Posts Tagged ‘infrastructure’


Sunday, March 16th, 2014

When the FCM big city mayors caucus met in Ottawa recently, their call for more federal spending on affordable housing and infrastructure got second billing to Rob Ford joining his colleagues for the first time since his election three years ago.

Ottawa Citizen City Hall columnist Joanne Chianello wrote that it was not surprising that the mayors’ demands were overshadowed in the media by the Rob Ford sideshow since “there has never been an FCM meeting that didn’t end in cities’ calling for more infrastructure money from the federal government.”

Normally I wouldn’t quibble with a columnist taking some liberties with the historical record to make a rhetorical point – particularly since it has been true for the last few years — but in this case it obscured the real story from the mayors’ meeting.

To get at it, we have to step back a decade to the early days of the cities’ push for a new deal from the federal government.

Back then, FCM news releases typically ended with references about a new deal for cities having to be “about more than money” and the need for a municipal “seat at the table”.

For the mayors, getting that seat at the table was at least as important as increased federal funding for infrastructure or housing. They wanted to stop being cast in the role of supplicants of federal largesse.

With a federal government and Prime Minister–Paul Martin–ostensibly looking for “transformative change”, they argued that above all, a new deal had to be about a new political relationship that recognized the growing importance of cities in Canada’s political, social and economic landscape.

And ending their cities’ status as the poor relations of the Canadian federation was behind the mayors’ call for the so-called gas tax transfer, which would become the centrepiece of the new deal.

Of course the gas tax transfer was about money – a lot of it. But for the mayors it was also a new institutional arrangement that would recognize and formalize a federal interest in cities that went well beyond the limits imposed by our 19th century constitution.

The real story from the recent Ottawa meeting of the big city mayors is not so much the antics of the Toronto mayor or whether he was a distraction. It’s that we may be witnessing a return to the “mayors-as-supplicants” model of municipal-federal relations. And that’s bad news for cities.

Of course the mayors don’t see themselves on bended knee when they come to Ottawa.  But when you frame the cities’ agenda as being about federal money, you’re playing Ottawa’s game, and in this game, the federal government is top dog.

Settling for the status quo carries with it two serious problems for Canada’s cities: first it means reducing the federal role and interest in cities to investments in infrastructure and puts the multitude of cross-jurisdictional issues that play out in cities on the back burner; two it suggest that Canada’s mayors accept a return to a 19th century vision of federalism that belies Canada’s urban present and future.

The greatest political gains made by municipal governments over the last decade came as a result of a thoughtful, passionate and effective cities’ campaign and narrative focused on the central role of cities in an evolving Canada.

It all went south with the 2008 recession and the promise of mucho federal infrastructure cash.

The last five years saw the largest federal infrastructure investments ever in Canada’s cities.  That’s the good news. The bad news is that on the national scene, the political clout of Canada’s big city mayors is probably the lowest it’s been in over a decade.

The mayors cannot be blamed for embracing the opportunity to get the lion’s share of  stimulus spending.  But focusing 24/7 on infrastructure (and continuing to do so now) served to narrowcast the political relationship and move the discussion away from the core issue the mayors had been pushing for years: fixing an outdated institutional system.

With a federal election a little more that a year away, the mayors are likely starting to think of how to best jockey for position in the run-up.  If their last meeting is any indication, for Canada’s big city mayors, the future will continue to be painted the colour of money.



Sunday, December 8th, 2013

Faced with a back-end loaded Building Canada infrastructure program that will see significant funding available to municipalities only in the program’s twilight years, more and more local governments are looking at how to best position themselves in what promises to be a highly competitive environment.

For some—mostly larger and mid-sized municipalities—this means turning to their intergovernmental affairs (IGA) departments for answers. But ironically, it may be the smaller municipalities–for which the IGA department is the mayor and council–that may be best positioned.

Let’s look at why.

Canada’s Constitution makes intergovernmental relations in the municipal context more complex than those at the interprovincial or federal-provincial level.

While the federal and provincial/territorial orders of government enjoy – legally, if not politically — relative equality and operate within well-established institutional arrangements that facilitate and even require formal relations, municipalities’ subsidiary status often forces them to create political and administrative space for their agendas to be considered.

