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U.S. says climate change 'high risk' to federal assets, Canada has no infrastructure adaptation plan

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One of my favourite political satirical works is Terry Fallis's The High Road. It should be assigned reading for policy studies on infrastructure. It does a brilliant job of explaining the perils of transferring a fiscal deficit over to an infrastructure deficit. In Fallis's fictional Ottawa, the Alexandra Bridge collapses, and our hero, MP Angus McLintock, uncovers the truth. The deficit had been moved from the books of Canada to the infrastructure of Canada. Successive governments had "saved" money by reducing the maintenance and investment in infrastructure.

Well, of course, that isn't true in real life. In real life, we have both a fiscal deficit and an infrastructure deficit (not to mention the more pressing ecological deficit), and none of them are subject to a plausible plan leading to elimination.

In Montreal, some of the water pipes that run under the city are so old that they are made of wood. Across Canada, water works are antiquated and designed for a climate we no longer have as increased and more intense deluges lead to raw sewage bypassing treatment to enter rivers and seas, untreated. We have bridges that are shut down for repairs, in Saskatchewan and Quebec.

In six Western Canadian cities alone, (Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg), the Canada West Foundation puts the infrastructure deficit in 2003 at $543 million. That critical weakness in infrastructure is in roads and bridges, water-works, lack of efficient public transit, lighting, waste disposal and on and on.

The most recent figures I could find come from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) in its January 2013 report. According to the CCPA, the extent of gap between safe and modern infrastructure and our current situation is $145-billion worth of missing investment. To address the threat posed by crumbling infrastructure, CCPA says we need an additional $20 billion to $30 billion a year.

We know that kind of money is not going to come from the coffers of municipal governments. Of every dollar paid in taxes, only eight cents goes to municipal governments. Yet it is in municipalities that we experience our closest relationship with any level of government.

The current Conservative administration has done some good things in this area. The gas tax fund is now specifically tied to municipal infrastructure funding, but that is only approximately $3 billion per year. The overblown announcement, particularly in the leaks in advance of the 2013 budget, claimed that the Harper administration had committed a new high in commitment to infrastructure of $53 billion. Why not call it a $530-billion announcement? The big number comes from taking virtually status quo spending and multiplying it out by 10 years? Why not 100 years? It is no more helpful to municipalities. Worse, the spending, ($32.2 billion existing from gas tax fund and the implementation of the GST tax rebate, $14 billion in support of major infrastructure, including $4 billion for federal infrastructure spending, and $1.25 billion to renew the P3 Canada Fund) will not kick in with any funding increases until after the next election and the 2015 due date for getting to balanced budgets.

While the infrastructure deficit that exists today presents a $20-billion to 30-billion annual shortfall, the climate crisis will raise the stakes considerably. The Insurance Bureau of Canada has recommended that the federal government increase support for municipal infrastructure in response to the increased risk to assets due to the man-made destabilization of climate. Global warming is leading to increased severity and increased frequency of extreme weather events.

The U.S. General Accounting Office has determined that the threat to U.S. federal assets qualifies climate change as "high risk" to the health of U.S. government finances. Yet, here in Canada, we have no carbon reduction plan and no adaptation plan. Without both we are headed for new and unprecedented threats to our future, our economy and our infrastructure.

If anyone doubts that profound impacts of the changes brought on by global warming, review the costs of the brief burst of heavy rainfall that caused the collapse of Finch Avenue in Toronto in July 2009. This one event cost Toronto millions of dollars to repair. Warmer atmosphere contains more moisture than colder air and, as a result of global warming, Canada's rainfall patterns have already changed. The impact is severe on infrastructure built for a different climate. This applies to roads, waterworks, and developments in floodplains.

Meanwhile, northern infrastructure is severely impacted by melting permafrost and buildings along tornado alleys requires significant adaptation investment. None of this is currently budgeted within announced funds.

Let's agree it is time to take The High Road, make like a group of Angus McLintocks, and start funding our shared, common and public services roads, bridges, water-works, public transit, common spaces. It is time dedicate the resolve and funds necessary to eliminate the infrastructure deficit.

Originally published in the Hill Times.

Photo: Ville de Montréal/flickr

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