By Alex Binkley – Getting Canada’s transportation system working well is “the No. 1 way to ensure the competitiveness of the country going forward,” says David Emerson, the former federal cabinet minister who headed the panel that reviewed the Canada Transportation Act.

In his first public comments on reaction to the panel’s report submitted last December, Emerson told the Commons transport committee the sweeping recommendations were intended to get the government and Canadians focused on the future. “The report was really intended to look out 25 to 30 years,” he said.

Transportation has become “more important to trade success than trade policy because in reality, there is so much international investment that allows commercial footprints to span the globe and tariffs are relatively low these days, that transportation actually is a larger component of overall cost structures than almost anything you can think of on the trade front.” The question for Canadians is “what do we need to be doing today to be ready to be globally competitive and economically successful two or three decades out. That’s not a long time in the transportation sector.”

Transportation regulation has to be crafted in “very, very long-term perspective in order to enable what is a very, very complex transportation system to adjust to any changes that are material in terms of policy and regulation,” he added. The report was “not intended to be a micro here and now to do list,” he said.

“The most important thing for the government to do is get decision-making right.” Decisions about transportation have “to be extremely well-informed by good information … but if you don’t get governance right, you’re really not doing very much. You’re playing around at the edges.”

“The transportation system and transportation policy has evolved over the last few decades from a deeply regulated, government-heavy transportation system to one that is very highly market-oriented these days,” he pointed out. “There is a need within government for a broader focus on transportation as a key foundation of government economic policy.

“That has to be beyond the scope of the Canadian Transportation Agency, which has a more restricted regulatory focus and I do believe that you do need advisory mechanisms that include the various elements of the transportation and logistics system and you need a significant amount of input from financial institutions as well because to really enable the transportation system to grow and thrive in the future takes a lot more money than the government can possibly throw at it and you’re going to need the private sector to come to the table. Government is going to have to learn how to enable the private sector to make a bigger contribution.”

At the same time, the federal government must play “play a leadership role in ensuring if not the sanctity at least the durability and preservation of critical transportation and logistic corridors going forward because urban encroachment and various other disruptions can create bottlenecks and true competitive crises and problems if those corridors are not preserved and enabled to operate fluidly and efficiently,” he stated.