In this context, classic models of intergovernmental relations that rely on formal channels and methods of communications are not well adapted to effective (as measured by the ability to influence positive outcomes) municipal intergovernmental relations. This is particularly true when it comes to municipal relations with the federal government.

Because of the political and administrative firewalls created by our Constitution, municipal relations with Ottawa tend to be more idiosyncratic and follow less formal patterns and approaches to institutional communications than do relations between the federal government and provincial/territorial governments.

The absence of formal institutional linkages between cities and the federal government mean that favourable outcomes, on the whole, tend to be driven by political, more than policy considerations.  Effective municipal intergovernmental relations therefore tend to have more in common with traditional advocacy than traditional intergovernmental relations.

Being successful in this environment require strategic and tactical flexibility—the ability to turn on a dime to seize opportunities—as well as the capacity to build networks, partnerships and alliances and to identify opportunities and seize them. And this is true whether you’re a municipality looking at supporting the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ (FCM) push for better housing policies, or one hoping to get to the front of the funding queue for a major infrastructure project. This is why– even though they may not have the staff horsepower of larger cities–smaller municipalities may have an advantage, provided they are poised to act on it.

This has practical implications for the structure and operations of every municipal intergovernmental function, be it formal or not. It means shedding many of the trappings of formal intergovernmental relations and embracing a more dynamic approach built on sound, timely intelligence and analysis, and the capacity to mobilize networks quickly and efficiently.

For larger municipalities with formal IGA functions it will mean assessing how well roles, responsibilities and decision-making within their IGA team align with a core advocacy function built to be nimble and responsive. It will mean assessing how well equipped they are to tell their core story in a compelling and timely way to all of their key networks—government, media, potential allies—and to using this narrative to create room for favourable political action.

In the campaign for scarce federal infrastructure dollars, the ability to engage a network, mobilize a community, and tell a compelling story in a timely fashion will matter more than the number of official meetings one has been able to secure.


Monday, June 3rd, 2013

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”

Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz

Federal politicians attending the meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) in Vancouver last weekend might be forgiven for feeling a little like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

For years the FCM conference had been the place where prime ministers and wannabe prime ministers came to lavish mayors and their cities, towns and villages with promises of federal programs and federal dollars.

It was also the place for the heaping of praise and gratitude on prime and other ministers for delivering on said promises.

On rare occasions, like Paul Martin’s 2002 New Deal speech, some of them spoke of fixing a broken system that was keeping Canadian cities at the back of the global pack. But the expectation seemed to be that the really good applause line would always be about the money.

Political handlers and speechwriters in Ottawa must have been scrambling when they received advance copies last week of an FCM report that emphatically states that it’s really not about the money.

In fact, the FCM report, titled The State of Canada’s Cities and Communities 2013suggests that Ottawa’s chequebook fixation is really what’s wrong with the system.

The report says that until the federal government owns up to this and starts measuring success not by how many dollars it spends but by how many problems it fixes, Canada’s cities—and by extension the country–will continue to struggle.

Coming from an organization and a sector that over the last decade has arguably been the most successful in advocating for more federal spending this can seem a little odd if not downright ungrateful.

It’s actually gutsy, smart and important.  Let’s look at why.

It’s important because FCM’s report forces us to look behind the curtain and take the full measure of the Great Oz that is how Ottawa decides.

While the report pulls its punches somewhat and avoids detailed critiques of federal programs aimed at cities, it does paint a picture of a system built around short-term considerations and lubricated by political expediency.

And this should matter to all Canadians, particularly those who care how their tax dollars are spent.

It’s also smart.

FCM is careful—and rightly so–not to point fingers at any one government or political party.

At the root of the problem is not pandemic venality but a 21st century political relationship governed by a 19th century Constitution.

Under our Constitution, the federal government has no direct role vis-à-vis local governments, but this has not kept it from using its spending power to intervene in municipal affairs, particularly in the area of infrastructure funding.

It’s not surprising. After all investing in roads, bridges, wastewater systems and even bocce courts gives even the most fiscally conservative MP something tangible to write about in their householder.

It’s great to talk about trade deals and fighter jets and tough on crime policies, but when you want to explain to your constituents what it is exactly you do for them, it’s nice to be able to point to something with three dimensions from time to time.

Let’s not kid ourselves, therein lies the political appeal of the federal-municipal relationship.

