Build a better future by fixing what we have
Most of us weren’t born when so many of the major building blocks of our country’s infrastructure were completed — that is, the highways, hospitals, schools, water systems and other essentials of a livable society. The cost of overhauling or replacing this aging infrastructure central to our way of life is currently estimated at $350 billion to $400 billion.
That is a conservative estimate of fixing the house we live in, or scrapping parts of it and replacing decrepit health-care centres, ArmedForces bases, expressways, public transit systems, and firefighting and police facilities with state-of-the-art infrastructure built to 21st-century standards of greater efficiency and lower operating costs.
That number includes only essentials. It excludes so-called “nice to haves” such as an increased number of hospitals, rehab and medical R&D facilities; highways, arterial and side streets to relieve traffic congestion and improve safety for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists; and cultural amenities like neighbourhood playhouses, parks and recreation centres.
Significant, persistent investment in civic assets would make our communities more livable, reduce antisocial behaviour (especially among troubled youth) and raise residential and commercial real estate values in upgraded districts. And in most cases, notably a neglected Toronto waterfront put to shame by the shorelines of Chicago, Boston, Dubai and North Bay, Ont., to name a few, would generate an increase in tourism revenue.
And yet, as essential as those “niceto-haves” are, they are relegated to the status of luxury items as civic administrators try to cope with repairing or replacing core assets that have long passed their bestbefore date.
Consider: One of Canada’s youngest major pieces of infrastructure is the Confederation Bridge, linking P.E.I. to the mainland. Now 18, it is twice as old as the first version of the Apple iPhone. At the antiquity end of the spectrum are Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge (77 years old) and the Prince Edward Viaduct, or Bloor Viaduct, the principal artery connecting downtown Toronto and the eastern half of the city (three years’ shy of a century old).
Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway are each half a century old. So is GO Transit, while the TTC subway is 61 years old. Canada’s leading hospitals are well into old age. Foothills Medical Centre, Calgary’s world-renowned centre of advanced treatment and R&D, is in its 49th year. Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital and Toronto General Hospital are 122 and 203 years old, respectively.
York University, one of the newest of Canada’s large schools of higher education, marks its 56th birthday this year. Jarvis Collegiate, noted for the above-average academic proficiency of its students, is 208 years old, built five years before the outbreak of the War of 1812-14. And the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant in Toronto’s Beach district — which Toronto and York Region still rely on for 45 per cent of their water supply — was completed the year Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Empire of Japan.
True enough, the Pyramids, the Acropolis and the Palace of Versailles are still with us. But they are in need of constant, costly repair. France did not come up with the funds to restore the fabled Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, which was in state of hideous discoloration and cracked glass until the 2000s, until Great Recession stimulus funding made restoration possible.
The only substantial argument for continuing to refuse to invest in communities is a supposed lack of money. But money isn’t the issue. What we lack is public and political will.
As noted, the estimated national infrastructure deficit is as much as $400 billion. A big number, to be sure. But it’s actually only 19 per cent of Canada’s estimated GDP in 2015, which falls to 1.9 per cent if spread over a decade, as infrastructure projects inevitably are due to their long lead times. Given that more than 80 per cent of Canadians live in urban areas, where infrastructure demands are the highest, an additional 1.9 per cent of our economy shifted to investing in better communities is both affordable and would improve quality of life for the vast majority of Canadians.
That, of course, would be turning tradition on its head. In both Canada and the U.S., neglect of communities has been a hallmark of senior levels of government. Why? Rural votes, in Canada and abroad, are overweighted in legislatures. But that doesn’t mean Canadians have to continue accepting the decay or merely sustainable state of our urban districts, the powerhouse of Canada’s scientific, industrial and cultural creativity, and engine of the national economy.
There are still other sources of funding for a long overdue infrastructure renaissance. The transfer for federal gas-tax revenues to municipalities, which shoulder most of country’s infrastructure require- ments, began with Paul Martin’s Liberal government in 2004 and has been strengthened by the Harper government. That said, only a portion of those funds is forwarded to municipalities. The gas tax could be raised modestly, and a national ecoand economy-friendly carbon tax could be introduced to amply fund the rebuilding of the country,
Government — or taxpayers and motorists — need not be alone in financing this renaissance. Canada’s health insurers have about $570 billion in assets, and the president of their trade association has expressed his frustration at not having more Canadian infrastructure projects in which to invest.
That frustration is shared by the Big Four public pension fund ad- ministrators — the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (“Teachers’”) and the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS). These funds have a combined $769 billion under administration — almost twice the high end of the estimated infrastructure deficit.
For at least the past decade, the Big Four plans have been investing the money of Canadian retirees and future pensioners in infrastructure abroad, from port facilities in Europe to power utilities in Asia. They would step up investment in Canada if more projects — the essentials and the “nice to haves” — were publicprivate partnerships in which they could invest.
By the estimate of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), every dollar spent on infrastructure yields $1.20 in increased GDP. That is a very conservative estimate.
Getting by with aging plant and equipment is a false economy. The constant repair costs outrun the expense of building state-of-the-art infrastructure. The rewards include lower energy and maintenance costs, elimination of the transportation gridlock that slows delivery of supplies in our “just in time economy,” higher standards of public health and safety and job-creating tourism opportunities.
Can we agree, finally, that we’re going to invest in ourselves, knowing that every society that has done so has reaped vast improvements in quality of life?