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Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi: ‘That’s what infrastructure really means: all of the things that make it easier for people to live and do business.’ (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi: ‘That’s what infrastructure really means: all of the things that make it easier for people to live and do business.’ (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)

Canada Competes

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi: Canada’s crumbling cities and roads must be fixed Add to ...

This piece is one of a series of high-profile Canadians commenting on the Canadian Chamber of Commerce's Top 10 reasons Canadian competitiveness is dropping.

 

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is clear that Canada’s aging urban infrastructure is in dire need of an overhaul, but cities don’t have the cash to do it alone. Mr. Nenshi – who co-authored a report on how to transform Canadian cities into stronger, more liveable economic engines – recently joined other Canadian mayors in pressing the federal government for a long-term funding commitment. A former business professor and consultant, Mr. Nenshi has a master’s in public policy from Harvard University. He spoke to The Globe and Mail.

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Infrastructure is one of those words that tends to make people’s eyes glaze over, yet it affects our lives every day. Give me your take on why Canadians need to care about this stuff.

Maybe I can strip away some of the language that makes people’s eyes glaze over. We are operating in a global economy. Our trade depends on exports. Even more important than that, for Canada to survive, we must attract the best talent from around the world. So we need the top graduating engineers in Shanghai or Dubai or Mumbai to say, “I can be at the top of my profession in Canada, and that’s a place I want to live.” We need the financiers to come to Toronto and Calgary as much as they go to Wall Street. And for those people to make those sorts of decisions, we have to have great places to live.

People from Toronto are always shocked when I tell them this, but the oil sands are not located under downtown Calgary. That tower is not, in fact, a derrick. The oil sands are a 2.5- to three-hour flight away. So why are all those great, taxpaying, head-office jobs in Calgary and not a slightly longer flight away, in Houston or Shanghai? It’s because people want to live in Calgary. And what makes people want to live in our city is the fact that the transit is good, the road network is good, we have clean water and all those things that make cities work well.

That’s the argument for cities, but all kinds of infrastructure are important. We need movement of goods, as well as people. The fact that there’s only a twisty, two-lane highway between Edmonton and Fort McMurray is a disgrace. How do we invest in our economy if people can’t get stuff from A to B? That’s what infrastructure really means: all of the things that make it easier for people to live and do business. And if you don’t have those things in place, it doesn’t mater how smart you are. It doesn’t matter how much oil you’ve got in the ground. If you can’t get there, you’re certainly not going to be able to get any economic benefit out of it.

What’s the state of infrastructure in Calgary?

We’re very lucky. We’re a new city, and our existing infrastructure is, by and large, in good shape. But even a wealthy place like Calgary has enormous infrastructure deficits. In social infrastructure – things like parks and rec centres and libraries and fire halls – we have about $2-billion to $3-billion in unfunded needs. In non-transit transportation – roads and bridges – let’s throw in another $5-billion. We’ve just written a 30-year plan for our transit system, which is $13.9-billion in unfunded infrastructure. That’s over 30 years, but still, that’s half a billion dollars a year that we need, and we have zero of it.

You were calling for a national transit strategy back in 2002. Why hasn’t it happened yet?

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