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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/The Globe and Mail

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.

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?

Canada remains the only industrialized country that does not have a permanent, predictable role for the federal government in providing transit. To give the federal government its due, it has certainly funded a lot of public transit over the years, but it has been episodic and very ad hoc. And that really is a challenge. The federal government has been very reluctant to set aside dedicated money for this, largely because they just don't see it as a federal responsibility. I actually consider making the economy work as a federal responsibility, and investing in transit is a really important part of that.

Three of Canada's major cities are among the Top 5 most congested cities in North America. Calgary is 16. Even Edmonton is in the top 25. What's going on here?

It really is about consistent underinvestment by federal and provincial governments in this kind of infrastructure, and particularly transit. Think about the fact that, in all of Canada, there are two cities that have subways. There are fewer subway lines in Canada than there are in the city of Boston.

The reason the United States has so much transit is because the federal government started playing a very significant role in this in the 1960s and '70s. In Calgary, in Vancouver, and especially in the GTA, it's unconscionable how much we have underinvested in our transit systems. Look, I'll be a rhetorical politician for a minute: Investments in public transit are among the very best investments any government can make. Think about all the benefits that accrue from that: There are environmental benefits. There are real benefits in congestion savings, which means you're giving citizens back time that has been stolen from them. Transit is also an investment in social mobility, because if you make it easier to live and work and go to school without needing your own car, suddenly you open up the ability to participate in the economy to far more people. But I think our provincial and federal governments have often seen transit as being at the bottom of the list.

Where's the disconnect?

If we really want to get philosophical about it, part of it is just the division of powers in our political system. The cities run the transit authorities, and the cities have the least ability to raise revenue of any order of government, by far. So, when the order of government that is doing the taxing is not the order of government that is running the system, you always end up with these problems. If the cities had power and control over their own destinies, you would see a lot more investment in transit.

How is all this hurting our economy and our competitiveness worldwide?

One way is talent attraction. If people say, "Gosh, I'd love to live in Toronto but I can't imagine spending two hours each day commuting," that hurts the economy in a big way. The second big area is movement of goods and services. If we are unable to actually get our goods moving in such a trade-oriented economy, we cannot live.

There's a third thing, by the way, and that is an issue we never, ever talk about in this country, but it's so incredibly important. And that is the issue of clean water.

We're lucky, because there are a billion people in the world who don't have access to safe water. And the vast majority of Canadians do.

But water and wastewater infrastructure is incredibly expensive. And we never, ever talk about it. Because you want something that gets people's eyes rolling, start talking about your toilet. But again, if you don't have that, you've got nothing. You don't have a society if you don't have clean water. A few years ago, the federal government put in place new, very strict water and wastewater standards that had to be met by municipalities, yet they gave no money to make that happen. That's why Calgary ended up $1.5-billion in debt.

What would it mean if the federal government were to let $2-billion in federal infrastructure funding expire in 2014?

I think the federal government realizes they can't let that happen. That would be worse than the sequester in the United States. So we've been in long conversations about a long-term infrastructure plan – we call it LTIP. And in my opinion, that LTIP needs to be focused in four areas: water and wastewater; maintenance of existing infrastructure, especially roads and bridges; dedicated funding to big cities for public transit; and affordable housing.

Who's doing things right outside of Canada that we can look to as a model?

I think it's fair to say that municipalities everywhere suffer, and there's no great model. What we politicians really need is a great deal of courage to stand up and say, this is something that's worth spending money on. To me, the criteria we need to follow are pretty straightforward: The funding has to be predictable, it has to be reliable, and it has to be long-term and stable.

I'll give you an example: Part of our transit project, Route Ahead, is one new LRT line that is 40 kilometres long – it's as long as all the track we currently have. At a cost of $5-billion. I am not expecting anybody to come up with a cheque for $5-billion tomorrow. If they do, I'll run to the ATM, fast. But if I take out debt today to start building this thing, can I rely on a certain amount of money and/or tax transfers 15 years from now to be paying that debt down? Because with such limited sources of funding for my operating budget, I cannot take out debt and then think that some day, the budget will just pay that back. I have to identify the source of repayment from the beginning. And that's why we need predictable, long-term funding.

When we build infrastructure, we build it for 100 years, not for one budget cycle.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities reckons it will cost something like $90-billion just to fix roads in need of repair. Where do we even start when the costs are so huge?

Well, we start. We can't get cowed by big numbers. And we have to be thoughtful about debt capacity and long-term investments. We need to partner better with industry, and we need to bring down our unit construction costs. Bridges and exchanges are really expensive. Are there ways we can build them in a more thoughtful but long-lasting way? But the best thing to do is to just get started. And the best way to get started is to have a really good vision of what the money's going to look like in 10 or 15 years. It's not that we need $90-billion to repair bridges that are going to fall down tomorrow. But I need a thoughtful construction plan to fix the stuff over the long term, and I can't do it when my funding comes in two– or three-year bursts, or even one-year bursts.

What are you hoping to see in the 2013 federal budget?

I really hope they'll have finalized details of the LTIP. They promised they would do it in this budget, because, given the timing of the federal budgets, we can't wait to hear in March, 2014, or we'll lose a whole construction season. So I'm hopeful.

What's your vision for Calgary 25 years down the road?

We actually have a pretty good vision of what we're tying to build: communities, neighbourhoods, transportation systems, clean water, fire and police. My hope for 25 years from now is that we've gotten on top of this mountain of infrastructure, instead of forever staring at it. At least we'll be climbing it, if not at the summit. That's a good Calgary metaphor, huh?

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