Mr. Speaker, one of the extremely positive aspects of the bridge over the Northumberland Strait is that it is one of the first and most important capital projects on which the federal government and the private sector will co-operate closely.
Ten years ago, examples of this kind of co-operation in public works were extremely rare.
For the public and in practice, the distinction between public sector and private sector projects was very clear. One presumed that public works like roads, sewers, energy production were carried out by governments and financed with tax revenues. This perception has changed entirely over the last few years.
In all the industrialized world and at all levels of government, we see private companies and consortiums take on infrastructure work that was previously the preserve of the public sector.
Conditions can change, but the basic principle is that the private sector makes the necessary financing arrangements and assumes most of the risks in exchange for the right to acquire or rent the facility and charge user fees.
It is quite clear that Canadians are also changing their opinion on how we can modernize our infrastructure. According to a recent study by the Canadian Construction Association, for example, close to 58 per cent of Canadians agree that we should ask users of freeways to pay for the construction of a network which is financed by the private sector, instead of imposing a tax on gas or special levies.
One of the main reasons for this changing attitude is the alarming debt burden all levels of government are faced with as well as the disgust more and more Canadians feel towards their government, which keeps increasing taxes to finance costly megaprojects. Yet we must renovate our infrastructure, especially in the transportation, communication and energy areas, if we want to remain competitive on the world market.
That is why the principle behind letting the private sector finance and build much needed public facilities is becoming more and more interesting.
Although Canadians generally support this principle, they do have some legitimate concerns about joint participation of the public and private sectors in infrastructure projects. The public wants to be sure it will not be asked to bail out ill-conceived and underfinanced projects. It wants to be sure that private contractors will meet environmental standards. It wants to make sure that the cost will not become prohibitive, once these facilities are put in the hands of the private sector. It wants to make sure that the decisions concerning co-operative projects are made
openly, in the best interests of the public and not only of the government's friends.
Given these facts, the Northumberland Straight bridge project is of particular interest at this time. During the development of this project, public concerns were carefully considered. Thego-ahead was given only after a very open and public review. The deal was signed only after financial soundness was ascertained.
Virtually all the risks associated with the construction and operation of the facility will be borne by the promoter. The fare structure and the appropriate fees will be carefully regulated through federal legislation. Our government is firmly committed to supporting the renewal of this country's infrastructure both in terms of job creation and in terms of enhancing our long term efficiency and competitiveness.
The President of the Treasury Board, who is at the helm of our infrastructure program, publicly invited the private sector to take an active part in this initiative. With this new approach, I think that we have every reason to regard the fixed link project as an excellent model of joint venture implementation and public interest protection. This project has undergone an extremely stringent and comprehensive environmental assessment.
Allow me, Mr. Speaker, to add a few words to what the minister said about how great the project is with regard to the environment. Much has been written on this issue. For the best part of the five years it took to develop the project, environmental considerations have been the primary concern of both the government and the promoter. Of course, this project has been subjected to the most thorough environmental assessment ever conducted on a project of this magnitude. In fact, 90 analyses were carried out, as the minister pointed out this morning, of the impact the bridge will have on the environment. Ten thousand people from both sides of the strait were consulted, and the discussions were very open and honest. The people have had many opportunities to speak on the requirements of the project during the 90 or so public hearings that were held.
The project meets all the technical and environmental requirements.
Let me remind you, if I may, of the result of the last court challenge: the Federal Court concluded that the government's environmental assessment process had been much more thorough than required.
I think that this project will be well received by the people for whom it is so very important that we pay close attention not only to the technical quality of construction but also to the protection of the environment.
That is also why I am sure that this project will set new standards in terms of public consultation and care for the environment.
I am especially pleased to notice that even if construction has already started, this crucial question will continue to be a central concern for the promoter as well as for the federal and provincial regulatory agencies.
The contractor will have to follow a very strict environmental management and protection plan. The project will be continually monitored to ensure that it remains environment friendly.
I fully support this project not only because it is a good thing, but also because it generates substantial economic activity as well as much needed jobs and, more important, it is environment friendly.