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Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in an event marking the completion of masonry work on West Block on Parliament Hill on Feb. 1, 2017. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in an event marking the completion of masonry work on West Block on Parliament Hill on Feb. 1, 2017. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Senate criticizes federal infrastructure program as too complex Add to ...

A Senate review of Ottawa’s approach to infrastructure spending warns it is overly complicated, with money spread across 31 different organizations and no clear, national plan.

After a year-long review of the Liberal government’s approach, the Senate’s National Finance Committee released a report Tuesday that calls on Ottawa to streamline the application process so that provinces and municipalities have a “single window,” or department, to turn to when seeking federal infrastructure cash.

“With 31 different departments involved with infrastructure, things get scattered and you lose the alignment and the focus,” Conservative Senator Larry Smith, the chair of the committee, said in an interview.

The committee expressed concern that the government’s approach appears to be more focused on measuring whether money is spent rather than measuring whether the spending has achieved specific results, such as improving trade.

“The performance indicator has to be more than start and finish,” Mr. Smith said.

The federal Liberals have dedicated $186-billion for spending on infrastructure between now and 2028, under five broad categories – public transit, green infrastructure, social infrastructure, trade and transportation, and rural and northern communities. That money includes infrastructure programs that were in place before the Liberals were elected in 2015 as well as new spending promised since the election.

The senators warn that by further dividing those categories into smaller, application-based programs with different rules and deadlines, it makes it harder for the money to get out the door. Smaller municipalities in particular may not have the resources to know how to properly apply for the available money when so many different departments are involved, the report warns.

The Senate finance committee has started to track federal infrastructure spending in a database and its members plan to continue monitoring the government’s plans. The committee said it was too early to form a clear opinion on the merits of the government’s promised Canada Infrastructure Bank, which is expected to launch this year in an effort to pool public funds with money from private-infrastructure investors such as banks and pension funds.

Brook Simpson, a spokesperson for Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi, said in a statement Tuesday that the government will be releasing a full, long-term infrastructure plan in the spring. The plan will include a vision statement as well as new policies on how the expected outcomes will be measured.

“The Senate report recommends that the programs delivered by Infrastructure Canada be streamlined and we have already started doing so,” he said. “Municipalities across the country and the [Federation of Canadian Municipalities] have applauded the simplicity of the new programs we have delivered and we will continue to work with them, as well as parliamentarians, as we design our long term plan.”

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