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COMMENTARY: Federal government has responsibility for highway safety

COMMENTARY: As traffic volumes increase, safety decreases and carbon emission reduction suddenly becomes less important and relevant than the personal tragedy of injured or lost loved ones.
A multi-vehicle collision involving semi trucks on the east bound lane near Lake Louise on Tuesday (Jan. 30). MATTHEW THOMPSON RMO PHOTO

Federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault said on Feb. 19, 2024, “our government has made the decision to stop investing in new road infrastructure … there will be no more envelopes from the federal government to enlarge the road network.”

Days later, he was attempting to clarify, saying he should have been “more specific” by stating the federal government will not be funding “large projects” without defining large, saying “We’ve merely correctly decided that roads are a wholly inappropriate concern for a Canadian federal government.” This statement is blatantly incorrect.

The federal government has supposedly collected a $0.10 per litre excise tax on gasoline for highways since 1995 that goes into general revenue and not specifically transportation. This Canada Community-Building Fund (CCBF), formerly known as the Gas Tax Fund, amounts to billions of dollars per year of which only about $2 billion is transferred annually to help provinces cover costs across several areas, including highways.

Apart from providing transfer payments to the provinces collected from excise taxes on fuel, the federal government is solely responsible for the condition and capacity of highways traversing federal land such as national parks. It should be pointed out these national parks are all administered and managed by Parks Canada, which reports directly to Guilbeault.

Governments all over the world have an active interest in their roads. Roads are for the public good and a responsibility of governments to ensure they are safe including having sufficient carrying capacity as traffic volumes increase.

Whether it’s goods or services you buy, it likely came by road. Guilbeault, in his remarks, never makes a reference or recognition of the importance of road safety or efficient movement of goods.

 According to Guilbeault, his analysis indicates “the existing network is perfectly adequate to respond to the needs we have,” again, without providing the analysis and its basis.

It is unlikely funding for the Trans-Canada Highway is imminent, especially given comments by the prime minister that his government’s policy on contributing to infrastructure projects remains unchanged without referencing what that policy is. Evidently, the federal government thinks for instance, the Trans-Canada Highway through the British Columbia mountain parks is perfectly adequate as a two-lane highway for the foreseeable future.

Apparently, he or his staff have not driven sections of the Trans-Canada Highway from the Alberta-B.C. border to Revelstoke and beyond.

The Trans-Canada Highway was opened in 1962 and many sections have not been upgraded in the past 62 years.  The B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure is upgrading the highway under its responsibility to four lanes through Kicking Horse Canyon. This is being funded partially by the federal government through CCBF.

However, the sections through B.C. national parks are solely the responsibility of the federal government and are not eligible for funding under CCBF.

Traffic volumes on the Trans-Canada Highway in the B.C. mountain national parks, are more than twice the capacity of a two-lane highway and experience 22 per cent more collisions than an average highway in B.C., resulting in many fatalities and serious injuries.

A survey conducted by Budget Direct Insurance in 2021 declared this section of the Trans-Canada Highway one of the most dangerous highways in North America. Transport Canada’s vision for Road Safety Strategy 2025 is “Towards Zero: Having the safest roads in the world.” Yet the federal government ignores road safety on highways under its sole responsibility. Other considerations include the effect on the movement of goods and people when the highway is shut down due to vehicle collisions. It is estimated that traffic delays can amount to over $75,000 per hour.

We believe this to be irresponsible and totally fails to address the federal government’s arguably fiduciary responsibilities and accountability for safety as the owner of the highway.

Given the current funding limbo, the Trans-Canada Highway through the B.C. mountain parks finds itself, we suggest it’s time to consider alternatives.

One such alternative would be turning the Trans-Canada Highway within the parks over to the private sector to finance, construct its expansion and maintain either using direct tolls, or perhaps a ‘shadow toll’ that spreads costs over time.  Under the shadow toll concept, the annual amount due is based on agreed toll amount per vehicle and type simply measured electronically by vehicle counters.

One benefit of a private concessionaire is penalties and bonuses could be established contractually to encourage safety and efficiency, unlike the federal government, which appears indifferent to the injuries, fatalities and delays on a road under its sole jurisdiction.

Another alternative is to negotiate the terms and conditions along with costs to turn over sections of highway passing through national parks to their respective provinces to recapitalize, expand and operate as they see fit. This would permit access and availability to CCBF and be in keeping with Guilbeault’s belief that roads are a wholly inappropriate concern for the federal government.

The human cost of injuries and fatalities on the Trans-Canada Highway in the mountain national parks was documented in a July 7, 2022, article in the Outlook “Renewed calls for final phase of highway twinning through Yoho National Park.”

Since then, there have been subsequent incidents resulting in injuries and fatalities reported regularly. As traffic volumes increase, safety decreases and carbon emission reduction suddenly becomes less important and relevant than the personal tragedy of injured or lost loved ones.

Terry Maguire is the now-retired former director of highway services for Parks Canada. John Morrall is president of Canadian Highways Institute and professor emeritus of civil engineering at the University of Calgary.

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