UP FRONT

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE

Ottawa must deliver more cash to cities while keeping smaller communities on side

Mary Janigan February 7 2005
UP FRONT

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE

Ottawa must deliver more cash to cities while keeping smaller communities on side

Mary Janigan February 7 2005

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE

Ottawa must deliver more cash to cities while keeping smaller communities on side

Mary Janigan

UP FRONT

ON THE ISSUES

WHILE PAUL MARTIN wafted abroad in january, his stalwart emissary was trundling through winter gales from the Northwest Territories to Newfoundland. John Godfrey may be inking infrastructure agreements with provinces and territories, chatting with mayors and proudly funding local projects, but the former historian with the grand title of Minister of State for Infrastructure and Communities is often braving as much ice indoors as out. Rural communities are sniping at big cities in the competition for funds; regions are vying with each other. And when Godfrey talks about Ottawa’s New Deal, citing those words with visionary zest, harried mayors often point to their potholes. His is an unenviable position.

But he is coping with dogged aplomb. He has deals with six provinces and territories to ladle out the $1-billion, five-year Municipal Rural Infrastructure Fund. He is struggling to finalize pacts with those same governments to channel a portion of Ottawa’s gas-tax revenues into “environmentally sustainable municipal infrastructure.” At every stop, he sells his New Deal, which will focus the hodgepodge of federal programs affecting cities, such as immigrant settlement, into a coherent urban ap-

proach that involves provinces, city councils and urban groups.

But the real test will arrive with the coming federal budget, when those other governments learn just how much Godfrey has secured for the next year. In the last election, Martin singled out urban needs as one of his three key themes, pledging $5 billion from the gas

tax alone over five years, including $ 2 billion in the final year.

Most of that money should go to large urban centres where populations are growing fast—and needs are especially pressing. But, in a minority government, no hamlet is too small to miss out on the handouts. So, somehow, if only to show Ottawa is serious, Godfrey must secure a big chunk of that $5 billion in gas-tax revenues this year. He must then reach allocation deals with competing provinces, ensuring most of the booty goes to larger cities—despite the wrath of rural MPs. To placate them, he may have to scrounge more cash for some of Ottawa’s 10 existing infrastructure programs, which cover everything from Prairie grain roads to rail networks. “It’s a really intractable problem,” says Glenn Miller, vice-president of the Canadian Urban Institute. “And the big concern is that any money Ottawa puts in could allow provincial governments to reduce their commitments to cities.”

Urban needs are mind-boggling. Experts peg the value of existing civic infrastructure at $1.6 trillion—but more than half will reach the end of its lifespan in two decades. Toronto alone is hit with more than 1,500 water main breaks each year; one recently shut down power to the city core.

So Godfrey keeps gamely criss-crossing the nation, forging bonds, measuring out his progress in individual deals. In mid-January alone, as his press aide Mark Rus wearily recounts, he hit seven provinces and territories in 10 days. “Things from my perspective are under control,” Godfrey maintains. “I am feeling comfortable, not overwhelmed.” In fact, he is doing an almost impossible job with grace. The onus is now on Martin. Has he promised more than Ottawa can afford to deliver? Or can he match his minister’s vision with enough cash? lifl

Mary Janigan is a political and policy writer. mary.janigan@macleans.rogers.com

Experts peg the value of existing civic infrastructure at $1.6 trillion, but more than half will reach the end of its lifespan in two decades