Why your summer highways are sub-par: Politics

One hazard of tracking government spending is that on a recent drive from British Columbia, I couldn’t help but notice how politicians spend tax dollars on many items except the basics: twinning the TransCanada highway to the B.C. interior as a prime example. My attention was perhaps heightened by a two-hour wait near Field after a trucker jack-knifed and blocked the road for hours.

Thankfully, there were no fatalities that day but that’s not always the case. Anyone who drives that highway will be thankful for the incremental improvements made over the years. But there is much to correct on the TransCanada, a mid-century project, where many sections are still original. At present, two lanes still dominate much of the highway from just past Lake Louise to near Kamloops.

Given how various governments misallocate money, the opportunities for four lanes and tunnelling the TransCanada have been repeatedly sacrificed to spending best described as “impulse buying” — popular in political minds now, but of little lasting value.

Examples from British Columbia, Alberta and federal governments are easy to find. Obviously, highways in B.C. are not an Alberta responsibility. Still, as an illustration of misdirected dollars, consider how the political penchant to direct the behaviour of citizens can be costly and lead away from basic, defensible expenditures. For example, earlier this year the Alberta government announced $21.5 million to help Albertans change to more energy-efficient light bulbs, among other uses for the money.

At the time, Environment Minister Shannon Phillips characterized the program as “free.” It was an odd way to describe taxes extracted from taxpayers, which are then recycled back to the public for a “free” benefit. But I digress. Over five years, the entire program will cost $648 million.

The nearly $650 million is indefensible as economic or environmental policy. Before the program, Albertans already knew how to replace their own light bulbs with more energy-efficient varieties. They also had an existing economic incentive to do so: to save money on power bills that the province is helping make more expensive (via killing cheap coal-fired electricity early).

The same logic applies to appliances and retro-fitting homes, other expenses the province will subsidize. Homeowners normally do this over time as old fridges, freezers and stoves decline and as renovations are needed. But governments love to spend scarce tax dollars on marginal improvements.

If the province really needed another $650-million expense in an eleven-figure red-ink environment (Alberta’s most recent deficit, last year, was $10,784,000,000), sending the cash to B.C. to help fix the TransCanada would be preferred. But I’d recommend attaching a condition to the cash: “Dear Victoria, here’s some help for your/our national highways. Do stop blocking our pipelines. Regards, Alberta.”

On to B.C. and an example: Corporate welfare subsidies there have long been delivered via tax credits to the film sector. This is an unfortunate practice given that such politically inspired credits encourage investment into activities based on something other than rational economic grounds.

In B.C.’s case, film and related production credits cost that province’s treasury $391 million last year and $491 million the year previous. In just two years, that’s almost $900 million. I’d wager that could have twinned a few, now perilous sections of the TransCanada.

Federally, and in 2017 dollars, a succession of governments have, directly and via Quebec, loaned and granted $4.1 billion to aerospace manufacturer Bombardier since 1966.

For the record, 1966 was four years after the two-lane Golden-Revelstoke stretch of the TransCanada highway was opened (on June 30, 1962). Fifty-five years later, and 51 years after the first recorded Bombardier cash was disbursed, much of that stretch is still two lanes.

Imagine what $4.1 billion might have bought and built for the TransCanada in the ensuing five decades.

~Mark Milke, Calgary Herald, A12, August 19, 2017

Mark Milke