Cities urge Ottawa to reveal new infrastructure fund details

With construction season approaching, Canada's cities say they have yet to hear details of the federal government's new infrastructure plan, despite the fact that money from the new fund has already been promised to Toronto for its subway extension.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is urging the federal government to make public the details of a new infrastructure fund it announced in last year's federal budget. (CBC News)

Canada's cities say with the construction season approaching there is an "urgent" need for the federal government to reveal the details of a new infrastructure plan scheduled to come into effect April 1, despite the fact that money from the new fund has already been promised to Toronto for the extension of a subway line.

The Conservatives announced in last year's federal budget $14 billion over 10 years in new infrastructure money under a new Building Canada Fund but the details have yet to be made public.

With the 2014 budget just over a week away and still no details about the new fund, cities say they are at risk of losing thousands of jobs that come with the construction season.

In an interview with CBC News, Vancouver City Councillor Raymond Louie said not only is time of the essence, but it's important the federal government get the details right.

"It is urgent because we need to fix thousands of crumbling roads, bridges and water pipes. Cash-strapped communities across the country just can't do it alone," said Louie, who also works as vice-president for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, a group that represents more than 2,000 communities across the country.

"It's important for us to get this in time and ready for the construction season… It's also important that we get the program design just right. That we ensure, for instance, that municipalities get their fair share of the Building Canada Fund."

In Calgary, city council approved on Friday a $900 million expansion of its transitway but the project will require funding from both the province and the federal government.

I certainly hope it will be in the federal budget, if not sooner.- Naheed Nenshi, Calgary mayor

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi told CBC News it's crucial for small municipalities to know if they will be in a position to access the new funds. 

"We were promised that the criteria for that fund would be out quickly enough so that no municipality would lose the 2014 construction season. Unfortunately, we still haven't seen the final program design and the criteria," Naheed told CBC News on Friday.

"It's very, very important particularly for smaller municipalities to have this clear quickly or we run the risk of losing a whole year."

"I certainly hope it will be in the federal budget, if not sooner," Nenshi said.

Louie said that if the details were made public this week, it would be "be a very positive thing."​

The federal budget will be tabled in Parliament on Feb. 11.

Toronto promised $660M

Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel is said to be getting closer to unveiling the details of the much anticipated fund.

"The details on the new Building Canada Fund will be announced soon," Michele-Jamali Paquette, Lebel's communications director, told CBC News on Friday afternoon.

If everything is mixed into one big pot with vague criteria, then the Conservatives can play partisan politics and dole out money to ridings they want to win.- Olivia Chow, NDP MP

Without the details of the program, cities have to wait to find out if their projects are eligible for funding under the new plan before applying.

However, last September, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford saw Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty pledge $660 million from the new Building Canada Fund for the extension of a subway line.

You have our money, let’s get this subway built,” Flaherty said on Sept. 23.

Appearing before a House of Commons committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities in November, Lebel was asked by NDP MP Olivia Chow how Toronto managed to get approval for $660 million if the criteria for the new fund had yet to be determined.

"How did they manage to get approval? Other municipalities are asking how they got the approval. The application forms are not out yet. The program is not yet designed," Chow said to Lebel on Nov. 18, 2013.

Lebel confirmed the funding was "real" and explained that if the expansion of the subway line was "a priority" for Toronto then it would qualify for funding under the new fund.

"If they decide that's a priority, this project, for the municipality and the province, at that time we will do it. If that's their own priority. We respect their jurisdictions, municipal and provincial, and if they prioritize that, we will do it. But if they don't, that will be their choice," Lebel said.

Recalling Lebel's testimony before the committee, Chow said on Friday "it was a very Kafkaesque conversation."

In an interview with CBC News, Chow, who has publicly said she is "seriously considering" a run for mayor of Toronto, said it isn't fair to the cities not to have access to details of the new fund.

"Right now municipalities are going to tender for their capital projects yet they have no idea what's the criteria, how to apply for funding, how much money is involved, and what is the process. That's just not acceptable," she said.

Chow said the New Democrats would like to see the new Building Canada Fund include money exclusively committed to rural communities as well as a dedicated transit fund for big cities.

"If everything is mixed into one big pot with vague criteria, then the Conservatives can play partisan politics and dole out money to ridings they want to win. And that's misusing taxpayers funds," Chow said.

Lebel's spokesperson said "investments under the plan will focus on projects that promote job creation, economic productivity and growth."

Paquette added that the cities have some money left over from the previous infrastructure fund to tie them over until the funds from the new program start flowing on April 1.

"In fact, there is more than $6 billion that continues to be available for projects across the country in 2014-15 and beyond," she said.


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