Canada may cut cost of travel in populous areas, not boondocks

It's going to cost more to mosey to Moose Jaw but less to move to Montreal. That could be the result of a shake-up in Canada's transportation policy, from planes to trucks. The Canadian government might even sell off its airports to local authorities or private enterprise. Deregulation would be too mild a word to describe what might happen under a recently issued policy paper called Freedom to Move.

Canada's transportation policy is a mess of regulations covering air fares, trucking rules, rail policy, and rates for ships operating on the Great Lakes and other domestic Canadian ports.

The federal government owns its own airline -- Air Canada, one the biggest in the world -- and its own railroad -- Canadian National, also one of the biggest in the world. The reason for all these superlatives is that Canada is also one of the biggest countries in the world. Only the Soviet Union is larger.

Canada's huge size -- 3.8 million square miles -- means that transportation is important. Coupled with that size is a relatively small population, just 25 million people. Making sure someone in Newfoundland can visit his aunt in Tuktoyaktuk on the shores on the Arctic Ocean is a big job. Without transportation there would be no Canada.

It was a hundred years ago that the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed. It connected the provinces of central Canada with the British territories in the west. The railway was built through Canada, taking the tough route over the muskeg on the north shore of Lake Superior.

Without the CPR, the western provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia would never have been settled and might have drifted into union with the United States. But the railway brought rules. And over the years those rules have developed into the Byzantine hodgepodge that currently makes up Canadian transportation policy.

One of the tenets of Canadian transportation policy is that one has to be able to get to any point in the country. So you want to fly to Moose Jaw? Fine, there's an airport there, right out in the middle of a wheat field. But the best way to fly to Moose Jaw is to fly to Regina, 40 miles away.

If you want to fly to Montreal, you'll pay dearly. The busiest air route in Canada is between Montreal and Toronto, 350 air miles at a cost C$268.10 (about $196 American). Los Angeles to San Francisco, is 338 miles but the regular full fare is only US$89, and discounts can bring that down to US$39.

It was those lower air fares in the United States that brought public pressure on the government to do the same in Canada. Up to now Ottawa had been gouging the business travelers on the rich Montreal-to-Toronto run to subsidize air service to out-of-the-way places. No more. Transportation Minister Donald Mazankowski has introduced a white paper to stimulate debate on the issue. He hopes to have laws based on the policy paper by the end of this year.

Overseeing the transportation empire are the Ministry of Transport and the Canadian Transport Commission. Mr. Mazankowski wants to do away with the commission and replace it with a weaker body.

The CTC is made up mostly of retired political warhorses. It gives them a sinecure in Ottawa and allows these unelected representatives to dictate policy to the country. It sets air fares, and in the past has not allowed price wars. It also decides which air routes are canceled and which stay. The CTC has forced airlines to maintain money-losing services to backwater towns.

Getting rid of the Canadian Transport Commission would be a major achievement for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's Conservative government. The new regulatory agency would have much less power. It would not even be able to review proposed cuts in air fares. And airlines would be allowed to abandon unprofitable routes.

Then there are the 94 airports the Ministry of Transport runs. ``I don't know why I should approve every peanut stand and car rental concession. That's not the role of the Minister of Transport,'' Mr. Mazankowski says.

Edmonton, Alberta, may be the first area to try local airport management. The federal government, though, would still be in charge of such things as air traffic control, safety, and security.

Toronto's crowded international airport needs a third terminal. The government wants private airlines to do the job. ``They have complained that Transport Canada spends too much money on terminals. We'll let them build the terminals,'' the minister says.

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