If not build back better, at least build back not worse (air transportation edition)
I read in the Globe & Mail this morning that the Quebec government is going to ensure that all flights within the province don’t cost more than $500 round trip. This will apply for both residents and visitors. It also applies to trips requiring a connecting flight.
I know that many (if not most) of you will find this outrageous and it’s not really my favourite policy idea either but it is an example of a government realizing that air transportation is important and needs to be considered strategically when thinking about transportation in general.
I have written here and in my column many times about the importance of looking at transportation infrastructure more broadly - more strategically - than just roads and bridges.
I was blown away this week - when I talked with someone in the potato business who said they had to ship all their potatoes to central and western Canada by truck because either rail was too expensive or because the rail company had no interest in their business (something about not enough cars). Is this good for the economy? Is this good for our climate change objectives? I still think completely privatizing rail without any consideration of the public interest was a huge mistake. BTW, I have heard this from other industries in New Brunswick as well. CN couldn’t be bothered because the potential New Brunswick clients are too small or uninteresting.
Every province should have a strategic transportation plan that considers all aspects of the transportation system - rail, road, port, air, ferries, people, cargo - and craft a strategy that considers public interest and broader goals such as economic growth, population growth, the cost of service to residents, etc.
Consider the Quebec government pledge. Sure, it might be targeted at voters in far flung places in the province but it might be good policy as well. Quebec, like the rest of Canada, needs to repopulate many regions of the province or the cost per resident to provide public services is going to skyrocket. Governments must provide public infrastructure (more or less) like roads, electricity (increasingly broadband) and other infrastructure and also public services such as health care, education, public safety, etc. no matter how many people live in a community or region. Sure, they can ratchet these services/infrastructure back as population declines but there is ample data to suggest the cost per taxpayer will rise.
If there are policies and targeted investments that will help those regions repopulate and foster a strong economy, why not? Again, forget about the raw political appeal. Think about the longer term consequences of whole regions of Quebec (and the rest of the country) getting old, economically weak and increasingly subsidized by taxpayers elsewhere in the province/country.
I want to be clear. I am not advocating for billions in subsidies to prop up small towns and rural areas. I am advocating for targeted investments where it makes sense to give these region’s a fighting chance at thriving over the next 20 years and that is fundamentally predicated on repopulation.
I believe the cost to society of letting large swaths of a province wither will be much higher than a focused plan to rebuild population and promote economic development.
We are at an inflection point.
In New Brunswick, there are already examples of towns and rural areas that are doing quite well because they have attracted population and focused on economic opportunities.
Maybe a broad subsidy on air transportation is not the solution but decent air services within a reasonable commute of most New Brunswickers should be a public policy objective.