by Melissa Dunne, Telegraph-Journal

The government’s money would have been better spent on cutting $500 cheques for every New Brunswick taxpayer than on local highway projects, says a local economics professor.

“The transportation projects will cost about $500 per person – wow – so I am of the mind right now, why don’t we give everybody in New Brunswick $500?” said Jason Childs, a University of New Brunswick-Saint John economics professor.

“I think if you’re going to make a transfer to a region make a transfer to a region directly. If you think these people really need the money just give ’em the money – don’t stick us with this white elephant.”

The white elephant in this case is the $414 million federal-provincial agreement for six highway projects over the next decade. Childs says the projects on the national highway system are going to do very little to boost the province’s economy.

The construction agreement was first made under the previous Conservative provincial government for the province’s core highways, but now includes feeder highways. In Fredericton on Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Premier Shawn Graham each committed to investing $207 million for the construction projects.

Harper heralded the highway improvements, saying they “will smooth traffic flow, increase the efficient movement of good and people, and stimulate jobs and opportunities in the road construction sector.”

While economists agree the projects will stimulate job growth, Childs points out most of these jobs will be short-term construction jobs and when the construction is done the jobs will be gone.

David Plante, vice-president of the New Brunswick division for Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, agrees with Childs that the economic spin-off from the highway projects is going to be slim.

“While improving infrastructure is very good news it won’t have an impact on manufacturers and their exports to the U.S. in the near future,” said Plante.

“Right now we’re in crisis mode. In the long-term, the construction will help a bit.”

Both Plante and Childs argue that the highway projects will not help boost exports into the U.S. because the main reasons for the drop in exports is high gas prices and the high Canadian dollar, both of which are forecast to stay high for the near future.

Trevor Holder, the Conservative MLA for Saint John Portland, agrees that the road construction is not the silver bullet that will turn New Brunswick’s economy around:

“Look, we’re not building up roads and believing it’s going to solve everything,” said Holder.

“But we do need strategic infrastructure – it would be impossible to market Saint John and New Brunswick as an energy hub to the rest of Canada without these projects.”

Holder said he’s excited his region will benefit from three of the six construction projects and thinks Harper coming to town and talk of a second oil refinery are a signal that Saint John “is about to boom.”

And Charles Cirtwill, acting president at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, shares Holder’s enthusiasm, saying that the new highway projects demonstrate that New Brunswick’s future is looking up.

But Childs remains skeptical.

“Why does having bigger roads here mean we are going to ship more stuff?” he asks. “Forgive the expression, but back the truck up here. If it’s too expensive to ship it by truck, because of the high gas prices, you’re not going to whether the roads are good or not.”