OTTAWA — A Senate committee warns that the Liberal government could end up wasting billions in new infrastructure money unless it develops a detailed strategy to dole out the cash in the coming years.
The national finance committee said in some cases, the only metrics that Infrastructure Canada uses to measure success are the number of projects completed and the value attached to them — how much money goes out the door rather than what the money is buying.
Absent a strategic plan, the government can’t develop meaningful objectives or performance measures, leaving parliamentarians and Canadians in the dark about whether the infrastructure program will meet the Liberals’ goal of growing the economy.
The committee’s report released Feb. 28 recommended the Liberals craft a plan to make sure the government invests enough in infrastructure, and invests in the right places — particularly in trade infrastructure to move goods towards Europe and Asia — to ensure an economic return.
The federal government is set to dole out $186 billion in infrastructure money over the coming decade, with almost half of that stemming from the Liberals’ new infrastructure plan.
"The operational plan is let’s get X number of dollars out and Y number of projects,” committee chairman Sen. Larry Smith said in an interview. "Is that the measurement that we want to be using when we’re talking about $186 billion?
"Is it about getting money out, or is it about getting projects that are strategically important on a national basis, on a provincial basis and on a municipal basis, to get it done properly and to measure what they are returning to you?"
A spokesman for Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi said the government will release its long-term infrastructure plan with the Liberals’ "vision, outcomes, indicators and program details" some time this spring. Brook Simpson said the government will work with municipalities and parliamentarians on the design of the plan.
The first phase of the program was aimed at renovating and repairing existing infrastructure in order to get some stimulus money into the economy while the Liberals worked on the plan for the second phase, valued at around $80 billion.
The Liberals say that money will be aimed at large, transformational projects that will help the economy.
The government has been slow to allocate the first tranche of money from its infrastructure program to provinces and cities. The Senate committee found that as of December, 308 projects worth $806 million had actually started, far below the 719 projects worth $1.5 billion that the government said were to immediately start after the 2016 budget.
The slow pace of project work puts Liberal economic projections at risk. But the slow pace also has a political advantage, as projects may still be underway in 2019 when voters head to the polls.
The committee said problem is symptomatic of an overly complex system, where too many department and agencies are responsible for slices of the infrastructure pie. Cities find the federal funding web confusing to navigate, the report said.
The report recommended the government create a single window for funding, instead of spreading it across multiple departments and agencies, and take into account the needs of municipalities when deciding how money will be spent.
Simpson said the government has already started streamlining approval processes and tried to simplify funding programs by letting provincial and local official prioritize projects.