Meeting our infrastructure needs

June 17, 2015   ·   0 Comments

A RECENT FRONT PAGE story in The Globe and Mail predicted that the federal government will soon announce a major infrastructure program as part of its plans to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.

Headed “Tories to roll out pre-election infrastructure spending spree,” the article said the Conservative government “is preparing an infrastructure spending spree in the run-up to the fall election, as federal and provincial sources confirm work is heating up to announce new projects under the New Building Canada Fund.”

The $14-billion program was first announced more than two years ago, but a Globe and Mail analysis revealed that only about $1.2-billion has thus far been rolled out.

“The breakdown shows that the vast majority of approved projects are in small communities in just two provinces, Manitoba and New Brunswick. The two sections of the fund dedicated to larger projects have barely been touched.”

The article said that is expected to change shortly. “The flurry of announcements will represent an attempt by the Conservative Party to bolster its image on the infrastructure file ahead of a campaign that is expected to focus heavily on issues such as traffic congestion and public transit.”

The Building Canada announcements of both large and small infrastructure projects will be in addition to many smaller ones expected to flow from a Canada 150 Community Infrastructure fund that Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently launched to pay for $150-million worth of projects across the country.

The $14-billion, 10-year Building Canada fund has three sections: $4-billion is set aside as a National Infrastructure Component that is meant to focus on projects of a national significance that have “broad public benefits.” The remaining $10-billion is called the Provincial-Territorial Infrastructure Component and it is broken down into two parts: $9-billion for “national and regional projects” and $1-billion for a small-communities fund that is limited to municipalities with fewer than 100,000 residents.

“They’re just having so much trouble getting the money out the door,” said Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who expressed frustration in an interview that a second construction season is at risk of being lost due to delays with the program. “Particularly at a time of economic downturn where we’d like to keep construction folks employed here in Alberta, it’s untenable and it’s taking way too long.”

The popular mayor said the looming election is likely creating a sense of urgency in Ottawa. “I think they’re realizing an election is coming and none of this money has flowed yet.”

As we see it, a vastly preferable way to go about funding infrastructure was that employed  in the creation of our Trans-Canada Highway and the U.S. Interstate highway system.

Both projects involved team work between the federal and provincial or state governments, with neither making the projects a major election issue. The federal grants were based on the ability of the provinces and states to share in the costs, with Newfoundland and some western States having to raise only a tiny portion of the costs.

Today, the Trans-Canada is a dual highway in most of the provinces, the three main exceptions being Ontario, British Columbia and Newfoundland.

As we see it, what Ottawa should be doing is calling a federal-provincial conference on infrastructure in general and the Trans-Canada in particular, with the aim being to see the length of the TCH “twinned” within 10 years and new federal/provincial highways in places like Labrador and the far north.

Granted, such an objective wouldn’t have all the lustre of Canada 150 projects, but would be far more important in terms of making Canadian products more competitive on the world markets.

As matters stand both the Building Canada and Canada 150 projects fairly reek of being little more than opportunities for Conservative MPs to hold ribbon-cutting ceremonies in their ridings.

Surely we could do better.

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