The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Denis Lebel, the minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Communities.
Q: Starting more broadly, is there a single takeaway from all the hearings that you’ve done?
A: What I received was a message that they appreciate what we’ve done in the past. We have held 14 round tables across the country, around 200 stakeholder organizations, provinces, territories, and mainly they agreed we have done very well with the program that we had in the past - Building Canada Fund and for the Economic Action Plan. They were very proud of all that. Like you know, I’m a former mayor... I’m very proud of what we are doing and what I received for a message, it was this one. The second one was for sure they want more money, that’s what they want, but we manage the money we have. For the kind of projects they want to have, we will continue to work with them, all the seven components of Building Canada have been a success, some more than others. For sure municipalities want to continue to invest in the renewal of their own infrastructure.
But we will continue to do so with the money we have. That’s what we heard this summer for sure, depending on the stakeholders... We will consider all of the options all of the ideas we received this summer, but at the end, we promised in the two last budgets to have a new infrastructure plan. We will do it but we will do it in respect of the capacity of taxpayers of our country. And the economic situation where we are now, you [saw] what [Finance Minister Jim] Flaherty said last week. We have to be very concerned by the economy worldwide. That’s what we will do in realizing the new infrastructure plan.
Q: You could look at that in two different ways; to follow up on your last point about Mr. Flaherty and the financial situation. That’s been a common line of yours that the money for infrastructure will depend on the economy. But some say if the economy is really bad, then you need more infrastructure spending as a form of stimulus. Or you could argue, well, if things are bad, there’s just not as much money, so the government will have less money for infrastructure. So how should people interpret your comments when you say the amount of money will depend on the state of the economy and the government’s finances?
A: Mr. Flaherty already said last week that we will try to have the right balance between returning to balance budgets over the medium term and continuing to invest in the key drivers of economic growth and job creation. That’s what we will do... Mr. Flaherty already said we will continue to invest. That’s why we have promised the plan and we will deliver a good plan. For sure, I understand municipalities and provinces are asking for more and more money. I’m doing the same to my minister of finance for my own department. And when I was mayor I was in City Hall and heard so many citizens asking me to invest more in this street or this arena. It’s always the same. But we have to manage the money we have.
Q: Obviously it’s far too early to say or even know how much money this will work out to be in the end, but we’re looking for signs or signals from you in terms of scope. I’m sure you saw the Federation of Canadian Municipalities last week. They put out some numbers. They said currently Ottawa - with the gas tax and the Building Canada Fund - you’re spending about $3.25-billion or so and they think it should be over $5-billion a year. In terms of expectations, is that in the ballpark? Is that unrealistic?
A: (laughs). We have heard their concern. We have heard their numbers. For sure, we’ll make no comment about that. But they know I’m a partner. The only one organization who had been invited to [all] of these 14 roundtables is the FCM. That shows how we consider them. But they have to manage the money of their own citizens. That’s always the same taxpayer at the end. I don’t want to go on numbers for the moment, but they know that I’m a partner.
Q: I’ll ask you about numbers of a different kind then. In terms of length of time of any deal, because as you know, they’re looking for something long term so they can spread projects over a long period of time if they know the money’s coming. I know some at the FCM were pretty excited when you spoke to their group and made a reference to being not the minister for now but the minister for 20 years from now.
A: Yeah, I said I don’t have to fix everything when I’m there, but I’m planning for the future. That said, when I said that, I’m still at the same page. But the economy worldwide doesn’t depend on what Denis Lebel wants and we have to work with the money we have now and the economic situation for the moment... We will not fix everything now, but we know what we have to do in the future. We will respect the capacity of taxpayers. And we will have a plan for the years to come. Long term, for somebody is two years, five years. Some are 15 or 20. At the end I’m sure we’ll have a balanced approach.
Q: What about the idea of a special gridlock fund, because there’s this issue of if you have one fund for everybody, perhaps the money gets spread out and you don’t necessarily have it concentrated in the bigger cities that have this gridlock issue? Do you like that idea of something that’s focused just on gridlock?
A: Yeah, No. First of all, one of the most important challenges we have is to have an approach [when each] part of the country forms their own answer to that. When I’m in the territories, they say ‘We don’t want to have it by population when you give out the money because we will not have enough.’ When I’m in big cities, ‘Oh, we want to have it by population.’ When I’m Toronto or Montreal: ‘Oh please, more money for transit.’ When I’m Yellowknife or Iqaluit, they say: ‘No. Have money for the north.’ We will not work that way. We will work... to have the most balanced approach. For sure, as I’ve said in the past, for transit, we will respect the provincial and municipal jurisdiction and that’s under their jurisdiction. We invested a lot of money in transit, I think it’s $6-billion since we are in government. We will continue to support through the gas tax and other programs and we know that’s very important to the country. But we will not dedicate money for a specific program for transit or other ideas like that. We prefer to work with provinces and territories. We have a global vision. We want to invest in the infrastructure of the country to prepare for the future of the country.
Q: What about the idea of indexing the gas tax to inflation. Do you have a position on that?
A: We heard their message but I come back to the message I’ve had since the beginning... We understand they ask for more, but at the moment they have $2-billion [in annual Gas Tax revenues]. I can’t promise they will have more or less. What I can promise, we will continue to work with them. For less, I don’t expect that. I don’t have to say it. If they [will] have more, I don’t know for the moment. But we received their message and for sure all the other levels of government have heard it.
Q: The other question is when we can expect to have clarity on this plan.
A: They will not miss a construction season. They will not miss one. The money will be available for 2014-15. They already know that. But for the rest, I will let the minister of finance have the final decision... We understand they have to know what will be in the future plan and I will respect the minister of finance, who will have to announce it.
Q: Because you’ve said this about the construction season for 2014-15, municipalities are assuming that the details of this plan would come in the 2013 budget. Is that the timeline you’re working towards and the forum for announcing this?
A: I will let the Prime Minister and the minister of finance make this decision.