Column: The Liberals promised an ambitious infrastructure plan. Now let’s hold them to it

Post Date: Monday, November 09, 2015

The following column by Mayor Naheed Nenshi appears in the November 9, 2015 edition of the National Post.

It feels odd to still be writing about the federal election, but now is the time to reflect on promises made during the campaign. Unlike some recent elections that weren’t about anything, this one was about too many things. Yet they were often either the wrong things — such as the irrelevant, angry debate about a cloth square — or the right things framed in impossibly partisan terms — the Syrian refugee crisis should have united us as Canadians rather than divided us.

It’s into this environment that Canada’s big city mayors attempted to bring some focus on areas that really matter, such as how we reduce congestion and cut peoples’ commutes; how we help Canadians find decent places to live; and how we can build the infrastructure we need to make sure our cities can continue to attract the investment necessary to create jobs.

That’s why I launched the Cities Matter survey during this election, which asked all the major political parties to commit to their promises regarding cities.

Every party responded, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that all the major parties had a good depth of understanding of the issues that face OUR cities. As they should: 80 per cent of Canadians live in cities, while 72 per cent of Canada’s GDP is generated in cities. The issues facing cities are truly Canadian issues.

But what was more important was that the Liberal Party of Canada, our new governing party, put its cities platform on paper for Canadians to review and return to. Believe me: I intend to revisit CitiesMatter.ca many times over the next four years to review those election promises.

So, what are those promises for our cities and the citizens who live in them?

The Liberals made bold commitments for major investments in public transit and infrastructure, including continuing the previous Conservative government’s $1.53-billion commitment to Calgary’s Green Line LRT project. The new federal government’s spending will not only be focused on “traditional” infrastructure projects like transit, ports, bridges and roads, but widened to include social infrastructure like affordable housing, facilities for seniors, early learning and child care centres, cultural and recreational infrastructure, as well as “green infrastructure.”

The Liberals differed from the other parties in terms of how they promised to deliver infrastructure funding. While the NDP and the Conservatives wanted to invest in infrastructure while balancing the budget and letting the provinces and municipalities take on the debt, the Liberals plan to spend $125 billion over the next decade and they are willing to take on debt up front to do it — by running modest $10-billion deficits over the next three years.

The Liberals also said that they will automatically transfer any uncommitted federal infrastructure funds near the end of any fiscal year to municipalities, through a temporary top-up of the Gas Tax Fund. This funding mechanism provides one of most efficient and flexible ways of transferring funding to cities.

It’s clear that under the Liberal plan, Canadians can expect more rapid-transit lines built in our largest cities, along with comprehensive investments in a wide range of infrastructure needs. It is an ambitious plan that, if implemented well, will keep many Canadians employed fixing our infrastructure deficit for years to come.

The most significant opportunity to improve quality of life in our country is through affordable housing. I was thrilled that the leaders’ debate on the economy included a question about this issue, but not as thrilled when all three leaders present seemed surprised to be asked the question.

To be fair, the Liberals did promise to develop a National Housing Strategy and set aside $20 billion over 10 years for social infrastructure like affordable and seniors housing. They are also proposing tax incentives to encourage construction and renovation of market rental housing.

The Liberals are vague on how exactly these mechanisms would work. They are equally vague on how they would modernize the existing Home Buyers’ Plans, or how much of that $20 billion will be used on affordable housing, as the same fund is already committed to invest in child care spaces, cultural, recreational and other priorities. What is clear, however, is that we need new approaches and new ideas on housing across this country and Canada’s big city mayors are committed to being at the table as partners with this government.

The Liberals have shown that they have considered municipal issues and have proposed a variety of different policy solutions. There’s a lot more in our survey — from urban aboriginal issues and immigration, to poverty and economic development — and I hope all Canadians have a look at it at CitiesMatter.ca.

The next step: all citizens have to hold this government accountable for the commitments it has made and ensure that it lives up to its obligation to build a better Canada for all.