Building more 401s ismadness

Highway 401

 

I hatedriving on the 401. The highwayisbecomingcloggedwithtractortrailers. Oftenwhen I drive from Kingston to Toronto, I findthem travelling in packs of twenty or more, occupyingbothlanes of traffic, and let me tell you, it’sprettydisconcerting to becaught in the middle of the pack whiledriving a small car.

Whenit’sraining or snowing, I getblinded by road-water or slushthrown up as theypass, or as I passthem. And there are always trucks thatpass me doing more than 120 kilometres an hour, at which speed there’s no waytheycould stop in time to avoid an accident.

Then, there are the impatient car drivers whoduck in and out around transports, and cause everyoneproblems. I don’tfeelsafe on the 401 any more.

So I cheeredwhenfederal Transport Minister David Collenetteannouncedhisproposal to spend $2 billion to upgrade rail linessothat flat-bed rail cars couldbeused to carry trailers. It wouldget a million trucks ayear off the 401, hesaid.

Not onlywouldthatmake the highwaymuchsafer, itwouldbe a boon for the environment. Three times as muchgreenhousegases are produced if trucks are usedinstead of rail.

However, Brad Clark, Ontario’s transport minister, was quick to jump on the proposal. He calledit a hugesubsidy for private rail companies. The money wouldbebetterspent on building more roads, hesaid — as if thatwouldn’tbe a subsidy for privatetruckingcompanies — or on public transit.

Collenette’sproposal has not been adopted as governmentpolicy, and given the downturn in the economy, itprobablywon’tbe. But thatdoesn’tmeannothingcanbedone.

The federalgovernmentcouldstill encourage a greater switch to rail by allowing a taxcredit for new investments in railway infrastructure, such as state-of-the art freight handling equipment and terminals, and improvedroadbeds and crossingunderpasses. That wouldalsopromote the use of high-speed passenger trains, whichcouldget more cars off the roads.

As long as I canremember, Ontario’s solution to trafficproblems has been to build more highways. The only notable exception I canrecalloccurredwhenformer Premier Bill Davis halted construction of the SpadinaExpressway in Toronto.

Building more highways, as Clark suggests, however, is self-defeating. You can no more solve long-termtrafficproblems by building more highways, thanwecanoutwitraccoons by planting more corn in ourgarden. In deciding how to travel, people, likeraccoons, are opportunists. They’lltake the route thatcoststhem the least in whateveritisthatmatters: time, energy, or in the case of people, money. So the trick is to provide alternatives, not more of the same.

Truck traffic has been going up 5.5 per cent a year for the past 15 years.  And sales of bigrigs in Canada increased four times in tenyears, goingfrom 7,500 in 1991 to 30,000 in 1999. There’s no reason to expect construction of new highways to change those trends. In fact, freight transportation by truck isprojected to increaseacross Canada by about 40 billion tonne-kilometres by 2010, and most of thatincreasewilloccuralongHighway 401.

It wouldbeonly a matter of time for new highways, to getcloggedwithtractortrailers, and for 401 to revert to the state it’s in now. And for emissions of greenhousegasesfrom trucks to increaseanother 20 per cent by 2010, the date by which Canada has agreed in the Kyoto protocol to reducegreenhousegases by six per cent below 1990 levels.

It makes no sensewhatever to keep on going the waywe have been. Yetthat’swhatOntario’s transport ministerseems to besuggesting. So it’sleft to the federalgovernment to becreative in findingincentivesthatwill encourage a shift to rail. It won’tbeeasy in thesedifficult times. But itisbadlyneeded.

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