Man holding pen

Quebec's slow pace on twinning a small section of the Trans-Canada Highway near the New Brunswick border is costing Canada close to $2 billion a year in lost economic activity, say business leaders.

Backed by a new study, the New Brunswick Business Council and the transportation industry are calling upon the Quebec government to speed up its work and complete the project in one year instead of five, arguing that unclogging the bottleneck would also enrich Quebec.

"If you're looking at nation building, this is the kind of leadership you need," said Adrienne O'Pray, the council's CEO. "This needs to be top of the list to open up those markets for Atlantic Canada, so we can be more competitive."

New Brunswick finished twinning its more than 500-kilometre portion of the Trans-Canada, called Route 2 in the province, in November 2014.

Quebec has only about 40 km left to twin between Saint-Antonin and Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! on Route 185 to make the entire length of the national corridor between Toronto and Halifax four lanes. But Quebec isn't scheduled to finish the work until 2025, more than a decade after New Brunswick completed its part of the job.

That relatively small strip, which lies only 50 km northwest of the New Brunswick border, is a big headache for businesses that want to trade goods to the most populated parts of Canada, particularly Montreal and Toronto.

For safety reasons, long combination vehicles - transport trucks with multiple trailers often called 'b trains' - are not permitted to use single-lane highways. To get past the narrow squeeze in Quebec, drivers of the specialized trucks must unhitch a trailer, move one trailer through, and then come back for the other one.

Many of those same businesses just use a conventional trailer, doubling their transportation costs.

"It doubles the number of drivers you need, it wastes time, there are safety issues, there are environmental issues, because you're running two trucks instead of one," O'Pray said. "It's a trade barrier within our own country."

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs is well aware of the problem and says he's brought up the issue with Quebec Premier François Legault, in two face-to-face meetings. Legault, he said, was adamant about sticking to the existing schedule.

"Am I surprised? No, I am not," Higgs said in an interview with the Daily Gleaner. "Anything that does not appear to benefit Quebec is not a priority. We all built these highways to improve our capabilities from one province to another, and the fact that this is the only portion that's not twinned, that's pretty bad."

The Quebec government did not answer questions posed by the Daily Gleaner over a three-day period earlier this week. In 2015, it announced it would finish the $943-million twinning project within a decade, picking up nearly 60 per cent of the cost, and Ottawa the rest.

The council and the University of New Brunswick commissioned the latest study with the help of Kent Fellows, a researcher at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary, who has appeared before Senate committees as an expert in transportation economics and trade corridors.

The study used an economic model to suggest that using more long vehicles would reduce delivery costs of a traded good by 1.5 to 2.5 per cent. Those lower costs, if the short section in Quebec were finally twinned, would represent annual economic gains of $1 billion to $1.78 billion for Canada; which includes $350 million to $600 million for each of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia; and $100 million to $160 million for Quebec.

The lost business has already convinced the region's three trucking associations - in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada - to sign a joint letter to the federal and provincial ministers of transportation to advance the twinning project. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce also cited the twinning project as one of its key priorities this year.

"Our four-lane highway in New Brunswick is basically a stranded asset," O'Pray said. "We have to keep this on the front burner. And we need the new government in Ottawa to recognize how significant an issue this is."

However, Higgs does not believe the federal government should be blamed for the slow pace of construction. He points out that Ottawa follows the lead of provincial governments, asking them to decide which highway projects are the most important.

"It's up to Quebec to say, 'this is a priority'," the premier said. "And we need the pressure not only coming from New Brunswick but from Quebec businesses to make this happen."

This story originally appeared in the Telegraph-Journal on November 9, 2019. Written by John Chilibeck.