The question of infrastructure -- and a $53-billion answer

The test of Flaherty’s budget? How municipalities greet big numbers and long-term horizons.

Construction chaos ahead

Roger Lemoyne

The drumbeat of demands for a big federal commitment to infrastructure was a dominant theme in the months leading to Budget 2013, and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s $53-billion answer is arguably the most important single spending element he announced.

Led by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the cities and towns that do the lion’s share of infrastructure spending, a series of influential lobby groups touted federal money for roads and bridges, waterworks and mass transit, as the best way Flaherty could pump some short-term stimulus into the economy and boost long-term competitiveness at the same time.

How those groups receive the scheme he delivered will go a long way to determining the political success or failure of the budget. Flaherty’s plan has four main components: $32.2 billion over 10 years for communities to build everything from roads to arenas; $14 billion to support bigger showpiece project “of national, regional and local significance;” $1.25 billion for so-called P3 projects that involve partnerships with private companies; and $6 billion left over from older infrastructure funds.

The plan is spread over a decade—half of the 20-year timeframe the Federation of Canadian Municipalities requested. Still, 10 years is longer than Ottawa’s previous infrastructure plans, and might satisfy the demand of many city politicians for “stable, predictable” funding.

As well, Flaherty’s plan adds some protection against inflation; $21.8 billion of the funding municipalities will get comes in the form of a portion of the gas tax, and these payment will now by indexed to growth by 2 per cent a year, starting in 2014-15.

But those big numbers and long time horizons will be mostly studied by provincial and municipal planners. Many Canadians will be looking to see what the budget’s infrastructure plan has to say about projects where they live. And Flaherty flagged several.

Among the most notoriously urgent infrastructure problems in Canada is Montreal’s Champlain Bridge, the country’s business and one of its most decrepit. Budget 2013 proposes that Ottawa pay up to $124.9 million to build a news link between Nuns’ Island and the Island of Montréal. Another big project is a new Windsor-Detroit bridge, subject of prolonged international haggling. Flaherty pledged to provide $25 million over three years to try to push the Windsor-Detroit International Crossing.

Those signature projects and many more will guarantee the Conservatives plenty of opportunity to put up those distinction blue-and-green “Canada’s Economic Action Plan,” with the upswept arrows, that proliferated in recent years.

The pleading for a major injection of infrastructure money have come from municipalities, provinces and private-sector groups. But on the  timeless politics of ribbon cuttings and giant cheques and brought-to-you-by signage, the Harper government needed no lessons from outsiders.

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