organizations lauded the passing of an amended transportation reform bill, Bill C-49, in the Senate last week, but the changes still have to clear the Liberal majority in the House of Commons.

Parliament is on a break until April 16 and it’s unknown when MPs will deal with the legislation.

Farmers want it passed, as amended, before the House rises for the summer in late June.

But at least one senator isn’t confident that any or all of the amendments will be approved.

“This government has not had a history of passing amendments that have been introduced in the Senate, but they’re going to have a tough ride if they don’t pass some of these amendments,” said Manitoba Conservative senator Don Plett in an interview.

Plett sits on the Senate’s transport committee and co-sponsored the amendment that added soybeans to the maximum revenue entitlement schedule.

He also sponsored changes to long haul interswitching. He said the provisions were cumbersome and complicated, and useless to certain shippers.

“The most serious problem with the (long haul interswitching) mechanism is that it stipulates that shippers who have either an interchange within 30 kilometres of their facility or who are dual-served by two railways at their facility can not apply for long haul interswitching regardless of whether or not that interchange or dual service is going in the right direction for the shipment,” he said.

His amendments add that the reasonable direction of the traffic and its destination be considered so that grain isn’t moving in the wrong direction at the farmers’ cost.

These changes were part of a package put forward by grain producers at the House of Commons transport committee last fall. However, they weren’t passed.

“We actually had a dozen (stakeholders) saying that this needs to be in there because they are losing an awful lot,” Plett said, referring to extra freight costs for grain shippers. “It doesn’t hurt the government, nor does it hurt the railways.”

The Senate also approved an amendment to give the Canadian Transportation Agency power to initiate investigations. Currently, the CTA can act only if a shipper makes a formal complaint.

During Senate transport committee debate, Quebec independent Senator Rosa Galvez, who proposed the change, said this could allow the CTA to address issues that affect multiple shippers or help the industry by proactively dealing with a system-wide issue, such as the 2013-14 backlog.

She said a CTA review panel made the same recommendation a couple of years ago and similar power is given to the U.S. agency.

Grain shippers overwhelmingly supported the amendments.

“It’s clear the Senate heard farmers’ voices and did its job and provided sober second thought,” said Jeff Nielsen, president of Grain Growers of Canada.

The Alberta wheat and barley commissions urged the House of Commons to pass the amended legislation as soon as possible, as did the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association.

“This bill has taken far too long to pass but I am pleased that the Senate has adopted our amendments and completed this process,” said WCWGA director Daryl Fransoo.

Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan President Todd Lewis added that the amendments are positive “and may have been able to ensure better service if they had been in place for this current crop year.

Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart said he was disappointed an amendment the province wanted was not passed.

“There’s a 30-day period for approval of applications to use interswitching and we think that interswitching is there to expedite shipments, not to add a month to them,” he said. “We had hopes that would be amended in the Senate but we’ll still continue to lobby for that change in the House of Commons when it goes back there.”

Meanwhile, federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau appeared at the Senate transport committee before the amendments’ passage.

He said Bill C-49 wasn’t perfect but achieved balance for shippers and the railways.

“This is an exquisitely, in my opinion, balanced bill,” he told the committee.

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