It’s Time For Government to Start Thinking Bigger

Commentary, Trade, Frontier Centre

When governments hand out cash for infrastructure projects, it’s easy to think small.

Politicians love summer festivals, hockey rinks, small craft harbours and city parks. The money gets out the door quickly and everyone can see the results. Grants can be geographically matched to political objectives. And projects typically face little opposition.

Who would say no to a new park?

So every summer, when Parliament isn’t sitting, MPs and cabinet ministers fan out across the country cutting ribbons and cheques. Last week, for example, ministers were in several provinces unveiling improvements to small-craft harbours.

Thinking big, on the other hand, is hard work. There is political risk and uncertainty. The payoffs may not come for years, often well beyond the next election.

Getting large infrastructure projects started means getting disparate groups and interests on the same page. It may mean butting heads with other levels of government.

Favouring the small over the big comes at the steep and often unseen price of lost opportunity. These thousands of little pet projects suck energy and cash away from megaprojects that offer the country much greater economic payoffs. A few million dollars sprinkled here and there adds up.

Consider just one example of big things, still not done: the Trans Canada Highway. As improbable as it seems in 2013, Canadians still can’t drive from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean on a fast and safe four-lane, controlled access highway.

It is a national embarrassment.

You can drive from Halifax and through New Brunswick to the Quebec border on well-engineered, fast-moving, four-lane roads.

But standing in the way of a clear run to the big markets of Central Canada for truckers, workers and tourists is a roughly 90-kilometre stretch between the New Brunswick-Quebec border and Rivière-du-Loup on the Saint Lawrence River.

Here, the highway is a patchwork of two-lane roads, cracked pavement and sections of four-lane highway under construction. And it has been this way for years.

New Brunswick finished up the final stretch of its highway system six years ago; Nova Scotia even earlier. And yet decades after Quebec’s Autoroute 20 was completed from Montreal to Rivière-du-Loup and beyond, the final link to the Maritimes remains unfinished, apparently a low priority for the province.

The impact of Quebec’s slowness in completing the link has national implications, which may not resonate in the province. New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island still aren’t reaping the full benefits of the billions invested in good roads.

And this is just one stretch of the Trans-Canada, where the dream of a safe, modern and efficient national highway remains elusive. Vast sections of the highway, including much of Northern Ontario, are still dangerous and slow two-lane roads.

It’s nice that there are new hockey rinks in almost every municipality, but not if these facilities sap resources from vital megaprojects – the urban transit systems, the ports and the bridges that are the backbone of the national economy.

The subway in Toronto – the country’s economic hub – has fallen a decade or more behind the expanding city.

Ottawa, meanwhile, is only now getting started on an urban rail system. The project is years behind growing needs and so unambitious in scope that the entire Gatineau, Que., side of the Ottawa River isn’t even part of the plan.

There are insidious and unseen economic costs associated with poor highways and inadequate transit systems, including increased energy consumption and wasteful commute times.

It isn’t that the federal government doesn’t invest in big projects. It does.

But a shortage of national vision means too many important things get put off for years, while trivial, small projects hoard the cash.

Maybe if Ottawa left more of the small thinking to local governments, and focused more intently on the national agenda, these worthy projects would get the priority attention they deserve.