Life Imitating Art

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No sooner had I posted “Picture This” (December 17, 2016), featuring a thought exercise involving an imaginary highway, then the most despised government in Ontario’s history decided to announce more lanes for highway 417 (aka the Queensway) that runs through downtown Ottawa. As I said in that post, infrastructure spending is all the rage and otherwise useless backbenchers or do-nothing ministers are trotted out to read turgid press releases declaring a government’s love for the ‘little people’ who pay the bills. The government; local, provincial or federal, will unabashedly pat itself on the back for being “strategic”, prescient and beneficent. According to the December 19 announcement MP David McGuinty claims more highway lanes “will foster long-term prosperity for years to come.” And all for a measly $95 million.

Actually the highway widening was already announced in May of this year by provincial minister Bob Chiarelli although at that time the dollar amount was withheld. The latest iteration is no doubt the result of backroom arm-twisting that goes on between governments who are rarely on the same page or in the same desperate part of the election cycle. The federal government and its provincial counterpart both have massive, unaffordable infrastructure schemes on the books and so taxpayers can expect to see announcements and re-announcements of the same paving jobs and playground structures until our sewers are clogged with cut ribbons.

This is not to say that urban highways don’t need attention but it does seem that a lot of taxpayer money gets splashed about with very little consideration of whether it’s terribly useful. Ottawa is years behind North American urban centres in constructing an efficient light rail system. We insist on carrying one commuter each in thousands of passenger cars, rather then thousands of commuters each in rail cars. After having torn up downtown tracks and re-purposed a beautiful train station in the 1960’s, the city is dropping over $2 billion on a train system under the downtown that will carry passengers from a nondescript shopping centre on one side of town to a depressing collection of Stalinist government buildings on the other; a classic “bridge-to-nowhere” public project. Of course there is a “stage 2” for another $3 billion and years more into the future.

When Chiarelli announced highway widening in May, local columnist David Reevely wrote: “One thing we can be sure of:It won’t reduce congestion. Widening highways never does.”

It’s an old saw in politics that if you subsidise anything, you get more of it. Widen a highway and more cars will want to use it. Each of the cars on your new highway will do exactly what they do now: propagate waves of varying speed and clog up on/off ramps as everybody tries to use the limited access points at the same time.

Experts know this and some of them work for government so politicians know it too. The Chiarelli/McGuinty press releases drone on about ‘strategic’ investments, job creation and middle class utopia so it’s clear they don’t want to talk about putting the $95 million anywhere useful. Since Ontario is one of the most indebted sub-national jurisdictions in the western world and their federal Liberal cousins have already blown out the budget for years to come, neither one is going to care much about a few million dollars.

Aside from being bothered by the insistence of different levels of government to brightly declare that there is a ‘federal’ share of the project and a ‘provincial’ one (as if there was different groups of taxpayers chipping in), how does this accord with the stated objective of both Liberal governments that they are going to get us out of our cars for environmental reasons? On the one hand Ontario’s highway department admits that people have to get to their jobs, meetings and to deliver goods. On the other hand a provincial energy tax is being imposed on January 1st that will hit gasoline and heating fuels in the name of “fighting climate change”. The purpose of taxing is to get less of something (emissions); the purpose of building highways is to get more of something (driving).

Governments announce “job creation” schemes, then tax and regulate jobs out of existence. The winner of a one-off popularity contest decries our industrial economy one day, then approves vital pipelines the next. ‘Leaders’ pay lip service to liberty then quietly pass laws making it illegal to hold any views contrary to the pandering elitists of a few urban areas.

If it isn’t clear already it should be apparent that any government is a many-headed Hydra of competing agendas. If you belong to a government that insists on layering further agenda items on to a bloated schema of interfering in citizen’s lives and treating their personal incomes simply as tax money that hasn’t been seized yet, then you are in for decades of economic and social chaos.

If you vote for politicians that promise you ‘prosperity for decades’ based on their contradictory policy choices then please don’t be surprised when the prosperity collapses in a heap within a year.

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