Thank you, everyone, and good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me once again to talk about our long-term infrastructure plan. It's nice to be back. I'm joined by my staff members, who will assist us in the presentation and in answering the committee's questions.
I know that you have been hearing from many different organizations and people including the Parliamentary Budget Officer in doing your study. I want to thank you for conducting this study, because it's going to help us understand the importance of infrastructure.
I'd like to address some of the concerns that have been raised during those presentations.
During the Parliamentary Budget Officer's appearance, the committee asked about the risk and history of lapsed funding. Let me assure all of you that infrastructure funding does not lapse. Money that goes unspent in a given year is re-profiled to future years to ensure that it remains available for the projects and the programs to which it's allocated.
Our partner organizations know and understand this, and you have heard from some of them. The FCM, FQM, and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario all noted that they are not concerned about how federal funding flows to projects. They did, however, note the quickness with which bilateral agreements are being signed, considering the complexity. They know that as soon as decisions are made, projects can start immediately.
When we were developing our investing in Canada infrastructure plan, we worked in very close collaboration with those organizations, as well as with our provincial, territorial, municipal, and indigenous partners. From these consultations came our plan, designed to help grow the economy, build inclusive communities, and support a low-carbon green economy.
Our plan is being rolled out in two phases and delivered by 14 federal departments. The first phase involves 34 programs and is $14.4 billion. All of these programs are now launched, and more than 28,000 projects have been approved, for a federal investment of more than $11 billion.
Let me give you a few examples of what this means for our communities.
Aboriginal head start is an important program that focuses on childhood development for first nations, Inuit, and Métis children and their families living off reserve. Under the first phase of our plan, 100 sites across Canada have completed projects that enhance accessibility, health, and safety, provide outdoor learning opportunities, and address special needs. More than 4,000 children and their families are benefiting from these investments, gaining knowledge of their indigenous culture and language in spaces that are healthier and have access to up-to-date learning tools.
In New Brunswick, federal investments through Natural Resources Canada have helped to create the province's first electric vehicle charging network. Electric vehicle owners are now able to drive worry-free while helping to reduce our carbon footprint.
In Vancouver, more than 40% of the SkyTrain's stations have now been outfitted with radio frequency identification technology, allowing customers who are physically impaired to pass through the fare gates unassisted.
In Edmonton, my home city, recent upgrades to Balwin Place provide 25 much-needed new affordable housing spaces to support our most vulnerable citizens. These spaces represent a safe haven and stability for families, providing them with the opportunity to be a student and learn, to be a neighbour, to find work, and to connect with the community.
While supporting these early projects, we're working closely with our partners to develop a long-term plan to support large-scale projects that require longer timelines to plan and design. My department is now working closely with our partners to sign the bilateral agreements that will flow $33 billion over the life of this plan.
Employment and Social Development Canada has signed almost all of its bilateral agreements with provinces and territories under the $7 billion early learning and child care program.
I'm also proud to say that today signed the first ever housing strategy, long-term housing agreement with the Province of Ontario. Transport Canada has launched its $2-billion national trade corridors fund and is reviewing more than 100 project applications from across Canada.
As you have heard from the mayor of Edmonton and chair of the Big City Mayors' Caucus, Don Iveson, we listened to municipalities. We value local government as partners, and they know that. By investing in improved transit services, we are giving families more time together. By investing in upgraded water treatment facilities, we are giving parents peace of mind that the water their children drink is safe. By investing in affordable housing, we are giving women and children fleeing domestic violence a safe place to live.
We're eager to build on our successes, and continue to invest in the infrastructure projects that will make real differences in the lives of Canadians from coast to coast to coast.
Thank you so much for having me.
Well, Minister, the government's budget of a couple of years ago projected 0.6% GDP growth because of its infrastructure investments, which is roughly $12 billion a year, but the PBO says that we can only expect about 0.2%, one-fifth of one per cent of GDP growth, which is only $4 billion a year, as a result of these infrastructure investments. Therefore, we've lost half a per cent of projected GDP growth because of the government's inaction on infrastructure.
In terms of jobs, the PBO reports that only about 11,000 in the last year can be attributed to the government's infrastructure plans. There again, that is far less than what was projected in the government's own documents several years ago.
