Hey Mr. Flaherty, what happened to that big infrastructure pledge?

Posted on February 12, 2014 in Delivery System

TheGlobeandMail.com – Globe Debate
Feb. 12 2014.   John Lorinc

When the Harper government unveiled its 2013 budget last winter, it included a massive infrastructure funding pledge that represented the culmination of an intensive lobbying effort by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

This year, not so much.

In a budget the contained a little of this and a little of that, the infrastructure commitments were so modest that officials with the Halifax Regional Municipality – which this week approved a $50-million downtown revitalization effort that hinges on federal dollars – were left scrambling to find them.

Indeed, apart from a two-year, $543-million allocation to begin the process of rebuilding or repairing three bridges across the St. Lawrence River in the Montreal area, the 2014 budget contained no details about how Ottawa plans to allocate the $53-billion it earmarked last year for municipal infrastructure.

Ottawa’s previous infrastructure program expires at the end of March. “There’s no criteria laid out,” says the NDP’s urban affairs critic Matthew Kellway. “The concern is that another construction season will be missed.”

“We’re anxious to see the money flow,” adds Halifax mayor Mike Savage, who says the regional municipality is looking for federal and provincial support for water/waste water projects and public transit upgrades.

The budget was also silent on a few other significant urban related issues.

Both Mr. Savage, a former Liberal MP, and Mr. Kellway, point out that the Harper government has failed to address the question of what happens when $1.7-billion in federal subsidies for 600,000 subsidized housing units across Canada expire over the next few years.

While Ottawa, to the surprise of some urban advocates, has ploughed millions of dollars into subsidized housing and homelessness programs in the five years since finance minister Jim Flaherty’s 2009 stimulus budget, yesterday’s spending plan contained no clues about whether Ottawa intends to renew those subsidies. “That’s a big issue,” Mr. Savage says.

The housing issue is of particular concern to the FCM and its caucus of big city mayors, who know that a growing number of low-income residents face extreme financial constraints due to rising housing and real estate costs in large urban areas.

The federal subsidies on those 600,000 affordable apartments date back to the 1970s and 1980, and expire as the mortgages on those buildings are paid off. In recent years, a growing number of affordable housing complexes, many of them co-ops, have been converted to market rates because the subsidies have disappeared.

FCM officials estimate that 200,000 additional units will be in a similar position within five years unless Ottawa and the provinces figure out how to extend the subsidies. But a federal/provincial/territorial working group established to find solutions has failed to come up with a plan.

Some observers, however, did praise some of the urban-related elements of the budget. Matti Siemiatycki, a professor of geography at the University of Toronto, pointed out that the significant allocation for repairing Montreal’s St. Lawrence bridges acknowledges the importance of using infrastructure funds for upkeep as well as new-build projects. “It’s not sexy to invest in maintenance,” he says. “This is a budget that says we’re going to start with maintenance, and that’s a good thing.”

But, he adds, the St. Lawrence bridges are federal assets. In Toronto, by contrast, council and a waterfront development agency are currently grappling with the issue of how to deal with a dangerously crumbling elevated freeway that will gobble up hundreds of millions of dollars in repair and maintenance costs if it is not demolished. Unlike the Champlain and Cartier bridges in Montreal, the Gardiner Expressway is a municipally-owned asset, and so the question of who will foot the bill to ensure it can be maintained safely is anything but clear.

The problems afflicting the Gardiner are hardly unique. As Mr. Siemiatcyki points out, the backlog of infrastructure maintenance across Canada exceeds $100-billion.

John Lorinc is a municipal affairs writer based in Toronto

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