Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising to leave infrastructure decisions in the hands of municipalities, providing a welcome signal to increasingly antsy mayors.
Mr. Trudeau made the comments in a speech to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in Winnipeg. He said Ottawa will focus on setting overall objectives as to how the billions in promised infrastructure should be spent, listing climate change and promoting economic growth as examples.
"We're leaving the project selection to the experts: you," he said.
The Liberal government's March budget promised to double federal infrastructure spending to $120-billion over 10 years. About $12-billion in new money was made available in the short term for projects focused on repairing existing infrastructure. The remaining money will start to be released next year as part of what the government calls the second phase of its infrastructure plan.
Yet even though the budget promised to make the first phase cash available "right away," mayors have expressed concern with federal rules and hurdles involved in applying for the cash. On Thursday, they specifically called for a process that did not involve federal officials signing off on each and every project.
Municipalities are advocating for a transfer system that is similar to the federal gas tax. Ottawa transfers $2-billion to municipalities annually under the program and is supposed to receive detailed reports on how the money was spent.
However Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand – who operates as part of the Auditor-General's office – reported this week that Infrastructure Canada does a poor job of managing this reporting and many municipalities are failing to send their reports to Ottawa on time.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said those criticisms can be addressed by making the reporting less burdensome, particularly for smaller municipalities.
Overall, Mr. Nenshi said the Prime Minister's comments about leaving project selection to municipalities was "a really, really big deal" and was exactly what mayors had been requesting.
"He was very clear on this point. Clearer than we have heard federal politicians speak on this before," he said. "I was very happy to hear that. This is not unprecedented. This is how the gas tax works."
Mr. Nenshi said that, particularly in Alberta, there is an urgency to get projects started as a form of stimulus for the provincial economy.
"It doesn't make sense for someone in Ottawa to be deciding whether we're funding this bridge or that road or that rec centre or that library. We are ready to go," he said.
While some mayors – as well as the Quebec government – have expressed frustration that the new money has not yet been transferred, federal officials insist a wave of announcements will start this month and continue through the summer.
The main source of uncertainly is that Ottawa is negotiating bilateral infrastructure deals with each province. Some of those deals are expected to be announced this month.
"I hope to see something fast," said Mr. Nenshi. "If I'm not seeing something in the next few weeks though, I start to get worried that we won't be able to do the immediate stimulus in 2016 that was being asked for."
Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said mayors received positive assurances from Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi that federal money will be available for projects that started after April 1 of this year. He said they also discussed how to improve the reporting process.
"We'd be more than happy to participate in a robust exercise to measure and verify [how transfers are spent]," he said. "We all agreed that it could have been done better historically."
In an interview, Mr. Sohi said he expects to be announcing deals with the provinces shortly as well as specific projects.
"We will be making some major announcements in the coming weeks on some of the largest projects that have been tied up in red tape," he said. "These are significant, large projects. You'll be seeing construction activity in this construction season."