Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Posted: 03/17/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0
Before the week is out, Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz will find out whether it's time to start lobbying Ottawa for $85 million to $100 million worth of new infrastructure funding -- not over some unknown period of time, but every single year.
On Thursday, when federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tables his eighth budget, the federal Conservatives are expected to lift the lid on a new package of municipal infrastructure funding. According to the Globe and Mail, citing sources at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the deal could be worth $4.25 billion to $5 billion every year.
The City of Winnipeg, with a population of approximately 709,000 people, is home to roughly two per cent of Canada's population. If the Conservatives base their funding decisions solely on the basis of basic arithmetic, Winnipeg would be in line for at least $85 million every year, which would pay for a small but significant portion of the city's overall infrastructure deficit.
Equitability, however, has never governed any political decision, as much as logicians and fans of childhood fantasies wish that were in fact the case. When Ottawa decides to dole out infrastructure funds for Winnipeg and the surrounding area, the decisions have ranged from sensible to questionable to haphazard.
Since 2007, the feds have spent at least $1.1 billion on infrastructure inside Manitoba, when you tally up projects supported by the Building Canada Fund, the Infrastructure Stimulus Fund and the more obscure Provincial-Territorial Base Fund.
This cash helped expand the Red River Floodway, despite provincial protests that another pot of federal money should have been tapped for that vital task. It also helped build 36 new bike-and-pedestrian paths in Winnipeg, although the short time frame required to complete that "shovel-ready" project in 2010 created headaches for city transportation planners.
Federal infrastructure cash also paid for a portion of the construction of new roads to serve Waverley West, a project that is now at least $15-million over budget. It paid for the underutilized Youth For Christ centre, a project shepherded by senior Manitoba MP Vic Toews.
To the surprise of Winnipeg's mayor, federal infrastructure money helped build the True North's MTS Iceplex in Headingley. And to the annoyance of several members of council, more than $100 million of federal cash went toward the construction of roads serving CentrePort, a project that has yet to inspire the confidence of many officials on Main Street.
So with the prospect of Ottawa announcing the creation of another infrastructure kitty, the choice facing Katz is how to approach a Conservative government that's very well aware Winnipeg -- or at least its long-serving mayor -- feels snubbed.
The city's biggest infrastructure priority, although nobody likes to talk about it, is a waste-water upgrade whose known costs have been tallied at $1.8 billion. The actual cost may very well wind up being in excess of $4 billion, once water-and-waste engineers select a permanent solution to the problem of combined-sewer overflows.
The reluctance of Ottawa and Broadway to help Winnipeg pay for this very unsexy project has resulted in rising water and sewer bills for all city properties. But don't expect Ottawa to suddenly grow more interested in sewage.
Federal votes are more easily secured by making promises to motorists, such as the Winnipeg South residents clamouring for a grade separation at the Waverley Street railway crossing.
Katz will almost certainly make a Waverley underpass a city infrastructure priority. From an engineering standpoint, however, the replacement or realignment of the Louise Bridge is a much more pressing need, as is the closely related question of how to build the East Transitway, a dedicated bus corridor that would connect downtown to Transcona.
The mayor is not, however, expected to ask Ottawa for infrastructure cash to pay for the completion of the Southwest Transitway. Instead, the city is pinning its short-term rapid-transit hopes on a separate federal fund devoted to public-private partnerships.
Other city infrastructure priorities include the reconstruction of the St. James Bridge, the widening of Kenaston Boulevard -- Kapyong quagmire notwithstanding -- and the next stage in the completion of an inner ring road, which would most likely see Chief Peguis Trail runs west from Main Street to Brookside Boulevard.
Add in repairs to existing roads and upgrades to community centres, hockey rinks and parks, and the city's overall infrastructure deficit -- the real figure, not the voodoo future burden -- easily exceeds $4 billion. This is why Katz, like Glen Murray before him, continues to ask Ottawa and Broadway to offer the city a greater share of the overall tax pie.
There is no sign the Harper or Selinger governments are the least bit interested in such a move. The provincial cupboard is not just bare but decrepit. Ottawa would be doing Canadian cities a favour if Flaherty announces $4.25 billion a year worth of municipal funding this week. Canadian cities could use 10 times that amount, but any cash right now is welcome.
The problem is, Winnipeg does not sit at the top of Ottawa's priority list right, at least on a political basis. The Tories already represent six out of eight city ridings, the ceiling for the party in Winnipeg. The Conservatives cannot reasonably expect to wrest Winnipeg Centre from the NDP or Winnipeg North from the Liberals.
The Tories will have to work hard in the next election to hold on to Winnipeg South Centre, home to a fickle electorate and an underwhelming rookie MP in Joyce Bateman. Hence the inevitability of a Waverley underpass -- but little else in the way of a sure bet for Winnipeg infrastructure funding.
The real wildcard will be the diplomatic effort mounted by Katz, who must attempt to appear magnanimous in spite of previous failures to get what he wanted out of Ottawa. And unlike the previous round of infrastructure funding, which saw former premier Gary Doer help win support for his pet projects, Katz will be vying for influence with Greg Selinger, who does not enjoy anywhere near as much favour as Mr. Ambassador did on Parliament Hill.
Publicly, the mayor will always say he works closely with his colleagues at the province and in Ottawa. The reality, all three levels of government have their own agendas.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2013 A8
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