I'd also say that the much-touted figure that Canada has the best GDP growth in the G7 is somewhat misleading, because we don't have very good per capita GDP growth. At the end of the day, if you've got high rates of population growth, that masks per capita GDP growth. It you look at our per capita numbers, it's roughly half of one per cent over the next three years, on the government's own GDP projections. It's actually quite abysmal GDP growth, and that's the reason why Canadians are racking up so much household debt, just to afford the cost of living.
I want to ask you another question. Will you admit that at a minimum, the government hasn't been forthcoming with information on infrastructure? The PBO has reported that it was difficult to get information from government departments and agencies. It reported in March that only some 10,000 projects were identified in phase one of the government's plan, and then on April 19, you came forward with more information that some 20,000 projects had been identified. Every several months, there seems to be new information that's different or that changes the story.
Our worry, as members of Parliament, is that the government doesn't have a handle on its $188-billion, 12-year plan. It's one of the largest initiatives of the Government of Canada, and we don't have a great deal of confidence that the various departments and agencies of the government have a good handle on the overall plan, where the money's going to be spent, and how we're going to ensure the maximum return for Canadians' tax dollars.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you very much, Minister, for being here.
Further to the parliamentary budget officer's economic and fiscal analysis, I felt the need to put forward a motion, which is what led the committee to do this study. I'd like to thank the committee members for supporting that motion.
As the new critic for infrastructure and communities, I need to gain a better understanding of certain things, as we all do, for that matter. Your infrastructure promises have given municipalities, provinces, and territories great expectations.
Today's study is important because it will help set the record straight as far as meeting those expectations goes. Before becoming an MP, I was a city councillor. Municipalities have a very clear understanding of their infrastructure requirements. They know exactly what new infrastructure they need. They have plans for upgrading existing infrastructure. The same goes for provinces and territories. Quebec has long had five-year infrastructure plans, and municipalities are always eager to find out what those plans are.
All that to say this is an important study.
I'm going to pick up on my fellow member's question about the bilateral agreements. You answered it in part, but I'd like to know whether you have set a deadline for signing all of the agreements.
Construction season is around the corner, but, as you said in your presentation, projects cannot get under way until the agreements have been signed.
What impact will those delays have? What steps are you going to take to minimize the repercussions on cities and municipalities?
First of all, I want to again thank you for the motion as well as the committee's willingness to do this study. We're looking forward to the recommendations. We want to be open, we want to be transparent, and we want to work with other colleagues to improve where improvements need to be made.
On the bilateral agreements, I want to assure everyone that whenever we get an application for an assessment of a project, we don't hold that project back because we don't have a signed bilateral agreement. To be very clear, we have actually approved projects prior to signing a bilateral agreement, based on the needs of our provincial and municipal partners. Rest assured: no project will be held back as long as our partners are ready to advance those projects.
We had an aspirational date of March 31 for us to be ready to sign bilateral agreements, and we are ready. We have been ready for the last number of months. The issue is just one of timing. As you can appreciate, a number of provinces have gone through their budget processes, and one province in particular has gone through a leadership change. We want to give them time so that they're ready to sign those bilateral agreements. From a federal perspective, we're ready whenever they're ready, but we respect their timeline and we want to make sure that they are ready to sign as well.
Minister, thank you for being here.
I will be concentrating my thoughts and questions on the returns on the investments that we are making, the outcomes, as well as the manner in which we can deliver results based on those investments.
You mentioned earlier that we have the highest economic growth in over 40 years, the lowest unemployment rate, and offsetting costs of local property taxpayers and waste-water rate fares through investments.
What I also see is a theme with respect to the economic, environmental, and social programs through our infrastructure programs, infrastructure strategy, that you have put forward. We have a trade corridor strategy, we have the affordable housing strategy, and the oceans protection plan We have lakes renewal, ports modernization, navigable waters, smart cities, superclusters, and the overall $180-billion infrastructure program that you announced two years ago. This offers equality, safety, security, environmental stewardship, and economic stability.
