OTTAWA — Ottawa’s point man in charge of infrastructure says he is keen to quickly roll out billions of dollars in funding for urban projects in time for this summer’s construction season.
Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi said the past two summer seasons have been “lost” and between $7 billion and $9 billion of infrastructure funding allocated by the previous Conservative government has gone unspent.
“I don’t want to lose another construction season,” Sohi said Thursday, adding that Ottawa’s relationship with towns and cities will be “very critical” to getting the money to the communities “as soon as possible.”
The mayors of Canada’s largest urban centres met with Sohi Thursday about Ottawa’s infrastructure strategy, with a focus on transit and affordable housing.
The mayors are scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday, along with Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Immigration Minister John McCallum.
The Liberals swept to office last fall partly on the strength of a campaign pledge to almost double Ottawa’s investments in infrastructure spending over the next 10 years to nearly $125 billion, up from $65 billion.
Those promised additional investments include $20 billion earmarked for public transit, another $20 billion for social infrastructure, such as affordable housing and recreational buildings, and $20 billion for green infrastructure, such as water and wastewater facilities.
Mayors cheered Sohi’s announcement last month that municipalities would be able to use federal funding in the early years for repairs and upgrades to existing infrastructure. That’s a relief for towns and cities facing big bills for needed investments to existing roads, bridges, housing and transit networks.
Sohi said Thursday that he wants to give broad flexibility to municipalities to spend the infrastructure cash as they see fit, within the broad goals set by Ottawa.
He said that Ottawa must respect decisions taken at the local level, noting that projects endorsed by municipalities have typically gone through a long process of consultation.
“They know better than me as a federal minister what their needs are,” Sohi said. “So we need to have as few strings attached to the funding.”
That was music to the ears of mayors on hand for Thursday’s meeting.
“We absolutely agree that flexibility is vital,” said Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.
Sohi said again that Ottawa is open to reviewing the traditional formula in a bid to get projects moving. Infrastructure projects have usually been split equally between the federal, provincial and municipal governments.
“I absolutely understand the challenges that cities face . . . We are open to adjusting the current formula,” Sohi said.