Canadian infrastructure at crisis point

by Paul Gott

Canada risks creating a huge hidden deficit unless governments act quickly.

According to a study conducted out of McGill's Department of Civil Engineering, governments must be prepared to spend $10 billion more a year to improve municipal infrastructures--roads, sewers, ports and other services--over the next 20 years.

If the money isn't spent now, others may have to invest much more in the future.

Governments currently spend up to $12 billion a year on municipal infrastructures, but only about $2.4 billion goes to the maintenance and upgrading of current services. The report says $44 billion is needed to upgrade infrastructures to acceptable levels.

"If we don't spend the money now, we risk leaving the next generation with our problems," says Professor Saeed Mirza, one of the authors of the report. "When things start to deteriorate, they do so at an increasingly rapid rate. So the amount needed to fix local infrastructures in 10 years could increase incrementally to as much as $400 to $500 billion."

The call for more money is one of the conclusions of the Report on the State of Municipal Infrastructure in Canada, prepared primarily by Mirza and Sadaf Siddiqui, a civil engineering graduate student who prepared the report with Mirza while she was completing her undergraduate studies last year.

The report was released two weeks ago and is currently being studied by the federal cabinet and experts across the country.

"Up to now the feedback has almost all been very positive," says Mirza. "I'm hoping to receive a lot more feedback over the next few weeks. We're especially waiting to see how the federal government will react to the obvious crisis we have pointed out in the report."

Mirza is hoping the Canadian government will extend and expand a 1993 program which saw $6 billion invested in municipal services. Under that program, each dollar spent by a municipality is matched by one from the federal government and another from the municipality's province.

But Mirza fears the economic and political climate won't encourage more investment.

"Looking at the present conditions, I'm not very optimistic," he says. "Governments are looking at cutbacks and at ways to reduce their deficits. But they may be creating an even greater deficit that will have to be paid for by our children and grandchildren. These aren't the legacies we want to leave behind."

The report looks at several methods of paying for these measures.

"There are possible joint ventures with the private sector or user fees or privatization, among others," says Mirza. "There are many ways of financing these things, but someone has to take the lead."

One objection to the report was raised in The Globe and Mail by columnist Terence Corcoran. He claimed that, because the report was prepared for the Canadian Association of Municipalities and asked the municipalities themselves what was needed to improve their infrastructures, it was nothing more than pork barrel politics.

Mirza finds these objections to be completely unfounded.

"Of course we consulted the municipalities as to the condition of their infrastructures--these are the people who are responsible for their services, they're the ones who know what's going on," he says. "And it's right before your eyes. You only have to drive over our roads and bridges or use our ports to know there's a problem. And much of our infrastructure is underground, so it's a case of 'out of sight, out of mind.'"

In the end, Mirza hopes that governments won't look at money spent on infrastructure as an expense, but as an investment.

"If we have a deteriorating infrastructure, it will have increasingly negative effects including lowering our industrial output, our competitiveness and our quality of life.

"If some money is invested in the system, it'll lead to more jobs, enhance our businesses' ability to compete in the global marketplace, and improve the quality of life of everyone who lives in this country."