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Is a northern Canada transportation corridor a realistic goal?

Peter Caulfield
Is a northern Canada transportation corridor a realistic goal?

The University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy (SPP) is investigating, in a series of research papers, the potential for an ambitious national project: the Canadian Northern Corridor (CNC).

As the SPP conceives it, CNC is a network of rights-of-way connecting Canada from coast to coast to coast.

CNC is key to “responsible economic development in the 21st century.

“The Canadian Northern Corridor would be a network of multi-modal rights-of-way across middle and northern Canada, with an accompanying policy, regulatory and governance structure.”

CNC would provide space for the co-ordinated development of road, rail, transmission, pipeline and communication.

The goals of CNC are nothing if not ambitious.

The SPP says a corridor would provide economic growth and diversification by providing access to expanding international markets and underserved regions in Canada, while creating opportunities for Indigenous communities and supporting northern security and sovereignty objectives.

Major infrastructure would be located together in “a contained geographic footprint.”

The SPP says its vision, compared to the current model of one-off projects, would reduce environmental risk and damage and improve regulatory certainty.

As currently imagined, the northern corridor would be approximately 7,000 kilometres long.

 

Most Canadians take transportation for granted and don’t even think about it,

— Jean-Paul Rodrigue

Author of the Canadian northern corridor special series report

 

Beginning in the far northwest, it would follow the northern boreal forest eastward until it reached Churchill, Man., then head southeast into northern Ontario and the Ring of Fire. From there it would cross northern Quebec into Labrador.

Andrei Sulzenko and Kent Fellows began putting some flesh on the northern corridor concept in 2016, in a research paper for SPP.

They noted Canada’s main transportation network is concentrated in the southern part of the country, where most people live and where most economic activity takes place.

Most of the linkages from this network run north-south to the United States, Canada’s biggest trading partner, with fewer and lower-quality linkages to the resource-rich north.

“There has been little recent discussion of a transportation strategy whose purpose goes beyond project-targeted development opportunities, to a focus on more integrated economic development and more efficient movement of commodities to domestic and foreign markets.”

In 2018, additional research by Fellows and Trevor Tombe found its great distance from markets in southern Canada and the rest of the world is the major inhibitor of economic growth in northern Canada.

According to the authors, per-mile trade costs are 45 per cent higher for the territories than the provinces. The difference, they say, is caused in part by lower-quality northern infrastructure.

The gains from narrowing the gap would significant.

“We find the combined annual gross domestic product of Nunavut, Yukon and the Northwest Territories could increase by nearly $4.7 billion – a massive increase of roughly 50 per cent. A northern corridor providing better trade infrastructure would benefit provinces and territories alike.

“And while the initial outlay for northern infrastructure including multiple transportation modes would be significant, the long-term gains in GDP may justify such costs.”

The potential benefits of a northern corridor notwithstanding, there are also serious challenges standing in the way of realizing them, according to the most recent paper in the SPP series.

Jean-Paul Rodrigue, author of the Canadian northern corridor special series report constraints in the Canadian transport infrastructure grid, says developing a northern corridor is not only expensive, there are fewer commercial opportunities than a similar corridor in southern Canada.

“Population and economic density are unavoidable constraints in corridor development.

“Outside specific northern connectors to resources such as mining, energy and logging, the private sector has limited incentives to provide infrastructure or services to low-density areas. Sole private ownership and operation of infrastructure are unlikely unless supported by massive subsidies.”

In addition, developing a northern corridor is challenging to integrate with the existing transportation infrastructure pattern.

But although there are few commercial incentives to building a northern corridor, individual segments could be considered on a case-by-case basis.

“Developing (east-west) corridors that would eventually be reinforced by (north-south) corridors appears to be a more effective strategy.”

Finally, Rodrigue says, opposition to infrastructure projects makes co-ordination difficult, which further undermines the potential of corridor development and its commercial viability.

The crux of the challenge facing the development of a northern corridor is that Canada lacks a vision of what a network would look like and there is almost no support for creating one.

“Most Canadians take transportation for granted and don’t even think about it,” Rodrigue says. “They don’t understand the importance of transportation or how the supply chain that gets goods to market works.”

As a result, it’s becoming almost impossible to get infrastructure built.

“It’s a constant fight and it’s eroding our competitiveness,” he says.

“We need to decide what kind of transportation infrastructure we want.”

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