Push needed for climate accord to shift billions from highways to transit

Eric Doherty

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier Christy Clark and most of Canada’s premiers recently signed the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. “Framework” is a good title for this agreement — it is barely a start on what is needed. But it contains a policy shift that could dramatically reduce climate pollution from transportation.

Over the past decades the federal government has funded transportation infrastructure with little or no regard for climate pollution. They spent billions of public dollars every year on projects that increase climate pollution, such as urban highway expansion. And since projects are usually cost-shared, one billion of federal money is often matched by two billion from the province and region or municipality. Largely as a result of this perverse spending, between 1990 and 2014 climate pollution from transportation increased 32 per cent.

Trudeau’s first budget allocated new money to a public transit fund, which can reduce CO2, but there was no commitment to shift money away from projects that increase pollution. Now there is a commitment, of sorts, in the fine print of the climate framework.

 The framework commits the federal and provincial governments to “shift from higher- to lower-emitting types of transportation, including through investing in infrastructure.” The examples include shifting from driving to transit and cycling, as well as shifting freight from trucks to rail.

This is not a new completely new development. The NDP and Greens helped pass Liberal MP Andy Fillmore’s private member’s bill to the same effect in September. Bill M-45 calls for analysis of the greenhouse-gas impact of every infrastructure funding proposal over half-a-million dollars, and for giving funding priority to projects that reduce climate pollution.

The cliché “you can’t build your way out of congestion” is well-supported by studies and experience. Roadway expansion in urban areas worsens both pollution and congestion. In a 2007 study, Clark Williams-Derry of the SightLine Institute found that “adding one mile of new highway lane will increase CO2 emissions by more than 100,000 tons over 50 years.” Considering that transportation is the second-biggest source of climate pollution in Canada, the effect of road expansion must not be ignored.

But until now climate impacts have, for the most part, been ignored. Ontario’s Highway 427 Expansion project in Metro Toronto is proceeding with barely a mention of carbon pollution. One rather disturbing exception is B.C.; instead of ignoring climate impacts, Clark makes the ridiculous claim that urban highway expansion projects reduce pollution.

When governments bury a policy in the fine print, it usually means they have little intention of following through. But the experience of Metro Vancouver shows that people working in concert with their local municipal governments can take this policy from the fine print into the headlines.

In 2006, a packed room of residents favouring public transit over freeway expansion cheered a close Metro Vancouver Regional District board vote to oppose the multibillion-dollar Port Mann Bridge. The vote did not stop the provincial government from building the bridge, but the federal government didn’t fund it and later funded rapid-transit projects in the region instead.

Municipal politicians in Metro Vancouver learned the lesson — if you want federal rapid-transit funding you need to reject highway expansion. In June of this year when the Metro board voted to formally oppose the replacement of the four-lane Massey Tunnel with a 10-lane mega-bridge the vote was overwhelming. Only one mayor supported the $3.5-billion toll bridge. The main argument Metro used was that the project contradicts regional planning objectives, but now the Massey Bridge proposal also violates the federal-provincial climate framework.

Now everyone who wants better transit has a new tool to help ensure our public funds are not spent to make the climate crisis worse. The first step is to get your municipality and regional district to endorse this new policy of shifting money away from road projects that increase pollution to public transit. Then be prepared to demand that your mayor and councillors actively oppose the next polluting urban-highway-expansion project that the provincial government announces.

Eric Doherty is a Victoria-based transportation planning consultant and a founding member of the Better Transit Alliance of Greater Victoria.