Mr. Minister, you also mentioned the sustainable funding envelope and the partnerships that you have created. I say “you” because, since 2005 the last Liberal government put in the gas tax as well as—correct me if I'm wrong, Madam Chair—the new deal for cities, and now you've expanded from that by including our partners, the provinces as well as the municipalities, through the strategic plans and their incorporation of community improvement plans.
Going back to my initial comments, in terms of returns and outcomes, what are your thoughts with all that being brought into perspective with all the different ministries working together to achieve those outcomes? What are your thoughts on overall outcomes that you're expecting, not only this year and next year, but 10 years down the road, as these investments are brought into place?
As I said earlier on, the objective of our government is to make sure that we are helping grow the economy in a way that works for everyone, that more Canadians have access to middle-class, well-paying jobs, and that those Canadians who work hard each and every day to be part of the middle class are given the opportunity to be part of the middle class. Investment into affordable housing, for example, will allow Canadians to succeed to be part of the economy. That's the kind of outcome that we are looking for, one that builds people's capacity to take on opportunities.
Investing in trade corridors will make our economy more efficient by reducing gridlock and improving of the flow of goods and services in an efficient way. That's the kind of outcome we are looking for, such as access to public transportation so people have more sustainable choices to move around. That's the outcome.
The overall, broader plan is working really well, but also acknowledges that our country is very diverse, not just culturally, but also geographically. We need to be mindful of the needs of every community, not just big cities or mid-sized cities. We need to be paying attention to small communities and to rural and northern communities, so the creation of the $2-billion dedicated funding for those communities is going to help them prioritize what they need and help them meet their needs through federal dollars.
Mr. Minister, this committee in particular is very much working with infrastructure, communities, and transport. How critical do you think it is for us to look a little bit more outside the box when it comes to our domestic market, to include our partners' markets as well? What I mean by that is, when we begin to make bigger infrastructure investments, especially with respect to trade corridors, do you feel it's very important for us to integrate those investments with our American neighbours? We look at rail, we look at highways, we look at bridges, and we look at overall trade corridors. We look at the St. Lawrence, the Great Lakes, and infrastructure investments that would align with those strategies. How important do you feel it is for us to begin proactively integrating our infrastructure investments with our American partners?
When we rolled out the infrastructure in budget 2016, we were very deliberate about doing it in two stages.
Stage one in budget 2016, $14.4 billion, which you are studying, focused on repairs, rehabilitation, and also allowed municipalities to undertake planning for large infrastructure projects such as Surrey's LRT, for example, or the Broadway subway line in Vancouver.
That allowed us to have very comprehensive discussions with our partners to understand how we design this infrastructure plan to be flexible, to be nimble, and to meet the needs of various communities. The last thing you want to have is a federal government selecting projects or telling local governments what their priorities should be. We should focus on the outcomes we want to achieve, but allow local communities to select the projects and advance their priorities. That's why we have taken our time to design the long-term plan, and now we are negotiating those agreements.
It seemed that it was a large number to all of a sudden come across your desk—somebody's desk—to approve in a very short period of time.
I have another other question. In your presentation, you said “ In New Brunswick, federal investments through Natural Resources Canada [created] the province's first electric vehicle charging network” with 35 charging stations, in order to drive worry free and then reduce our carbon footprint.
I don't know what happens in New Brunswick; that's why I'm asking the question. What I see in Ontario is that they drive up and plug them in, no charge. The person who owns the electric car just pulls in and plugs it in, and they don't pay anything for it.
I'm wondering in terms of this project whether the federal government puts any type of condition on the funding. What happens in Ontario is that they plug in, so all the rest of us are subsidizing. Ontario has the highest rates in North America, and now they're plugging their cars in for free and we're subsidizing them again.
I was involved for a number of years in municipal government, and it's sort of an interesting subsidization. I don't know if this is a double carbon tax that they're approving, or that you see as the federal government, but there's something wrong with that.
Is there anything you should be considering when you're applying those grants to a municipality, in this case to a province, that they shouldn't be giving those projects for free in terms of people who use the hydro? What happens is that those people who are plugging their cars in are not paying any tax for the roads or bridges, or any of the infrastructure that they drive on. There's a huge subsidy, going beyond what the ratepayers pay.
Are there any thoughts of how that would work?
