Meet the planes, trains and automobile campaigners

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Having temporarily exhausted their rhetoric, for and against, shale gas development, New Brunswick’s front-running political pugilists are, by way of a break between rounds, tucking into an issue about which they can both agree. Sort of.

As Conservative Leader David Alward announced his intention to craft a comprehensive port strategy for Saint John and Belledune, Liberal Leader Brian Gallant introduced an ambitious, $900-million, six-year program to refurbish roads, highways and other “strategic infrastructure” across the province.

“One of the best ways to (create jobs). . .is through stimulus in the short term, like making strategic investments in our roads and bridges,” Mr. Gallant said this week. “We have a comprehensive plan to create jobs in the near term, medium term and long term.”

He keeps saying that and he may even believe it. Still, infrastructure spending is that least sexy of all campaign issues; that it invariably comes with what seems like a staggering price tag usually spells disaster for the candidate who embraces it.

True to form, Mr. Alward and NDP Leader Dominic Cardy were ready at the pounce.

“We don’t have any money,” Mr. Cardy said simply, when asked for his opinion. “You can’t keep talking about spending billions of dollars we don’t have. . .$88,000 is the preliminary costing we got on this particular announcement. This is the worst of old-style politics. They was we create jobs is by educating workers, not hiring people onto the government payroll.”

Not to be outdone for timely displays of righteous indignation, Mr. Alward said, “Every cent that he (Mr. Gallant) is talking about investing going forward and increasing means money is going to have to be borrowed because the revenues are not there. Wheat he is doing is saddling taxpayers today, New Brunswickers today, but very importantly, he’s saddling future generations with huge debt that is not sustainable.”

Should Mr. Gallant prevail next month, and ride gloriously into Fredericton, it will, indeed, be fascinating to watch the young premier make good on his spending promises, given the province’s $500-million annual deficit and $12-billion debt. Maybe he can pull it off without waving any red flags at international bond-rating agencies.

All the same, the voter is always best served when he or she is in possession of real numbers, if only estimates, to consider.

What, in contrast, are we to make of Mr. Alward’s plan to get strategic with the province’s ports? Apparently, the Tory leader insists, it will “help unlock New Brunswick’s export potential and capitalize on our capacity to be able to say yes to natural gas development.”

How much is not important, because, as the Saint John Telegraph-Journal reported yesterday, “Alward said there’s no specific cost to developing a strategy.”

That’s convenient considering there’s also no specific reason why the province’s seaports, which fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government, would undertake a planning exercise of this complexity without Ottawa’s explicit support, both moral and monetary.

On the other hand, apart from the funding piece (always the Achilles heel in these matters), Mr. Gallant’s scheme, if given a chance, might actually produce tangible benefits. Moncton-based economic development consultant David Campbell has actually costed out the investment and calculated the return.

According to the T-J article, “The Liberals say an analysis conducted for them by Jupia Consultants indicates that spending $150 million per year on infrastructure would create and sustain 1,702 full-time jobs over six years and return $13 million in tax revenue to the province, annually.”

Moreover, “the annual spending is expected to generate $92.6 million worth of direct and indirect GDP through the supply chain in New Brunswick and $113.5 million with induced economic impacts. That would include $69.7 million worth of direct and indirect labour income and $78.5 million worth of labour income, including induced effects.”

In the end, the Liberals’ plan to get people back to work – preparing the province for that fine, sunny day when its booming economy will require superior infrastructure – may be too costly. It may even be unworkable.

But at least here’s a bottom line, instead of the usual empty rhetoric, to scrutinize.

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