But while the announcement of a 10-year funding program in the last federal budget will keep MPs well stocked with ribbons to cut and signs to post for at least two election cycles, it would put FCM’s advocacy caravan on blocks for a decade. Unless, that is, FCM opened another front in the federal-municipal relationship—which its report does.

But most of all, the report is gutsy.

It would have been easy for FCM to sugar coat its analysis to spare federal sensitivities. There will no doubt be some gnashing of teeth in more than a few federal offices,  but the gentler, kinder version federal officials would have preferred would  also have missed the mark.

The report names the problem: An outdated system that gives governments cover for short-term, politically motivated policies and inaction in the face of growing cross-jurisdictional policy challenges

Worse, the report says the current system helps create the illusion of action through the proliferation of boutique federal programs that provide visibility but little in the form of accountability.

So what’s the answer?

Rightly, FCM rejects any talk of opening up the constitution. It tried that in the early 90’s and it was a dead end.

Instead, it calls for a clear federal policy and accountability framework to govern federal programs in this area.

In practical terms, it would mean that federal policies would come with a clear expression of the federal interest, measurable outcomes and an incentive to design programs that actually do what they’re supposed to do.

It sounds simple, but achieving it won’t be.

Judging by the speeches delivered by federal politicians at the FCM conference, it will take time for them to digest what the cities’ new agenda means for them and their respective narratives.

FCM invited us to peek behind the curtain. It’s challenge is now keeping it open.


Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

This article first appeared in iPolitics under the title, “Infrastructure Minister has opportunity to strengthen federal-municipal relation.”

This Friday, as mayors and councilors from across Canada gather in Saskatoon for the opening of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ (FCM) annual conference, some in attendance may note that it marks the 10th anniversary of Paul Martin’s New Deal for cities speech to the same conference, held that year in Hamilton. But it’s not likely.

While not quite up there with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or other oratory landmarks of the 20th century, Martin’s 2002 cities speech did more than get him fired from the Chrétien cabinet. It inspired hope among municipal politicians and urban advocates that Canada’s cities would finally be on the national agenda. Many even suggested that it ushered in a new era of federal-municipal partnership.

Yet, like much of Martin’s ambitious agenda, the New Deal for cities failed to live up to expectations.

Today, with the Harper government working on a new long-term infrastructure program to replace those set to expire—along with other federal transfers—in March 2014, it’s appropriate to ask what lessons the failure of Martin’s vision has for the current government.

To be fair to Paul Martin’s legacy, it is important to note that the New Deal delivered the gas tax transfer, which today pumps two billion dollars a year into city coffers for much-needed infrastructure repairs. But it took a Conservative government to make it permanent.

When it was introduced in 2005, it was as a five-year program, which did little to address the need for funding certainty required for long-term capital investments and planning. Its relatively short-term  nature reflected a high-degree of skittishness on the part of federal finance (and other) officials at the prospect of longer term transfers.

In hindsight, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that there was more sizzle than steak to the New Deal. Any significant federal overture to municipalities along the lines hinted at in his speech was likely to raise the hackles of provincial governments and be largely unworkable, both politically and  constitutionally.

His speech, 10 years later, is rife with generalities. Martin was cautious, refusing to get into specific commitments, unwilling to go all in and truly  embrace—to use one of his favourite words—a transformative relationship with municipal governments and risk being called offside—not by his boss but by provincial premiers.

Yet in its day, the speech resonated because it was the first time in many years that a senior federal politician—one who aspired to the top job, no less—reached out to city governments with so much passion and apparent understanding of the issues they faced.

But if he succeeded in seducing his audience with his vision of a new relationship, Paul Martin failed to consummate it. In part, this was because his tenure was cut short by the election of the Harper government in January 2006. More importantly, it was because there was no meaningful policy framework to support it.

And this brings us back to Friday in Saskatoon. This year, it’s federal infrastructure minister Denis Lebel who will deliver the keynote address to the municipal delegates. And while it’s a safe bet it won’t get him fired, his speech will be as important for Canada’s cities as Paul Martin’s.

Lebel is about one third of the way through a process he announced last November to put in place a long-term plan for infrastructure spending in this country. And while a long-term infrastructure deal lacks the excitement of a New Deal, it will likely set the terms and conditions for the federal-municipal
relationship for the next decade and beyond.

