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Sherbrooke Metro station in Montreal on Nov. 24, 2010.

John Morstad/The Globe and Mail

Canada's economic future depends on the strength of its cities. And in today's global economy, it's cities - not countries - that are competing for talent and investment on a global stage. Companies are increasingly choosing between Toronto and Boston, rather than between Canada and the United States.

In Canada, our cities are economic drivers of the country. Eighty per cent of us now live in urban centres, and we're among the most urbanized countries in the world despite our vast rural geography.

Big cities have big needs. Immigrant integration and affordable housing are needs more acute to our cities. So, too, is transit infrastructure. Poor integration of immigrants into the work force and worsening job mobility are drags on our economy.

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We believe part of the solution must be a national urban strategy - a new fiscal framework among our three levels of government that will sustain the unique infrastructure, service and program operations of our major urban centres.

Infrastructure has not kept pace with the growth of our cities. Our report, Toronto as a Global City, documents what any commuter in rush hour can tell you. Canada's transportation systems have fallen well behind those of the rest of the world. Among 23 global cities, three of the bottom five positions in the transportation ranking are held by Canadian ones (Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax). The average commuter round trip ranges from 67 to 80 minutes. Toronto again is last, longer than New York, London and Los Angeles.

Canada has to do better. If employees and goods can't get to their destination on time, productivity will suffer. The quality and availability of infrastructure directly affect business locations and operations. In the Toronto region alone, congestion now costs the economy $6-billion annually; that will rise to $15-billion annually by 2031 without sufficient levels of investment. Across the country, the cost of underinvestment in just our transportation infrastructure is even higher.

In recent years, the federal government has provided unprecedented levels of support for the growth of Canada's cities. In last week's budget, the government announced intentions to make the gas tax contribution toward infrastructure permanent, while also pledging to help develop a new long-term infrastructure plan. The election, of course, puts those promises at risk.

But it also provides an opportunity. All parties should outline how they would address the needs of cities. Will they support a national urban strategy to ensure that our largest urban centres have the necessary resources? Canada, for instance, is the only OECD country without a national transit strategy.

A national urban strategy must recognize the predominant role cities play in our economic growth. Rather than provide all municipalities with equal per capita shares, this long-term plan needs to have a greater strategic focus on Canada's urban centres - the places that will provide the biggest boost to our economic growth. The priorities may differ across the country - from transportation infrastructure in Toronto to housing in Calgary - but the need for federal support extends from coast to coast.

The world is envious of Canada's solid economic foundation during this period of economic recovery. We have the opportunity to use this advantage and excel globally. But there won't be a strong recovery without vibrant Canadian urban economies.

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Carol Wilding is president and CEO of the Toronto Board of Trade. Merv Hillier is president and CEO of the Certified Management Accountants of Ontario.

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