Choose high-speed rail over F-35s
Sat Feb 4 2012
Byline: Ken Gray
Sat Feb 4 2012
Byline: Ken Gray
Canada faces a much clearer and more present danger than the threat from anything the F-35 fighter jets will shoot down.
That's the hollowing out of Canada's manufacturing industry in southern Ontario and Quebec. Without the tax revenue that vital economic sector produces, Canada might not be able to purchase the military hardware and execute the effective foreign policy the country needs. If Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is concerned about the federal deficit, why is his government spending between $9 billion and $30 billion for the F-35 jets that now even U.S. hawks are concerned will cost, over their life cycle, more than $1 trillion south of the border? Would not this money be better spent to build the infrastructure to spur development of the Canadian economy so the federal government could afford jets sometime in the future?
So rather than save $9 billion or $30 billion on jets or, say, $2.5 billion over five years for provincial and federal governments on new crime legislation in the face of declining law-breaking statistics, the federal and provincial politicians have thrown cold water on one infrastructure project that could stimulate and revolutionize Canada's critical economic corridor from Toronto to Ottawa to Montreal - the high-speed rail project, the subject of a recent feasability report. One could understand the province dropping the bullet train; it has an enormous deficit and massive future financial problems dealing with health-care costs. But the federal government choosing $9 billion in fighter planes over $9 billion in rail, stimulus and infrastructure? Bad choice.
That rail project would pour money into a region that badly needs help. The reasons for the sector's troubles are well known.
The long-term increase in the price of oil, and the fact that Western Canada sits on top of the second largest pool of the stuff in the world, is boosting the value of the loonie. That makes exporting high-tech products or attracting movie projects on the basis of a 70-cent dollar a foggy memory. A dollar at par with its U.S. counterpart makes exporting or attracting industry (Ontario
produces more autos than any other state or province in North America) very difficult.
So let's just say that Western Canada or Hibernia's Newfoundland don't need federal stimulus now with oil profits gushing in. Central Canada? That's a different matter.
In the U.S. despite Congress chopping much of the six-year, $53-billion Obama plan for nationwide, high-speed rail, a bullet train is still likely to be built between Boston and Washington while the Anaheim to San Francisco high-speed line is expected to be completed by 2017 with $3.9 billion in federal funding. But then the U.S. has always been better at spending a dollar to make two than Canada ever has been.
A 1996 report on the U.S. Interstate Highway System by the American Highway Users Alliance shows what infrastructure spending can do. That report said the freeway system, begun in 1956, produced $6 in economic benefit for every dollar spent.
"It is not an exaggeration, but a simple statement of fact, that the interstate highway system is an engine that has driven 40 years of unprecedented prosperity and positioned the United States to remain the world's pre-eminent power into the 21st century," the report said on the 40th anniversary of the Interstate system. Over those four decades, the freeway network cost about $329 billion in 1996 dollars.
But it also revolutionized transportation, an important factor in industrial production. Reliable freeways enabled industry to adopt ontime delivery which cut the amount of warehouse space and labour to maintain it. Efficient highways meant lower costs for shipping to markets or for receiving raw materials. And it facilitated door-todoor delivery of important goods and raw materials that the old, slow train system could not.
Imagine where Ontario would be today were it not for Highway 401 replacing the antiquated two-lane Highway 2 through the heart of the province.
High-speed rail could do the same for travel that now-dated freeways did for commerce. At a time when high-cost oil is making air and road transportation much more expensive (perhaps in the future prohibitively so), high-speed rail takes travellers straight to urban downtowns without the slowness of driving or the high-cost and awkward land transfers of air. High-speed rail is the 21st-century Highway 401 of transportation in contrast to the old Highway 2 that is last-century's road and air.
Yet Flaherty's government persists in buying F-35s or enacting expensive crime legislation instead of spending $9 billion on revenue-producing high-speed rail. The line would bring together people to facilitate the interchange of ideas, something that, with an Ottawa stop on the line, could encourage this government to right its misplaced priorities.