Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to speak to the opposition motion today. I am going to speak to one aspect of the motion, the reference to the national highway system. The motion suggests that the government should be condemned for its continued neglect of Canada's national highway system.
Yesterday the Standing Committee on Transport tabled a report in the House which made several recommendations for the federal government to consider with respect to the renewal of our national highway system. It is a coincidence that we were talking about
those recommendations yesterday and today the third party is condemning us for not taking any action.
I want to congratulate my colleagues on the transport committee for coming forth with the recommendations in the report. Indeed, I want to congratulate the hon. member for Kootenay West-Revelstoke. He is a well valued member of the transport committee. I have enjoyed working with him under the chairmanship of the hon. member for Winnipeg South.
When the Minister of Transport met in Charlottetown last October with the provincial transport ministers, he received unanimous support for the idea that the federal government would participate in a study in which all transport ministers would get together to see if something could be done to address the deteriorating condition of Canada's national highway system. He received tremendous support for the idea of moving forward with the study. We have been encouraged by the kind of inspiration and attitude shown by the provinces.
The federal government is concerned with the national highway system. It must be adequately maintained and properly expanded to meet growing Canadian demands. Trade is associated with a good transportation system. The highway system is also important to the Canadian tourism industry.
The federal government has a long history of supporting the provinces and territories in developing the TransCanada highway system and other highways. The first federal contribution to highways occurred back in 1919. Ever since that time succeeding federal governments have provided an uninterrupted level of support for highway construction and maintenance.
That should not surprise anyone. I believe we are open enough to realize the importance of a highway system. It is too important to say that it is a provincial matter and therefore we should not become involved. That is not the attitude I have sensed in the years I have sat on the transport committee. Of course, there is all-party participation on that committee.
Highway transportation accounts for almost 95 per cent of intercity passenger trips and about 75 per cent of all freight that moves in this country. That is how important it is to all Canadians. I personally think it is too important to be left exclusively to the provinces.
Most of Canada's interprovincial trade moves by highway, as do 60 per cent of Canada's exports and 80 per cent of Canada's imports. There is no question about the need for a national commitment to something that involves our lives to that degree. About two-thirds of the 25 million U.S. tourists who come into Canada each year use the highways.
The federal government already spends a significant amount of money on highways with an expenditure of $292 million on highway development under the federal-provincial agreement's 1996-97 commitment. In addition, approximately $100 million is spent each year on federally owned bridges and roads.
Within just a few miles of here in the last year the government has committed $42 million to construct a highway in which I have particular interest since it goes through my riding. It connects the nation's capital with the 401, the busiest highway in Canada. I have been here for a few years and people may have thought that this is all I have been concerned with.
Indeed, a good deal of my energy has gone into that project because I can see the need for it. I can see the need for the federal government to get involved because a good deal of the traffic on that highway is there because this is the capital of Canada. Most of us would be fairly embarrassed if the old highway were the best we could do. Most Canadians would feel very embarrassed if a visitor to Canada from another country had to travel on highway 16, which hopefully will be highway 416.
It is not just a question of congestion. Highway 16 has a horrid record. Three weeks ago there was another fatal crash. A father and his son were killed. Dozens of people have been killed on that highway in the past six years. I am not speaking of that loosely. When travelling that highway I have had some personal experiences of accidents that have occurred. We speak very often of those who were killed. Usually if an accident is serious enough to kill people, there will also be injured people.
Notwithstanding the federal contribution, it has been clear for some time that a massive and focused effort will be required to maintain and upgrade the national highway system. Analyses conducted by Transport Canada in co-operation with the provinces and territories showed that Canada's highway infrastructure is aging. It is thought that the age of a highway is 30 years. Over half of Canada's major highways are approaching the maximum age limit for highways. It is a very serious problem.
Highway infrastructure requires increased financial resources to maintain them because we have more traffic on our highways now than we did 30 years ago. It is no more complicated than that. Highway infrastructure is experiencing growing congestion in certain parts of our nation. My colleague mentioned in and around some of the western cities. My colleague from the Reform Party was interested in that aspect of it too. We all know there is more volume on our highways today and of course that will reduce the age in which the highways can be of service to the Canadian people.
Despite the identification of highways by several premiers at the conference I mentioned earlier, there are still some provinces that have not regarded highway construction as a pressing economic need. We all have an understanding of the reason for that but we
still think as a nation that all provinces should come together under the guise of the federal government to carry on with the massive reconstruction of our highways.
Someone has said that instead of the weather being the major topic of conversation among Canadians, now it is the condition of our highways about which we initiate conversations. I believe that more and more. Nearly everyone is commenting on the condition of Canada's national highway system.
The hon. member who introduced the motion before us today takes great umbrage with the focus of the standing committee's report on private-public partnerships for highway infrastructure. I want to draw the attention of the House to the committee's own conclusion that there is widespread agreement among the users and builders of the highways that we must get into public-private financing on a partnership basis if we are ever going to see any real and meaningful reconstruction of our national highway system.
It is not my recollection that the transportation committee in its investigation of the relationship that existed between transportation, trade and tourism, decided to focus on the paramount need to renew the national highway system. I thought that was what all committee members agreed to do. Indeed, throughout our discussions over the past several months, I thought even the member from the third party was on board in relation to that.
I know my time is coming to a close, but I want to mention that there is no more basic, fundamental way, in my view, to reach our goal for the future growth of this country than to start immediately with the very pressing problems associated with the deteriorating conditions of our highways nationally.
The government is aware that this will have to be a major financial commitment. Although it is largely a provincial matter, the government is willing to work with the provinces and others to try and correct the network that is in need of immediate attention. It is a massive undertaking but we must address the problem. So much of our economy depends on an adequate transportation system.