Hill Times: What we still don’t know about Liberal infrastructure plans

Elizabeth May, M.P. for Saanich-Gulf Islands, Leader of the Green Party of Canada
April 2017

I can only applaud the Liberal government’s focus on attacking the infrastructure deficit. But the picture of what it actually plans to do is still incomplete.

Electric vehicles are parked in front of the Parliament Buildings for Parliamentarians to check out during a demonstration day in 2013. Elizabeth May says Canada needs a new network of charging stations for what she says is a coming revolution in electric vehicles. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

There is no doubt that enormous investments are required in public infrastructure. The deferred maintenance over decades to save dollars in the short term has resulted in a monstrous backlog of public needs that are at the breaking point. Such short-term, politically expedient thinking moved or reduced the fiscal deficit, one government after another, while creating an enormous infrastructure deficit in aging and unsafe bridges, dams, roads, water treatment plants, and lagging, inconvenient, and antiquated public transit.

According to a study by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), one-third of Canada’s municipal infrastructure is at risk of rapid deterioration. The infrastructure deficit for municipalities, according to past FCM estimates, is $123-billion and climbing. And not all infrastructure is municipal. Neglect and slashing of Parks Canada’s budget in the years of Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper has left stretches of public highways, canals, and bridges across Canada in a dangerous state of disrepair.

Climate change adds additional pressures, as our waterworks across Canada were designed for a different climate. Deluge rain events, the kind that used to happen once in 100 years and now happens once in 10, cannot be managed by our aging water treatment plants. Raw sewage routinely bypasses older plants as the volume of rain events threatens the plants, so bypassing is a part of the design.

This cataloguing of dangerous and deteriorating public infrastructure only deals with the systems we once had. But in a decarbonizing economy, we must invest in the infrastructure we need. It is critical that we invest in a modern and efficient east-west electricity grid. We need to identify existing reservoirs ideal for storage of renewable energy generated by wind and solar. And we need a new network of charging stations for the coming revolution in electric vehicles.

I can only applaud the Liberal government’s focus on attacking the infrastructure deficit. But the picture of what it actually plans to do is still incomplete. The 2016 and 2017 budgets are like a dance of the veils. And most of the money being announced will not roll out until after the 2019 election.

The agreements with the provinces on infrastructure are the only place I can find for dealing with the backlog of wastewater treatment, beyond the 746 projects already approved under the Clean Water and Wastewater Fund. Those new bilateral agreements with provinces and territories have a large role in green infrastructure, but the first funding isn’t until 2018-19 ($361-million), with another $393-million in time for an election year. Most of the announced funding is between 2020 and 2022.

The same pattern applies for public transit investments, under the provincial bilateral deals. There’s no funding in 2017-18, then $950-million for 2018-19, and $851-million in 2019-2020. Most of the close to $4-billion by 2022 rolls out after the next election.

It is encouraging that the budget addresses the new generation of infrastructure for a decarbonized economy. But the spending on smart grids and renewable energy storage is relatively modest and, again, doesn’t start until next year ($25-million per year, totalling $100-million by 2022). Electric vehicle charging and refuelling with natural gas and hydrogen stations also made it into the budget, starting next year at $30-million per year.

Meanwhile, the biggest question mark rests on the central piece of this effort: the infrastructure bank. Depending on the details, the Green Party may support this.

A key issue for Greens is will it involve privatizing public assets? That is a move we will oppose. I am very concerned that the idea of selling off our airports and harbours has not yet been fully rejected.

If the infrastructure bank mobilizes capital for needed investments, that’s great. If it accesses loans at the very low interest rates only the federal government can access, that’s great. But if it is a scam involving public-private projects where the public interest is sidelined for projects that deliver profits to the private sector and less support for what we share in common, then we will oppose it. We all await the details in promised legislation.

Elizabeth May is the Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C. and leader of the Green Party of Canada.

This article was originally published by The Hill Times, available at: https://www.hilltimes.com/2017/04/12/still-dont-know-liberal-infrastructure-plans/102833