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Municipal leaders cheer infrastructure spending

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MUNICIPAL leaders welcomed a new long-term commitment by Ottawa Thursday to fund infrastructure improvements, and cheered the fact that gas tax payments to them will now rise with inflation.

Mayor Sam Katz called the plan to index the gas tax a "win" for Winnipeg, but said the city still needs more revenue or taxation power to tackle its growing infrastructure deficit.

But the head of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities was less reserved in his enthusiasm.

"I think it's just about everything we've been asking for," said AMM president Doug Dobrowolski. "We got a 10-year program. We'll obviously have to wait and see what the details are. But they really expanded on infrastructure."

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced $47 billion in new funding in support of local and economic infrastructure projects under a new Building Canada plan that will take effect next year. The infrastructure money will be used to build roads, fund public recreation and recreational facilities, and support major economic projects.

Dobrowolski said he is looking forward to hearing more details of the federal government's infrastructure plans when he participates today in a conference call with Winnipeg MP Steven Fletcher, the lead cabinet minister for infrastructure in Western Canada.

The AMM leader was also pleased to see a federal commitment to spend $253 million over five years on housing after Ottawa failed to earmark any money for this in last year's budget.

Katz was happy with Ottawa's long-term commitment on infrastructure funding. But he said cities need a bigger share of revenues or taxation powers in order to tackle Winnipeg's $3.8-billion infrastructure backlog. By 2018, Katz said, the infrastructure deficit is expected to reach more than $7 billion.

Finance Minister Stan Struthers said he welcomed Flaherty's commitments to investing in infrastructure and skills training -- two priorities for Manitoba.

But Struthers noted such programs are cost-shared with the provinces, and he worried about the strain participation in the programs will place on Manitoba's finances.

"It's a pressure on our budget that we'll be needing to deal with," Struthers said, noting that Ottawa has flatlined transfer payments and is "pulling back" in ongoing health-care funding.

On the other hand, Manitoba isn't about to leave any federal infrastructure and training money on the table, the Manitoba minister added. "We're going to work with the federal government to make sure that we address these needs."

Chris Lorenc, president of the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association, called the infrastructure announcement "a very good and progressive first step."

Like others on Thursday, though, Lorenc is awaiting details of Ottawa's plans.

"We think that investments which fuel economic growth in new areas of economic activity or investments which help productivity and competitiveness in existing areas of economic activity need to be a priority," he said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2013 A1

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