Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Environment Minister tries to clarify remark that Ottawa will ‘stop investing in new road infrastructure’

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Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault faces journalists as he arrives for a meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 14, 2024.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault spent Wednesday trying to explain and walk back comments he made this week suggesting he was against government support for new road infrastructure.

Mr. Guilbeault spoke to the issue in encounters with the media amid criticism from the conservative premiers of Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said in a posting on X that Mr. Guilbeault “won’t be happy until we’re living back in mud huts.”

“Guilbeault wants us all to walk everywhere. The Trudeau government gets more out of touch with reality every day,” Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said in a posting on X.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, who has been sharply critical of the minister over his positions on climate change as they apply to her province, also weighed in.

“Does this minister understand that most Canadians don’t live in downtown Montreal? Most of us can’t just head out the door in the snow and rain and just walk 10km to work each day,” Ms. Smith, the Leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party, wrote in an X posting, asking whether it was possible to return to the “real world.”

In British Columbia, NDP Premier David Eby said during a news conference on Wednesday that the federal environment minister’s comments on roads had caused him “some concern” about upgrades to a key highway in the province.

Mr.Eby said that while some things are taken out of context in politics, the results can be ” disheartening” for British Columbians.

“I just urge the prime minister to clarify this issue for us,” said Mr. Eby.

Mr. Guilbeault, arriving for Wednesday’s Liberal caucus meeting, said he should have been more specific in his remarks to a Monday conference on public transit in Montreal.

As quoted in The Montreal Gazette, Mr. Guilbeault said in a live feed from Ottawa that adding more roads and new lanes on existing roads has encouraged more car use, which means more congestion and more calls for road expansion.

“Our government has made the decision to stop investing in new road infrastructure. Of course we will continue to be there for cities, provinces and territories to maintain the existing network, but there will be no more envelopes from the federal government to enlarge the road network,” Mr. Guilbeault said.

“The analysis we have done is that the network is perfectly adequate to respond to the needs we have.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Guilbeault told journalists that the federal Liberal government is still funding roads.

He said he had been referring to large projects such as the Third Link in Quebec City, a controversial proposal to build a link for public transit only between Quebec City and the community of Lévis, across the St. Lawrence River from the Quebec capital.

The project was originally budgeted at $6.5-billion, but has been recast to serve public transit and not automobiles.

Later, the issue followed Mr. Guilbeault into another news conference on carbon pricing. Mr. Guilbeault was asked again about his remarks on roads.

He said that he had told the conference that funds were still available to maintain and enhance the road network across the country.

The remarks resonated in British Columbia, where Kevin Falcon, the Leader of the BC United official opposition, said in a posting on X that he was “incredibly alarmed” and urged Premier David Eby to lobby for an exemption from such a plan.

“It’s time for Premier Eby to step up and stand up to the federal government on this important issue for the future of our province,” Mr. Falcon wrote.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said that he was “gobsmacked” by the notion that a federal minister said the government won’t invest in new roads or highways.

“He doesn’t care that you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I do. We’re building roads and highways, with or without a cent from the feds,” the Progressive Conservative Premier wrote on X on Wednesday.

Mark Strahl, the federal Conservative shadow transport critic, called Mr. Guilbeault’s remarks “an extreme position from an extreme environment minister” in a news conference on Parliament Hill.

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