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Canada’s infrastructure gap is widest in big cities

Canada's big-city mayors gathered in Toronto this week to make their annual appeal to senior levels of government for help in solving some of their biggest problems. At the top of their list each year is infrastructure.

Last week, the country's first ministers convened in Ottawa to make a similar appeal for federal funding to address their infrastructure requirements. Federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver was quick to tell the premiers to take a hike, a suggestion with which most of the provincial leaders took great umbrage.

I have some sympathy for the mayors. As for the premiers, I'm afraid I'm with Mr. Oliver.

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Canada is an urban country. Vast swaths of the population are now concentrated in its largest cities. It could be fairly argued it is our big-city mayors, not the politicians in Ottawa or the provincial capitals, who have the biggest daily headaches. Canadian municipalities own 60 per cent of the country's infrastructure but collect just eight cents on every tax dollar taken in – the remainder going to the other two levels of government. This, in turn, leaves the mayors with only one option when it comes to looking for dough to address their increasingly desperate infrastructure needs: beg.

Provincial governments have been loath to give cities the taxation powers that would allow them to raise the level of funding necessary to address their issues. One reason is that if there are going to be any big infrastructure projects, the provinces want credit for them. It helps to build political capital that comes in handy at election time. Beyond that, provincial governments want to keep any tax wiggle room to themselves. If cities were to try and generate dollars through a municipal sales tax or income tax, it would be much harder for provincial governments to later pull those same levers during a cash crunch.

That is why it is so amusing to hear the premiers complain about Mr. Oliver's stern rebuke of their funding request. The same premiers who routinely deny infrastructure funding demands from mayors are now having a hissy fit over being turned down themselves. The same group, it should also be noted, that includes members who put up roadblocks in the way of infrastructure projects that Ottawa deems important but they don't – hello, Northern Gateway.

In British Columbia, the obstacles the provincial government has placed in front of a plan by Metro Vancouver mayors to fund a much-needed transit infrastructure program are almost mind-boggling. Of course, one of the reasons is Premier Christy Clark's single-minded obsession with balancing the budget, for which we applaud her. But it is that same fixation that compelled Mr. Oliver to inform the premiers that there was no more money for their infrastructure needs.

It also needs to be pointed out that the federal Conservatives recently launched the largest infrastructure program in Canadian history – more than $70-billion over 10 years. Even the chair of the big-city mayors, Vancouver's Gregor Robertson, concedes that the commitment went beyond what Ottawa suggested it was prepared to spend. So you can hardly accuse the Tories of skimping on this front.

Of course, $70-billion is not going to solve Canada's infrastructure deficit, which the Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates to be almost triple that amount. Other new and innovative ways are going to have to be explored to bridge that gap, including greater involvement from the private sector. Provincial governments need to establish dependable flows of infrastructure funding through taxes or other means. They should also consider establishing infrastructure funds that are administered by a stand-alone agency, as other jurisdictions have done.

Instead of whining to Ottawa, the provinces should be developing long-term infrastructure strategies that are based on real needs, not electoral politics. (For that matter, Ottawa could take the same advice.) Infrastructure planning in Canada is a mess, frankly – it should be taken out of the political realm and placed in the trust of people who have no greater stake in the decisions than what serves the common good.

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A utopian vision, I know – but one can dream.

Instead, sadly, 10 and 20 years from now, mayors will probably still be complaining about their infrastructure needs to provincial governments who will be complaining to federal governments about theirs. And many of the country's structural problems will be fixed with new duct tape instead of well-conceived plans.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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