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Les Leyne column: Same old new transportation strategy

"Premier unveils new transportation strategy to expand trade and create jobs," ran the headline on Premier Christy Clark's Monday news release.

"Premier unveils new transportation strategy to expand trade and create jobs," ran the headline on Premier Christy Clark's Monday news release.

Excuse me? The what transportation strategy?

Clark has spent a year separating herself from every aspect of the Gordon Campbell era. But there's one element of the former premier's master plan she hasn't renounced. In fact, she's made it her own.

It's the great Pacific Gateway strategy, the never-ending build-out of transportation infrastructure.

There's a lot of 21st-century geopolitical gloss that's been painted on over the years, but it's basically a return to good old blacktop politics days of the 1960s and 1970s. People like new roads and bridges then and they like them now. It's the highest-visibility way to spend tax money and it's something the Liberal government has embraced for years.

So there's nothing new about the strategy. It was striking how Clark rediscovered all the Gateway rhetoric soon after becoming premier and made it her own. There was the stress on the booming Chinese economy. There was the time-honoured geography lesson about the port of Prince Rupert being closer to Asia than any other. There was even the emphasis on the blindingly obvious fact that "B.C. is Canada's westernmost province."

What is new is the amount of money Clark's government appears ready to promise for this concept.

The Gateway strategy is a perfectly valid economic plan. The idea is to upgrade everything that has anything do with shipping goods to Asia. The scope has been widened over the years so that it includes east-west and north-south highway improvements all over B.C., special emphasis on moving goods around metro Vancouver, longer runways at key airports and more port capacity.

The running tally to date is $22 billion since 2005, a mix of public and private funds. That's how much has been committed. They're still working on spending about half of that.

Clark's enthusiasm for the idea knows no bounds. She made that clear on Monday when she more than doubled the price tag. The Clark version of Gateway would add $25 billion to the $22 billion already committed. The stated promise is 17,000 new jobs by 2020.

When government and private companies get to the point of committing $47 billion on one idea - selling to the Pacific Rim - it's time to pause and take stock.

But when you take stock of Gateway Two: The Sequel, you realize there's not much to assess in the way of identifiable projects. It's like a list of movie titles from Dreamworks Studios that haven't actually been written.

The budget delivered in February contains scarcely any mention of any Gateway expansion - just $186 million in spending over the next three years.

The budget says the total cost of all planned transportation initiatives in the next three years comes to $4.5 billion, including the Port Mann Bridge and highway job.

The difference is that the original Gateway plan was mostly for infrastructure spending to support investments. The new Clark version counts the investments themselves.

The outline of what comprises the $25 billion is a mix of private and public projects, with $18 billion identified with the liquefied natural gas proposals. But those parts and several others have already been previously announced.

The one new commitment within the supposedly new $25-billion planned investment is $700 million over the next five years to increase highway capacity. But there are no details on those projects. The ministry said the specific projects will be announced in coming weeks.

(Gateway as a concept doesn't extend to Vancouver Island. Here, residents will have to count $8 million worth of Malahat improvements and $7.5 million for an E&N study - if the feds match it - as their share.)

No doubt they'll be doled out for maximum local effect. But there's one thing that should temper the rejoicing when the premier shows up to announce Highway X is being widened, or Runway Y is being lengthened.

There's the small matter of a provincial election to get through before any of this comes to pass.

As of Monday, the Liberals are now tied with the Conservatives, 20 points behind the NDP in the latest poll.

Announcing grand multibillion-dollar plans at this point in the game is one thing.

Being around later on to execute them is another.

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