OTTAWA — Despite significant and sustained investments since the turn of the century, Canada is still being challenged with new demands for “world-class” public infrastructure to sustain its economic growth.
The Harper government has announced a renewed long-term infrastructure plan over 10 years worth about $50 billion, but must now sort out details and agreements with provinces and cities for the money to flow into in a variety of projects including roads, bridges, water systems and public transit.
As Parliament resumes this fall, the cities are looking for some signs of progress to respond to a range of housing and infrastructure needs.
What needs to be fixed?
Cities say they are facing increasing demands and waiting lists for affordable housing infrastructure, and have also been calling for investments to make public infrastructure more resistant to climate change and extreme weather events such as recent flooding last summer in southern Alberta.
A lingering infrastructure deficit, and estimates by cities that they need more than $123 billion to bring existing systems up to acceptable levels — on top of an estimated $100 billion needed to meet growing demands — will be at the heart of the programs and agreements needed to address the challenges.
“While there is no consensus on the infrastructure deficit amount, all studies point to significant demands for investment in rehabilitation and maintenance,” say internal federal records, prepared for the infrastructure minister following the 2011 election and released through access-to-information legislation. “At the same time there is a need to plan for new world-class infrastructure to support changing economic and environmental conditions. While it is clear that there is a need for funding, as governments enter a period of fiscal restraint, balancing these needs will be particularly challenging.”
What is the federal government’s plan?
Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty were able to deliver a new infrastructure plan in the 2013 budget, pledging $47 billion in new funding over the next decade, including $22 billion in a special gas-tax revenue-sharing fund that would provide predictable long-term funding for cities to invest in infrastructure.
Lebel’s office said the government wanted the new gas-tax fund to offer more flexibility for cities on a range of different projects than the previous program, which was limited to environmentally sustainable infrastructure.
Lebel’s spokeswoman, Michele-Jamali Paquette, said the government also hoped to negotiate and sign agreements with the provinces and territories on infrastructure funding by next year to ensure a “seamless transition to the new funding” as part of what she described as the largest long-term federal commitment to infrastructure in Canada’s history.
Is this part of an economic plan?
Infrastructure Canada has estimated that the average Canadian household is spending about $10,000 per year on transportation, more than it spends on food. Transport Canada also estimated in a 2006 report that traffic congestion in large Canadian cities was costing the economy $2.3 billion to $3.7 billion per year in 2002 dollars.
“I think the challenge is to put together something that will bring all the governments on the same page so that the provinces and the federal government and the municipalities are working in the same direction in a consistent long-term funding and planning framework,” said Michael Roschlau, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Association, which represents public transportation agencies across the country.
Lebel’s office estimated that the federal government has invested more than $7 billion in public transportation programs across the country since 2006 through a suite of programs, including the gas-tax fund.
How old is our public infrastructure?
Lebel’s briefing notes from 2011 said that Canada’s infrastructure was slowly being renewed, with the average age of public infrastructure dropping to 15.7 years in 2009, down from a peak of 17.2 years in 2000. However, the average age still remains above the average of 14.1 years reached in the mid-1960s.
Have cities made any specific demands related to the throne speech?
Claude Dauphin, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said cities were looking for the federal government to set an agenda in its throne speech that puts the bread-and-butter needs of Canadians front and centre.
“Nothing is putting more pressure on household budgets than the high costs of housing and transportation, and Canadians need to know their federal government is doing what it can to fight traffic gridlock, fix aging roads, and make our country‘s housing system work better for consumers,” said Dauphin, who is also the mayor of the Montreal borough of Lachine.
The cities are also hoping to see some new commitments from the federal government on rail safety, in light of recent tragedies such as the Lac-Megantic runaway train disaster, to allow them to get more information about dangerous goods running through their neighbourhoods.
A recent report by the federation on the state of cities and communities calls on all levels of government to work together on issues such as climate change adaptation that relate to all of their collective responsibilities and jurisdictions in dealing with “severe” impacts that are representing a “growing burden” to taxpayers.