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Provincial road funding requires close eye: ORBA

Andre Widjaja

Despite the continued commitment toward public infrastructure funding that was shown in the recent Ontario budget, the province’s road building industry still has some questions about the government’s ability to deliver on all of its spending announcements.

In the 2012-2013 budget, the Liberal government underspent by $400 million in the Ministry of Transportation’s (MTO) construction budget, according to the Ontario Road Builders’ Association (ORBA).

“We know in previous years they’ve ran into a shortfall,” said ORBA policy analyst Patrick McManus.

“It was never as significant as it was this year and we’re always trying to understand where that money is and where it goes.”

McManus says that ORBA will continue to communicate with the MTO to ensure that the money that has been promised in the budget will be spent accordingly.

Finance minister Charles Sousa’s recently tabled budget would inject $35 billion into infrastructure over the next three years. The province plans to spend $2.2 billion for 2013-14 on its network of roads and highways.

Despite no long-term infrastructure plan included in the budget, ORBA remains confident that the government will hold infrastructure as one of its key priorities.

“The potential for future budget shortfalls are there, but I think this government has a really good grasp on why it’s necessary to spend on infrastructure,” McManus added.

“Your investment in your roads, bridges and transit lines…that’s an investment in the future.”

Also in the budget, the government announced $100 million dedicated to northern and rural Ontario infrastructure.

McManus says there’s more to be done on that front, but the investment is a step in the right direction.

The infrastructure expenses, which includes roads and highways, will require new revenue tools, said McManus.

The government will continue to allocate two cents per litre from provincial gas tax revenues toward public transit with plans on making it permanent.

Historically, money from the gas tax usually gets put toward transit infrastructure rather than roads and highways, according to McManus.

“We would have liked to see it dedicated strictly to our industry,” he said. “We definitely don’t see the full compliment of that money that’s collected.”

Another proposed revenue tool was the implementation of HOV/HOT lanes throughout various highways across the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area (GTHA). Drivers without passengers would have the option of using the carpool lane for a toll. Carpooling drivers will still be able to use the HOV lane for free.

“As long as the funding is dedicated to maintaining and building new roads and bridges — that’s an encouraging sign,” said McManus. “It’s a step in the right direction for dedicated funding.”

The idea of HOV/HOT was not as well-recieved by NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, calling them “Lexus lanes”.

“What it does is discourage people from carpooling,” she said at a recent budget press conference.

Some of the highway projects the government has announced include, widening sections of Highway 401 throughout the GTHA and Highway 407 in Ottawa, extending Highway 427 to Major Mackenzie Drive in York Region as well implementing HOV lanes in section of Highway 401, 404, 410 and the 427,

“Generally speaking, in the province, we’re so far behind. We’re in such a great deficit now that delaying spending on it now will just add to future debt,” said McManus.

“They seem to be receptive, they understand the need for infrastructure.”

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