Wanted: a real champion for our cities
Going . . . going twice . . . sold! A billion-dollar bidding war has erupted in this election, with the federal party leaders promising cities bold new investments in transit, housing and other infrastructure.
It marks a welcome change from some past races in which the concerns of rural voters figured larger than those of urbanites. Not this time. On public transit alone, cities are being promised at least $1 billion in permanent, annual funding by the Conservatives; $1.3 billion from the New Democrats; and almost $20 billion over 10 years by the Liberals.
Federal politicians have jockeyed to pledge support for specific commuter projects, including Toronto Mayor John Tory’s “surface subway” SmartTrack plan, a $1.8-billion light-rail expansion in Edmonton and Calgary’s planned $4.5-billion Green Line LRT.
It’s with understandable satisfaction that Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson described this as “a bidding war for cities and for investment in mass transit, which is a real step forward for this country.”
Honing their bid, New Democrats took the unusual step of releasing a Toronto-centric mini-platform-on Friday, highlighting the many and various ways the party intends to benefit Canada’s largest city and the vote-dense regions around it.
Federal leaders appear to have — at last — fully realized that 80 per cent of Canadians live in urban areas, places facing profound challenges and in crying need of help. Years of indifference and underfunding by Ottawa have taken their toll. Transit expansion hasn’t matched commuter pressure, leaving people across the country spending more and more time trapped in gridlock. A lack of affordable housing is making life difficult for many thousands struggling to put a roof over their head.
Communities large and small are stuck with crumbling roads, corroding bridges, collapsing sewers and aging water treatment plants they can’t afford to fix. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities pegs this nationwide infrastructure deficit at $123 billion and federal money is urgently needed to close the gap. On the bright side, says Iveson, “all parties see a future in investing in cities . . . Cities are in play.”
Urban voters must make the most of this moment and cast their ballots wisely. Conservative Stephen Harper, New Democrat Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Justin Trudeau all stand a chance of becoming prime minister. All pledge to help municipalities, but their promises aren’t equal — and neither is the level of trust they inspire. Affordable housing: The Liberals have made spending on infrastructure their signature program, and pledge to spend $19.7 billion over the next decade on “social infrastructure,” with the priority being new affordable housing and seniors facilities. Other changes include tax breaks to promote construction of affordable rental spaces, and funding for Housing First programs to help the homeless find a place to live.
New Democrats would appoint a minister responsible for urban affairs within the first100 days of assuming office, with the immediate task of identifying worthwhile social housing investments. The party would invest more than $2 billion in affordable housing agreements by 2020, and spend $500 million on incentives to build rental housing units.
New commitments from the Conservatives are more modest, with the federal budget allocating $150 million to mortgage breaks for social housing providers. The party does offer a variety of tax credits to homeowners in general, including help to pay for renovations. Citing such initiatives, Harper this past week promised to increase the number of Canadians who own homes by 700,000 over the next five years. But that’s a far cry from providing housing to those most in need of help. Transit: The Conservative government’s last budget featured a new public transit fund for major projects. Funding is to gradually rise, topping out at $1 billion annually in 2019-20 and permanently continuing at that level.
New Democrats aim to invest $1.3 billion annually in public transit, with a four-year phase-in and the program lasting 20 years. The Liberals propose to boost transit spending by $6 billion over the next four years, and $19.7 billion over 10 years. Infrastructure: As with transit, Liberals would allocate $19.7 billion to “green infrastructure,” part of which would include municipal water and waste water systems. In addition to that, they say spending on roads, bridges, transportation corridors, ports and border crossings would be “prioritized.”
New Democrats pledge to increase federal gas tax money flowing to cities by an extra $1.5 billion a year. And Harper last November announced a $5.8-billion, three-year infrastructure spending plan on projects such as highways, waterways, park and heritage site improvements, harbours, airports and federal buildings.
In short, all three major federal parties are pledging to do more — in many cases, a lot more — on issues of special concern to urban voters. But while all promise to make improvements, Harper’s past failure to adequately address municipal needs must weigh against the Conservative option.
What cities need most urgently is a prime minister who understands the pivotal role they play in this country and is genuinely willing to promote their interests. That should count more than any one promise. Urban voters need to seize the moment and make sure the next government is led by an effective advocate for cities.
The three major party leaders are all pledging to provide help for municipalities, but their promises aren’t equal — nor is the level of trust they inspire
Our federal leaders have, at last, fully realized that 80 per cent of Canadians live in urban areas facing profound challenges.