Local governments to set infrastructure project priorities: minister

Amarjeet Sohi explains the Liberals' 'two-phase' infrastructure plan, a change from the original campaign promise

RICHMOND, B.C. – Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi says provinces and municipalities will set their own priorities for how to use billions in new infrastructure funding tabled in the federal Liberals’ first budget this week.

Sohi spoke to an audience of business people and local politicians Thursday in Richmond, B.C., as part of cross-country tours by Liberal cabinet ministers to sell the benefits of their maiden budget.

After being questioned by municipal leaders on the budget’s omission of British Columbia’s priority project, the George Massey Tunnel replacement, Sohi told reporters that it’s up to provinces and cities to decide how to invest new funds.

“Our goal is to ensure that we enable municipalities to make local decisions,” he said. “We’re here to support, and the first phase of the funds will be so flexible that they’ll be able to prioritize and use the funds best to do their repairs, to do their rehabilitation, to modernize their infrastructure.”

On the campaign trail, the Liberals made revamping Canada’s crumbling infrastructure a major selling point to voters with a promise to invest $10-billion over the next two years.

But the budget showed that over this year and next, the government will spend $6.8 billion. The Liberals say the short-term “first phase” of their plan — totalling $11.9-billion over five years — will target the country’s aging infrastructure and help protect it from climate change.

Most of the spending in the Liberals’ infrastructure plan is set to occur after 2019, when the next federal election is scheduled. That’s part of phase two that the government says will be broader and more ambitious by targeting large-scale projects that often take years to plan and start construction.

Sohi said the reason the Liberals are taking a two-phased approach is to listen to municipalities and work with them in consultation, and not “impose something that they may not like.”

“We have seen that done by the previous government. We will not do that,” he said. “We need to work with them, and we need to design our plan that is nimble enough, that is flexible enough to meet the needs of diverse communities throughout the country.”

He said mayors have been supportive of the approach and his government aims to create a delivery plan that will have “very few” strings attached.

The government has committed to paying up to half the cost of infrastructure projects, signalling an end to the traditional model where cities, provinces and Ottawa each covered one-third. Sohi said the government made the decision after listening to municipalities and recognizing they have a limited capacity to match their share.

“We are proud to do so because we feel that federal government has a greater and larger role to play in supporting community municipal infrastructure,” he said.

The budget included cash for light rail in Metro Vancouver, but made no mention of the B.C. government’s top infrastructure priority to replace the George Massey Tunnel with a $3.5-billion bridge.

During a question-and-answer session with Sohi, Delta Mayor Lois Jackson urged the minister to support the project, while Richmond Coun. Harold Steves mounted a case in opposition to the bridge and said an environmental review was needed.

The minister said the province has not put forward a funding application to Infrastructure Canada, and when it does so his ministry will review it. He added there was about $9-billion in existing Building Canada funds that has not been invested by the previous Conservative government.

He said he had a strong working relationship with B.C.’s Transportation Minister Todd Stone and Minister Responsible for TransLink Peter Fassbender and was planning to meet with them later Thursday.

“We understand the priorities of the province and will work to ensure we are assisting them in meeting those priorities.”