31 December 2007

The ghost of Ned Morris

There's something about the provincial government's grandiose plan to extend broadband Internet access to every nook and cranny of the island - Labrador will get it if there's federal funding to cover the cost - that sounds unsettlingly familiar.trevor_taylor

The whole thing is being spear-headed publicly by industry minister Trevor Taylor.

The project is not based on private sector investment.

The public will foot the bill.

Nor is it based on a sound strategic plan; there is no plan.

Since the idea was first floated that taxpayers should underwrite the private sector, government officials have struggled to figure out how to make the whole thing work. They've also struggled to hide what has been going on, but that is another sad part of the tale.

Their latest iteration of the idea is to have the provincial government continue to underwrite an expanded project. The costs are, essentially, unknown. What was originally a five million dollar investment quickly mushroomed to a total of $20 million and now will cost a figure the provincial government has yet to release.

Might it be the total to date but on an annual basis? Might it be higher? There's good reason to believe that the costs, like the supposed benefits are too phantasmagorical to even begin to contemplate them.

nat0016All of this sounds oddly like the railway of a century ago. Specifically, the so-called government broadband initiative looks like Ned Morris' branch lines.

In 1909 the People's Party of Sir Edward Morris was elected, having promised a program of branch line construction. The new branches, although popular in the older areas of settlement which they were to serve, did not open new areas or encourage new industries of note. The first new branch was an 88-mile line to Bonavista, which opened November 1911. The longest, at 104 miles, the Trepassey branch was constructed 1911-13, providing a rail connection to St. John's from the Southern Shore. Along the south side of Trinity Bay, the Heart's Content branch (42 miles, but incorporating parts of the original Harbour Grace line) was completed in 1915. Finally, the Carbonear branch was extended by a 48-mile line to Grates Cove-Bay de Verde in 1915. This extension was closed in 1930, however, the branch continued to operate to Carbonear until 1983.

With the onset of the Great War, the branch line program was halted before the last two lines were complete. The Fortune Bay line, intended to be a 57-mile link to the coastal steamer at Terrenceville, was abandoned in 1915, although 43 miles had been railed. The Bonne Bay branch, projected to run 35 miles north from Deer Lake, was abandoned with the line partly graded.

The new branches proved expensive to operate, carrying only passengers and occasional freight. After the government took over the railway in 1923 an effort was made to serve the less-travelled lines using trolley-like "day coaches" on the Bay de Verde, Trepassey and Heart's Content lines. The Bay de Verde and Trepassey lines were closed in winter, and in 1931 were closed altogether. As Heart's Content was a winter port for the A.N.D. Company that line continued sporadically until 1938. The Bonavista branch remained in operation through the summer of 1983.

Politically-motivated project, lacking a sound economic basis for which the public ultimately pays.

Yes, it sounds suspiciously familiar, but unlike the railway, the public costs of the fibreoptic deal have yet to be calculated, let alone seen by the people who are footing the bill.

Update: This CBC story does two things. First it makes plain that any fibreoptic project for labrador will likely have to be funded by the federal government, at least according to common provincial government thinking. After all, the project will cost an estimated $80 million.

Second, the figures for the current fibreoptic project were wrong at the time the story was printed and are even more wrong now. $52 million, as the story quotes was light by about $30 million based on the estimate given by the project proponents when the idea burst into public view in a calculated bit of spin-meistering.

Yes, that's $82 million, of which $20 million was provincial and another $5 million came from Uncle Ottawa. [You can find the links back to that bit of math in the original post.]

The fribreoptic project for Labrador will basically become like the Trans-Labrador highway: something the provincial government promises repeatedly - and in writing more than a few times - yet fails to deliver.

The only thing more predictable than flip flops on the finance minister is the treatment of Labradorians by the provincial government.

After all, if the Premier is still all fired up about a broken promise made by the current Prime Minister to this province, how should Labradorians feel about what his administration has been doing since 2003?

Perhaps they are already wishing for Carol Kane to pay a visit to a few cabinet ministers next Christmas Eve. [Hint: read the sign.]