Madam Speaker, I am very pleased to have this opportunity to discuss the issue of national highway policy.
The motion by the hon. member for Cumberland—Colchester is another indication of the importance that Canadians attach to our national highway system. Indeed, the concern about Canada's surface transportation infrastructure is shared by all. Ensuring the mobility of persons and goods across Canada is critical to the quality of life for individual Canadians and to maintaining Canada's competitiveness in the global economy.
Historically the highway system has played a major role in the development of the Canadian economy. The recent Speech from the Throne credited our highway system, along with other achievements such as the national railway, the postal system and national cultural institutions, for providing the foundations for our quality of life.
The Prime Minister also touched on this aspect in his response to the Speech from the Throne. He mentioned that Canada has been characterized as a triumph of will over geography and economics. This is indeed true of Canada's surface transportation system. The building of the Trans-Canada Highway and the railway system are the most obvious examples.
Highways are indeed the backbone of Canada's transportation systems. Highways, roads and streets play a vital role in Canada's internal trade and international commerce, from the initial shipment of raw material to the delivery of final products to the market.
Studies show that highways support about 90% of all intercity passenger trips and 75% of Canadian freight shipments by value. Approximately 4.5 billion vehicle kilometres of this travel occur on the national highway system.
The importance of transportation to our industrial sector is indisputable. In particular, transportation represents a large portion of the export costs of traditional Canadian commodities; for example, 45% for coal exports and 30% for lumber exports.
We all know that highway infrastructure is very costly to build and maintain. We also are aware that the existing system is deteriorating rapidly and that rehabilitation costs will continue to rise the longer we delay our efforts.
The challenge before governments is to ensure a proper balance between a safe and efficient surface transportation system versus other competing government priorities. We need to acknowledge that significant benefits can be gained from such strategic investments.
The council of ministers responsible for transportation and highway safety commissioned a multi-year national highway policy study in 1987. This study established a national highway system, which accounts for approximately 24,400 kilometres of Canada's existing highways.
The study also concluded that the estimated cost of upgrading this national highway system amounted to approximately $14 billion in 1992.
In June 1997 a federal-provincial-territorial working group, again under the auspices of the council of ministers for transportation and highway safety, was formed to update the 1988 national highway policy study. The new study, entitled “National Highway System—Condition and Investment Needs Update”, was released in December 1998. The study found that federal-provincial-territorial governments had invested over $8 billion in capital improvements in the national highway system since 1988 and that annual expenditures on the system were currently twice the levels reported in 1988.
The study concluded that despite a doubling of annual expenditures in the last decade, and correction to some of the deficiencies of the system, the condition of the national highway system had not improved significantly. When measured against the same standards used in 1988, the length of the system judged to be deficient had increased by 30%.
The cost of correcting the identified current deficiencies of the national highway system was estimated at $17.4 billion in 1998, an increase of over $3 billion in less than 10 years.
In support of increased funding to rehabilitate the national highway system, the study provided an indication of the benefits that would accrue from an upgraded highway system. Over a 25 year horizon, the expected present values of benefits of the highway system investment program were estimated to exceed $30 billion, comprised of $22 billion in travel time savings, $5.8 billion in highway safety improvements, $2.9 billion in reduced vehicle operating costs and $1.3 billion in network benefits.
Reduced congestion and improved highway conditions could be expected to reduce the number of fatal traffic accidents by up to 247 per year and injury accidents by up to 16,000 per year.
Improving the national highway system would also be expected to reduce fuel consumption by up to 236 million litres per year.
The study further indicated that a review of literature and international experience provided strong evidence that investment in highways can generate significant productivity growth and support economic development.
Although they have jurisdictional responsibility over most of the national highway system, the provinces and territories have indicated that their governments cannot fully fund the repairs and improvements that are urgently needed. They have asked the federal government for financial assistance to help preserve and develop the existing highway system. This is something which I know the Minister of Transport has been seriously studying.
At the recent annual conference in Quebec City in August, premiers and territorial leaders called on the federal government to initiate an infrastructure improvement program in which highways would be a major component.
The August 11 communique enunciated six principles for an infrastructure investment program. The premiers and territorial leaders indicated that infrastructure investment should be flexible enough to address other transportation priorities, such as trade corridors, border crossings, intermodal facilities, urban transit and intelligent transportation systems.
In his August 11 press release in response, the Minister of Transport welcomed the agreement by the premiers and territorial leaders on the development and maintenance of a strong infrastructure base, with transportation as a key component. He indicated that the development of a strategy to renew Canada's national transportation infrastructure in a sustainable fashion has been a top priority for him.
The minister agreed that governments should look beyond the rehabilitation of key highways of national significance. He also agreed with the need to address other transportation issues, such as those identified by the premiers and territorial leaders.
Discussions concerning highway investments have also taken place at the federal level. In June 1996 the Standing Committee on Transport received a reference from the House of Commons to study the economic relationship, efficiencies and linkages among transportation, trade and tourism.
Recognizing that highway transportation will remain the dominant mode in support of Canada's economic activities, the committee chose to focus primarily on the renewal of our national highway system and its relationship to trade and tourism.
In its final report, submitted in February 1997, the Standing Committee on Transport recommended that the federal government make a long term commitment of at least the current level of annual federal expenditures on highways to finance a national highway renewal program.
Members on both sides of the House know that the issue of tolls has been a major concern for the hon. member for Cumberland—Colchester. I would like to inform the House that a great deal of work has been done on this issue this past summer.
Officials from Transport Canada have been exploring with their provincial and territorial counterparts the terms and conditions of a proposed highway toll policy that would be applicable when the federal government contributes to a particular highway project. If and when federal highway funding becomes available, the minister would be prepared to outline a policy on tolls.
As the hon. member for Cumberland—Colchester is aware, the recent Speech from the Throne announced a five year infrastructure program to improve physical infrastructure in both urban and rural regions across Canada. The Speech from the Throne clearly identified transportation infrastructure as a component of this program, but it is too early in the process to speculate on details. What is quite evident is that the $17 billion needs of the national highway system are far in excess of what the federal and provincial governments can collectively address.
Furthermore, when combined with the needs for other infrastructure programs, such as roads, bridges, transit, sewer, water, tourism and so on, funding requirements for the entire system are really significant.
Both the Speech from the Throne and the Prime Minister's speech in response stressed the need for collaboration as the issues facing our diverse society grow in their complexity. The Prime Minister stated that the role of a national government today is to represent the future to the present. It is to focus on those areas where it can make a real difference.
The development and maintenance of a strong basic infrastructure, as well as a knowledge infrastructure, is a key component of a competitive economy for the 21st century. All aspects of the infrastructure plan must be well planned to meet the needs of the modern economy.