Where’s Canada’s national highway? – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal Editorial (August 12, 2013)

Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

Among the many things for which U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower will be remembered is spear-heading one of the best road networks in the world. You can drive a BMW sports sedan as fast as you dare on Germany’s renowned autobahn — and possibly get killed doing it — but the American interstate highway system has few rivals in terms of size, overall road quality and connectivity.

Eisenhower can’t take all the credit. But he’s often the one cited for having the vision, which likely germinated during his Second World War tour in Europe as the Allies’ top commander.

The five-star general obviously realized that an interstate highway system could come in handy in terms of ensuring a country’s defence, although the system inevitably benefited the country’s tourism and commerce more than mounting a war effort.

Canadian snowbirds who make the long drive to Miami Beach in just three days can thank Dwight D. Eisenhower.
It seems rather astonishing, then, that in a country as geographically vast as ours there is no Eisenhower-equivalent cast in the imagination of Canadians when it comes to the post-Second World War development of highways.

The ability to drive on an uninterrupted, twinned highway coast to coast seems like a no-brainer nearly 70 years hence, but you can’t do it. It remains piecemeal: Northern Ontario’s hodge-podge is perhaps the worst example.

There is still no asphalt-equivalent of the “national dream” that got this country’s railways going in the latter part of the 19th century.

Two truly charismatic prime ministers in the post-war era — Brian Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau — are perhaps remembered respectively for free trade with the U.S. and bringing home our constitution from Britain. But when it comes to advocating for a first-class national highway system that is the envy of the world, nobody leaps to mind, even though the economic benefits would have been huge, both during construction and after.

The delay and bumps in the road preventing a 60-kilometre, four-lane route from providing a smooth transition between Manitoba and Ontario should simply not be happening in this day and age. To give some credit where it is due, Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle has been overseeing some progress on sections of the Trans-Canada Highway that cuts through his far flung riding.

A $106-million, four-lane bridge to be built over the Nipigon River over the next few years will be undeniably “magnificent,” as Gravelle put it.

But the fact that Gravelle still can’t say when the highway will be four-laned right through from Nipigon to Thunder Bay is telling. Without federal help, of course, he can’t.

All of the four-lane construction that’s occurred so far on that route, about 20 km, is being paid for by the province, in typical Canadian piecemeal fashion.

Where is the national dream? Where is the federal leader saying, by golly, this is going to get done and we’re going to figure out how to make it work?

In the late 1980s, an energetic and determined New Brunswick premier named Frank McKenna championed a four-lane highway through that province. Many said it couldn’t be done, given the rough and steep terrain. But now it exists, and it is one of the best routes on the east coast, or anywhere in the world for that matter.