February 20, 2010

FEATURE | Roadbuilding & Surveying

Western Roadbuilders Conference panel discussion focuses on infrastructure


The changing face of Canada’s infrastructure policy will be the central topic of a panel discussion at this year’s Western Canadian Roadbuilders & Heavy Construction Association (WCRHCA) annual convention.

The 90-minute presentation, moderated by WCRHCA president Chris Lorenc, will gather together a panel of industry experts, who will examine a number of facets surrounding the issue. It will begin with an overview of the condition of infrastructure in Canada and will move on to tackle infrastructure investment from an economist’s perspective, public sector decision making, infrastructure investing and opportunities and closing with what lies ahead in terms of developing new public policy to fund Canada’s infrastructure needs in the future.

Lorenc said that there has been a major effort in Canada at all three levels of government to begin catching up on the country’s infrastructure deficit, which he places at about $123 billion for core municipal infrastructure (streets, sewer, water, sidewalks, land, bridges and culverts) and an additional estimated $100 billion for Canada’s highways.

He estimated that the municipal infrastructure requirements for the four western provinces currently stand at about $50 billion.

“I think the mood in the country, if I have a sense of the read of general public opinion, is that there is a recognition that municipalities have a challenge and that there needs to be some kind of a rearrangement of the fiscal arrangements between Ottawa, the provinces and municipalities,” Lorenc said, noting that municipalities generally survive on property taxes.

Lorenc said he believes it is essential for municipalities to have access to new revenue streams that are dedicated, transparent, and which municipalities would be accountable for with respect to infrastructure investment outcomes.

“I think the public understands that nothing comes for free, and that if we are going to give greater latitude and flexibility, and/or new revenue streams to municipalities, they in turn must be transparent, they must be dedicated, and they must be held accountable,” he said.

“I think also that the public recognizes that the investments made by the federal government over the last number of years, and in particular with the accelerated stimulus programs, were a good move, that they did address a real problem, and that it would be counterproductive to simply turn off the taps of investment on the altar of restoring balanced budgets.”

Lorenc explained that under Prime Minister Paul Martin, the federal government began allocating fuel taxes to municipalities, a program that was made permanent under Stephen Harper’s government.

The WCRHCA president said that investment in Canada’s infrastructure was accelerated when the recession began, but stimulus funding had been preceded by programs, including the Asia Pacific Gateway Corridor Initiative and others that recognized the important role that trade transportation plays in Canada’s economic growth, and invested in transportation assets and municipal infrastructure.

“We are coming to an end to many of those policies,” Lorenc said.

“So the question that confronts us now is: Having gone into deficit investment, do we stop the stimulus program? If we do, is that counterproductive to their stated purpose and intentions in the first place? Should we be looking at a moderated reemerging back to balanced budgets? What is the sustainable level of investment in infrastructure that, as a nation, we ought to be investing? What are those priority investments? What are the linkages between competitiveness of our economy and a well-maintained infrastructure? What have been some of the governance obstacles with the three levels of government, and what are some of the funding options? And how do we take all of that information and package it into a public relations / government relations strategy with the general public?

Lorenc hopes to address these and other question during a moderated panel on the last day of the conference in Scottsdale, Arizona on Mar.10.

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