Federal transport minister calls proposed $100B Northern Corridor 'an appealing concept'

The lead researcher for a proposed Northern Corridor across Canada says the project is "building momentum."

Could be used for road, rail, pipeline, electrical transmission and communication infrastructure

Northern Corridor lead researcher Dr. Jennifer Winter says the route outlined in maps is only hypothetical. Winter says extensive research and consultation would be needed before the route is finalized. (University of Calgary School of Public Policy)

The lead researcher for a proposed Northern Corridor across Canada says the project is "building momentum."

Dr. Jennifer Winter, a researcher with the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy, said she and her colleagues are pitching a national right-of-way that could be used for road, rail, pipeline, electrical transmission and communication infrastructure.

The route would run through Canada's north and near north and would interconnect with the country's existing transportation network.

The idea is to increase the nation's capacity to transport resources to tidewater and access to global markets.

A 2016 paper introducing the concept said Canada is heavily reliant on exports to the United States, partly because most of Canada's transportation infrastructure is land-based.

It said an important driver for the new right-of-way is "the now apparent opportunity cost of Canada's restricted ability to export commodities to world markets."

The study's authors, Andrei Sulzenko and G. Kent Fellows, also note the corridor would improve the living conditions of northern Canadians.

Last year, the Senate authored its own study of the proposal, endorsed the project and recommended the federal government provide research funding for Winter and her team.

My request to you is have a car wash, have a bake sale, but find the $5 million which is needed to advance this project.- Senator Douglas Black

The proposed Northern Corridor and the Senate's recommendation were the focus of a meeting last week of the Standing Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau told the meeting about possible federal funding streams.

But he said the researchers would need to find partners that could co-fund the study.

Senator Douglas Black, the committee chair, found Garneau's answers "unacceptable" and "very, very disappointing" after the Senate had requested the government provide the researchers with $5 million to conduct the research.

"A paltry request for an important, nation-building project, so we thought," said Black. "My request to you is have a car wash, have a bake sale, but find the $5 million which is needed to advance this project."

Garneau called the Northern Corridor "an appealing concept, no question about it."

"It is a concept that requires us to see what kind of buy-in comes from Canadians," Garneau said. "And that includes also the private sector, as well, and utilities and transportation companies and all those who might make use of it, whether it's a pipeline corridor, whatever."

Garneau said a co-funded arrangement would also provide an opportunity to gauge interest in the project.

"If the project is there but there's no take-up by all the potential users, that sends a signal," he said. "Is there? Is there, is there enthusiasm and involvement from ultimately the users? So that kind of assessment would need to be done, and we would prefer that it be done by those who were likely to be the users of it."

Ottawa has not made any commitment to the Northern Corridor, but Winter says she is in "relatively constant contact" with several federal departments about the proposal.

"What's been encouraging is, first of all, that they are willing to continually discuss the idea with us," she said. "And, also, I have a primary contact in the federal government and they've been making connections to other departments and groups so that we can essentially share the knowledge."

Dr. Jennifer Winter of the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy is the lead researcher for the proposed Northern Corridor national transportation right-of-way. (Dr. Jennifer Winter/University of Calgary School of Public Policy)

She is also pleased with the Senate's endorsement and Garneau's comments at last week's meeting.

"And to us, that's a sign that the government isn't ignoring the potential benefits associated with the project," she said.

Winter says her team would need another five or six years to conduct more research, if fully funded.

She estimates another 40 individual studies are required and more areas of study might emerge.

Winter says the Northern Corridor is still in the concept stage and would take decades to build.

"We get a lot of emails from people indicating interest and essentially asking, 'Oh, when is this going to be built?' and I unfortunately have to answer, 'I have no idea. But we're working hard on progressing this idea so that we can put options in front of governments in Canada.'"

According to the 2016 study introducing the concept, the proposed 7,000-km corridor would cost an estimated $100 billion to establish.

However, Winter says it's possible that only certain sections of it will be built.

"It doesn't have to be the entire corridor to show benefits for Canada," she said. "We can build pieces and there would still be benefits."

She also says the route identified in maps is only hypothetical at this point.

"We don't know where it should go right now and we don't know where people want it to go in many cases," she said. "This is not the proposed corridor route because we don't have that information at this point. We put some lines on a map that are indicative of where it could go." 

According to Winter, the exact route would only be known after extensive consultation.