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Olivia Chow: Sandy destruction a reminder of how vulnerable our own cities are

The devastation of Hurricane Sandy in the United States this week was a stark reminder of how vulnerable our cities and towns are and how much we rely on and take for granted basic infrastructure – our transit systems, roads and bridges and water treatment systems. It was also a reminder of the need for national leadership and partnership among all levels of government in response to a crisis.

Even without extreme weather conditions, we face a growing crisis in cities and communities across Canada. It is the challenge of aging infrastructure – of highway sinkholes, deteriorating roads, crumbling bridges, overcrowded transit systems, aging and strained sewage and water treatment plants.

It is the increasingly serious problem of a staggering $123-billion infrastructure deficit in Canada – as calculated by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which represents 2000 cities, towns and local communities. And it is a problem which looms larger as the national `Build Canada` infrastructure program winds down in seventeen months.

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It is a crisis we encounter in our daily lives. Think of all the things we take for granted – like the water we drink. Many people stocked up on bottled water in anticipation of the Hurricane Sandy – in response to an immediate crisis. But the crisis is not temporary for far too many Canadians. Water quality is at risk in towns and cities across the country. Today, more than 200 Canadian communities country suffer from water quality problems; more than 100 of them have boil water advisories in place. The water is not fit to drink. That is a national crisis and a national shame.

Every day, millions of Canadians face growing challenges in our public transit systems. The other day I travelled by public transit just halfway across Toronto, from Scarborough Town Centre to High Park, and it took over an hour and a half. We waste hours and hours sitting in traffic or watching full buses go by – in Toronto alone, there is $6-billion a year in lost productivity. Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal share the dubious honour of being among the worst five cities in North America for commute times. This local problem has national consequences. We desperately need a national public transit strategy – the Federation of Canadian Municipalities agrees, as do individual cities towns and villages in every part of Canada, as do business groups everywhere. On their behalf, I presented a private members bill in the House of Commons, supported by all members of all parties, except for the governing Conservatives. National leadership is the missing link.

Cities and towns get a paltry amount of the total tax dollar paid by every Canadian taxpayer – just 8 cents of every tax dollar spent. And that 8 cents has to pay for essential services, for emergency medical services and policing, parks, libraries and snowplowing. It is not enough to fund major, long term investments in infrastructure.

Canada is a prosperous nation with relatively young cities. Why are we falling behind?

It is time to start a national dialogue and demand national leadership. A new infrastructure fund must be designed and announced by the spring of 2013, so municipalities won't lose a construction season. This week, at the House of Commons' Transport Committee, I proposed that we look at best practices and learn how other countries fund their infrastructure needs. There are many models we should consider.

Why not consider the United States model of a competitive grants program?

Why not consider the German model? Germany subsidizes local roads and transit through surplus revenues of fuel duty via a federal act to improve transport at the Local Authority Level. Yet in Canada, the Federal Government collects a gasoline tax of 10 cents per litre on every fill-up, but only gives 5 cents to cities for transit. Why shouldn't more of that existing gas tax be transferred for roads, highways and transit to deal with congestion? Shouldn't there be other forms of tax grant transfer like sales tax?

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What about other examples from Asia and Australia? Modern electric trains with smart electronic fare collection systems are commonplace in many parts of the world – and have been for decades. Why not here?

Infrastructure is the foundation on which we build our cities and communities and the foundation is getting shaky. We need to make smart strategic investments now. Investments that will pay huge dividends in the future, that will leave a lasting legacy with healthier communities and a stronger economy where prosperity and opportunity are created daily.

Let's not wait for a hurricane. Let's work together now to start solving this growing national crisis.

Olivia Chow is Member of Parliament for Trinity-Spadina and NDP Transport and Infrastructure Critic

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