I'm running out of time, apparently, but I have one other question on the gas tax that was brought in.
It's a great program, by the way, and—
Hon. Amarjeet Sohi: Yes.
Mr. Bev Shipley: —when we saw that, we made it permanent, doubled it, and indexed it.
My municipalities are all rural and small. They rely a lot on this. Because this is actually the way you give municipalities the right to make the decisions for their capital costs, I would encourage you to think about how you could make that a better and bigger program so that we don't pick winners and losers in terms of projects that municipalities get.
When we look at supporting our municipal sector, we look at various options. One option is gas tax funding, which is working. We also look at funding based on partnerships, where provinces need to contribute. Through our bilateral agreements, we're asking provinces to contribute up to one third of the funding.
What happens in the case of the gas tax is that 100% of the funding comes from the federal government, but in the case of bilateral agreements, we provide support up to 40% and in some cases 50%, and then the provinces and the municipalities need to contribute. What happens is that you do leverage federal investments to build more infrastructure.
Welcome, Minister Sohi and staff. I'm happy to be here today and to get a chance to ask a couple of questions, or at least one question with a couple of parts to it.
I come from a very municipal background as well. I was the mayor of two different towns in Newfoundland and Labrador, very small rural towns, for a 16-year period. I served for four years as president of Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador. I've travelled the entire province, including the northern portion. I also served for four years as a member of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. I feel that I know this file very well.
I have a couple a questions here, though. I know that you're aware of the challenge of building infrastructure in the more rural, remote, and northern communities, with a lot of it due to the harsh environmental conditions and the lack of communications technology, such as Internet and self-service, in many of these small towns and areas. On that note, what are you and your department doing to ensure the timely completion of projects in remote, rural, and northern communities, and how are you combatting some of the challenges faced by building in these environments?
Minister, as you know, I represent a riding in Calgary. There's probably no major urban centre in the country that needed...the opportunity for people to get back to work than Calgary did. However, when I look around the city, I'm always troubled by the fact that I have difficulty identifying projects that are now under way, with shovels in the ground and boots getting dirty, as a result of the federal government infrastructure initiative. I know that there's been a commitment to transit down the road, but that's many years down the road.
Can you give me a few examples for my constituents of, to use your words, “making a real difference” in the lives of Calgarians—today?
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Minister, I'd like to share something with you and hear your view.
When I was a city councillor, I often used to wonder how it was possible that the pyramids and Roman roads still existed, when our own roads had to be redone every five or 10 years and our overpasses and bridges, like the Champlain Bridge, lasted 30, 40, or 50 years at most.
The lowest bidder with the ability to execute the plans and specifications of the contract does not necessarily guarantee sound and sustainable infrastructure. I'd like to know whether you would consider tying funding to a requirement that municipalities follow a protocol demonstrating the sustainability of infrastructure projects and their resilience to extreme weather conditions and climate change.
Essentially, the point is to spend smarter.
Thank you for the question. The issue you raise is one that affects numerous municipalities. As the minister just said, we have a partnership with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, precisely because this is an issue that comes up every year. Municipalities build new infrastructure, but the cost of maintaining that infrastructure over time has to be taken into account. That's what we are trying to address by working in partnership with municipalities.
Many smaller municipalities simply don't have access to the necessary expertise. Through this program, and by working with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, we want to make that expertise available across municipalities and give them new tools to manage infrastructure projects effectively. Today's new infrastructure projects could become tomorrow's headaches, and so the department is endeavouring to address those concerns in partnership with a number of organizations, as well as municipalities.
I should perhaps add that, in order to properly understand long-term maintenance challenges, it's important to have access to results-based data. Phase two of the new infrastructure program will provide that access. Over the next 10 years, we are going to collect extensive information, and through the bilateral agreements, we have asked the provinces and territories for access to municipalities so that we can collect the data that will foster a longer-term view.
Thank you very much, Minister Sohi, for attending today. We appreciated the information. I understand your officials will be staying for the subsequent hour.
As to the departmental officials, let me introduce them officially while the minister slips out. We have Darlene Boileau, the assistant deputy minister; Glenn Campbell, assistant deputy minister, investment, partnerships and innovation; Marc Fortin, assistant deputy minister, program operations; Sean Keenan, director general, strategic and horizontal policy; and Yazmine Laroche, associate deputy minister.