With Canada’s cities struggling under the weight of a $120-billion infrastructure deficit, and the expiry of a number of critical federal transfers to cities, including the flagship Building Canada Fund set for March 2014, municipal delegates will hanging on his every word looking for reassurances.

The minister should avoid Paul Martin’s mistakes and the urge to speak in generalities about “the vision thing”.  He should use his remarks to spell out in
detail how the rest of his process will unfold and, most importantly, its policy objective, which should be very simple: eliminating the infrastructure deficit for good–because that has to be the bottom line.

Anything short of a clear commitment to fixing the problem once and for all, will perpetuate the creation of programs that fail to get at the root causes of accelerating infrastructure decay in this country.

The major constant in a 10-year backdrop of shifting federal attitudes toward municipalities has been that policies in this area have largely been dictated by the political circumstances of the day and not on the basis of clear policy considerations and objectives.

The minister now has an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past and break that cycle. As political oratory it won’t pack the same wallop as Paul Martin’s speech, but the outcome could be as transformative as the promise of the New Deal was bold.


Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

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.


Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi used a tour of eastern Canada originally designed to sell his city as a business destination last week to push his second favourite subject: all that ails Canada’s cities.

The mayor used multiple speaking engagements and media interviews to hammer away at the urgency of fixing the growing imbalance between cities’ responsibilities and their capacity to pay.

He said Canada’s cities needed new sources of stable and predictable funding because their principal fiscal tool—the property tax—is outdated and not up to the task.  And he warned of dire consequences for cities and for the country if that fiscal imbalance is not addressed quickly.

This is not a new hobby horse for Nenshi. In fact this is hardly news at all. He’s been talking about mending Canada’s fraying urban fabric since his election last fall.  And Canada’s other big city mayors have been making exactly the same arguments for years, also calling for stable and predictable funding from Ottawa.

They even had some success. Remember the New Deal for Cities?  Paul Martin’s lofty 2002 pledge of a new relationship with Canada’s cities got him fired from his job as minister of Finance.

More to the point, a few years later, that pledge netted cities the gas tax transfer, which now pumps $ 2 billion per year in city coffers across the country for infrastructure improvements.

Not surprisingly, the gas tax transfer has been immensely popular with mayors and councillors in communities of all sizes.  So popular in fact, that the Harper government last year announced it would become a permanent fixture of fiscal federalism—a kind of equalization program for roads and bridges.

Talk about stable. And you can’t get much more predictable than that. So where’s the problem?

Well, it’s not the one that most of the media outlets who interviewed the Calgary mayor last week led with. 

It’sreally not about cities needing more money to fix their crumbling infrastructure; or about modernizing a municipal fiscal regime better suited to a 19th century agrarian society than one in the throes of global competition; or about needing more federal dollars for affordable housing and transit.

Those are the symptoms.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, the real problem is that it’s déjà vu all over again.

For anyone who followed the New Deal debate six or seven years ago, reading or watching an interview with mayor Nenshi today is like stepping into a time capsule.  His talking points are virtually the same as those used by former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray and former Toronto mayor David Miller, and countless other municipal politicians before and after.

Back then they resonated and gained traction not only in the media, but with civil society and business groups and even within the federal government–now, not so much.

Six years after the gas tax transfer, and four years after the largest infrastructure program in the history of this country municipal pleas for more federal spending are starting to sound hollow.

There’s a sense in many quarters that when it comes to cities the feds already gave at the office and it’s time to move on.

Yet, mayor Nenshi is right–just as his former colleagues were right a decade ago.  Canada’s cities are struggling when they should be achieving. And with 80 percent of Canadians living in urban areas, if our cities struggle our country struggles.

But the real solutions to the problems faced by Canada’s cities are found in provincial capitals not on Parliament Hill.  Only provinces can fix broken and “outdated” municipal finance systems. Only provinces can change the planning regimes that undermine sustainability.

The fundamental problem has never been about money–at least not federal money.  It has always been about provincial politics and power and recognition, and that’s been a tough nut to crack.

Municipal politicians regularly get admonished by provincial governments that their local administrations are creatures of the province. Which is like saying “I put you here, I can take you out”.

But like it or not, they’re right. That’s the constitutional hand our founding fathers dealt us.

And the mayors are also right in pointing out that the government of Canada has a vested interest–if not a constitutional responsibility–in seeing our cities prosper.

So, how do they break the logjam and work toward lasting fixes?

