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Infrastructure: Municipalities at the heart of nation-building (09/04/2018)

This article appeared in the Hill Times on April 9, 2018

Jenny Gerbasi, President, Federation of Canadian Municipalities

This month, Canadians are getting a closer look at how new federal infrastructure investments will roll out across the country over the coming decade. As Ottawa continues to sign agreements with provinces and territories, what I see etched throughout is a refreshing recognition-of municipalities' essential role in building Canada's future.

The Investing in Canada plan can transform this country with economic growth, climate progress and a higher quality of life. But turning this opportunity into outcomes means getting the design and delivery right. Canadians want their governments to squeeze every drop of value from every new infrastructure dollar, and that's where local governments excel.

Local governments deliver national outcomes

Municipalities are responsible for 60 per cent of Canada's public infrastructure and an expanding suite of services. As the governments closest to daily life, residents hold us responsible for delivering outcomes, from quality roads to clean water. And because we control just 10 cents of each tax dollar, cost-effectiveness has become our mantra.

Local governments also have unique expertise. We understand local needs and how to meet them in ways that foster more livable, competitive communities. Designing transportation infrastructure, for instance, is also an exercise in long-term planning for effective land use and neighbourhood development. And the local solutions we deliver have national impact.

For instance, a well-planned transit expansion eases traffic congestion, shortens local commutes, and strengthens communities. But it also boosts national productivity and reduces national greenhouse gas emissions-durable value on top of the direct jobs and growth these infrastructure projects generate as well. In short, when municipalities across Canada have the right tools, local progress transforms our country's bottom lines.

Investing in Canada: tools for local governments

That local capacity to deliver national impact is why municipalities find themselves at the heart of a historically ambitious nation-building plan. From early days, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities was deeply engaged in shaping Investing in Canada.

But we've always understood that the practical tools available to municipalities would depend on federal negotiations with each province and territory. And the agreements that are emerging take significant steps toward empowering municipalities to drive economic and quality-of-life outcomes nationwide.

First, governments are recognizing that local solutions are key to tackling national challenges.

Better roads and transit boost national productivity. Modern, accessible recreation infrastructure attracts and supports the new talent our economy needs to grow. Scaling up local green infrastructure helps achieve national climate goals. The municipalities that influence half of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions are already driving some of Canada's most innovative solutions-from green fleets to low-emission waste management.

Recognizing this, Canada's new infrastructure agreements build in commitments to support a "fair balance" of municipal and provincial projects. That's ground-breaking. The transit expansion plan goes even further: most of this $20 billion investment will be allocated directly to municipalities with transit systems, based on a predictable funding formula.

Second, governments are addressing local fiscal barriers to building tomorrow's Canada.

The value that municipalities bring to the nation-building table is not money but expertise-from needs assessment through design and delivery. They have never had the fiscal flexibility to move projects forward on the transformational scale Canadians deserve.

This is why FCM has advocated a new cost-sharing formula: 40% federal, 40% provincial, 20% municipal. Ottawa has now accepted that benchmark, while provinces so far are committing to 33 per cent. Seeing other orders of governments cover nearly three-quarters of local costs is a meaningful recognition that Canada's future depends on moving local projects forward.

Third, governments are recognizing that nation-building includes communities of all sizes.

For two years, FCM has offered extensive advice on fine-tuning infrastructure programs to maximize outcomes. Another key area where we see our advice being adopted is in recognizing the financial and administrative realities of rural, northern and remote communities.

The federal government has boosted its cost-share to 50 per cent for projects in rural Canada-and to 60 per cent where populations fall under 5,000. Bilateral agreements are committing to streamline project administration. Steps like these empower rural and northern communities to deliver better roads, broadband, wastewater treatment and more.

Next steps are crucial

FCM has been an unrelenting advocate for local governments and the residents we serve. And while Canada's new infrastructure agreements are encouraging, much work remains to be done to drive to the outcomes Canadians deserve.

For instance, governments will be challenged to bring life to the ground-breaking "fair balance" commitment to local projects. What mechanisms will ensure project selection transparently honours that intent? On so many outstanding issues, local governments should continue to be engaged-not as outsiders looking in, but as the heart of the nation-building process.

Then we'll be ready to do what we do best: design and deliver projects to transform our communities and our country for generations to come.


Jenny Gerbasi is Deputy Mayor of Winnipeg and President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the national voice of municipal government, with nearly 2,000 members representing 90 per cent of Canadians.

Page Updated: 09/04/2018