Officially, then, welcome to all of you. Thank you for staying here for another hour for the questions from the members.
That would be helpful. Thank you.
The government, in particular, has said that there's a need for two six-lane bridges across the St. Clair River. To me, this doesn't make any sense. We currently have one four-lane bridge crossing the St. Clair River. We also have a tunnel that empties out in downtown Detroit. So, we have two crossings for truck and car traffic, and we're going to go to a situation where we have two six-lane bridges, trebling the capacity of that border crossing, from four lanes over water to 12 lanes over water. What confounds me about that is we're not only trebling capacity, we are also doing it at a time when cross-border traffic has plummeted over the last decade. It has not just plummeted at Windsor-Detroit, it has dropped at Ontario-New York State, Ontario-Minnesota, and Ontario-Michigan border crossings. This bridge is supposed to be paid for by tolls over a 30-year period, possibly up to 99 years, although I fail to see how. I think we're reaching the outside...lifespan of that construction. I don't understand how this doesn't end up being borne by Canadian taxpayers. I just don't see how the financials for something like this work.
Thank you, Madam Chair, and I want to continue on the same theme Mr. Chong with respect to trade corridors. Currently we're, hopefully, close to an agreement with the United States with our NAFTA negotiations, and the expectation is that the deal will be a heck of a lot better than it was in the past, giving Canada a better position with respect to economy and therefore the need for more robust trade corridors.
Yes, we're looking at the new Gordie Howe bridge. We have the Peace Bridge at Buffalo, New York, which by the way, attached itself to new Continental 1 that makes its way down to Miami.
My question to you is this, and it was the same to , the same theme I want to go on. It's with respect to integrating our infrastructure investments, the need for better communication when it comes to infrastructure that will support outcomes that attach to economy, attach to lifestyle, and attach to social and environmental issues. I'd like to hear some more comment on that, on how we can integrate our infrastructure investments when it comes to roads, water, with the binational Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System, as well as air and railway.
I'm going to pick up on my earlier discussion with the minister.
In terms of ensuring sound and sustainable infrastructure, I want to say that, when I was on city council, we had a strong plan for managing our assets. As I see it, though, that isn't enough when it comes to the bid process, particularly for projects carried out in partnership with provincial transportation ministries.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to people from Engineers Canada, the national organization that represents the country's engineering regulators. I asked them the same question I asked the minister earlier about the longevity of the pyramids and Roman roads. In response, they told me about the protocol of the Public Infrastructure Engineering Vulnerability Committee. Basically, the underlying principle is that funding for infrastructure should depend on the merits of the project. Therefore, the approval of funding applications, the acceptance of environmental impact assessments, and the approval of infrastructure project studies should be tied to a tool like the engineering protocol.
What that means, in a nutshell, is that the design, operation, and maintenance of infrastructure projects must take into account the risks associated with extreme weather events and climate change. The protocol has already been used 48 times in Canada and three times abroad. It is available free of charge, which is great. Internationally, the protocol has been presented to the United Nations, the World Bank, and the World Engineering Convention, or WEC for short. Here, at home, it has been presented at conferences of the Canadian Water Resources Association, Canadian Water and Wastewater Association, Canadian Dam Association, Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Transportation Association of Canada, and the Canadian Public Works Association.
First, do you agree that tools are needed to make sure the public infrastructure being built will last for many decades?
Second, should sustainability and climate resilience criteria be applied to all federally funded infrastructure projects?
I will round out my colleague's answer, if I may, Madam Chair.
There is no doubt we are working very closely on this component. We are currently working with other departments and examining the engineering standards you referred to, especially as they relate to more remote regions such as the north. We want to make sure that both existing and new standards respond appropriately to climate change issues, so we are in the midst of updating those.
As far as engineering standards and work is concerned, Infrastructure Canada spends the bulk of its time working with various stakeholders to ensure all high-priority projects meet our program criteria and requirements. However, once the project is approved, an oversight committee is set up to ensure it is carried out in accordance with the requirements set out in the agreement. The committee is co-chaired by the territory or province and, in some cases, by municipal bodies such as public transit authorities.
