Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Time to get on the road to healthy infrastructure

Rejecting rapid transit would be a foolish thing to do

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You don't have to spend much time reading or watching the news to know we have an infrastructure crisis in Canada right now. You can hear the problem.

The rattle, hum and screech of grinding metal are proof enough our roads are in pretty bad shape.

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Roads undulate. Curbs lie in gravelly ruins. There are so many potholes on some streets, there is more hole than street left.

So, it should come as little surprise that at this time of year, as we can hear our streets and witness winter's destructive forces on a daily basis, a new Probe Research/Winnipeg Free Press poll shows infrastructure is what we're thinking most about.

The poll results show nearly two in three Winnipeggers are concerned about the state of our infrastructure. Not just roads, but also water and sewer infrastructure.

However, despite the fact infrastructure has become the national obsession -- outpacing traditional top-of-mind concerns such as crime -- government is not giving the issue the respect it deserves.

Yes, there is a lot of money being spent each year trying to shrink the "infrastructure deficit," the total value of all infrastructure in need of rehabilitation or replacing. Unfortunately, even with billions being invested, we have virtually no long-term strategy to get out in front of this deficit.

The federal government continues a long-standing tradition of formulating its total infrastructure funding initiatives in relative isolation. That is, without any substantive planning alongside provincial and municipal governments, the folks who actually are responsible for managing the individual projects.

The result of that isolation is a program that simply does not reflect the magnitude of the problem.

In his last budget as finance minister, the late Jim Flaherty announced a $14-billion commitment over the next 10 years in a renewed Building Canada Fund.

This includes a base of $250 million for each province and territory, and then additional funds based on a per capita formula.

It's a lot of money, but it pales in comparison to the size of the need. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities calculates the total value of unfunded infrastructure at about $125 billion. That is a number that makes the most recent federal commitment seem pathetically small.

This is not, however, a story about how Ottawa underfunds infrastructure; overall, this is a country that is simply not generating the necessary funds for infrastructure at all levels of government.

Back in the 1960s, all three levels of government in Canada spent the equivalent of about five per cent of national GDP on infrastructure. Today, it's just over three per cent. And that may still seem like a lot, but not when you consider Europe spends about five per cent, and China spends nine per cent.

Many governments ramped up infrastructure investment to combat the worst effects of the global recession, but after several years of slightly above-average investment, we've begun to see the pace of spending ease off.

And there is little hope we will see any significant increase in infrastructure spending any time soon. Finance Minister Joe Oliver, who replaced Flaherty, has already signalled that once the federal treasury is fully in surplus, Canadians should expect to see lower taxes.

Although a worthy goal in its own right, lower taxes will make it even more difficult for any federal government to bring infrastructure spending more in line with need.

All these numbers speak to the need for politicians and taxpayers to start thinking about new strategies for addressing the infrastructure dilemma in Canada. We're going to need to embrace change in many different respects.

As individuals, we're all going to have to change the way we get from here to there.

In particular, we'll need new public-transit options so it's convenient to leave our cars at home.

Any level of government focused on tax cuts will need to justify them against the crushing need for priority programs, including infrastructure. And these cuts should be discussed with other levels of government as part of long-term, collaborative planning on a true national infrastructure plan.

This collaborative approach is desperately needed so we can get all of our political leaders, at all levels, on the same page. Right now, there are still too many pockets of dysfunctional, intellectually backwards thinking among our political classes.

At Winnipeg's city hall, for example, Couns. Russ Wyatt and Scott Fielding are leading a campaign against funding for rapid transit, arguing the money should be spent repairing, extending, or widening various roadways within the city. It is simply impossible to overstate the damage Wyatt and Fielding will do to the long-term prospects of the city's infrastructure if they somehow find traction among fellow councillors for this absurd plan.

Abandoning rapid transit will not solve Winnipeg's infrastructure problems; it will exacerbate them. We need more and more robust transit options, things that will make it easy for people to leave their cars at home.

That is one of the best ways we can extend the life of every street and bridge and make more progress in restoring infrastructure to a reasonable state.

Infrastructure is on everybody's minds right now, if the polls are telling us the truth. That makes it a good time to talk about making meaningful change. Without that, there isn't enough money in the world to solve our infrastructure woes.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2014 A4

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