Highways and empires


For such a small province why does New Brunswick have so many superhighways? The prairie provinces, for the most part, only have the two-lane Trans-Canada. PEI doesn’t have much in the way of divided highways, either. I can’t imagine Newf having a lot. Nova Scotia has the four-lane connection from Halifax to the New Brunswick border. But New Brunswick, with its 750,000 population puts them all to shame.

By the end of this year there’ll be a new US-Canada border crossing in St. Stephen. In five year’s time—we’re told by the government—the highway between our new border crossing and Saint John will be four-laned. Sure, it’s going to be safer, I guess. But is it really worth the investment?

That depends. Canadians always seem to be making overtures to the Americans. We’re always the first to build inviting roads to their borders, I assume to carry our goods to their markets. But if that were really the case, why wouldn’t we be building more railroads? After all, shipping by rail is about 7 times more economical than highway trucking. So maybe I’m missing something.

One of the things that’s hard to miss is the fact that a lot of the money for New Brunswick’s new highway construction comes from the federal government. It’s probably a lot easier to get “infrastructure” money from the feds than it is, say, to get more money for healthcare or welfare or assistance for seniors. So instead of improving our social services for the less financially endowed, we get more highways. This, of course, doesn’t hurt the local Irving oil refineries, although I hardly thing they need the extra business.

Meanwhile, back here in the St. Stephen area, the Baileyville mill has shut down across the river. And with that shutdown comes the shutdown of our local railway spur line, which reportedly received about a half a million dollars from the Domtar mill in Baileyville. So, no mill, no half million, no rail service.

I find this more than a little disconcerting, given the fact that the planet will be running out of fossil fuels sometime around the middle of this century. Why on earth would we be investing in a mode of transportation—the highway system—that’s 700% less fuel-efficient than an older technology—rail?

The only reason I can conjure up is that the province wants more tourism. Maybe, we think, if we have the best highway system we’ll get a lot more tourists. And if that’s really the reason, I think we’re completely cracked. Why? First, tourists don’t come for the highways. They come for the attractions—like culture, beautiful scenery and exciting things to do. They have highways at home. Second, superhighways homogenize the tourism experience. Once a tourist is on a big highway, it takes a lot to get them to turn off the highway. So they keep going until the highway ends—in places like PEI, where they can visit Anne of Green Gables.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that the province’s highway building is a good thing. So, if the plan is to have a four-lane divided highway running all the way from the New Brunswick–Nova Scotia border all the way to St. Stephen and the US border, where is all that traffic going to end up? Well, once in the States, the traffic will end up back on the dangerous little Route 9 “Airline” heading 2 hours through the backwoods to Bangor, where it can finally hook up to the I-95 headed south.

The only decent proposal that we’ve heard over the past couple of years was the plan to build a toll highway east–west across Maine to shortcut traffic from St. Stephen to Montreal, cutting a couple of hours off the northern route up through Edmundston.

Empires like the US run on the quality of their roads. The Roman Empire was successful, in no small part, due to the engineering and build-quality of its roads—linking the empire east to west and north to south. But empires can overextend themselves, too.

Spain, the longest running empire of the last millennium, had more wealth from its gold and silver mines than any other country in the world. According to Ronald Wright in “What is America”, Spain’s American mines produced nearly three-quarters of the world’s gold and even more of its silver. Its wealth came so easily that it was just as easily squandered on mindless religious wars against not one—but almost all of its neighbours. By the end of its three-hundred-year reign as world superpower it was one of the poorest countries in Christendom. Meanwhile, Britain, with less access to material wealth, had become the workshop of the world.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Today China is the world’s workshop, while the US has exhausted most of its domestic oil, is fighting on two fronts, and seems to be angling to fight on two more in Iran and Pakistan. The recent financial crisis should be a dire warning about America’s future, should it continue its breakneck spending. And it’s to that future we’re building our new four-lane roads.

So what of the future of St. Stephen—and the other nearby towns—after the new border crossing opens, and especially after the four-lane links the border to Saint John? Well, the smart money in St. Stephen will cluster around the first on ramp near the high school. It wouldn’t be hard to picture a Super 8 motel or Best Western out there, along with a Burger King and McDonald’s, and a big Irving Blue Canoe. That kind of shift of commercial energy will definitely pull the town’s focus permanently away from the downtown. That’s just the way it is with freeways, cars and parking lots. Downtowns need people, not cars.

As for St. Andrews, St. George and the other off-highway towns, life will go on much as always. Curious visitors will stop in; most will drive by. Saint John will kick up its highway marketing a notch, to encourage traffic to pull in there, first.

So it’ll be more of same—for the short term. But longer term, the US is going to hit the end-of-oil wall, not to mention the ultimate end-of-empire economic wall. When that happens, our highway could just be a final escape route for a lot of US refugees. Though by that time most of us won’t be around to see it.


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