That the sixth report of the Standing Committee on Transport, tabled on Wednesday, February 12, 1997, be concurred in.
Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise in the House today to speak to this motion. The sixth report of the Standing Committee on Transport was about the need to reinvest as quickly as possible in our national highway network.
As you know, back in 1993 a report that was endorsed almost unanimously by federal, provincial and territorial transport ministers recommended reinvesting in our national highway network. This is important because, with the free trade agreement, new communications networks and increase in trade with the Americans, one of the major tools we need is an adequate highway network.
The work that went into this report included a strictly non-partisan search for new financing methods. That the federal government has failed to act since that time is mainly a matter of availability of funding. That being said, our committee tried to find new ways and received suggestions on the subject, including one under the heading "Public/Private Partnerships".
This method of financing reverses the risk factor attached to highway construction, which is a rather interesting point. In the past, when the government decided to build or renovate a highway, it had to find the money, make it available and award the contract to a contractor so he could build the highway, which tied up government money for a long time. As you know, there are times, and that is the case now, when money is not available.
The new financing approach based on private and public partnerships is a way to transfer the risk. It is up to the promoter, the highway construction company that decides to invest in a highway to find the appropriate financing, partners and other promoters, and they do this because the government says: "If you build the
highway, we will guarantee financing for the next 30, 40 or 50 years, as soon as the highway is built".
What is attractive about this kind of financing is that during construction, which could easily take two, three or four years-financing is provided by the construction company and not by the government. This can be an opportunity to get several major projects moving.
The transport committee travelled across Canada to conduct consultations on the relationship between trade, tourism and transportation. We realized that a major overhaul was required, that Canada's network of highways needed considerable work, and this type of financing would make it possible.
The other interesting point in public/private partnership funding is that, unlike in past years when the builder tended to work as quickly as possible, to save as much as possible and to build a road that would be adequate for the next few years, while the cost of road repairs in the future and the fact that there were faults in the construction were somewhat less of a concern, given that, once the work on the road was approved, he was relieved of his responsibilities.
Under the new system, as the road builder is the road owner, like a good homeowner he will have to make sure that his property is in tip-top shape. Developers and builders will be obliged to build roads that are more solid and that will last longer, because they will not have to invest in repairs after 10, 15 or 20 years, as is the case at the moment.
I find this approach very interesting, and I wanted to point it out to make it clear that solutions are possible and that the official opposition can act constructively when it is possible to do so.
This type of funding was not invented by the transport committee nor, necessarily, by those who made the presentation. It has already been tried out in a number of countries, where a more satisfactory and permanent highway network has been built.
What is interesting in the report as well is that provincial jurisdictions were taken into account throughout the report and in the recommendations. This has not always been the case in the past. The official opposition had to be very vigilant during the preparation of the report to make sure that the government did not maintain a paternalistic and centralizing attitude.
We understand very well that several provinces feel they cannot afford to invest in such highways, because we must bear in mind that it is the federal government which has taxation powers. It is important that this be done according to jurisdiction, and this is why-in view of the criteria established by the committee and the suggestion regarding the new funding arrangements-we believe this step is so significant.
We would have liked the Minister of Finance to be more explicit in the budget regarding his support of those projects. When he appeared before the committee, he encouraged us to explore the situation, to study it in more detail, but this is a sector where government decisions are urgently needed. As I said earlier, this is not a matter of committing funds for the short term. It is a matter of determining whether the selected projects are worthwhile.
I made suggestions that were included in the committee's report recommending that a number of innovative pilot projects be undertaken across Canada in the next five or ten years.
For instance, one pilot project could be undertaken in a very densely populated area, on a particularly busy stretch of the Canadian highway system. As well, pilot projects could be undertaken in regions where traffic is much lighter, but they would still have a major economic impact.
For example, after road 185 between Rivière-du-Loup and Edmundston, New Brunswick, which is part of the Trans-Canada highway, was upgraded some 20 years ago, there was a substantial increase in truck traffic, and now this stretch of road is very busy. Security is even becoming a problem.
