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Canada 150 infrastructure program draws fire

James Jackson
Chronicle Staff
Published June 10, 2015Opponents of the government's new infrastructure fund celebrating Canada's 150th birthday in 2017 say it doesn't do enough to protect municipalities against the threat of more severe weather, such as floods. Image courtesy Metroland.

The federal government’s infrastructure spending plan to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017 is coming under fire by political foes and infrastructure advocates alike.

The Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Program, announced May 15, will provide up to $150 million for community projects across Canada, with $44 million earmarked for southern Ontario.

That fund, however, is “frivolous,” “superficial,” and “very frustrating,” according to Jason Thistlethwaite, associate professor in the school of environment, enterprise and development at the University of Waterloo and director of the Climate Change Adaptation Project, which advocates for cost-effective adaptation techniques to the threat of climate change and increased storm events.

“There’s a finite amount of resources that the government has for spending in a budget, and it just doesn’t seem like the cost-benefit is there for this type of spending,” said Thistlethwaite.

As global temperatures continue to rise, Canada is at an increased risk of flood damage, rising ocean levels and more damaging storms.

The Calgary floods of 2013 and similar floods in Toronto and the GTA that same year are examples of how Canada’s infrastructure is not prepared for worse storms, Thistlethwaite said.

The government fund is designed to help communities with the rehabilitation, renovation and expansion of existing community infrastructure assets, including community centres and legion halls, cultural centres and museums, parks, trails and bike paths, libraries, recreational facilities and cenotaphs.

The government should be spending this money on the infrastructure improvements communities need, not parks and trails, Thistlethwaite said.

“No one is going to remember a new trail after it floods away for the fourth time because you haven’t done the type of work on the river (needed) to manage extreme weather events or extreme rain events,” he said.

Waterloo Conservative MP Peter Braid, parliamentary secretary for infrastructure and communities, said the fund is aimed at celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday and said there’s been no lack of demand for this kind of stimulus funding in Canada.

“We know recreational infrastructure is vital to having livable, vibrant communities,” he said.

The provincial Liberals have criticized the short window of time communities have to get their applications together in time for the funding deadline, which was yesterday in southern Ontario. From the programs announcement in mid-May, municipalities and non-profit groups had less than a month to get their applications submitted.

The Liberals have said they may not be able to match that federal funding given the short turnaround.

“I think the time is appropriate,” said Braid, noting the government wants to give municipalities time to tender projects and have them ready for the next construction season so they can be built in time for celebrations in 2017. “The Wynne Liberals take every opportunity to preach to us about investing in infrastructure, but when we create opportunities to partner they resist them.”

Thistlethwaite said that quick turnaround forces municipalities to select “low-hanging” fruit — easier projects to prepare and submit. Other infrastructure such as local roads, waste management and wastewater services are also eligible for funding, but those applications are more labour-intensive to prepare than a funding application for a paved trail.

Braid’s political opponents for the upcoming election share some concerns.

“Canada has huge infrastructure deficit to repair, including crumbling roads, bridges, sewage and water pipes. We need a serious program to prioritize addressing our real infrastructure needs, not a program that uses tax dollars for political purposes,” said Liberal candidate Bardish Chagger.

“The 150 Fund is a far cry from what Canada’s mayors and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities know we need,” said Green Party candidate Richard Walsh.

NDP candidate Diane Freeman said the small amount of money spread across the country makes it seem like the Conservative government’s goal is to “put up as many signs as possible to say they funded all those projects.”

The City of Waterloo alone estimates its infrastructure deficit is about $250 million, though staff are working on a comprehensive infrastructure assessment to determine the accuracy of that estimate.

The city’s application for the infrastructure fund included improvements to the Trans Canada Trail and the RIM Park baseball facilities. Cassandra Pacey, a financial analyst with the city, said the city’s application process included 11 different staff members and 59 hours of work to select potential projects, write the council report and prepare the application. The process cost an estimated $3,540.

Thistlethwaite said the feds must take more of a leadership role in how the money is spent. “It’s very ad hoc, you’ll have one city decide stormwater systems are a priority and other cities decide that parks are a priority. It speaks to a broader issue that Canada has no national strategy for extreme weather preparedness.”