Will somebody somewhere please build something?

OPINION: It takes forever to get infrastructure built in this country. Canadians had better hope things don’t get worse
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Sep 27, 2019
Any serious climate plan will necessarily involve improved rail service between the largest cities in the largest provinces. (iStock.com/mbbirdy)



In June, the government of Canada announced the next incremental step toward establishing higher-speed train service between Quebec City and Toronto. Transport Minister Marc Garneau, in partnership with the federal infrastructure bank, announced $71 million in funding to help Via Rail proceed with the planning and development of its proposal, which would see faster and more frequent train service on tracks owned and controlled by Via.

It’s good to see the feds making some progress on this issue — after all, any serious climate plan will necessarily involve improved rail service between the largest cities in the largest provinces. But this writer is cranky nevertheless, for the simple reason that Via’s former CEO, Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, who was replaced earlier this year, spent his entire term talking about this plan, and yet it’s still in the report-writing stage. It would be one thing if the Liberals thought the proposal simply wasn’t worth the money, but that’s clearly not the case: they’re spending tens of millions of dollars on it.

So why do we have to wait until at least Justin Trudeau’s second mandate before we’ll get to see any tangible progress? One possible answer is that the Liberals had a great deal of trouble setting up the aforementioned Canada Infrastructure Bank. The idea behind the agency was to get large institutional investors (pensions, for example) to help fund major infrastructure projects. The Via proposal was pitched as a public-private partnership from the beginning, so it’s likely that Ottawa put it on the backburner while it got the CIB up and running. Understandable, but frustrating.

But the problem goes beyond trains. Canada has infrastructure problems galore, and even when projects don’t go over schedule or overbudget, they can still be painfully slow (there’s a reason we’ve reported on the need for “fast infrastructure” here on TVO.org before). Yet the fact that infrastructure is consistently more expensive to build in North America than it is elsewhere is something that policymakers tend to greet with a shrug. It costs what it costs, right?

But these problems — long timelines, large budgets — reach into every area of policy. The Liberals have spent substantially to end boil-water advisories in Indigenous communities, but many still have no access to clean drinking water. The recent crisis in Neskantaga First Nation shows just how precarious the situation can be for some of Canada’s most vulnerable populations — and Grassy Narrows chief Rudy Turtle pointed out another problem when he spoke with TVO.org this week: although the area’s water-purification plant is being fixed, the community is growing quickly enough that the facility will need to be replaced within five years just to meet demand. That new plant will take years to plan and build, and even a minor delay could mean water-service restrictions that people in big cities would never accept but that Indigenous people are forced to.

Delays also make it hard to address regional inequalities. It’s no secret that rural areas have a harder time accessing high-speed internet services, for example, nor is it surprising that the government may need to step in to subsidize such services. But, even in 2019, businesses depend on more than just the internet, and the Ontario Liberals weren’t even able to complete a task as relatively simple as four-laning Highway 69 to Sudbury during their 15 years in power. And Sudbury is just the beginning of the north’s road-related needs: climate change is increasingly threatening the region’s winter roads.

Addressing climate change is going to require massive infrastructure expenditures, on everything from clean energy to public transit to disaster mitigation. A report this week from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates that cities and towns will need “no less than $1 billion a year for 20 years” from Ottawa to help them adapt to climate change.

If building infrastructure projects keeps getting slower and more expensive, it’s likely that the list of vulnerable places and people will end up being longer than the list of places we can afford to protect.

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