OTTAWA—One month after Premier Doug Ford unveiled his plan for trains and subways in the GTA, Ottawa and Queen’s Park appear to be talking past each other about how to pay for the $28.5-billion transit overhaul.
The federal infrastructure minister says he still doesn’t know how Ontario plans to roll ahead with its GTA transit plan, even as his counterpart at Queen’s Park accuses his government of being “silent” on the proposal.
The plan calls for up to $11.4 billion from the federal government, but it’s not clear how much of that money could be drawn from an existing, provincewide funding deal for transit with the federal government, which includes $4.9 billion already committed to projects in Toronto.
“We’ve been asking the questions to the Ford government to better explain how they intend to do that,” Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagne told a news conference Thursday.
“Expressing a new vision, through a presentation which was pretty short on details—we are asking the same questions you have: What do you intend to do? What do you want to prioritize?” he said.
“What Premier Ford presented looked more like a presentation than a plan to me.”
Ontario Infrastructure Minister Monte McNaughton shot right back, stating in an email to the Star that Ottawa has actually “been silent on our government’s historic investment” in GTA transit. He said the plan will ease gridlock across the region, and accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of preferring to squabble with Queen’s Park than to “pick up a shovel.”
“We are looking for acknowledgement from the federal Liberal government that the transit projects we have unveiled are the types they would fund,” McNaughton said.
The exchange came after Champagne presented a report Thursday outlining progress on the federal government’s massive infrastructure plan, which cranks up spending to $188 billion for projects across Canada over the 12 years between 2016 and 2028. So far, Champagne said 48,000 projects have been approved at the cost of $42.3 billion — almost a quarter of the money for the plan — and “nearly all” of those projects are either complete or nearly finished.
While insisting the plan is “on time and on track,” Champagne said he would like to see future projects approved quicker. As with Ontario’s plan for transit in the GTA, Champagne said Ottawa is “dependent” on provinces to identify and approve infrastructure projects with municipalities that can receive federal funding.
With the summer construction season setting in, he said it is important that provinces — particularly those with relatively new governments, like Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick — prioritize projects for funding from the federal infrastructure plan.
“This is money already on the table. So, clearly, because the process is the province needs to identify and prioritize (projects), you would appreciate as the federal government, we would like things to flow faster,” he said.
“Politics has no place in infrastructure,” he added. “I think, at the end of the day, we want the same thing … This is a long term nation-building endeavour.”
During the 2015 election, the Liberals promised to run deficits to fund an infrastructure blitz that would spur economic growth and solve persistent problems like urban traffic congestion and unsafe drinking water on First Nations reserves. While the deficit is now bigger and longer-lasting than they promised — a fact that is frequently highlighted by the Conservative opposition—Champagne insisted the infrastructure spending is going to be worth it.
Citing data from Finance Canada, he said the program will create 100,000 jobs across the country and increase the national gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.4 per cent by 2021.
Beyond that, he pointed to what he called “the enabling factor” — the yet-to-be-determined benefits of better bridges, roads, water treatment systems and transit corridors that he said will attract quality employers to set up shop in Canada and ease the flow of trade. For example, he said the project to widen the Trans Canada highway in B.C.’s Lower Mainland will make for smoother export of goods from the Port of Vancouver to countries that are part of the new Pacific trade agreement.
“You’re investing billions of dollars, but at the same time, you’re facilitating trade in the order of billions per year and you’re building an asset that will be there for generations,” Champagne said. “I think that Canadians who are watching us will understand that’s not only the right thing to do to make sure that trade will continue, but it’s the smart thing to do because that will allow (us) to sustain economic activity.
“This is not spending. I say it’s investing.”
After Champagne’s news conference, Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux released a statement that claimed the Liberal infrastructure spending isn’t creating the economic growth that was promised.
In March, the Parliamentary Budget Officer published a report that found provincial spending on infrastructure was $5.4 billion lower since 2016, suggesting provincial funding was “displaced” by money from Ottawa. As a result, real GDP growth in 2016-17 was slightly lower (0.16 or 0.17 per cent) than it would have been if provincial infrastructure spending didn’t drop, the report found.
“Canadians deserve a government that will work with municipalities and ensure the infrastructure projects they need are delivered on time and on budget,” Jeneroux said.
“The Liberal infrastructure plan is another example of how the Trudeau government is all talk and no action.”
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga