Public Investments: The Case of the Trans-Canada Highway

The view on public investments and country growth have changed. The notion of environmental sustainability was barely on the radar when the National Film Board of Canada made a documentary about the building of the Trans-Canada Highway almost 60 years ago (embedded below).
Growth was the primary rationale for building a little over 8,000 kilometers of highway in the 1950s. What is interesting to public investment planners of today is the lack of foresight about economic changes. For example:

  • Fisheries in Newfoundland, coal mining on Cape Breton Island, and nickel mining in Sudbury (complete with burning slag heaps) have been on a significant decline
  • In addition to the environmental issues with mining, atomic energy and dams are highlighted
  • Montreal is the largest city in Canada, and financial capital in 1958 – it’s now Toronto
  • Population growth and urbanization  means that 2 lane highways are unable to handle traffic flow in even smaller cities

Trans Canada Summer, Ronald Dick, Jack Olsen & Jean Palardy, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Were these economic changes unthinkable in the 1950s? We need to ask ourselves whether the state-of-the-art of public investment scenario planning is sufficient. Many governments plan without considering the Sustainable Development Goals. Some government focus entirely on economic growth leading to a public policy gap.

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