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2017: Crossroads year for cities and communities (14/12/2016)

The following article was published in The Hill Times on Wednesday, December 14, 2016.

For Canadians in communities of all sizes, 2016 brought hope on a scale we haven't seen in years. But ask any municipal leader and they'll tell you: 2017 matters even more. As our country turns 150, key decisions on the federal infrastructure plan will determine if this historic commitment is going to deliver historic outcomes for Canadians.

Budget 2016 proved this government means business on building our cities and communities. It brought Ottawa back to the table on affordable housing. It set the frame for unprecedented investments in transit, social and green infrastructure. And it did that in a way that responds directly to recommendations from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM).

Phase 1 focussed on mobilizing $12-billion to repair transit, water and wastewater systems and more. It grew the federal share of project costs to 50 per cent, so local fiscal limits won't block progress. It funded new programs to help municipalities optimize their asset management and innovate on climate-to prepare for the ambitious Phase 2 to come.

Then last month's Fall Economic Statement expanded Phase 2 to $81-billion over 11 years, adding dedicated funding for rural and northern needs as well. This unprecedented commitment can deeply transform our communities and improve lives. But to ensure that potential is not squandered, we'll need to see three big federal moves early in 2017.

Action item: tackling the housing crisis 

One in five renters now spends half their income on shelter. A million and half Canadian families simply can't find decent housing they can afford. Vulnerable families risk being thrown to the streets as federal operating agreements expire for Canada's 600,000 social housing homes.

FCM put forward a comprehensive plan to tackle this housing crisis. It will take significant investment to protect that social housing and renew the wider housing sector-and 2017 is our once-in-a-generation chance to secure it. With $21.9 billion available in the Phase 2 Social Infrastructure Fund, Budget 2017 needs to make housing the urgent priority.

Solving this crisis will require innovation and collaboration among all orders of government-but we'll get nowhere until we stem the bleeding. No serious nation-building plan can shortchange housing. It's the bedrock of the livable, inclusive communities we all want.

Action item: launching a new era of transit

Better transit can drive our progress toward truly world-class Canadian cities. By shortening commutes, we'll improve our quality of life and attract talented workers and employers. By getting cars off the road, we'll reduce GHG emissions and recover productivity lost to gridlock. 

It's a wonderful illustration of local solutions meeting national challenges. Large and mid-sized cities across Canada have transit expansions mapped out, and Phase 2 includes $25.3 billion to get things moving. But the federal government still needs to get two things right.

First, they should commit to retain that fuller share of project costs, with provinces sticking to their traditional one-third. Second, they'll need to streamline funding as predictable allocations-so cities can plan smart, leverage local expertise and get shovels in the ground.

Softening on either point could block progress in its tracks. We need to get this right.

Action item: scaling up local climate innovation

Municipalities are on the frontlines of dealing with the effects of climate change, from extreme weather to rising sea levels. They are also modelling some of Canada's most innovative low-carbon practices-from district heating to building retrofits to vehicle fleet electrification.

The richest potential to reduce Canada's GHG emissions lies in scaling up this local innovation. That should start with a carve-out from the Phase 2 Green Infrastructure Fund-for local projects that reduce GHGs and build climate-resilient communities. And again, fair-cost sharing and predictable allocations are the keys that will unlock local potential.

Municipalities influence around half of Canada's GHG emissions. The federal government will not get far on meeting its climate targets without engaging local governments as full partners. In 2017, Canadians will expect all orders of government to work together.

Put simply: 2016 brought a big federal commitment to infrastructure, and 2017 can grow commitment into action. We still need some bold decisions in Ottawa this year, and cities and communities of all sizes are certainly ready to rise to the challenge. If we get this right, as Canada turns 150, we'll be on track to building a brighter future from coast to coast to coast. 

Clark Somerville is President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and a local/regional councillor for the Town of Halton Hills and Halton Region. FCM is the national voice of local government, with nearly 2,000 members representing 90 per cent of Canada's population. 

Page Updated: 14/12/2016