First, they have to stop focusing only on federal spending (particularly in the current fiscal context). Federal infrastructure spending runs the risk of becoming less of a New Deal and more of a kind of permanent Marshal Plan for cities, and it’s not working. As mayor Nenshi pointed out, billions in federal investments have not fixed the problem.

Second, they need to change their song sheet and strategy. What cities need most from Ottawa now is leadership.

Canada’s mayors need to come together and push for a national vision of urban Canada. And while Ottawa can’t impose its blueprint in an area of provincial jurisdiction, it can lead a collaborative intergovernmental process to define what our cities should look like in 25 years.

Third, they need to seize the opportunity that the 2014 expiry of key transfer programs presents and push for the inclusion of cities on the fed/prov agenda.

Ultimately however, all the mayors can do is create political room for their vision. Only Ottawa can lead the way.


Thursday, January 27th, 2011

By 2014, when the current suite of  infrastructure programs expires, the federal government will have been in the municipal infrastructure business for two decades, investing nearly $ 30 billion and leveraging billions more from provincial and municipal governments.  

Yet this week at a national infrastructure conference in Regina, mayors and councilors from across the country are debating the same question they were 20 years ago: how to get rid of the infrastructure deficit.

This should not come as a surprise given that in the early1980s, at the start of the cities’ campaign to get federal support in erasing the municipal infrastructure deficit, the gap stood at about $ 12 billion and that by 2007 studies said it had broken through the $100 billion mark. 

One conference participant suggested we simply stop using the term and  start calling it an “infrastructure obligation” instead.  If the last 17 years are any indication, it could well be the only way the infrastructure deficit will disappear any time soon.

So how does one explain such figures in light of multi-billion dollar public investments? And what do these figures mean for the future of federal spending in this area?

Answering these questions is particularly relevant now that the federal government has turned its attention to the fiscal fallout from the recession.

In this period of virtuous frugality some in Ottawa might be tempted to simply walk away from programs and strategies that appear to have missed the mark.

That would be a mistake.

Most agree that, with the economy showing encouraging signs of recovery, it no longer is necessary—or even appropriate—to keep the federal stimulus taps open. But federal infrastructure programs over the last 17 years have been instrumental in helping Canada catch up to other industrialized countries in terms of public capital spending.

More practically, these programs have helped address some of the more pressing infrastructure needs in communities across the country. Everything from water treatment plants needing upgrades to crumbling and unsafe overpasses needing replacement have benefitted from federal programs.

Federal dollars were also critical in leveraging municipal and provincial funds that made important strategic investments, such as the RAV Line in Vancouver or the development of the Quartier international in Montreal possible.  

This federal spending “time out” presents an opportunity for cities, provinces and the federal government to take stock of the benefits and lessons from nearly 20 years of federal investments in municipal infrastructure.

It should be a time to assess what worked and what didn’t and to develop a plan to tackle the problem with an eye to fixing it once and for all, because that is what has been missing from the mix of infrastructure programs that have rolled out of Ottawa: an end game.

Programs have been developed with broad policy frameworks–such as investing in “green” infrastructure, but without a clearly defined sense of need or relative priority.

Mapping and understanding the nature and scope of the infrastructure problem must be the first step in developing solutions.  The second step must be a comprehensive assessment of federal infrastructure programs. This must be done collaboratively with all governments involved.

This is the kind of information that will explain why the infrastructure deficit has been compounding when it should have been shrinking.

It is also the kind information that will allow the three orders of government to develop the key elements of a national plan to eliminate the infrastructure deficit, such as:

  • planning for the total investment required and its timing;
  • tailoring the plan and priorities to fit unique regional needs, rather than relying on national, one-size-fits-all approaches;
  • exploring the impact of changing and extreme weather on infrastructure needs; and
  • developing innovative fiscal tools to support a long term approach by all governments.

As the federal government sets out to fix its fiscal deficit, it must not lose sight of the other deficit which, while off the books, has the potential to be just a debilitating socially and economically.

If Canada is to prosper, municipal infrastructure investments must support the economic potential locked within our cities and communities. For this to happen, programs and financing must reflect the long-term nature of infrastructure investments and encourage long-term thinking and planning.

Now is the time to recognize the immense benefits of recent infrastructure investments  and begin planning for a way to put our municipal infrastructure in the black.