Insights on infrastructure from our Shipper-Carrier Issues Roundtable

by Canadian Shipper

Is Canadas investment in infrastructure conducive with a country that seeks to excel in transportation efficiency?

The shipper and motor carrier executives participating in our first annual Issues Roundtable, sponsored by Shaw Tracking, had much to say about the pressing issue of infrastructure investment and a variety of other issues critical to effective transportation practices. Over the next few weeks we will share their insights with you.

Participating in the Issues Roundtable were Serge Gagnon; President, XTL Group of Companies; Rob Penner, Vice President, Operations, Bison Transport; Dan Einwechter, President, Challenger Motor Freight; Julie Tanguay; President, L.E. Walker Transport; Neil McKenna Director, Transportation Operations, Canadian Tire Retail; and Bob Ballantyne, President, Canadian Industrial Transportation Association. Lou Smyrlis, Editorial Director of BIG Transportation Media, moderated the roundtable.

In this installment of the Shipper-Carrier Roundtable we look at our panelists’ views on the challenge of infrastructure investment.

Smyrlis: It would seem that our own road and border crossing infrastructure often gets in the way of efficient transportation practices. The cost to our economy of an underfunded infrastructure and slow decision making is well documented. Ottawa of late has made some strides in this regard. Is there good reason to be optimistic that Canada will have an adequate infrastructure in the future? Does Ottawa finally get it?

Ballantyne: I think Ottawa does get it to an extent, and we are seeing some action on the part of the government. There are a number of infrastructure investment programs involving some large amounts of money. I wonder about the ability of the government, however, to get this new infrastructure in place in time. Probably the prime example is the new river crossing between Windsor and Detroit. That need has been identified since the late 90s and now they are talking about actually having the bridge built by around 2013. We fought the Second World War in six years and we cant build a bridge across a little river in less than 13. It just doesnt make sense.

Smyrlis: These kind of government timelines with infrastructure projects must be incredibly frustrating for transportation companies responsible for getting freight across borders and across the country and who need to be efficient in your operations.

Tanguay: Because our company is so small, I have drivers coming in all the time and complaining weekly. They get very discouraged. At driver meetings I explain to them about the border security programs and the taxation and why we are not able to continue giving them raises that keep up with factory level wages. Then we start talking about why were not getting new bridges and new highways and I try to explain to them that I do believe there is an awareness in Ottawa. I just think its very difficult to figure out where the money should go. In Canada we have a high standard of living. We have health care, we have education and it appears those items take precedence over whether we need a new bridge or better highways. I dont think the consumer understands how valuable trade is between Canada and the US and truckings role in that. I have heard so many times about a new bridge and then I also hear the owner of the current bridge will do everything in his power to make sure there isnt a new bridge built.

Smyrlis: As shippers and carriers with a common need to see improved infrastructure, is there anything we can do to place infrastructure at the top of the priority list.

Einwechter: I think we have done a good job. Some of the border issues have come to the fore because of the work of associations such as the CITA and the Canadian Trucking Alliance. The politicians have begrudgingly become informed and now they need to have both the will and the ability to act. Hopefully that will all come together but I know drivers are very frustrated sitting in lineups for hours and its not just Windsor. The TransCanada is a cow pasture in places and thats a shame. If our trade is increasing east-west, and lets assume that trains double their capacity, the percentage of freight that moves by train is still going to be pretty small compared to what moves by truck. We need proper highways to do it. We have drivers slogging through the hills of northern Ontario on stretches of highway that are abysmal, and we want to be a trade nation? Windsor is a focal point and it needs to be fixed, but there are many other areas across Canada that need improvement from ports to highways. Where I draw the line is when the railroads want government money to enhance their rail yards and beds so they can provide better service. I have a hard time looking at my returns and their returns and going along with that.

McKenna: It is difficult to tackle long-term infrastructure projects in this country. We need to develop more of an if we build it they will come strategy rather than an if they come we will build it strategy. The government needs to invest in this kind of an approach.

Ballantyne: Freight transportation in this country is generally so good that its invisible the public doesnt see it. And as long as its doing things well and people arent experiencing shortages at supermarket shelves it remains invisible and they dont have a sense of the problems that exist.

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