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November 26, 2012

Infrastructure must adapt to climate change: Canadian Construction Association

Canada's infrastructure challenge is not just dealing with aging roads and bridges, but preparing infrastructure to withstand climate change as well.

“That one in 100 year storm... it’s not coming one in 100 (years) now, it’s one in every 50 (years) and they’re more severe. So, as a result, there’s been many more instances where weather has overpowered the existing infrastructure,” said Michael Atkinson, president of the Canadian Construction Association (CCA).

“Climate change adaptation, there’s no question that that will be a major theme of infrastructure strategy and planning in Canada going forward.”

This was just one of the examples of the importance of a federal long-term infrastructure plan by the Municipal Infrastructure Forum at a recent press conference stressing the need for sustained long-term infrastructure funding once the current Building Canada Plan expires in 2014.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) started the Forum in February 2012 in partnership with key infrastructure stakeholder groups from across the country to ensure that the right plan is developed for the entire country.

Robert Tremblay, director of research for the Insurance Bureau of Canada, pointed out that Superstorm Sandy is expected to generate insured losses in the $20 billion range for the U.S. Eastern Seaboard.

“What we’ve seen over the past few years is disturbing trends in both wind and water damage. The fastest growing pressure on our infrastructure is the coming of flash rain, wind and ice storms,” he said at a recent Municipal Infrastructure Forum press conference.

Weather events such as the 1998 ice storm, this summer’s hail and rain event in Calgary and climate change effects such as melting permafrost in Canada’s far north are all wreaking havoc on an already stressed infrastructure system.

Adapting to the challenges of a changing climate was one of the five principles the forum would like to see in the new long-term infrastructure plan.

The forum said the plan has to support Canada’s economic growth by making investments that grow with the nation’s population and economy, such as fighting traffic gridlock and building infrastructure that will adapt to climate change.

“As a country we cannot meet these challenges one road repair or one watermain or one sewer backup one at a time. Over the next 10, 20 years, we must invest in storm, sewer and water systems as well as transportation networks designed to withstand the new climatic realities of today,” said Tremblay.

The plan should also provide certainty and predictability to municipalities through a 20-year horizon so they can plan projects.

“The plan must also break the cycle of short-term thinking and short-term funding that allowed our infrastructure deficit to grow in the first place,” said FCM president Karen Leibovici, forum chair.

The forum said the plan needs flexibility as large cities and smaller communities in different regions across the country have different needs.

There is also a need for a balanced approach with smart partnerships.

“A good, prudent infrastructure plan has a host of various methodologies or measures or financing arrangements that can support infrastructure investment and doesn’t try and push one to the detriment of another or doesn’t cause applicants to have to make decisions that they’re going to burn bridges,” said Atkinson.

Building municipal capacity is an important principle as this summer’s National Infrastructure Report Card found that many municipalities do not have any type of asset management plan.

“Part of the municipal infrastructure plan should also be addressing the need to build better abilities, capacities at the municipal level to do a better job of managing infrastructure. That means some kind of help through a federal program to build prudent asset management plans that should be part of an overarching long-term infrastructure plan,” said Atkinson.

The forum said it is critical to see the new long-term infrastructure plan in the federal budget in the spring of 2013 and Atkinson said he is very hopeful.

“In fact, I would be extremely surprised if we didn’t see it in the next budget,” he said.

He said that the federal response has been positive all along.

“They stuck to their existing current plan, despite the fiscal challenges, they’ve also launched pretty early on a comprehensive consultation process leading up to the announcement of the new plan,” he said. “You look at their record over the last several years, the federal government has really come to the table, as it were, in providing its share of the funding for these national programs.”

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