Thursday, December 30, 2004

Time for transportation push for B.C.'s regions

VICTORIA - B.C.'s regions should be pushing hard to make sure a new Progress Board report on transportation issues doesn't end up gathering dust.
Communities outside the Lower Mainland need lots of help to prepare for current and coming challenges. but transportation improvements offer one of the best bets for economic development and diversification.
Make it possible for people and goods to move efficiently and cheaply and all kinds of opportunities - from tourism to resource development to small business - are opened up.
The Progress Board is useful creation of the Campbell government, set up to provide regular independent reports on how things are really going in B.C. and occasional special bulletins.
The transportation study, by UBC prof Michael Goldberg, offers a challenge to the provincial government and to communities to come up with transportation strategies - and actually execute them - that will boost regional economies.
Much of it is not complicated. But the report's recommendations are sweeping and will test both the provincial government's commitment and communities willingness to work together.
That's going to be especially true in the area of air transportation. Goldberg has a number of recommendations aimed at opening up B.C. to more international flights as part of a global trade push.
But he also says it's time for more consolidation within the province's regions. Almost three dozen airports have some form of scheduled service, he says, and that leaves many too small to cope with increasing security costs and other infrastructure demands.
Some airports - Comox, Kamloops, Kelowna and Prince George - need to expand, Goldberg says. Others - like Williams Lake and Castlegar - are the right size.
But others need to shrink or even close, with service consolidated in a nearby centre, he suggests. Smithers, Terrace/Kitimat and Prince Rupert all have airports, he says, but the region would be best-served by one larger airport in Terrace. Castlegar should be the airport for Trail and Nelson. Williams Lake should serve Quesnel. And either Fort St. John or Dawson Creek should emerge as the region's airport, the report says.
It's always a tough sell to get communities to set aside their local interests and focus on the region. But the principle makes sense.
The short-term blow to communities that see their airports downgraded could be cushioned by other recommendations in the report, which include a call for improved highways.
"A key strategic consideration should be establishing a workable timeframe for improving - to the greatest extend possible - key segments of east-west and north-south highways to 'shrink the distance' between major centres and to enhance external market connectivity," the report says. Priority should be given Trans-Canada Highway improvements in the Rockies, four-laning portions of Hwy 97 from Prince George to the U.S. and a lot of improvements in the Lower Mainland.
And to pay for the roadwork, the government should look to more tolls, the report says.
The report also makes a case for a much larger role for the Port of Prince Rupert, a change that would require major expansion of the port number of other projects. Rail tunnels need higher ceilings to accommodate modern container cars and highway improvements in the northwest corridor are also needed.
And Prince Rupert's port needs to be supported with an inland container handling facility in Prince George, Kamloops or the Fraser Valley - a big boost for one or more of those communities.
The report also recommends that a new Pacific Port authority be created to take on responsibility for all five ports in the province, with the ability to borrow money, build facilities and manage the entire system.
Tax breaks for airlines and rail and trucking companies are also recommended, along with a big push to ensure that effective security controls are put in place without compromising the flow of goods.
It's a good blueprint. But communities will have to push if they want to see action on problems that have been around for a decade.
Footnote: The report confirms Prince Rupert's advantage as a gateway that gets goods to mid-America far more quickly than any U.S. port. But the port is hurt because shippers bringing goods from Asia now have to return empty, because there is little outbound trade through the port.

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