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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Let the airport model drive roads and transit Add to ...

Airports are in the best shape of any part of Canada’s transportation infrastructure.

Almost to a fault, they are terrific. Almost to a fault, because you can argue that some are overbuilt, although local airport authorities, full of business boosters, would never admit to that.

Decades ago, airports were run by bureaucrats at Transport Canada. They were largely paid for by money from general revenue – taxes. Bureaucratic control and tax dollars produced uniformly dumpy places.

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Sound familiar? Take a look at Montreal’s bridges, or its roads, or, for that matter, the roads in Toronto or Vancouver. In these cities, transportation infrastructure cries out for help. Instead of comprehensive, long-term solutions, local and provincial politicians offer Band-Aid responses and demand help from the federal government.

That’s what’s happening with Montreal’s Champlain Bridge. The bridge is in terrible shape and has been for a very long time. It’s a federal bridge, so successive federal governments have patched it rather than rebuild, tax money always being a problem.

The same dynamics are at work in and around Toronto. Traffic is terrible. The Gardiner Expressway gets patched, that’s all. A new light rapid transit line is proposed for Scarborough, but mayor Rob Ford wanted a subway (as did the people of Scarborough, presumably). Queen’s Park and Ottawa yielded, and are preparing to spend public money on what will be an underutilized line.

Airport authorities, freed from the dead hand of Transport Canada and the need to rely on general tax revenues, were given the power to raise money. Call them what you want: taxes, airport improvement levies, fees. They were – and are – based on the principle of user pay.

Embedded in the cost of airline tickets are fees that go to the authority running the airport where the passenger departs. The airport authority then uses the fees to upgrade terminals, repair and rebuild runways or, as in Winnipeg, build an entirely new airport terminal. They can even give money for a rapid transit line to the airport, as in Vancouver.

You can criticize this system to some degree, because once a public authority gets a guaranteed stream of money to use or borrow against, it will find some way of spending it. No passengers, users of commercial space or airline representatives sit on the authorities to counter the constant pressure to spend more.

So perhaps some of the airport infrastructure is a bit rich for realistic needs. Nonetheless, these fees – which in road terms would be called tolls – have done the trick. Canada’s airport infrastructure is excellent, even though the authorities pay “rent” to the federal government that, in turn, delivers no services to them.

User pay. It works for airports. Why not for roads and bridges? Politics, that’s why.

In Montreal, under former mayor Gérard Tremblay, a grand transportation plan was unveiled for roads, rail and bridges. It proposed that better bridges be paid for by tolls; otherwise, Quebec taxpayers would be paying for facilities most citizens would never use.

It took about two hours for suburban mayors’ howls of outrage to fill the airwaves. Their commuters should not – would not – pay to get to work on the island of Montreal. Inner-city folks would get off too lightly. Within days, the provincial government began sliding away from the plan.

Now, the debate is back. The Harper government says, reasonably: You want a bridge, then users should help pay for it. To which Quebec’s Premier and Montreal’s newly elected mayor cry: Ottawa – all Canadian taxpayers – should pay, although the vast majority of them will never use the bridge.

It’s the same debate around Toronto. Voters demand better roads and transit. But they don’t want tolls or higher transit fares. The money should come from everywhere, anywhere, but not principally from the people who would benefit from the improvements.

Book a flight. Check out the terminal. Ask how this facility came to be. Now, draw a link between what you see there and the sad state of urban transportation infrastructure. Conclusion?

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