22 August 2007

User use, user pay?

Avoiding collapse

Opinion - Hugh Segal, a senior fellow at the Queens School of Policy Studies and an Ontario Senator says privatization is the only way to come up with the billions needed to save our deteriorating infrastructure. The Minneapolis bridge collapse has renewed the debate on infrastructure, and rightly so. But the core question beyond 'how old are the roads and bridges,' and 'how much more can we afford in order to correct or replace this infrastructure,' may be a diversion from the more substantial public policy question. With North America facing pressures to spend more on healthcare, security, education and welfare; with public resistance to tax increases both real and focused; is it practical to expect pure tax dollars to be the single source of infrastructure refurbishment and investment? Or, in more precise terms, are we sure that government is the best and most trustworthy source of infrastructure cash in the future? Determining the causes and conclusions regarding Minneapolis will take time. But the questions regarding infrastructure across North America have just begun.

It may come as a surprise to many but when one travels on the new roads and bridges in France, or large parts of Greece and Spain -- all countries with a universal health care system and relatively supple social safety nets -- financing and operational management of many of these roads and bridges is private and small, ubiquitous tolls are everywhere. That European and Asian countries should be ahead of us on this is no surprise. Their respective post-war rebuild challenges were far more daunting than ours -- and innovation and flexibility made immense sense to them at the point of rebuild. In exactly the same way, doing things the way we always did seemed logical to leaders in the post-war years in North America. Rents and taxes from resources and expanding economies in North America were rising extensively, and the social safety nets were being expanded. So it is not surprising that tax dollars had and continue to be the staple of infrastructure funding.

But Minneapolis may well be a tragic example, though the cause is yet unknown, of tax-dollar rationing. The consequences of a 40-year-old bridge, considered "structurally deficient" by engineers, yet not due for replacement until 2020, has resulted in great momentum to inspect and ensure the safety of bridges in Canada, as well as in our southern neighbours. If billions in repairs or replacements are needed, from which other pot do we pinch in order to finance this undertaking -- defence, health, balancing the budget, paying down the debt? As one travels through Europe paying modest tolls on highways and bridges and on entering larger cities, and drives by the privately owned water towers and private generating companies that serve community needs, it becomes apparent that even European social democracies have thought through the capital-use and allocation balance that produces sane public finance, market opportunities for private players, and reasonable pay-as-you-go tolls for the travelling European and commercial public. I find it hard to believe that we cannot consider some similar policy options here in Canada. Or that all big cities must own and manage all the core infrastructure they depend upon and must refurbish going forward.
(National Post 070822)

I think those that use infrastructure and services the most should pay more than the average for the facilities they use. It's only democratic. It would also more accurately reflect the cost of roads, utilities, and suburban sprawl, and the cost of connecting our remote cities to each other and to the world.

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