Northern transportation strategy encouraged

University professor says proposed Alaska to Alberta railway shows that the country must do more for northern Canada

The proposed Alaska to Alberta railway is a warning sign that Canada needs a national infrastructure strategy to open up the northern half of the country, something that could benefit farmers, says a researcher.

Alberta’s frustration over stalled pipelines for its oil and gas industry is likely providing much of the provincial enthusiasm for the railway, says Kent Fellows, an economist at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.

“I’m not going to say it’s a bad idea, because I don’t think it is.”

But if Canada had “all our ducks in a row, we’d be thinking more about rail for other industries and hopefully focused on a Canadian port, rather than thinking about building new rail infrastructure for the energy sector using an American port,” he says.

Related story in this issue: Northern railway could benefit ag

Tariffs by U.S. President Donald Trump have shown the pitfalls of relying on the U.S., says Fellows. Besides affecting its sovereignty, Canada will not be able to fully capitalize on trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership without the proper east-west infrastructure within the country, he says.

The Alaska to Alberta railway, or A2A, seeks to link the state’s deep water ports south through the Yukon to the oilsands region of Fort McMurray, Alta. Although the US$17-billion project is still in its preliminary stages, construction of the 2,570-kilometre rail line could be finished by 2025.

Fellows is involved in the Canadian Northern Corridor research program at the School of Public Policy. It is studying the potential creation of a 7,000-kilometre east-west corridor across the country’s north.

Such a corridor would involve a multi-modal right of way containing everything from railways and pipelines to highways and power lines. It will help farmers get products to their markets faster, more reliably and at a lower cost, says Fellows.

As a nation that is geographically enormous but small in terms of population, extending transportation networks through the north is vital to Canada’s future, he says.

Two out of three Canadians as of 2016 still lived within 100 km of the U.S. border, an area that represents about four percent of Canada’s territory, says Statistics Canada. The country relies on southern-based transportation initiatives such as national railways that date back as far as the 19th century.

Canada currently faces “serious challenges to its continued growth and prosperity as a trading country, challenges that are political and economic as well as geographic: improving access for our goods to diversified international markets, improving interprovincial trade and, most importantly, including the north in the prosperity of the south,” said a paper co-written by Fellows in 2016.

An Alberta task force chaired by MLA Shane Getson is looking at energy utility corridors for the province, including A2A. Corridors make more sense than one-off pipelines or railways because approval of such projects has become needlessly complicated and time consuming, he says.

Getson gives as a hypothetical example a corridor that is two-kilometres wide, easing approval by minimizing things such as the disturbance to woodland caribou habitat that separate projects on different routes would cause.

“My understanding right now is that there’s a trillion dollars literally sitting on the bench that people want to spend on the global market, and when they look at Canada, we’ve messed it up so bad for the last number of years that we have about the same risk level as investing in Venezuela, or a country similar to that, because nobody can understand how the heck to make it through our regulatory process,” he says.

A particularly important aspect of the corridor concept is ensuring First Nations communities are extensively consulted and are full participants in any economic benefits, he says, pointing to A2A. “They’re in consultation now with First Nations, and the model that they elected to choose as well is 49-percent First Nations ownership,” he says.

Besides creating more than 28,000 jobs, A2A could unlock $60 billion in additional cumulative gross national product through 2040, says a project statement. There are First Nations in the Yukon “that are sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars of mining assets that they have no road access to,” says Getson.

He disagrees with Fellows that A2A will affect Canadian sovereignty, describing how the country’s railways are already extensively intertwined with the U.S. It is also vital to enhance Canada’s presence in the north at a time when many nations are eyeing the region for everything from resources to Arctic shipping routes, says Getson.

His task force is to spend about six months studying energy corridors, after which it will present recommendations to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.

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