Bring on Canada’s Autobahn: Country losing out without national motorway system

Commentary, Trade, Wendell Cox


Canada is the largest developed nation in the world without a comprehensive national freeway system and in so doing, it harms its own economic potential as well as continuing sub-par roads that endanger public safety.
To be clear, much of the TransCanada is not up to an international standard on motorways, which are entirely grade separated roadways (no cross traffic), with four or more lanes (two or more in each direction), and which allow travel that is unimpeded by traffic signals or stop signs.
Why should Canada upgrade its highway system? For several reasons.
Motorways are associated with positive economic and safety impacts. For example, a synthesis of research by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials noted the US motorway system “represented an investment in a new, higher speed, safer, lower cost per-mile technology which fundamentally altered relationships between time, cost, and space.” It did so in a manner which allowed new economic opportunities to emerge that could never have occurred under previous technologies.
Then, there is the fact that motorways are by far the safest roads. In the United States, we estimate that 187,000 fatalities have been averted due to the transfer of traffic from other roads to motorways between 1956 and 1996.
Beyond safety, there are some other advantages. Truckers in Japan, Europe (the EU-15) and the United States can travel between virtually all major metropolitan areas on high quality motorways. And China is adding 65,000 km or high-quality motorways.
Canada, however, is an exception. Only one-quarter of metropolitan areas are connected to one another by motorways.
For many trips between Canadian metropolitan areas, it takes less time to travel through the United States on its interstate system than on Canadian highways, including the Trans-Canada.
For example, one problem is the long, crowded, slow, two-lane stretch of roadway through the northern Great Lakes region between the Manitoba-Ontario border and between Sudbury and Parry Sound. Another is a long section of highway in the British Columbia interior that a Calgary talk show host referred to as a “stagecoach” trail. Canada pays an economic price for this lack of a world-class highway system, both in terms of manufacturing and tourism.
Here is what I propose for Canada outside of the cities. First, anupgrade to the entire transcontinental route from Halifax, through Toronto to Vancouver up to motorway standards. These improvements should be completed within 10 years and would cost approximately $28 billion.
Second, an upgrade to other principal routes to at least pre-motorway standard, which would require “twinning” (four-lanes) and minimizing the number of grade crossings. The longest of these additional highways is the Yellowhead route, then Edmonton and Calgary to the Canada-U.S. border, Ottawa to Sudbury, and across the island of Newfoundland. These improvements should be completed within 15 years and would cost approximately $33.5 billion.
The transcontinental route would provide a long overdue economic stimulus to urban areas such as Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie. The improved Yellowhead route would provide far better access to the new deepwater, and the superport at Prince Rupert, B.C., which is the closest North American port with connections to major Asian markets. This could materially improve Prince Rupert’s competitiveness relative to larger ports on the US West Coast, such as Los Angeles and Long Beach (which have become much less competitive themselves in the last decade).
Some will object to this based on greenhouse gas emissions.  But the international commitment to reducing GHGs is based upon an assumption of minimal impact on the economy. GHG reductions will be achieved only if they are acceptable to people, which requires acceptable costs (research by the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change suggests an upper bound of $50 per ton). Cost effectiveness is necessary to not only prevent a huge increase in poverty, but also to allow continued progress toward poverty alleviation and upward mobility. In fact, as recent US research indicates, there is scant real world potential to reduce GHGs from reduced levels of driving.
Given the strong association between economic growth and personal mobility, there is a single realistic path to substantial GHG emission reduction: better technology. Fortunately, developments suggest that technology is, indeed, the answer.
The question, thus, comes down to whether jobs in the northern Great Lakes region (and elsewhere) are more important than strategies that are politically correct, but comparatively ineffectual with respect to materially reducing GHG emissions. It seems likely that people will place a priority on jobs.
Because of the importance of tying the nation together, it would be appropriate to spend federal and provincial funds on the Canadian Autobahn. User fees, such as a dedicated gasoline tax (as in the United States) or tolls (as in France, China and Mexico) could finance the expansions, using public-private partnerships or “arms-length” government corporations.