FEDERAL COMMITMENT JUST THE FIX FOR CRUMBLING INFRASTRUCTURE

The announcement last week by federal infrastructure minister Denis Lebel that the federal government was kick-starting a process to develop a new long term strategy for public infrastructure investments was quickly dismissed by critics as smoke and mirrors.

With the President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities at his side, the minister announced a three-step, year-long plan designed to take stock of the situation and align federal, provincial and municipal infrastructure efforts into a common strategy by 2014 when the current suite of federal programs expires.

But with Canada’s infrastructure deficit topping the $ 100 billion mark  and compounding daily, many had hoped that the federal government would announce something more definitive than studies and intergovernmental consultations.

It would be tempting to dismiss this as just  an example of Ottawa fiddling while our cities crumble. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a
government announced studies and consultations as a way to try and make an issue go away.

This time however, that would be wrong. In fact, last week’s announcement — if followed through – could just be the fix for Canada’s crumbling infrastructure and broken funding system.

Let’s look at the reasons why.

First, no amount of federal foot-dragging or magical thinking is going to make this particular issue go away.

By the time the current programs run their course in a couple of years, Ottawa will have been in the infrastructure funding business for two decades and will have invested over $ 30 billion while leveraging billions more from provincial and municipal governments.

Yet, not only do the problems that spurred the creation of the first infrastructure program in 1993 remain, but they’ve gotten worse with, as the collapse of a Laval overpass a few years ago reminds us, potentially deadly consequences.

In the early1980s, at the start of the cities’ campaign to get federal help for their crumbling infrastructure, the gap stood at about $ 12 billion, by 2007 studies showed the so-called infrastructure deficit had broken through the $100 billion mark. And that’s just for municipal infrastructure.

Add to that the bill for federal and provincial roads, bridges and other assorted structures and it’s easy to understand why no one level of government has claimed ownership of the problem or the solution.

Second, an overhaul of the existing programs is urgently needed.  The current system of short term, ad-hoc programs favours spending on new infrastructure more than repair, and because the focus is often on getting shovels in the ground quickly, it also tends to favour spending on second and even third tier priorities.

The minister’s commitment to taking stock of what worked and what didn’t with the old programs should lead to a basic re-think of how Ottawa delivers infrastructure funding.

Third, mayors and councillors have rightly been pushing for this kind of long term thinking from Ottawa for the last ten years and, without any new funding programs in the pipeline to act as sweeteners it’s not likely they will let the government off the hook without something tangible to bring home.

Fourth, it is in the provinces’ interest to accept the minister’s invitation and come to the table and have a say on how federal infrastructure largesse will be doled out, first to try and secure the largest possible share of federal dollars for provincial infrastructure, and second, in order to finally have a say in what the programs will look like.

Finally, the growing pressure on the Harper government to deal with a number of major infrastructure challenges – the replacement of the Champlain Bridge comes to mind– gives the minister and the government a powerful incentive to try and spread the fiscal and political burden for Canada’s infrastructure building and repair more evenly across all jurisdictions. This should be a major incentive for real progress.

But what of FCM President Berry Vrbanovic’s comment that last week’s announcement amounted to “a promise to put aside band aid solutions and find the cure for the infrastructure deficit once and for all”?  Wishful thinking on his part?

I’m not sure that the infrastructure minister  would  echo those words exactly–we all remember Paul Martin’s promise to fix health care “for a generation”.  But his commitment to engage all levels of government in a collective re-think of how we finance our roads, bridges and water works, is pragmatic, gutsy and long-overdue.  And it may just work.

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