When all is said and done, what really matters is making sure municipalities have the tools they need to require all bidders to adhere to those standards. That way, when they choose the lowest qualified bid, they can rest assured that the infrastructure will be sound and sustainable.
You mentioned data earlier. It is clear that municipalities are paying increasing attention to geomatics. In my municipality, we were able to produce layered maps. I had all the photographic data by layer for the infrastructure in my ward. That meant we were able to make decisions using those geomatics tools. They were also used in the agricultural sector, where geomatics plays a big role.
Earlier, though, when you were talking about the infrastructure plan, you mentioned the lack of specific data on the state and performance of existing infrastructure. I'd like to know what initiatives have been implemented under the investing in Canada plan to improve data collection regarding the state and performance of municipality infrastructure, because the data exist.
I ask because I would like to see federal, provincial, and municipal governments talking and sharing information. The data exist, so how can the information be made available to decision-makers at all levels?
I just have to ask this question. I was involved in municipalities, with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and a provincial body. One of the gripes I always had with the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador was about the administration of the gas tax fund. I think gas tax is great for small municipalities. It's money they can use for really good, practical things.
The Province of Newfoundland and Labrador decided to withhold somewhere in the area of 25% of the funds, I think, and used that money to help build major waste disposal sites management. At this point—and I said this to them for a number of years—it's time for them to relinquish that money and let it go where it should go, directly to municipalities. As a mayor, if I needed to purchase a $10,000 pump for a lift station or a piece of equipment for a water facility, I would need to request, in writing, permission to spend that money. There we were, duly elected members of the municipal council, having to go with our hands out, like a child to a parent, asking, “Can we please spend that money to buy that pump?” For so long I argued with some of the politicians and provincial ministers about that. I think that the funding is great, but I detest the province having that kind of control over the funding.
Is that the norm across the country?
I'm asking because we live in a big country, as was pointed out earlier, diverse in ethnocultural communities but also diverse in region. We now have a situation where there's a sense of unfairness about federal bridge policy with respect to tolling.
We have what could be up to a $4-billion or $5-billion new federal bridge going in at Windsor–Detroit that's going to be tolled for 30 or more years. We have a $4-billion plus bridge that's nearing completion in Montreal, where no toll's going to be levied.
It seems unfair, particularly in light of the fact that Prince Edward Islanders have to pay a toll of $46.50 to cross the Confederation Bridge. It feeds into the sense that things aren't fair, and it feeds into the sense of regional grievance.
I've heard arguments from ministers saying the Champlain Bridge is not going to be tolled because it's not a new bridge. Well, arguably the Confederation Bridge across the Northumberland Strait isn't a new bridge either, in the sense that Prince Edward Island entered Confederation on certain terms and conditions, one of which was for the government of the day to maintain a continuous link between the island and the mainland. Back then the technology didn't exist to have a permanent fixed link bridge so there was a permanent, year-round ferry service. That ferry service has been reduced because the fixed link now exists. Arguably it's not a new thing but a replacement for an older technology.
It just seems unfair. Some other people have said to me, “Well, you know the Champlain Bridge is a commuter bridge from the South Shore to the island of Montreal.” Arguably so are the bridges that cross at Windsor–Detroit, Sarnia–Port Huron, and the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and Sault Ste. Marie in the United States. They are also commuter bridges. Lots of people live in Windsor and work in Detroit, particularly in the field of health care. The same is true of other crossings.
It just seems unfair that there's no toll on one $4-billion bridge nearing completion this year, but there will be one on a $4-billion bridge that will be completed in about five years.
I guess I'm making a comment rather than posing a question, but it's a comment I wanted to make.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
You gave some good examples. We worked with the province of Quebec, among others, on three or four biomethanization projects.
There's a plant in Laval and another on Montreal's south shore, I believe. That's the type of project green funding helps support.
Forgive me, but I have to come back to the process. The provinces and territories, in co-operation with municipalities, decide to prioritize these projects when they submit an application to Infrastructure Canada. The green funding criteria we put in place certainly support these kinds of projects if the provinces and territories have made them a priority.