I think it would be interesting to do an experimental project on this section of highway, in that part of Quebec, to see if a partnership with the private sector could work and how the government and the private sector could agree on a way to pay for the leasing of the upgraded highway.
Economically, this is important since, in fact, all trade between New Brunswick and Ontario goes through highway 20, which only goes up to Rivière-du-Loup. It does continue up to New Brunswick, but not as a four lane highway. There would be some interesting work to do in this area. No matter what the status of Quebec is, whether it becomes a sovereign state or remains part of Canada, this type of project would benefit the Canadian economy as a whole. It would also benefit those who use the road on a regular basis.
In a rural area like ours, in the Témiscouata region, this road has a significant economic impact. It allows all regular road users to get from one place to another. Today in various municipalities, people live in fear of the truck they see coming in their rear view mirror and of the dangerous situations they have to face. Unfortunately, the high number of accidents is proof that there is a need to act quickly in this area.
This pilot project would be worthwhile as it would stimulate economic activity. This pilot project would also be worthwhile because it would take place in an area less densely populated than
major centres like Montreal, Toronto, or Quebec City, but it would still be significant for the people living there.
It is important for all small and medium size businesses to have access to the American market in a timely fashion. If you recall, not too long ago there was a railway running along the road. The tracks have been removed, putting additional pressure on the road system. Unfortunately it would not be possible today to build the railway tracks again, but it would be possible to ensure that the road network benefits from the new partnership program between the public and the private sectors, which would put us several years ahead compared to more traditional financing. If tomorrow we in Canada tried to meet all traditional road upgrading needs, we could not do it for lack of financial resources. Therefore, we must be creative and offer new suggestions like the one before us.
The wood industry in particular would benefit from this project, since processing of raw materials is on the rise. There is room for manufactured products on the U.S. market, and transportation costs are becoming an important factor in North American competition.
This is often the element that will make the difference between a profitable contract, an adequate bid in reply to a request for proposals, and withdrawing from the market. Therefore, when the federal government proposes a penalizing reform like the employment insurance reform in a region like ours, one way to compensate for its negative impact is to diversify the economy through the infrastructure.
A few years ago, Quebec sovereignists were not so well informed on all aspects of rail, air and sea transport. But since the Bloc Quebecois has been in Ottawa, we have realized that it is imperative to link the different transportation modes. That is why an idea as original as the one proposed in the sixth report of the transport committee should be promoted, should get a chance to be tried out in pilot projects, as recommended in the committee's report.
I hope that one of the first places where such a pilot project will be implemented will be on the stretch of road between Rivière-du-Loup and Edmundston, because that section really meets all the requirements to determine if joint funding by the private and the public sectors could be worthwhile.
All this, in the end, to give to the economies of our regions the best possible tools of development. The federal government has often said that Quebec gets more in transfer payments than it contributes. Quebecers react to this by recalling the years when they depended on unemployment insurance. This is something often mentioned by the federal government, but something we do no longer want any part of. What we want is the money we pay in federal taxes to come back to us in constructive ways, as investments which would allow our regions to be competitive while co-operating with neighbouring regions.
Northern New Brunswick would surely benefit from a project like this one which would facilitate the transfer of materials from one part of Canada to another. It is the same principle as the gas pipeline which comes from Quebec City and goes through Rivière-du-Loup on its way to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. When such projects are realized, everyone comes out a winner.
To conclude, I would like to restate that the official opposition supported the testing of partnerships between the public and private sectors in the area of transportation. We believe that it is a solution for the future and we would like the federal government to state its final position as quickly as possible and to launch projects which would prove that it is not simply window dressing, but that it will implement the recommendations of the parliamentary committee so they can lead to concrete benefits. It would really benefit the whole of the Canadian economy, given that transportation infrastructures in this country have always been important means of development, and we have to reinvest in that area in innovative ways.
I would like to ask that the report of the Standing Committee on Transport, tabled February 12, be concurred in. Once this is done, the federal government could propose projects which would stimulate regional economies and allow them to face the challenges of the 21st century.