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The Globe and Mail

How political interests shape our infrastructure

Matti Siemiatycki is an associate professor and Canada research chair in infrastructure planning and finance at the University of Toronto.

With billions of dollars likely to be committed to infrastructure in Tuesday's federal budget, it is a good moment to take stock of how politics influences public spending in this area.

In Canada, we've seen political interference in infrastructure spending play out in all shapes and sizes. At one level, there is the disproportionate investment of infrastructure dollars in the ridings of the government compared with those held by the opposition. Today, it is the Liberal government being accused of directing an uneven amount of money to its ridings. The Conservatives under Stephen Harper were similarly criticized for their targeting of infrastructure spending.

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At a finer grain, there are the egregious vanity projects, legacy plays and vote-winning schemes that dot the country. On the greatest-hits list would most certainly be the federal Conservative government's investment in gazebos and beautification projects in the Muskoka riding of a sitting cabinet minister in the lead-up to the G8 Summit in 2010. Curiously, these investments were made from a fund to improve border infrastructure, though the area is hundreds of kilometres from the border.

Stadiums, museums and art galleries are another frequent site for politically-motivated investment, with Montreal's Olympic stadium a continuing reminder of the high long-term cost of short-sighted infrastructure spending.

Transit is also a favourite for political patronage. From the Millennium SkyTrain line in Metro Vancouver to the Sheppard Subway line in Toronto, politics has had a strong influence on the prioritization of route and technology choices, often to the detriment of transit riders.

Beyond Canada, politically-motivated infrastructure investments are common as well. Visitors to West Virginia, for instance, will be struck by the number of infrastructure facilities named after Robert Byrd, a senator so renowned for his success at attracting federal infrastructure spending that he once bragged about his ambition to be the state's "billion-dollar industry."

And the small city of Ketchikan, Alaska, gained worldwide attention for the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal government funding that was earmarked to build what became known as "the Bridge to Nowhere," connecting the town with the local airport on a nearby island. The project was ultimately cancelled after it became a symbol of wasteful government spending.

The politicization of infrastructure investment decisions is driven by a few key rationales. Politicians love infrastructure investments because they are highly visible, can deliver real economic, social and environmental benefits to their users, and are potent symbols, demonstrating the power of their political champion to get results for their constituents.

At the same time, there is nothing inherently improper about politicians being involved in infrastructure investment decisions. On the contrary, in Canada, politicians provide democratic accountability and oversight and their input is imperative to the legitimacy of major spending allocations.

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The key is to find the appropriate balance between the production of evidence-based infrastructure project assessments and political input into priority setting and project selection. At present, the Canadian system skews too far toward political intervention in what should be independent project assessments. And in a surprising number of cases, no thorough study of the benefits and costs of major projects are conducted before political approval is granted.

There is a need to rebalance the decision-making process to ensure that solid evidence is consistently collected and available to inform investment choices. The federal government should create an independent entity that provides national guidance on producing high-quality, infrastructure-project appraisals and evaluates the strength of the evidence submitted to support very large projects seeking federal government funding.

With such a move, Canada should aim to become a global leader in evidence-based infrastructure planning. Without such changes, there is a major risk that the current wave of infrastructure investment across the country will be captured by wasteful spending that does not meet the public interest.

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