By David Nesseth
When a major Canadian infrastructure report card was released just a week and a half before the federal election, it was no surprise to those who created it that pipes and pumps didn’t instantly become front of mind for politicians on the campaign path, let alone eager voters awaiting policy planks.
But as politicians old and new settle into their roles, it will be the mission for many industry associations, and those same report card creators, to lobby for policy that pulls from the new report’s data, and fight for funding to flow freely, with certainty, to municipalities that need it.
“This was an election campaign that, unfortunately for everyone, had more to do with kitchen table pocketbook issues, which are fine, but it’s in the absence of a broader vision for the Canadian economy,” says John Gamble, president and CEO of the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies, one of eight groups that co-produced this third iteration of the infrastructure report card.
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While not intended to be a political document, despite the timing of its release, the report card, which draws from the federally-administered Canada’s Core Public Infrastructure Survey, is designed to take stock of Canadian infrastructure and prevent it from becoming out of sight, out of mind until something finally breaks and gets noticed.
“We don’t want complacency and I think that the report card results bear that out,” explains Gamble. “We’re basically holding our ground, but not moving the needle in terms of newer and more reliable infrastructure.”
The findings in the Infrastructure Report Card are of little surprise to those within the industry, and will likely be of little surprise to policymakers soon to be poring over the new numbers. The report’s bottom line is that “a concerning amount of municipal infrastructure is in poor or very poor condition,” and that “an even larger proportion of municipal infrastructure is in fair condition.” These points are combined with the fact that the report warns that the “majority of the infrastructure that Canadians rely on every day is more than 20 years old.”
Infrastructure cash has theoretically been plentiful in recent years, particularly when the Liberal government earmarked $188 billion over 12 years for projects throughout the country. But on this same front, suggests Mary Van Buren, president of the Canadian Construction Association, is the reality that Ontario got less than 25% of its 2018 funding commitment.
“And I think there are another eight provinces and territories in the same boat,” says Van Buren.
All in all, the federal parliamentary budget concluded in March that, over the last two years, Ottawa spent only 60% of its allocated infrastructure budget. However, in August, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced what essentially amounted to a top-up of the federal Gas Tax Fund to the tune of $1.6 billion for Ontario municipalities. Still, the industry will have to wait to get the ultimate results on how those funds finally flow.
Gamble says that what gets forgotten is that, despite significant federal-provincial government investment, municipalities end up paying some 93% of the cost when a project’s overall life cycle is ultimately considered. It is usually the owner, and often the municipality, that are responsible for the ongoing maintenance and operations.
Van Buren, too, says she understands why voters get locked into questions around household-focused issues such as healthcare and education during an election campaign, noting that “infrastructure is not something that rolls off the tip of the tongue for the average Canadian. We’re not thinking about the fact that to have health and education we need roads to connect people, and we need hospitals and schools to be built.”
With the Liberals’ minority parliament win in the rearview mirror, Van Buren knows it will soon be time to start revisiting strategies around infrastructure funding, while charting a path forward with some new bigger-picture ideas that associations can float to government.
“We need to make sure Canada remains competitive because we have fallen behind other countries. We need a longer timeline to align our people, align our resources, our projects, all with a shortfall of workers,” she adds. It is one of the reasons the Canadian Construction Association is pushing its 25-year plan concept, which was revealed in the spring under the hashtag #Construction4CDNs. Van Buren says a 25-year blueprint for infrastructure spending will ensure assets are routinely monitored and restored, preventing them from falling into states of disrepair.
Gamble agrees that more planning is necessary, but hopes Canada can eventually move in a direction where there are no guessing games around infrastructure funding. “When we discuss healthcare, nobody says: ‘Hey, here’s a 10-year program, here’s a 25-year program, and when that’s up I guess we’ll see what happens.’”
Gamble hopes to see a move away from funding on a project-by-project basis where there is no certainty around what may or may not be approved. He intends to lobby for the use of municipal asset management plans as a responsible and strategic approach to growing infrastructure, especially in denser urban areas.
Like Van Buren, Gamble is also concerned about “back-end loaded” projects, meaning a significant amount of the funding appears near the project’s completion. This late funding creates issues around managing capacity for both labour and materials.
“Everything’s going to be spread very thin, which can lead to paying a premium for infrastructure assets,” says Gamble, who adds that there have been some trends away from 1 to 2 year stimulus programs towards 10 and 12-year stimulus programs. “The reality is that the further away the money is in the distance, the more it is at risk,” he says.
David Nesseth is a writer for ES&E Magazine. This article appears in ES&E Magazine’s December 2019 issue.