Toronto Star's View: Cut strings attached to...
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Feb 08, 2016  |  Vote 0    0

Toronto Star's View: Cut strings attached to federal funding

Ottawa needs to give cities infrastructure money that has few strings attached in order to get projects going in time for the summer construction season

OurWindsor.Ca

When responding to a crisis speed matters, and not just for cardiac patients requiring an ambulance. Canada’s ailing economy desperately needs an adrenalin surge delivered through a timely injection of infrastructure funding.

There’s some comfort in hearing federal officials say they are both aware of the problem and hurrying to act, especially in delivering new money to hard-pressed cities. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau assured Canadians on Friday that a “responsible and rapid” flow of infrastructure dollars is a priority of his government.

That’s all for the good — but it would be even better if cities had cash already in hand.

Canada’s economy is struggling with the repercussions of rock-bottom oil prices, weak values for other commodities, and a faltering stock market. Businesses are folding and jobs are being lost.

Municipalities across the country could quickly put people to work fixing roads, building bridges, improving public transit, repairing public housing, and a filling host of other unmet needs. If they only had the money.

Canada’s big city mayors, including Toronto’s John Tory, made that case when they met privately ith Trudeau and six cabinet ministers this past week. It’s vital to roll out a large portion of the money promised for municipal infrastructure before the start of the summer construction season, just a few months away. With a federal budget expected in March, that doesn’t leave a great deal of time for cities to issue tenders and get shovels in the ground.

One way to pick up the pace would be to forego some of the complicated procedures that Ottawa bureaucrats usually attach as conditions for federal funding.

These typically involve strict criteria limiting how money can be spent. Cash is commonly doled out only for incurred project costs.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has, quite rightly, pointed out that a better way would be to proceed through speedy block grants, giving municipalities wide discretion on deploying federal dollars.

To his credit, Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi has publicly recognized the value of a fast-track approach. “We need to have . . . few strings attached to the funding, keeping in mind the outcomes we want to achieve,” he told reporters after seeing the mayors. “They know better than me, as a federal minister, what their needs are.”

Sohi noted that two summer construction seasons had been “lost” due to the previous Conservative government’s slow allocation of infrastructure funding. As a result, between $7 billion and $9 billion was left unspent — money that could have gone a long way in stimulating the economy and mending our frayed urban fabric.

“I don’t want to lose another construction season,” Sohi said. Neither do Canada’s mayors, or the thousands of businesses and people anxious to put this sputtering economy in gear.

Ottawa gave mayors good reason to cheer last month when it announced that municipalities would be allowed to use infrastructure dollars, at least over the next few years, to cover repairs and upgrades to existing assets.

Federal money usually goes to new construction. But cities, large and small, haven’t been able to properly maintain the infrastructure they already have. It makes sense to shore up a crumbling municipal foundation instead of simply building on top of it. And work on a long-needed fix can generally be launched faster than contracts for a groundbreaking project.

To generate optimum results, this worthwhile initiative should be backed up by a hands-off approach that would give municipalities broad flexibility in how they spend infrastructure money.

Speed is of the essence. It would be heartbreaking if cities lost yet another construction season due to federal sluggishness.

Toronto Star

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