*** EXCLUSIVE: One on one with Ontario’s Transportation Minister Norm Sterling

by Canadian Shipper

Ontario’s transportation minister on highway tolls, challenges of wheel-off regs and other thorny issues

By Lou Smyrlis

Six months into his new post as minister of Canada’s largest provincial transportation ministry, Norm Sterling shares his views on the industry’s largest issues and his government’s direction for the years ahead in an exclusive interview.

CT&L: In the six months you’ve held the Ministry of Transportation portfolio, what has proved to be the most challenging issue as far as commercial transportation is concerned?

Sterling: The issue I have heard about the most is the employment situation for firms trying to hire skilled professional drivers.

CT&L: What can your government do to help improve the situation?

Sterling: We are looking at things. I sit on the education committee and have raised the issue when we were talking about apprenticeships. Also with licensing we are going to create several different kinds of licensing that hopefully will bring forward a high degree of professionalism to truck drivers so that qualifications will be varied and there will be some truck drivers who will aspire to a different level. By offering that differentiation, you also allow some of the profession to reach higher and that in the end will prove good to the industry. I would like to encourage the industry to have an apprenticeship program. In speaking with trucking companies, I believe that one of the reasons they like to hire people from, for example, Britain, is that there is a level of professionalism that hasn’t been achieved in our province and I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to do it.

CT&L: What is your ministry’s position on toll highways? Are there any conditions under which you would support tolling existing highways?

Sterling: It’s very, very difficult to toll existing highways and sell it politically. There is no contemplation of doing that in any way, shape or form. It would be resisted not only by the trucking community but by the general population. The whole key to tolled highways is can you advance a project significantly in timing by gaining capital through that mechanism? For instance, the 407, particularly the east and west links of it, probably would not have been built for 20 years.

CT&L: Federal Transport Minister David Collenette has said on several occasions that he wants to reduce traffic congestion and help the environment by taking many trucks off Highway 401 and shifting truck traffic to rail and water. What’s your position on the issue of modal transfer? Would you support government initiatives that would have the effect of shifting traffic from one mode to another?

Sterling: Our goal is to unlock gridlock. If we can see any improvements to the Greater Toronto Area in particular that would be alleviated by any mode of transportation, we are in favor it. We don’t favor one move over the other but the record of our government is quite clear in terms of the investment we have already put into our highway system and our promise for the future. In my 25 years in the Legislature we’ve never had a government that said we are going to spend $10 billion on our roads over the next 10 years. And we have spent $6.5 billion already. The interest we have most in what Mr. Collenette says is in getting grade separations in our rail systems so that Go Transit can go through rail crossings more easily. Our real interest in any kind of investment in the rail system is in the GTA, not so much in putting another line from Toronto to Montreal.

CT&L: Back in the mid 90s your government amended the Highway Traffic Act to make the offense of a wheel separating from a truck one of absolute liability. In your view has this legislative change had the desired effect of greatly reducing the number of wheel-off accidents in the province?

Sterling: We’ve had a 70% improvement in accidents and fatalities since we introduced the legislation. But more importantly what happened, and the late (former Transportation Minister) Al Palladini has to take credit for this, we worked very closely with the trucking industry and the overall improvement of the industry has been marked in terms of the safety record they have helped us establish. We are best in Canada, second best in North America. That comes from building better highways, more concrete barriers, more paved shoulders but it also comes from the fact the trucking industry has risen in terms of better equipment on the road. There has been a huge improvement in truck safety and that allows politicians to look at the industry in a different light. I can remember when Al was involved he was getting a lot of heat from the public about the trucking industry. In the six months that I’ve been there, in relation to the complaints he was getting, it’s infinitesimal. That’s important in terms of the trucking industry being able to come to the industry and saying can you do this or that?

CT&L: There have been two conflicting decisions in Ontario courts recently dealing with motor carrier rights to defend a wheel separation charge by entering a due diligence defense. What is your position on the issue? Is your government willing to reconsider the legislation?

Sterling: It’s not under any consideration at this point in time.

CT&L: Ontario exporters and carriers have become very concerned, particularly since September 11, 2001 about impediments to the flow of goods across the border. Your government recently announced key measures to improve the situation at the Sarnia and Windsor crossings. Any other improvements on your radar screen at the moment?

Sterling: It’s important to note how we are attacking the problem. We’ve made some short-term investments, in Windsor, for instance, and then recently Ontario and Ottawa announced a $300 million investment in improving the roads leading to the bridge. Also at Blue Water Bridge we have been working the Chamber of Commerce and the Bridge Authority to do some rejigging of the configuration to get quicker access to the highway. We are talking about doing a pre-clearance station too. And we are going to have a long-term response to deal with the future. We are encouraging the Borealis project, we encourage another bridge in Windsor. We want to encourage capacity while also at the same time dealing with the Customs problem as well and getting cooperation from U.S. Customs. You can have the best infrastructure and still have problems if there are not enough agents. September 11th has helped everybody focus on issues that maybe would not have come to the fore in a long period of time. In an odd way it will probably lead to smoother border crossings in the future.

CT&L: An all-party committee of the Ontario Legislature has called for tax incentives to accelerate the use of cleaner fuels and equipment in transportation and other industrial sectors. What is your view of their recommendation?

Sterling: Speaking as a former Minister of the Environment you have to be certain that when you institute any type of regulation, for example in dealing with ethanol based fuels, that in fact you are getting the power hit and the net environmental gain out the whole package. We are going through that analysis before we make any move. There’s no question there is a challenge here and the challenge will be that, Kyoto or no Kyoto, we will have to continually find ways to reduce emissions.

CT&L: You recently launched online road test services. Your ministry’s stated goal is to become a leader in e-government through such endeavors. In regards to commercial transportation, what else are you looking at?
Sterling: When I became the Minister of Transportation it was during the (public servant) strike and we were getting a lot of people calling us about oversize and overweight-related issues. We started to look at the issue of whether we really do need to be involved in all of this. Why is the process so cumbersome? Are we being too restrictive? We’ve used the strike as an opportunity to rejig the system. Perhaps we can use e
lectronic communication to rejig an old system. Also, because a number of our highways have been turned over to regional and county governments it’s important that we have a seamless system.

CT&L: You implemented Phase 2 of Vehicle Weight and Dimension Reform this year dealing specifically with lift-axle equipped dump semi-trailers. Phase 3 will address all remaining lift-axle equipped semi-trailers. What is the timeline for such legislation and what are you looking to achieve in this round of reforms?

Sterling: We are looking for the long term solution to go from where we are to where everybody else is and do it in sync with everybody else. It’s a long process – 9 or 10 years. But we want to be in sync and we want to be fair to the trucking industry in terms of what it buys and fair to those running older equipment. And we think we have it pretty well phased in. The ministry has done a lot of consultation with the trucking industry and the manufacturers and everyone is in sync and in the end we are going to save something like $120 million-$130 million a year in not having to repair our roads as frequently.

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